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The Practice of Storytelling

Note: Today's sermon was preached by Molly Morris, Director of Family Ministries.


Once Upon a Time, when I was younger, there once was a princess, in the beginning. Some say the best place to begin a story, is at the beginning, but how do we know where the beginning of a story is? How do we know where to start the story. When I am telling a story, there usually come a point about half way through, where I feel the need to explain some piece of history or back story in order for the story to actually make sense. Stories blend into more stories, as I attempt tell one full story.


Jesus does not do this. In the parables that Jesus tells, he get’s straight to the point. Or so it seems. Often, after a telling of a Parable, the disciples, the audience, and the readers are left with more questions. Our text often says that the listeners did not understand, or that Jesus did have to later explain what he meant. In the scripture we just heard, I am left with lots of questions about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who was the man who was attacked? We know he was coming from Jerusalem. Was he Jewish? Where are the Priest and the Levite going to? Why do the Priest and Levite not stop?


Now there are lots of assumptions we can make about this last question, based on the time period and the theological context. It’s often said that the priest and the Levite are more focused on obeying purity laws than caring for neighbor. And this is absolutely a possibility. Perhaps they thought that staying clean so they could worship God, to love God with all their heart, was more important in that moment.


However, sometimes when we try to interpret this story, we get stuck in what Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie calls “The Danger of the Single Story.” In her 2012 TED talk, which I highly recommend if you have not seen it, Adichie explains the concept of the single story. The single story is the dominant narrative about some thing, idea, person or group of people, or historical event that shapes the way we view and make assumptions about all things relating to it. Adichie says, “ The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. . . . I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”


I was introduced to the idea of the single story when I first moved to Los Angeles to work as a Young Adult Volunteer for a year. Los Angeles is also a victim of the single story. It is often called the city of stories. This is mostly because Los Angeles and Hollywood are synonymous with the film industry, where stories are literally told in grand and beautiful ways. When I first told people I would be doing a year of service in Hollywood, people laughed. But our focus in Los Angeles was not the movie industry, but rather the bigger systemic problem of homelessness.


Los Angeles has the largest population of people experiencing homelessness in the United States.


Those experiencing homelessness are at the mercy of the single story. Living homelessly is stigmatized and seeped in assumptions and stereotypes. The single story of homelessness centers around laziness, substance abuse, and crime. It negates the personhood of each individual and perpetuates the problem of homelessness.

In New York, The Holy Apostle Soup Kitchen is a church that provides hot and nutritious meals daily to their neighbors experiencing homelessness. In addition to a meal, they have been hosting a writing group, giving people the opportunity to tell stories, their own or otherwise. Their work has been compiled into the book Food for the Soul. In the introduction, Associate Rector Elizabeth Maxwell writes, “Most of the the stories that are told by the participants are not explicitly religious, but they are sacred stories none the less. They are deep stuff, light stuff, soul stuff.”


Stories are intrinsic in our lives. Not only do stories exist all around us in movies and books, but they are imbedded in our very personhood. Our lives are a collection of experiences and stories that have molded us and shaped us. We are in control of those stories and we decide which ones we tell and which ones we keep to ourselves. Stories are imbedded in the fabric of our lives from the very beginning. Children learn through stories and make sense of the world through the stories they are told. G.K. Chesterton says “Fairytales don’t tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be defeated.” When Jesus tell parables, he is doing just this. Jesus uses stories to do two things.One, to make sense of the world we live in and two, to speak truth to power to the Kingdom of Heaven. In the parable of the Samaritan, He is asked a question of what to do in the world today in order to bring about the Kingdom. Terrence Tilley writes, “A parable is a story which is set within a world created by myth and which functions to subvert the world in which it is set.” The stories we continue to tell, should do this as well.


Through lent we are practicing practices. Our spiritual practices serve multiple purposes. They help renew and reset. Spiritual practices are often discussed as elements of self-care. They help us to continue on when everything else seems like too much. But our practices do more than this too. They help us see the world we live in more fully. Two weeks ago, John discussed Lament as a practice. The practice of lament, on the surface, may not seem like a way to care for ourselves, but what it does do is re-focus us. It gives us the space to name the darkness, recognize it in our life and move forward more aware of our world. Storytelling can do a similar thing. Not only does Storytelling provide an outlet for the teller, but it share observations and understanding of the world around us, or of a better world. Let us tell stories that are counter to the single story of the world we sometimes feel full of destruction and darkness.


In 1996 the Klu Klux Klan held a rally in Ann Arbor Michigan. 17 Klansmen showed up to find a crowd of over 300 anti-clan protestors. In the crowd of 300 was a man who appeared to be Klansman . He wore a confederate flag shirt and had an SS tattoo which pointed to ideas of white supremacy and Nazi support. When the crowd of protestors saw this man in their midst, a man who represented everything they were against, they began to chase him. He was surrounded and pushed to the ground. The group of protesters turned into a mob yelling, kill the Nazi, as they beat and kicked him. When Keisha Thomas saw this, she threw her body onto his, in order to protect him for the violence that he was suffering. Keisha was 18 at the time. She was African American high school student and had joined the protest in her hometown to show that the hatred that the KKK showed towards minority groups was not welcomed. As Keisha watched this man, who personified that hatred, be thrown to the ground she said “it felt like two angels lifted my body up and laid me on the ground.”


Keisha chose not to believe in the single story of this man who was being harmed, but rather to stand up against hate in all of its forms. It is Keisha’s story that speaks truth into a better world. A world where we do truly love our neighbor. By telling her story, we not only recognize that better, loving world is possible, but we call others to act in a way that builds this kind of world, one where the Kingdom is experienced on earth.


Elizabeth Maxwell writes, “telling ones story is a basic human need.” Our stories are a part of us, and a huge part of the way we interpret our world. When we tell our stories, and we listen to others stories, we are given a better understanding of each other and of the world around us. When we tell our stories, and give space for other to tell their story, we enter into community with one another and begin to create the Kingdom.

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