Year A, Proper 9
Recently I heard from one of my readers that they found the stories on my website difficult to access. I wondered if they could not find them on the internet despite my careful work with hyperlinks. Or if they did not see the connections between the stories and the scripture texts. I appreciate feedback, particularly if it helps me to bring clarity to my writing and helps you access the stories better as you study the scripture. My goal is to enhance your ministry in preaching and teaching.
This is a good opportunity to write about imagery in story again to shed some light on how I pick and share the stories that illuminate our sacred texts from the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. When I read or hear a story my first reaction is to notice the sense imagery – the visuals, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the textures and the muscle memory experiences. After working with story in this way for over 20 years I do this instinctively. But so do you! This is the first layer of story listening whether we are aware of the process or not. Then I notice where these images lead me emotionally and metaphorically. I move from metaphor to questions of theology and biblical interpretation. Then finally to contemporary application.
The image of Rebekah agreeing to leave her family, perhaps forever, and go with this strange man who has showered gifts on her to marry a man she has never met is vivid. I can see the look of resolution on her face. Or is it fear masked with bravado? I can hear her voice. Is it struggling not to tremble? Or is it confident and almost defiant? I wonder about her ready acceptance and notice that there are verses skipped in our lectionary text. I read those verses and discover that Rebekah does not have any choice in the matter. She has already been given to the servant of Abraham by her father and uncle. Her only choice is whether to go sooner rather than later. This makes me wonder even more about the look on her face and the sound of her voice. I speculate on her emotions. I do some study to determine the marriage practices of ancient times. I wonder about the theological issue of God’s will that the servant seems to be proclaiming. Is God’s ultimate providence even wider and deeper than our human understanding of signs that seem to lead to God’s will?
In a nutshell, this is the process I go through with each text in the lectionary, even if it is not a story. Working with a story or parable is easier than working in this way with a psalm or prophecy or the teachings and sayings of Jesus. But it can still be done. Passages of poetry, law or teaching are always part a larger story. Knowing that story can help understand their imagery.
What are the images that stand out for you in our passage from Matthew? I hear the flutes playing and the wailing of the mourners. I am struck viscerally by the starkness of John neither eating or drinking. Can you see his gaunt figure? Is your stomach rumbling? And struck by Jesus as a glutton and drunkard! Do you smell the rich food? Hear the laugher around the table and the sound of wine poured into glasses? I also feel the heavy weight of the yoke on my shoulders and the roughness of the wood. Then the weight is lifted! This yoke is different.
By paying attention to these sense images I am drawn into the emotion of Jesus’s words. Who is he speaking to and why is he using these images? What is the effect of his words? He is speaking to crowds in cities where he is preaching, teaching and healing after sending out his disciples to do the same work throughout the countryside. He is answering the crowds questions about John the Baptizer who has been imprisoned. In some cities he has been received and in others rejected. We can imagine both scenarios as well as feelings that might surround them.
This imagining leads me to the question of how are the crowds of our day like the crowds of Jesus’ day. The generations of our day are just as dissatisfied with “saviors”. All too often notes Rev. Kate Matthews in her Sermon Seeds reflection on this text “we think we need to save ourselves.” Perhaps this is why we are dissatisfied with the packaging of the saviors in our midst. We don’t trust those who are ascetically disciplined or those who celebrate the abundance of God’s love. And we are often too busy to see beyond the initial packaging. “Mindset of the man too busy: I am too busy BEING God to become LIKE God.” (Mark Buchanan, The Holy Wild: Trusting in the Character of God) Matthews also quotes New Testament scholar, Tom Long. “Every generation,” Long writes, “wants something good for itself. The problem is the packaging: John and Jesus do not look like saviors…the wrong diet, the wrong music, the wrong companions, the wrong words. ‘This generation,’ like all generations, is scanning the screen of history, looking for hope, searching for salvation. But they cannot commit to either John or Jesus….” Long, however, exhorts them–and us–to note the new and wonderful things that are happening because of the coming of the reign of God: healing, resurrection, and “the poor have finally heard some music they can kick up their heels to–and that is the essence of wisdom…” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). I would add that the yoke of Jesus which is rest for the soul even in the midst of life’s burdens comes from the recognition of such wisdom. It is the willingness to take on the burden’s of life as the community of Christ, finding the strength of God in one another, instead of saving the world or ourselves all by ourselves.
Above are two examples of how layers of story listening, moving from sense imagery to emotion to questions of meaning, guide me in exegesis. In this blog I often notes when there are similar images running through all the texts. Even if we are preaching on only one the imagery of the Hebrew scriptures or a psalm or an epistle can inform the gospel. Not necessarily through direct historical links but through metaphor. Its like looking through the a prism to see light reflected in a variety of ways.
The stories I choose from other sacred traditions or folk literature hold similar images to the biblical texts. Seeing how the light is refracted through them can further illuminate the wisdom and the gospel. I have found in my twenty-five plus years of telling stories for children’s time in worship that a story from another tradition can illuminate the major theme of the scripture text for even the youngest. The church has a long tradition of teaching theology through music. I teach it through story. The images of the story resonate with those in the pews listening to the children’s time. It can build bridges for families to explore on the ride home and over lunch.
The image of taking on the yoke of Jesus reminds me of Jesus’ instruction to take up the cross and follow him, to lose your life to save it. What is the yoke of Jesus? As mentioned above Jesus wants us to know that we do not take on life alone. In recognizing him, we come face to face with God. And are empowered to see God within one another. I believe part of the yoke of Jesus is found in collaboration as we seek for inclusion of the “least of these”, the weak and marginalized, those who are oppressed, among us who are so precious to God. At the website, Wisdom Commons, I find three delightful stories of collaboration that teach me something about taking on the yoke of Jesus.
- At the link above you will find the familiar Chinese folktale about Heaven and Hell, “In Heaven We Feed One Another.” Heaven is feeding one another, giving our life to find it. Hell is starving as we try to hoard what we think is our own.
- You will also find the Buddhist story, “The Wise Quail.” In this story the quail are taught to save one another through cooperation in giving to one another.
- Finally there is a story from Hawaii, “The Fighting Mynahs.” What happens when two “super-powers” fight over the abundance that is meant for all.
I encourage you to explore telling the story from Genesis as all or part of your sermon. First explore it through imagery and emotion. Then notice what questions of meaning are coming up for you? They may be questions of discerning God’s providence as mentioned earlier in this blog. They may be questions of social justice as there are still women in the world who have little opportunity to make their own choices. Follow your questions. Let them inform not only your exegesis but the actual telling of your version of Rebekah’s story. You could tell it from first person or stick closer to the biblical text. Perhaps your children’s time could center making choices.
The website, Storypath, offers a suggestion for a children’s time in response to Abraham’s gratefulness for leading the servant to a wife for Isaac. The book is by beloved children’s picture book author and illustrator, Tomie dePaola and is titled, Look and Be Grateful. It is available on Kindle which makes it accessible for you to project the pictures from your computer onto your sanctuary screen (if you use one) as you tell. Then everyone gets to enjoy them!
Blessings on your story journey,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Commentary and photos may be reprinted with permission only. Please find and tell the stories!