Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"I Love to Tell the Story"

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

In the discussion that followed my sermon in July at the Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church in Dahlonega, Georgia, I was asked why I had never become a member of their denomination. “Because I love the stories,” I said, referring to the biblical stories. For four years I had given non-sectarian talks for Midtown Spiritual Community, an Atlanta congregation that had left Unity because it was “too Christian,” and, while finding the challenge stimulating and the congregation loving, I missed being able to use more of the stories of my Christian tradition. But I do understand how the certainties portrayed in these stories, while attractive to some, can be off-putting to others.

For example, during different phases of my life I have liked and disliked the Jesus of the Gospel of John.  I love that John is a mystic and sees the deepest meaning in the life of Jesus. But at other times I have found the certainty of Jesus portrayed by John unsettling and unfriendly, formal and rigid. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” These self-affirmations seem audacious and self-centered even in this day and age when self-affirmations are all the rage!

I find myself wanting to see more of the struggling and human Jesus in this Gospel, rather than the so-sure-of-himself divinity. But then, the Gospel of John was written about 100 A.D., and rather than representing the certainty of Jesus, reflects instead the assertions his disciples came to claim on his behalf. In fact, all the Gospels reflect their certainties of who he was, whether Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

But I do love the way these certainties about Jesus are wrapped in really great stories.  Most of us understand the futility of the quest for the historical Jesus. Jesus is one of those people that, if he didn’t exist, we would have to invent him. Jesus becomes our spiritual leader, our “anointed one,” as he engages us in a way no one else can. If there is no other hint of divinity, it is this ability to inspire visions and dreams and stories.

In Susan Cheever’s book Home before Dark, a memoir about her writer-father John Cheever, she describes how he embellished stories. One was about a publisher making a special trip to Martha’s Vineyard to get him to sign a book contract. In each version of the story, the publisher’s arrival became grander, and, as I remember the story, the means of transportation changed from ferry boat to private yacht to a small fleet of ships—all to entice Cheever to give him one of his bestselling novels. A writer should be so blessed!

This is how stories about Jesus evolved. His followers wanted to say something about the importance of his life. At the same time, they wanted to say how simply and subtly Jesus entered and departed life’s stage, reflecting not only his humility but also why the whole world didn’t get his significance immediately.

“I love to tell the story, of Jesus and his love.” I grew up singing these words from Katherine Hankey’s hymn. That’s the purpose of all of the stories, I believe, “to tell the story of Jesus and his love.” That’s the certainty to cling to.

On Sunday, October 9, Chris will be in Wilmington, Delaware, preaching on the parable of "The Wedding Banquet" during worship at the Hanover Street Presbyterian Church, 1801 North Jefferson Street 19802 and speaking in the adult class that follows on "A Brief History of Marriage." His books will be available and the public is welcome!

1 comment:

  1. Your point about the way in which stories evolve to increase their impact is a very valuable one. Indeed, it focuses the difference between "fact" and "truth". The Gospel of John does not, for me, paint a picture of an unfriendly, formal or rigid Jesus. The "I am the Vine, you are the branches" quote is, instead, deeply poetic and extremely reassuring. Again, I can't help referencing Kitt Cherry's monumental work, "Jesus in Love". She relies heavily on some of the images in John, and her portrait of a human, erotic and sensitive Jesus is strongly enhanced by this. My own favorites -- no surprise here -- are John's detailed accounts of the interactions of Jesus with various women, especially the Samaritan woman.