April 18, 2019
Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019 Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
Our stories are old stories. Our stories are new stories. Our stories are God’s stories told in bodies and time[i].
What’s the oldest story you tell about your life? Do you know about your birth, or how you got your name? Is there a story that shapes your picture of your parents, or siblings? A narrative you tell that helps you understand how you chose your career, or when you realized you had found your life partner?
My earliest memory is of my mom trying to get my dad on the phone to tell him and his colleagues that President Kennedy had been killed. I also remember the sweet chances Mom had to read stories just to me when all my older siblings were at school.
I asked my kids about some of their favorite family stories and they described hearing my parents describe their first date, or of the way John and I describe interactions between our siblings when we were kids.
We love to tell stories over family dinners, somehow connecting the nourishment of our bodies with the shaping of our hearts and personalities.
Psychologists claim we tell life stories to help us understand our true identity. The themes of our autobiographies help us frame the ways we find meaning or purpose in our lives[ii]. Old stories form the way we understand our true selves, and are sometimes the easiest for us to tell. We’ve been telling them for years.
Of course, old stories can also carry baggage that is sometimes hard for us to share. Every once in a while an old familiar and happy story from the past becomes clouded with new insights or perspectives. Someone tells me that I’m presenting the information in a way that hurts them. Someone else explains that while I understood something as funny, others heard it as insulting or shaming.
Throughout the season of Lent we’ve been telling old stories, but listening for new interpretations. We’ve been reading midrash—ways the ancient rabbis looked at the stories of Torah–at our midweek Wednesday evening services, listening for fresh interpretations to stories we thought we knew.
At forum a few weeks ago, we learned about how this neighborhood had once worked to keep prominent people of color from moving in. The storyteller told us that learning about the forced segregation of Mac-Groveland had felt to him like a “kick in the stomach.” He came to recognize how the old story of racism was always told in bodies and time, even to this day.
Tonight we begin our three day’s journey with some of the oldest stories we tell as the people of God. These are the stories that best shape our understanding of what it means to be God’s people, depicting our truest identity.
It begins with the oldest story of all – and like all good stories, it’s told in bodies and time. It too is rooted in an old story of slavery, of being held back from our true identities by outside forces, There are details of the story that continue to be hard to share– details about the slaughter of the Egyptians, and the years of wandering and complaint in the wilderness. Our Jewish brothers and sisters still include bitter herbs in their Seder dinners, helping them remember the taste of their slavery, like a kick in the stomach.
The story is painful for those who have lived as oppressors, too. It reminds those of us who have lived with privilege or power that we too can easily ignore the oppression of those who are disempowered, even when the consequences act like plagues of fear or discontent in our lives. These stories are sometimes hard to tell, but of course they don’t get the last word.
Ultimately, tonight begins a three day invitation into a new story. We sing the ancient songs of the Exodus, not just to remember the pain of that which enslaves us, but to draw that much more sweetness from God’s promise to set us free.
In the midst of the sorrow or regret of every old story we tell, God sings a new song. Throughout all of time, God insists that the pestilence of tyranny, hatred, oppression, or of disappointment, shame, or lament, will never be able to claim us, for God is always leading us into liberation and new life. We tell these stories at the same time each year, remembering as the spring is born, how new life always follows the winter of bondage.
Jesus offered a midrash we could never have expected when he told the story that night. He invited his friends into new understandings of the foods they ate, and taught them a new commandment.
Notice that he bases his new song firmly in the same story they’d always told. He sings of God’s promise to continue to liberate God’s people. He reminds his followers that whether the oppressor is Pharaoh or Caesar, God will never let the power of Empire win. The story of liberation is still true for Jesus’s friends, even as it had been long ago. Even that night, when death threatens to claim them, Jesus offers a way in which God could still lead them into life.
Jesus knew that just talking about it wouldn’t be enough. God’s story would be told in his body, and in the bodies of his friends, at that very time. Taking a towel, he poured out love to wash away all that holds us in the past. Lifting bread and cup, he promised that his own body would nourish ours with forgiveness and hope. Singing the oldest songs he knew, Jesus charged us with a new commandment empowering us to serve our neighbors, to hold the vulnerable, to cross borders, to embrace the brokenness of our world, to wipe away the forces that try to separate us from each other, and to be restored to goodness, even if he would give up his life to show us what it looked like.
What story is God telling in your body tonight?
UCC Pastor Vince Amlin says that “every person’s story is holy[iii].” Since “God chooses to be present in real life and real bodies,” all of our stories are sacred. In the church he serves in Chicago, Pastor Amlin leads a liturgy which is shaped by people telling in the light of the gospel, discovering in their own stories ways God has been making them new.
It’s the incarnational truth in all of the stories we tell – they happen not just in theory; they happen not only 2 or 3000 years ago, in a distant part of the world. God’s stories are happening now, in our bodies and time.
Have you felt them? Where has God been nourishing you to quiet those “kicks in the stomach”? Where is God helping you reframe painful experiences in your past through a prism of grace and new life? How is God writing love and compassion into the dusty, tired parts of your journey? How is God’s commandment to love your neighbor giving you courage to start a new faith practice? Will you let God wash away the old feelings of powerlessness with a new perspective or resolve to make the world a better place?
Tonight, at this family table, take the gifts of God’s new story and be fed with compassion and hope. Maybe you will dare to have your feet washed, feeling God’s grace stream over your body in that strange but gentle act. Maybe you will taste the kindness of forgiveness in the bread and wine. Maybe you will share the peace in a way that will communicate a new compassion to yourself and your neighbor.
Tonight we are invited into God’s story, which is being sung right now in our bodies and time. And because God is faithful, we can trust that love will find a way to lead us into life through these stories, even yet.
[i] Our Stories, Paul Friesen-Carper.
[ii] Dan P McAdams, “Life Story,” https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781118521373.wbeaa141
[iii] Celeste Kennel-Shaknk, “Every Story is a God Story,” Christian Century, April 24, 2019, p. 26.