Gifted with Story
September 23, 2017 (Rally Day)
First Presbyterian, Columbiana – Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Out of his divine grace and mercy, our God has gifted us with story. If our building burned down. If our congregational leadership became embroiled in scandal. If our broader society stopped supporting churches and their ministry. If secret police marched into our homes to raid our jewelry drawers for our cross necklaces and pulled up our floorboards searching for hidden bibles, we’d still have the story.
The story of our God, who created heaven and earth and put humanity into it. The story of a God who heard the cries of his people and delivered them through the desert. The story of a God who, in response to our world’s hurt, suffering and sin, became God with Us in the person of Jesus Christ. A God who taught, who healed, who suffered, who died, who was raised from the dead, who continues to bring life beyond all expectation to those who call upon his name.
Over the last few weeks we’ve been following the story of Moses, the enslaved Hebrews and their liberation. This morning, in honor of rally day, we’re skipping ahead to the moment when, after a 40-year sojourn in the desert, the Israelites are in sight of the Promised Land. The Jordan River awaits. Their new identity as a settled community awaits.
On the bank of the Jordan River Moses gathers the people together to once again tell the story. The story of a God who created a people. The story of a God who heard their cry. The story of a God who delivered them out of slavery into a new life. The story of a God who sustained them on that journey and will sustain them still.
“Hear O Israel,” Moses admonishes. Remember. “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Remember. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and with all your might.” Remember. “Keep these things” – this story – “in your heart.” Remember. “Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” That way you will not forget the story and your children will know it. It will define them. Shape them. Heal them. Renew them. It will save them. And it will be upon their hearts as well.
Without the story we have nothing. If we stop teaching the story, sharing the story, living the story we will die. Die as a community, yes. But die as individuals too. For without story we know not who we are. We become dry bones, empty vessels, disconnected from the God who created us, disconnected from the neighbor whom we need, who needs us.
So we tell the story. We gather our children on Sunday morning and give them the gift of story. We gather the generations together in worship where tell the story again. On Tuesdays our elders gather to read scripture together, reminding each other of the story that shaped their lives. And THE HUB – our new community education initiative – its all about inviting our neighbors into the story. Not just teaching our neighbors the story, but enabling them to experience the story for themselves. Providing them space to renew, connect, heal, learn and grow.
In my first job out of seminary I had the privilege of witnessing the return of Forman Christian College, in Lahore, Pakistan, to the Presbyterian Church (USA). Back in the 1970’s the government of Pakistan had “nationalized” – government speak for stolen – the college from the church. For decades the church used a small portion of your offering dollars to ascertain their right to the college in both Pakistani, US and International courts. Why go to that effort and expense? In part because the property was worth millions of dollars. In part because the school was where ministers in the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan received their training. But mostly because it was a place from which to tell the story.
Ultimately the Pakistani government was forced to return the college to the PC(USA) as a condition for receiving military aid after 9-11. Today it has over 6,000 students – mostly Muslim – who choose to study at a place shaped by the story told to us from our youth. The story of a God who created a people. The story of a God who heard their cry. The story of a God who delivered them out of slavery into a new life. The story of a God who sustained them on that journey and will sustain them still.
An acquaintance who has been involved with Forman Christian College for years – her husband led the legal and diplomatic efforts to achieve the school’s return – told me about how, in the safety of the campus, a young muslim woman began attending Christian chapel services. (The school has both a Mosque and chapel on campus and offers services at each.) She sat quietly in the back, listening, praying, learning the story. She experienced God’s grace and became part of that story, studying the scriptures and the gospels and the church fathers and the contemporary theologians until she stood for ordination to be a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan. And then, like the woman who met Jesus at a well in Samaria, like Mary Magadeline who met the risen Lord at the tomb, she went home to her village – her male dominated, Muslim village, with the gift of a story so profound it had become imprinted on her heart, so life changing she had to share it with others.