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Stories: What Do I Really Value?

By Don Sawatzky

Luke 15:11 -32

From Advent to Easter, we have focused on Jesus’ life story. From his birth to death to resurrection. Resurrection represents change, new birth, moving from death into newness. The resurrection story is a story of transformation from death into presence in a new way for his followers to experience. In his life, death, and resurrection an old way died, and a new way was revealed. I believe that for each one of us there are moments we can recall where we have needed to die to the old to move on to the new. These times of change often occur following crises, some large, some small. There is an opportunity for newness. There is never sameness after a crisis. Interestingly, in the Mandarin language crisis is represented by two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity. Crises happen not only in the life story of individuals, but also in families, groups, churches, and nations. In this church, as you are all aware, change has been happening in the last year. We have the option to treat this as problem and feel discouraged or as an opportunity and feel excitement.

I would like this morning to focus my thoughts on life stories. The way we story our lives; and the themes with which we organize and provide coherence to our story. When we tell our life story what are the underlying values? Is our story one of authenticity and hope? Or is our focus on fitting in with the culture? Are we living a life of possibilities or are we looking for certainty?

Jesus grew up in a cultural context of hierarchy and exclusiveness. People had value based on their heritage. Let us reflect briefly on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan for example was viewed as unclean based solely on culture. Jesus, through his life and teaching challenged the hierarchy, he challenged the exclusiveness of his society, he challenged the smug certainty of religious leaders. He advocated for a culture of inclusiveness where the Samaritan had as much value and worth as members of the cultural majority. The life story he lived was one of love and justice in action. Jesus was authentic and lived his story - he was his story. His authentic values guided every aspect of his short life.

Jesus was also a storyteller. He was a phenomenal teacher. He taught through parables. The parables of Jesus invite us to question our values. Are we living the cultural story, of hierarchy, power and exclusivity and materialism. Or are living a story based in our connection to the God spirit; one based in love, inclusivity, equality, and justice.

In this context I invite us to think about two words. One is belonging. The other is hope. A basic need for all of us to feel we belong. Initially we need to feel belonging in our family. Then to our larger community. Also, in the case of all of us here, to our church. John O’Donahue, to whom I referred the last time I was given the opportunity to share my thoughts, suggests we look at the word belonging as separate syllables - BE and LONGING. We long to be. To be our authentic selves. Over the past 15 years that I have been a member of this church community I have felt that I belong even when I may disagree, or you may disagree with me. Our connection is at a deeper level than specific beliefs. At the level of love and inclusivity. “Love lives here.”

I believe hope also lives here. Hope is, I believe, often confused with desire. I think of hope in the context of possibilities. I think of hope when I remember a tree on Pelmawash Drive that appears to be growing on rocks. It has obviously discovered seams of soil from which it can derive nourishment. I remember saying to John (several years ago when I was still riding my bicycle). That’s my definition of hope. Seeing the possibilities when it appears there are none.

Life story is a response to the question “Tell me about yourself”. How we identify life themes and how we put them together provides our story with coherence and flow. One of the authors I read at one time (It might have been Kierkegaard) said “we live our lives forward, but we understand it backwards”. We typically understand the themes of our story when we review our lives.

Jesus lived a life based on love and inclusivity. He taught these values with parables - stories which invite us to question our basic values. The parables of Jesus typically take us from the known to a potentially transformative understanding of the order of things. Often our expectations are upended. For example, it is not the older brother who has stayed at home, worked hard, and did all the proper things for whom the father throws a party; it is the younger one who has wasted his resources. It is the younger brother that is celebrated. This parable of the Lost Son or Prodigal son is found in Luke 15:11 -32

My guess is that if I was to ask you what stands out for you in this parable, we would likely have several different thoughts - the issues each one of us identifies might relate to something in our own life story. For example, I am the older brother in my family of origin so I can understand some of the resentment of the boy who did all the right things. I can also identify with the father and his joy with having his younger son return home.

The parables cover a range of themes, some of which address religious structures. For example, the person who demonstrates love to a person in need was not the Pharisee or priest but was a Samaritan. Again, each of us might have different interpretations as to what was most important in this story. What are the underlying values in this parable? How we interpret a parable probably interprets us as much as we interpret the parable. There is no end to the questions Jesus asks us to consider or meanings to glean from his parables. He was a teacher who encouraged his followers to reflect on their values; he trusted in their ability to live their lives with integrity. He told stories as opposed to telling them what to think and how to behave. Jesus among his many other qualities, was a masterful teacher.

From my perspective it’s important for each of us not only to live our stories but to reflect on them. What are the dominant themes? Are we living our own story or are we living someone else’s story? In other words, is our story authentic? Lives are metaphorically lived and portrayed in a variety of ways including life as journey, life as battle, life as puzzle, tale of woe, sob story etc. How might our life be summarized in an epitaph? Is this how I would like for it to be summarized? A quotation I like is from William Buechner “let us read with open minds the book our life is writing ——-and learn.”

About 25 years ago when I was retiring from my tenured University position, I was asked to speak to a student group at a right-wing denominational University. The students wanted to know about my Christian beliefs and how they fit with what I was teaching which was clinical psychology. I knew what I wanted to say but not sure how to structure it. One of the students at the front of the room had a book on her desk with the title The Myth of Certainty. I asked her whether I could borrow it deciding at the last minute to organize my thoughts around this theme. Certainty about what is right and what is wrong, what is mine and what is yours, what is believable and what is not, has caused strife, warfare and suffering throughout history. Our thinking that we have the answer has also caused huge dissension throughout history. In the context of religions and specifically the notion that there is a certainty has caused a great deal of divisiveness. For me the basic certainties in life hinge around the importance of love and living a life of justice and hope. I believe this to be consistent with the life of Jesus. I pray for an open mind to hear other thoughts. And I pray that the beliefs I have translate into action. In the process of doing so I want to hear the experiences of others that might differ from mine. Growth for me often comes with the hearing and understanding the stories of others.

In this context, I want to tell you something abut my Dad. My Dad grew up in a German speaking Mennonite community in what is now the Ukraine and came to Canada as a refugee by himself as a 20-year-old. He was an optimist even though he had, as boy and young man to deal with unimaginable hardships and loss. He seldom talked to us, his family, about his history. In the years following his arrival in Canada he lost complete contact with his family. My Dad could be quite outspoken and typically didn’t hide his beliefs. After my mother died, he moved into a small apartment in downtown Saskatoon. On one of our visits, he told us about his neighbour, a retired judge. As time went on it became evident that the two of them were spending a lot of time together talking. It was an unlikely duo - Judge Goldberg did not, for obvious reasons, like Germans. My Dad had some biases toward the Jewish people that were periodically verbalized. These were two older men who had curiosity and courage. At one point Dad told me “I think Judge Goldberg and I are becoming best friends”. I felt really proud at that time of both the retired Judge and of my Dad. They both exhibited the courage to be vulnerable with each other. And both learned and changed some basic values.

Finally, in the words of Richard Wagamese:

We all have stories within us. Sometimes we hold them gingerly, sometimes desperately, sometimes as gently as an infant. It is only about sharing our stories, by being strong enough to take a risk - both in the telling and in the asking - that we make it possible to know, recognize and understand each other.

(Wagamese, Richard: What Comes From Spirit, Page 13)

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