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The Story-Shaped Life

September 26, 2011

“The Story-Shaped Life” Philippians 2:1-13 Ordinary 26A © 9/25/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I was not the world’s most arrogant 20 year-old, but I’m sure I came close. And I should mention also that I was stubborn and not particularly self-aware. Add naïve and lacking in common sense into the mix, and it’s a wonder I ever got approved to become a candidate for the ministry. But I did, and as the process began, I had to jump through some hoops, which I deeply resented. The one that caused me the most chagrin was having to go receive vocational counseling at a center in Atlanta. Why I should have to do such a thing was beyond me, being sure as I was that I had a call to the ministry and didn’t want to do anything else. But off I went up I-75, grousing all the way about ridiculous rules. It seems one of the universe’s supreme ironies that I eventually became a stated clerk of a presbytery, the person charged with seeing the rules are followed.

Anyway, once in Atlanta I sat down with a man I came to despise over the next few days. He administered the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, the Strong-Campbell Interest Inventory, the Hart, Shaffner, and Marx Sartorial Preference Profile (not really on that last one), and on and on. When all those tests were finally completed, we went over the results. The first words out of his mouth were “Tom Cheatham, you’re a stick-in-the-mud.”

What he meant was that I had been given a script practically at birth and was following it to the letter. No improvisation. No asking questions about my role. No departures from the way things had always been done in my family, the inflection of the lines, the expression of emotions. If my parents ate steak that looked like a charcoal briquette when it was done, so did I. If they voted for George Wallace, he got my nod as well. If they were fundamentalists, I said “Amen.” If they distrusted this or that group, I despised them, too. Nothing different, ever. The narrative evident from the pencil marks on a computer form had shaped my life.

That’s something of my story. You have your own, of course. Every one of us acts out a script, turns the pages of our tale. We have our heroes and villains and folks caught in the middle, characters who come and go, plot twists, comedy, and drama, conflict and resolution. Maybe we think our story is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. On the other hand, we may find in it great meaning and satisfaction. Could be we don’t have a clue what’s going on. The issue is not whether we live a story-shaped life, but which and what kind of narrative formed and forms us. I’ll say more about that in a moment.

Of course, organizations, communities, churches, and whole nations have their stories, their scripts. These tales are composed of the individual narratives of citizens and members, but they also take on a life of their own, so they’re larger than the sum of the parts. Something like what they say about art and life, the stories both shape the community or the nation and in turn are always being altered and written by those who are living and telling them. The narratives might be called “our history” or “die geschichte” or “heritage” or “the way we do things” or “who we are.” They are told and retold and rehearsed in settings public and private by people in leadership and by everyday folk in one way or the other. And again, there are heroes and villains and people who are a little of both, turning points and tragedy, hurt and healing and redemption, hope and despair and hope again.

The church is grounded in and shaped by the story we find in scripture, the grand narrative of God’s way with his people through the ages. We tell it every time we celebrate Holy Communion, as we will do next week. Listen closely for the themes in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving next time. It traces the trajectory of the tale from beginnings until now. It has its own cadences and refrains, its acts and plot. It links us with our ancestors in faith, the Hebrews. It connects us across the centuries with disciples who witnessed and served and loved. It raises our vision to heaven, where we see angels and saints gathered in praise, and we are invited to join them. But most of all, it reminds us and tells us about the story of Jesus, the central character in the script that is still playing out on the cosmic stage and right before our eyes.

When we consider this grand narrative, we begin to ask about how our stories compare with it, and how they are shaped by it. Particularly do we have to wonder about the scope, tone, and size of our stories.

What we need to ask about scope and tone is whether our stories, both personal and corporate, are broad and open or narrow and closed. Here’s what I mean. In a former congregation, there was a respected and faithful elder, author, and professor named Lucille Griffith. In one of our numerous conversations, she shared with me that when she was growing up, she was never told there were certain things she couldn’t do because she was a girl, as other females of her generation were. Combined with Lucille’s immense talent and determination, that sense of freedom granted and instilled by her family led her to become an outstanding leader in church, community, and academe. Hers was what we would call an “open-ended” narrative.

Contrast Lucille’s experience with that of a kid who lives constantly with criticism, backbiting, and hatred in the home. He or she is anxious about every moment, every choice, wondering if it will meet the approval of demanding adults and peers. He begins to believe the things he’s told, like “you’re stupid” or “you can’t do anything right.” If he does not suffer physical abuse, he’s emotionally assaulted at every turn. Or maybe, like the character in the old movie The Breakfast Club, she is simply ignored by parents, treated as if she is not even there. Abuse breeds abuse; negativity leads to more negativity, and new pages are added to the same script, the closed-ended story that cuts off the future and its possibilities for the next generation unless somehow they can find a way to break down barriers and escape.

Or consider the story of the church. A small congregation in Alabama wasn’t attracting many new members. Things were going along pretty much as they had been for quite awhile. One day, out of the blue, a young mother shows up with her little boy. She’s not particularly well-dressed or articulate, and her child is rather boisterous. No one offers to help her by taking the boy to the nursery. A long-time member sitting behind her in worship approaches the woman after the service. “We don’t want you here,” the member says. “We wish you would go back where you came from.” In another congregation, members had their regular pews. One Sunday, some newcomers, a doctor and his wife and two young children, arrived early and without knowing it, sat in the seat usually occupied by a wealthy member. “That’s my seat,” she said. “You’ll have to move.” They did, but amazingly, came back, joined, and ended up on the session eventually. Those members were living a closed narrative, complete with sound effects, namely, doors slamming in the faces of people and padlocks having their keys turned to shut out anyone new.

Of course, the earliest Christians also had their closed and narrow stories. Some insisted that new Gentile converts follow Jewish rituals in order to be accepted. The apostle Peter held on to his devotion to kosher rules and would not eat with those he considered unclean, until God and Paul rather forcefully convinced him otherwise. There were congregations like those associated with John who no doubt said “good riddance” to people who left them after some bitter church conflict. Those folks were termed “liars,” “deceivers,” and even “the antichrist.” I’m sure those who departed had choice words for John’s people, too. And then there is the case of Eudodia and Syntyche, two feuding co-workers of Paul in the Philippian church. Each woman told a story about the other that precluded her inclusion in the kingdom of God and the ministry of the church. They were not of the “same mind,” as Paul put it; they were committed to conflicting accounts of what the gospel would look like in their church.

But then there is the arms-open wide, as broad as a Montana sky kind of story. In the same church where the member told the newcomers they had to move, there was a Chinese elder who had a vision for an international festival. She knew that everyone considered her town to be homogenous, with little diversity. But to her, that was a misperception. The diversity was there, but hidden. Why not use the church’s influence and considerable open lawn space to host a grand event highlighting all the cultures in the city and surrounding area? So she and church members planned the festival, and on the day of, there were blacks and Asians and Hispanics and Anglos, Mormons and Presbyterians and Buddhists, artists and actors and bagpipers and food of many kinds. 2000 people crowded the church lawn. The kick-off worship featured the Lord’s Prayer in many languages. All of which said to the community: “welcome. The gospel is an open story.”

In a similar, but smaller way, a group of Presbyterians from Mexico ended up in the town and came to the church. The associate pastor learned Spanish so he could work with them, assisted by a professor of Spanish at the local college. They met regularly in the chapel and fellowship hall and eventually moved on to help grow another Presbyterian church and then to found a completely new, independent community. The associate pastor and the congregation said very clearly “¡Bienvenidos, amigos!”

That’s the spirit of the gospel. At their best, the people of God told an open story. It sounded like this: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.” Or “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

But we not only need to wonder about the scope of the story. We also ask about its size. Is it big enough to sustain us? Does it encompass all God has done and will do? Only a big story is worthy to be called “gospel.” Only a tale as big as the cosmos can bring us hope.

Scot McKnight is a pastor and blogger. He wrote earlier this month about the story we tell. He says that the church of whatever sort has historically created a “salvation culture” that ends up making the church something like a country club, with insiders and outsiders, members and visitors. But that’s an inadequate telling of what God intends, McKnight says. The true and full story creates and shapes a “gospel culture.” “If a salvation culture builds a country club,” he writes, “a gospel culture creates a story—one with a beginning in God’s shalom and one that aims at God’s shalom. And a gospel culture is not identical to a salvation culture…. A gospel culture focuses on the Jesus Story, the Story that God is at work among us—the incarnation. In other words, the essence of a gospel culture is a Jesus-shaped and Jesus-centered Story of God at work among us. It is not just a country club, but the Story of life-giving, self-sacrifice and hope that God can take ruins and create monuments of love, peace, justice and joy—and Jesus told us that Story is now taking place among us”  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scot-mcknight/christianity-country-club_b_951239.html ).

The grand story McKnight is talking about is summed up in the great Christ hymn of Philippians: “though he was in the form of God, [Christ Jesus] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

That is a story big enough to sustain us, to give us hope, to transform our personal lives and the lives of our churches, indeed, the life of the world. In faith, let each of us make it our own story, become shaped by it, and tell it, and tell it again, till all the world will know it, and every knee will bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

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