The Power of Story
The 13th Sunday after Pentecost
The Episcopal Church in Myrtle Beach
The First Lesson today includes part of the formative story of the people of God. The Exodus story – which we heard a portion of last week, and we will hear more of for a number of future weeks – this story’s significance cannot be overstated in the history of our faith. And I want to use this story today as a means to emphasize the importance and power of story within the life of community.
The part of the Exodus story we read this morning, of course, gives background for the Passover meal. For Christians, that Passover feast provides the setting for the Last Supper – and that, in turn, becomes the origin of our celebration of the Holy Communion.
However, as important as this passage is, the greater Exodus story includes much, much more. For instance, the message becomes clear quite early in the story that God identifies with the oppressed slaves in Egypt. After the Passover event, God led those people out of Egypt and protected them as they crossed the Red Sea. On the journey, God gave the people commandments to follow, and these commandments indicated expectations of the people in their relationship with God. The people learned – sometimes incompletely, sometimes ineffectively – to trust God as they wandered in the wilderness for years. And, eventually, the people arrived in the Promised Land, the place about which God had spoken, “a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Later generations were taught to retell the story because both instruction and power result from the retelling of stories, within the life of community. Please permit me to read some verses from Deuteronomy which deal with the responsibility to retell this particular story. My Old Testament professor would be disappointed if I did not read this passage to you. “You shall make this response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’” (Deut. 26:5-9). So, that is a very early retelling of the Exodus story. Thanks for listening … and be grateful that I did not attempt to read it in Hebrew!
The importance and power of story become obvious as we claim the story for our own. Notice, for example, the passage I just read began by referring to “a wandering Aramean”, and initially that person is mentioned as “he.” Then, though, the story is embraced personally, and reference to the ancestors become “us.” Thus, “the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.” You see, part of the power of story is that it reaches out and embraces us in personal ways. The story of our ancestors, therefore, becomes our story, too.
In this way, therefore, the story of the oppressed slaves in Egypt becomes the story of other oppressed people at other times. Perhaps, even, The Episcopal Church in Myrtle Beach can claim the Exodus story. There was, after all, a sense of oppression here in recent years, which I have heard about from some of you. Then there was a departure, a leaving behind of that previous time and place – a kind of Exodus. Some of you now may feel that you are wandering a bit, in a strange and unfamiliar place. And yet, you have hope … hope that a promised land awaits somewhere, sometime. And I trust that it will not take forty years to get there!
A foundational story is like that. It is significant in its own right … significant for the people who experienced it in the first place. However, its message and meaning are so compelling that others become embraced as the story is retold. The meaning is renewed, and the message becomes relevant in a new time and a new place. That, then, speaks to the power of story in community.
Annie and I have six grandchildren who seem to insist on growing up. As we participate in their lives, we have become aware, once again, of the power of story. For instance, Kanuga Conference Center has become an important annual pilgrimage destination for us as a family. Particularly since some of our family have moved out of state, we renew our common stories whenever we gather. It may be that the storms we recall become stronger in the retelling of stories – and the hikes become longer. But the important thing is the involvement of us all – oldest to youngest – in the story. And the story has the power to embrace every single one, whether all were involved from the beginning or not. This has become part of our family story.
Thus today I commend to your attention the power of story within the life of community. May we give thanks for that power of story and for the way that community stories embrace us all. Each personal story becomes a part of the larger story. Our own experiences are woven into the larger life of faith. Our journeys follow the paths of those who have travelled before us. In the process, then, what we do and experience, day by day, is made more significant because of the power of the stories we share.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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