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The Kingdom Story

February 28, 2011

“The Kingdom Story” Matthew 6:22-34 © 2/27/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

All of us have a story to tell, even if we believe it’s not particularly interesting, and we’re not comfortable sharing it. Like every tale, ours has a beginning, a middle, and most certainly an end, though Christians believe our story has a rather exciting epilogue. Maybe the account we give is one mostly of tragedy, of broken hearts and missed opportunities, of illness and pain that has left us maimed, afraid or suspicious. Or perhaps it’s mainly comedy, where things turned out all right in the end, despite some detours and hazards along the way, and we can smile when we tell it. I suspect, though, that it’s more likely our tales will contain a bit of both, with most of the narrative being the account of our routine, how we get from day to day, make a living, figure out little problems, and move on. It’s not the plodding “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,… a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.” But it’s not high drama and intense excitement, either. It’s simply our life, day in and day out, for good or ill.

But if we have a story to tell, so also have we been shaped by the tales told to us and about us by others. And part of the plot is autobiographical as well, the self-talk we engage in that either moves us forward or holds us back. We rehearse over and over why we can’t take pictures or cook a good meal or we consistently find ways to try new things, learn fresh skills to meet today’s challenges. And, of course, there’s the history of our families, how we came to be who and where we are and why. We hear about the eccentrics and the alcoholics, the weird aunt and the rogue uncle, the faithful mother and the wise grandfather; the migrations seeking work or love or refuge from trouble; the mistakes an ancestor made that had far-reaching consequences and the attitudes passed down from generation to generation like a precious heirloom. Perhaps the main theme of such stories is encouragement and understanding, when a parent helps a child fledge successfully and considers his or her job done. Or maybe the story is one of guilt and shame, where we don’t talk about “that” or what happened in 1927 or the black sheep sister who married that lowlife. A tale of crushed dreams and forced careers, alienation and hurt.

When a story we have been told or we tell ourselves holds us back and keeps us down, hems us in or keeps us from exploring new possibilities, that’s called a “script.” Nations have them, companies have them, churches have them, people have them. These are not the sort of scripts that allow or call for improvisation or much tweaking. We’re expected to play it out as written, to deviate not one letter from the role we were cast in. No matter what our longing or our talent or our feelings, we keep being cast as the villain or the long-suffering spouse or the obedient or rebellious kid. We hear that the firstborn is the tradition-bearer, the serious one or that the third child is a clown, and we live into that, because we’re expected to. We heard that women do this and men do that, and we never questioned.

Walter Brueggemann, the biblical scholar, has this to say about scripts: “[E]verybody has a script. People live their lives by a script that is sometimes explicit but often implicit. That script may be one of the great meta-narratives created by Karl Marx or Adam Smith or it may be an unrecognized tribal mantra like, ‘My dad always said …’ As the self is organized by a script, so are communities.

“The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life….I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.

“…I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved….I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that ‘if you want it, you need it.’ …The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.

“It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated….” (“Counterscript,” The Christian Century, November 29, 2005: 22).

Besides the script, we also need to talk about myth. We’ve been used to thinking of myths as fanciful stories that didn’t really happen. “That’s just a myth,” we say about some false statement. But myth also means a story that tells why things are the way they are, how we got this way, where we came from. Every culture, every family, has myths. And they may contain a nugget of historical truth or they may be completely true in every detail. C.S. Lewis, the great writer, talked about “true myths,” by which he meant the stories of Jesus. A myth tells the truth, perhaps in metaphor, maybe in scientifically verifiable fashion, what we call “facts.” But it helps us understand who we are, how we got here, what our lives mean.

Myths are of two kinds: open and closed. A closed myth is, as you might guess, exclusive. It keeps others out, defines strict boundaries that must not be crossed, seeks to control access to anything from technology to affection. It blocks new ideas and defends the status quo to the very last. A closed myth in a benign form is the inside joke in a family or the knowing look couples give each other. In its extreme form, it’s a speech by Muammar Gaddafi vowing to fight protests to the last bullet and drop of blood. In between, there’s “we’ve always done it that way” and “you’re not from around here, are you?”

An open myth, on the other hand, invites new people into the story, to participate with those who have already heard it and become part of it. It’s hospitable and friendly, eager for innovation and freshness, not afraid of tomorrow. It welcomes and even craves diversity and cries out for justice for those who are excluded in society and the church. An open myth is the future father-in-law extending his hand with a big smile and inviting his daughter’s fiancé to call him by his first name. It’s the story of a land where anyone of any race or religion or either gender or party can be president. It’s a church member not bristling but rejoicing when a church guest sits in the member’s regular pew. An open myth says that the ideas of anyone from the youngest to the oldest, the longest tenured to the newly visiting are valued and listened to.

The gospel is that kind of myth, that sort of story. It opens us to new possibilities for our lives beyond our scriptedness and insecurity and anxiety. It invites us to believe that there is a reality beyond us and among us and in us that can and does make a difference in our daily living, a way of looking at the world that gives us hope and fills our days with meaning. That reality Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”

We might call this story, then, the kingdom story, the good news of God’s sovereign reign over all, the gracious reality that undergirds and encourages and inspires us. A Declaration of Faith, which we often use in worship, says this story forms our memory and our hope. Let’s explore that a little.

First, our memory. Why are we so anxious so often? Why does worry grip us, as Jesus says, so that we wonder what we will eat and drink and wear? One word: amnesia. I read somewhere that the Greek word for “worry” or “anxiety” translates literally as “severed memory.” So when we are consumed by worry and anxiety over daily life we have amnesia that only the experience of the whole community of faith can cure. John Claypool, the famous preacher, once observed that given our lack of knowledge, it’s presumptuous of us to despair. The collected remembrance of the community of faith is the corrective to our conceited, me-first, woe-is-me anxiety. It’s the rebuke to any assumption that God doesn’t care if you or I live or die, have what we need or starve and freeze. For every story of someone saying God cannot be relied on, the community of faith through the ages and in our own day will have ten telling of the goodness of God, the providence of God, the power of God.

It’s because we have amnesia that we recite the story of God’s works in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving at the Lord’s Table. When we recall the story of God with his people over the centuries, we begin to believe afresh that God knows what we need, and we can depend on him. So we can cease our striving and reassess our priorities. We can retrain ourselves to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.

There’s an important little part of the Great Prayer called the “anamnesis,” the remembrance. You’ll notice in that word the same root as “amnesia.” Anamnesis is the opposite of amnesia and is the antidote to anxiety. Three little phrases of great power form the anamnesis: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. In other words, whether past, present or future, God is there in Jesus. His death saves us, his resurrected life sustains us, his promised coming gives us hope.

And the kingdom story is indeed one of hope and happy endings. It supports us even in our darkest times and tells us that our grief is not the end, death is not the last word, tragedy and chaos and loneliness do not hold ultimate control over our lives. We will not merely survive, we will prosper and live in the light of God’s presence. We will enjoy his providence and daily be reminded that we are of more value than birds, more lovely to God than lilies.

When C.S. Lewis lost his wife Joy to illness a relatively short time after they were married, he said that he set out to create a sort of map of his sorrow. But he discovered that sorrow “needs not a map, but a history.”

No doubt the history he had in mind was that of God’s dealings with humanity and with particular individuals, whether C.S. Lewis or you or me. To retell the story, to enter into its openness and imagination and beauty is to gain hope for tomorrow. Jesus invites us not to expect less of life and of God, but more, that which eye has not seen nor ear heard nor ever entered into the human heart but God has prepared for us. Internalizing and reciting the kingdom story trains us to see the world—our world—with wonder, imagination, praise, and faith, to see in it everywhere the signs of God’s care for creation, including us. Seek the first the kingdom and be ready to be amazed. It’s the best story ever told, ever lived.

“I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love. I love to tell the story, because I know ‘tis true; it satisfies my longings as nothing else can do. I love to tell the story; for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it, like the rest. And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song, ‘twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long. I love to tell the story, ‘twill be my theme in glory, to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

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