Tell Me A Story

When families get together, or when we used to get together before COVID-19, it didn’t take long before favorite stories to be shared around the circle. 

In our family, one of the favorites my brother and I regailed the family with was about our mom and the construction of the western village from the back of the Cherios box.  On each box of Cherrios cereal there were one or two houses, maybe a barn, or something like a general store.  You cut these out and followied the directions on which way to fold each portion, or which tab to insert into which slot.  On completion, one had a house, a general store or whatever.  For a quarter and a boxtop or two, one could get a layout for the entire village.

As Mom continued working on one of the structures,  I became increasingly anxious that she was not following the instructions.  Finally, in desperation, worried that she would ruin it, I blurted out, “Mother!  You’re not following the instructions.”  To which she responded, “Only an idiot would need these instructions.”

Within minutes, she began searching around on the floor.  “Where are those instructions?”  I delighted in reminding her, “Mother, you said that only an idiot would need these instrucitons.”  And we’d all have a good laugh.  Then it would be someone elses turn in the barrel.

Family stories are what binds us together and brings to memory the good times.  And sometimes the trying, difficult times.  It broke my heart yesterday to open the paper and see the picture of a forlorn man, downcast, staring at the smoldering ruins of his home.  “We’ve lost everything, he said to the reporter.”   Indeed, it was all gone.  Only the remnants of a fireplace and chimney remained.  Like tens of thousands, he and his family will tell their depressing stories of starting over.  The tarnished trinket found in the ashes, the melted dog dish. the charred mailbox out front.  All that was salvaged.

Scientists and climatologists will tell a more encompassing, less personal story of an erratic climate, drought and spruce bark beetles.  They will piece together the evidence of global warming into stories of coming hardship and disaster for much of the planet.

We tell our stories to bear witness.

When I looked at the editorial pages of the NY Times, there was a picture of a sodden village in Pakistan.[1]  People aimlessly wandered the drenched street where nine inches of monsoon rain had recently fallen.  The highest amount ever for a single day.  Novelist Fatima Bhutto, lays out the ecological and human disaster awaiting her nation as the glaciers in the Himalayas melt and temperatires soar to over 124 degrees F.  With the loss of drinking water for millions, drought and famine stalk the land.  She tells a most sobering story.  And yet many would still deny the reality of her cautionary tale at the highest levels of our government.  Fatima writes her story in sadness and in dread that it may not make a difference.  No hearts will be warmed, no minds changed, no action taken.  Yet, she offers up her story in hope.   To bear witness.  Before it’s too late. 

As humans, all we have left so often are simply our pathetic or sometimes hopeful stories.  Stories that should be warning, or stories capable of inspiring hope and resolve. 

Stories are remembered and told to formulate excuses and lay blame.  To justify myths of superiority and to scapegoat.

Years from now, political commentators will weigh in on those officials who ignored the science and evidence of global warming before their eyes.  Or, on the other hand, belived those stories concocted to give credence to the fake news and the “alternative facts” behind this ginned up, so-called hoax of global warming.   Which story did our generation believe?

By this time the science and any proposed solutions will have become so politicized, so costly, that there will be no hope of consensus.  The truth, as in battle, will have become lost in the “fog of war – partisan warfare.” 

We saw that political combat in vivid and tragic display at the first presidential debate.  What a farce.  And this is our democracy?  God help us all.

The disaster was so discouraging that even I, a political junkie of long standing, couldn’t stay engaged.  The president’s continued interruptions were tiresome.  I, and the millions watching, had never in all our born days seen such a performance.  And Chris Wallace, the moderater, struggled mightily to constrain Mr. Trump and wrest control.  What on earth had we just witnessed?  Joe was also a bit out of order at times, calling the president a “clown.”   Though not without provocation.

Last night we saw a bully on full display who coddled White Supremacists And we saw a decent man who called us to to be our best selves.  A choice between the Proud Boys and their ilk or the legacy of those who fought to preserve freedom on the shores of Iwo Jima.  They are not “suckers” and “losers,” Mr. President.

With elections only weeks away, it remains to be seen how the public will come to a judgement between these two narratives.  However, on November 3rd we  voters must process this most unusual of campaigns  And make a choice.  It is one for the history books.  And certainly the nail in the coffin of civil discourse.

“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,” that’s the snippit of a favorite hymn, “For all the Saints,” that’s floating through my mind this morning.

Why is the fight so fierce?  Whoever shapes the narraitve has the power to determine political outcomes.  The story becomes weaponized.  A cudgel with which to bludgeon the opponent.  To claim the moral high ground.  Is it all just about power?

In Matthew we have an old parable from Isaiah used by the church –weaponized to delegitimize the Jewish tradition.  The new community employed this old story to claim the mantle of God’s favor.   According to that story, the Jews through their treatment of the prophets and Jesus had lost claim to Israel’s salvation history. 

Like the wicked tenants (we all know who they are) of the vineyard, through the murder of the owner’s son, they had the vineyard taken away.  The owner of that vineyard will “…put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”  Let those with ears to hear, understand what is being said here.

Looking at the disasterous failings of the church over the subsequent centuries, we have absolutely no claim any superior moral authority.  The Holocaust was the final capstone to our pitiful record of failure.  Jim Crow representing the abject failure of Christians to resemble anything like the Beloved Community.  As Mark Twain frequently reminded Jesus’ followers, “It would be a whole lot easier to believe in the possibility of redemption if the redeemed looked a bit more redeemed.”

Row upon row of empty pews in many of our churches are testimony that the Church has lost it’s mandate.  We might not have killed the son, but we sure have too often killed the people with borerdom. 

For our youth, the church is certainly not where the action is.  Except now and then.  Now and then, like those youth pilgrimages to New Orleans after Hurrican Katrina.  Now and then, like those groups doing House Builds for Habitat for Humanity.  Or lately serving at food bank distributon lines.  Every now and then the gospel bites us in the get-go.  And we get a case of Holy Gumption.  And did I mention marching?  And signing up to help at polling stations so the usual crew of seniors won’t be put at risk of COVID-19?

It is said that it is the victors who write the history.  And that is why the stories of history and the overall narrative arc is so important.

Looking back to the time I taught American history in an Oakland public junior high, the source of my failure to reach many of those students was the inability to weave into my students’personal and family histories the story of our nation.  And to keep it real.  I might as well have been talking about creatures on some far-off planet.  Nothing to do with the “hood.”  Nothing to do with the reality of vicious gang leaders and a drug culture.  Nothing to do with empty shelves in the kitchen, distraught parents and rats skittering across the floor at night.

As stories from the daily papers flood my mind, as the larger story of America and the group of companions that gathered about Jesus intrude, I discover the saving grace as I allow my heart to be touched.  For isn’t that finally the aim of all stories.  It’s about what we bring to them.

Today, my small parish celebrates it’s patronal feast day, St. Francis Day.  The enduring blessing of this favorite saint, the real take-away is that everything is connected.  Joined together in the abiding love of God. 

As I remain in lockdown, Deacon Pat will bless the animals in Franciscan tradition as they and their keepers drive by in the parking lot of the church.  She will sprinkle them and their owners with holy water, enjoining the drivers to “remember your baptism and be thankful.”  She will slip into a back window a suitable treat for a dog or cat and a copy of this sermon.

The larger story we are acting out today is that no matter what hash we make out of it all – personal relationships, our nation or this planet – redemption is at hand.  The only question before us is the one Jesus asked the crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to be well.” 

Eddie Glaude in his book, “Begin Again,”[2] holds out hope that, deep down, we will claim healing.  That, this late in the day, we might be willing to forsake the foundational lie at the heart of our nation.  That we will come to terms with the “original sin” of America.  The most pernicious lie being that a white life is of more worth than a black life.  This is that perennial “lie” at the root so much hate and distrust.     This is “lie” that has from the beginning poisoned any promise of what America might have been.  So, now to Begin Again.  There is Grace for nations and whole peoples.  Ask Germany.  Ask Japan. Ask South Africa.  America is at a transitional moment.

Healing begins when we acknowledge the falsehood of those tired, old stories concocted to demean others.  Jim Crow.

I found most hopeful a story in the L.A. Times of the Latino and Latina staff at the paper there.  “Revisiting an anti-Latino past,” was written to celebrate the promise of change.[3]  A paper that routinely refered to Mexicans as “greasers,” “wetbacks, “border jumpers” and only employed such as janitors and in other low-level positions, now celebrates them as staff writers, editors, and columnists. 

The Times Latinx writers have won Pulitzers for their work on local L.A. politics and California exposés.  Courage and anger wore down racist barriers.  The ownership of the Times, over the years, had hearts changed.  A new, more inclusive story, told the heritage of this paper and it’s mission to it’s reading public.  And to themselves. 

That is why we celebrate St. Francis today.  His story is paradigmatic of the larger story of God’s love.   It is a more inclusive story.  In Christ Jesus all are invited to God’s bountiful table.  “Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith, you are invited to this table.”  We in the Church are called to ever renew that story that it take wings in minds young and old.

In Sunday school we used to sing a favorite, “I Love to tell the Story.”  What I learned there was a expansive story of joyful generosity.  A story of changed hearts and minds.  The lost are found.  Enemies reconcilled.  It’s the story of a God reaching deep into us and pulling out the very best.  As persons.  As a nation.  As a world.   Glory abounding!

Tell me the old, old story.  But don’t just tell me.  Make it real.  Make it come alive.  I want to see this Jesus story in action, how it plays out in real life.  How it might play out in my life.

“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong.  Alleluia, alleluia!”

“The golden evening brightens in the west…”  Yes it does.  Alleluia!  Alleluia!


[1] Fatima Bhutto, “Pakistan’s Terrifying Battle with Climate Change,” New York Times, September 29, 2020.

[2] Eddie Glaude, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for our Own (New York: Crown, 2020).

[3] Gustavo Arellano, “Revisiting an Anti-Latino Past,” Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2020.

Dear friends in Christ

October 4, 2020, Pentecost 18, Proper 22

The Rev. John C. Forney

Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

“Tell Me A Story”

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