Year A, Lent 2
When I teach the creation of story and use of storytelling in preaching and worship I start with simply reading the texts. Silently first and then out loud. (Though the order could be reversed.) A very elemental practice and not unknown in the teaching of preaching and exegesis. It is always interesting to discover if different words stand out in the silent and audible readings. It is a practice akin to the contemplative practice of Lectio Divina.
The words that stand out for me in the texts this week are “go,” “kindred,“ bless,” “keep,” “faith,” “by night,” “wind,” “saved,” “led them,” “overshadowed,” “tell.” These words set me on a path through the texts. Though there is always the work of word study and exegesis to do the words and the images teach my soul first as I reflect and question with them. Though I may choose to preach on the Nicodemus story in John the words from Genesis, “go” and “kindred” make me wonder what finally propelled Nicodemus to go to Jesus, to leave the comfort of his well worn family of beliefs as a Pharisee to venture into unknown territory. I consider what it means for God to “keep” us as I picture Nicodemus going “by night” to Jesus. Even in his daring God kept him, “the moon did not smite, condemn, him, as he went “by night.” Putting myself in Nicodemus’ shoes it is good to know that God keeps me even as my faith is challenged in new ways.
The image of Jesus leading Peter, James and John up the mountain in the Matthew text echoes with the image of the hills in the psalm. It may be a new, strange place, surprising things may “overshadow” us there, but the hills or mountaintops – in reality and metaphor – are also places of intimacy with God. I wonder if Nicodemus felt as if he were venturing into place of mystery and maybe danger as he went to question the radical rabbi, Jesus. More a cliff perhaps than a hill. What will happen to him socially, if he, a Pharisee, is discovered? What will happen to his faith if this is the one sent from God? Was it a “mountaintop” experience for him? Did it first plunge him into more darkness before there was a transfiguration of his faith? How long before he told anyone of his conversation? Peter, James and John must have puzzled greatly over their experience and could have been grateful that Jesus said “Do not ‘tell’ yet.”
I think we are meant are to savor, to ponder over, what happens in these mysterious, intimate, at times seemingly dangerous, mountaintop experiences of being kept in the powerful blessing of God’s presence before we tell of them. Abraham must have puzzled and pondered even as he went forth, was “led” by God, from his ‘kindred’ into wider avenues of faith. His journey was not a one of theology or philosophy conducted in the safe haven of an armchair in his library. It meant moving his whole family, recreating his livelihood, moving into what may have been “enemy” territory in order to follow this mysterious call. Throughout the two millennium of Christianity, many have done the same, dedicating their entire lives, body, mind and soul, to following God. And sometimes the call does come in an armchair experience. But it always propels us into strange and unfamiliar territory.
First, as is usual, I heartily recommend that you begin with retelling one of the biblical stories for the week. Completely immersing ourselves in the biblical story reveals layer upon layer of meaning. And feeds our souls as well as the souls of our congregants. It can be an act of self-care in the midst of the stress of ministry because it frees your spiritual imagination, opens doors for the Spirit to move through you with fresh inspiration.
There are two more stories that come to me for this Sunday. The first is a Slavic fairy tale of two earnest young people who want to marry. They are obstructed by the fact that she is from a rich family and he is from a poor family. The rich father sets the young man on a journey with the task of discovering information from the Sun and the Moon. While seeking to find the home of the Sun and the Moon others give the young man additional tasks. He eventually fulfills them all learning about himself and the world along the way. You could shorten the story by sticking to the central task and not telling the additional ones. This story illustrates the journey/quest motif so prevalent folk literature. Journey is an archetypal image for our lives. What other stories do you know with journeys? There are simple ones that many of us learn from childhood such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. It is important from an early age to know we can journey from home, have an adventure, find the help we need and return home safe. See if others come to mind.
The motif of journey and the motif of climbing a mountain are also part of tale that is part of the legends surrounding St. Patrick of Ireland. You can find a short history of Patrick’s life at StoriesForPreaching.com under the heading “Guidance.” His life is a great example of being set on an unexpected journey and then guided by God time and again. You can find the story below, Patrick’s Three Tests”, in the iBook, In the City of Spice and Gold, by Robert Bela Wilhelm. The iBook holds a story for each Sunday of the lectionary Year A. You can encounter them in an audio file and in print with commentary.
It seems that St. Patrick decided to spend 40 days and nights in the wilderness praying and fasting as Jesus had in the wilderness. He went to the west of Ireland and climbed a holy mountain that had been a place of prayer for centuries. After his stay on the mountain it was renamed Croagh Patrick and it still climbed as a pilgrimage journey to this day….but that another story. After St. Patrick’s 40 days on the holy God sent an angel to bless him for his long fast. And to let him know that the mountain would no longer be call by its former holy name but by Patrick’s name…”croagh” meaning “stack” in the Irish language and the mountain being the third highest “stack” or hill in western Ireland. St. Patrick was humbled and grateful. But he was also always on the lookout for a new way to save the souls of the Irish people and to bring them to God. So he bargained with the angel.
Patrick said, “I have come to love this place so I think I will stay a few more days.” The angel was terrified. If Patrick stayed on this mountain more than 40 days and nights he would have stayed in holy prayer and fasting longer than Moses on Mt. Sinai or Jesus in the wilderness. So the angel tried to convince Patrick to come down from the mount. But Patrick remained on the mountain for the 41st night. And the angel returned in a panic to God
God granted the angel the power to bargain with the holy man. So the next morning the angel returned to ask Patrick what he might need in order to agree to come down. Patrick said, “Tell the Lord that I want to able to stand on this mount on Judgment Day to pardon all the sins of the Irish and all who live in the beautiful country for as far as the eye can see.” The angel was aghast at this audacious request and returned to heaven for confirmation from the Almighty. God granted Patrick’s request but by the time the angel got back to the mountain it was getting late in the day. Patrick acknowledged God’s gift but told the angel it was too late to climb down the rocky path of the mountain. And Patrick spent a 42nd night on the mountain.
The next morning the angel returned and Patrick had another bargain. “Not only do I want to be able to pardon all the Irish from the beginning of time, but also the fairy folk who live in the kingdoms beneath the hillocks and plains of this beautiful land and the enchanted folk who live beneath the waves surrounding this beautiful land. The angel returned nervously to God with the request and hurried back to Croagh Patrick when it was granted. Patrick accepted graciously again but also refused again to begin the climb down because it was so late in the day. And he spent a 43rd night on the mountain.
VERY early the next morning the angel appeared on the mount to urge Patrick to end his fast. And the wily saint had one more request. “Tell the Lord that I want to be able to stand at the gates of heaven with St. Peter. Until now it has been in the hands of the church in Rome with St. Peter as their head to decide who enters heaven. Now I want to stand beside St. Peter and whenever an Irish soul, or a half Irish soul, or a soul who wishes to be Irish appears for entrance into heaven, I will decide upon their fate.” The poor angel thought this really was too much but went back with Patrick’s proposal to God. God looked a bit stern for the sake of St. Peter who was definitely not amused! But inwardly God was pleased with the audacious love of forgiveness that Patrick showed and was amused at his clever bargaining. And God granted Patrick’s third request. And with that Patrick finally descended from the mountain that still bears his name to this very day.
Blessings on your Lenten story journey,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Commentary and photos may be reprinted by permission only. Please tell the stories!