“The Stories People Tell” 1-27-19 Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Cor 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
Above all other kinds of theater, I love musicals best. One of my favorite musicals is Camelot, based on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. There are two themes are woven through this version of the story: Arthur’s dream of a peaceful world where “might serves right,” and the painful romance between his wife, Queen Guinevere and his right-hand-man, Sir Lancelot du Lac.
The last scene is set on the eve of a mighty battle between Arthur’s forces and Lancelot’s. As the king reluctantly prepares for combat, he discovers a young boy who says his name is Tom, and who tells him, “I have come to fight for the Round Table. I intend to become a Knight of the Round Table.”
The king, heartbroken about a war he doesn’t want to wage and disillusioned about the shattered symbolic Round Table, asks young Tom how he knows about the Round Table: “Was your father a knight? Was your mother saved by one? Was your village protected by knights?” Tom’s simple reply? “Oh no, my Lord. I only know of them from the stories people tell!”
“From all the stories people tell, you wish to become a knight?” asks Arthur. “Tell me what you think you know about the Round Table.” To which Young Tom replies with great excitement: “I know everything! ‘Might for right. Justice for all.’ A round table, where all knights sit in unity!”
With his world crumbling around him, King Arthur hears this boy speak words of hope and idealism, of a dream he himself had once had but has lost. On the spot, King Arthur knights the young boy, and then forbids “Sir Tom” from fighting in the coming battle. He commands him to return home, to grow up and grow old, and to remember and tell everyone the story of Camelot.
It gets me every single time.
The stories people tell have the power to shape lives, to change lives, to give us hope and a future. That’s why today’s reading from the seldom-visited book of Nehemiah is such a powerful text. It tells a story about hearing and telling stories, about what happens when people who have forgotten who they are and who God is are reintroduced the story that grounds them.
The story is set in a square opposite the Temple in Jerusalem, where the people have gathered to celebrate what is now called Rosh Hashana—a festival not unlike New Year’s or the first Sunday in Advent. It is a time to honor creation and anticipate new creation. This story begins when the long Babylonian captivity is ending; the exiles have come home. Now everyone has gathered to remember what they’ve left behind and to look forward to what lies ahead. They meet at the Water Gate, where fresh, flowing water from an underground stream is brought in for use at the Temple. And from the steps of the Temple, Ezra unrolls the scroll of Scripture and—with the interpretive help of the Levites (think Sunday school teachers)—offers the people the Living Water of God’s word.
The people weep when they hear God’s word proclaimed. It has been such a long time since anyone told them the story. The people weep as they are reminded of their individual and collective sins. They weep over their regrets. They weep because they broke their covenant with God and turned to their own wisdom, wealth, and power for sustenance.
And they weep because what they hear throughout the five or six hours they stand listening is that God has never stopped loving them. God never stopped trying to teach them that might doesn’t make right, that might is to be used FOR right, that the table of the world is round, and that every person deserves a seat at the table, for everyone has equal value.
After the people have been reminded of the story of God’s relationship with them no matter what they have done or undone, Nehemiah and Ezra and the other leaders tell them not to cry anymore. Now it’s time for a party! Now that they’ve been reminded of their shared story, the one that connected them to each other no matter how far apart they’d been geographically, and the one that connected them to God through all of time, it’s time to “Eat the fat; drink sweet wine; send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
There is great rejoicing! The people of God share a holy meal. And with the reminder of God’s generosity toward them fresh in their ears, they make sure to share the bounty with everyone, especially those with nothing to eat or drink. The story had refreshed their community every bit as much as water from the nearby spring.
And that’s why we gather here in this place every week, though I suspect not many of you are up for doing it six hours at a time. We come to this place to return home to God, to be refreshed by the Living Water of God’s word. We immerse ourselves in this library of stories that comfort and heal us, that radically challenge and perplex us. We ask hard questions of the texts even as we acknowledge our own limited ability to understand who God is and what God does. When we feel lost and far from God and each other, it’s good to come back home— back to the stories that have shaped our faith.
Lutherans, with our particular pride in Martin Luther’s emphasis on Word Alone and his dedication to making Scripture available in the common tongue so it would be accessible for all Christians, should be first in line to know the stories. We should be proficient at reading the Bible, hearing it, and wrestling with it. Instead, I find that many people I talk to are afraid of it. We’ve abdicated our own faith history. We’ve let fundamentalists claim this book as their own—surrendered the Bible to people who like to use it as a weapon, who cite chapter and verse, while we, who have a more complicated relationship with Scripture, back off completely.
When we forget the stories, we get lost. We lose touch with each other and with God. It’s like exile all over again. But it doesn’t have to be. Let’s gather again at the Water Gate to be refreshed by this liberating collection of narratives. Let’s go deep in our private contemplations and in our public worship services, in our Bible studies and in our conversations. I know it sounds intimidating, but I promise you we can do it, especially if we do it together.
So where do we start? As usual, it’s good to see where Jesus starts something. And today in our Gospel lesson, Jesus is handed a scroll, opens the Scriptures, and reads this from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And then, according to Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus preaches his first sermon. It’s only 9 words long: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, Jesus tells the crowd, “In me, this story has now come true.” Next Sunday we’ll hear about how people reacted to the announcement that salvation was located in Jesus himself when we gather together for Part 2 of the text here at this very Water Gate.
Meanwhile, feel free to remember and to weep tears of lament and joy as you reflect on the stories you have heard and told that have shaped your life and the lives of those you love. As you leave, take with you the Living Water of God’s enduring care for all people. In everything you do, everywhere you go, to everyone you meet, hear and tell these stories.
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 1-27-19” name of the sermon.