Notes from the sermon by Paul Magnall on the 11th March 2018
What are the stories that we live by?
What are the stories that shape or control or direct our lives?
I don’t mean Harry Potter, James Bond or Little Women.
I mean stories like:
– Survival of the fittest – a story that has us trampling over everyone else, laughing down at those who fail and living in fear and awe of those who do better than us
– Perpetual economic growth – a story that has us accumulating more and more stuff that we don’t use and we then throw away. A story where we live as though there are unlimited resources. (there is no planet B). This story has it that we are all independent actors in an economic model of growth. In this reality it is money that gives us value, and we don’t need anybody else because we have to buy what we need. That is the society that this story portrays.
– And at the same time there is the story of a world of scarcity that helps to fuel the first two stories. This is a story where there is a shortage or lack of money or food or iPhones or tickets for concerts and so we have to compete to obtain them. We have to use power to overcome others in order to obtain the things that we want and that we believe to be scarce. At a personal level we see it in the January sales where people fight each other to get items on sale even though they don’t need them, and sometimes don’t actually want them! On a national and international level a perceived shortage of oil leads to wars in the Middle East, a shortage of water is likely to lead to fighting in the near future. And who knows, we may end up going to war to secure fertile land to grow food.
– Then there is the story of superiority, that “we are better than them”, “we deserve more than them”, “they are too different from us”, “you have nothing to contribute” – a story that has us building walls or barriers, rules and regulations, or attitudes and behaviours designed to keep foreigners or coloureds or women or gays or disabled people or old people or young people – anyone different to us – out of our country, our homes, our churches, our political system, our organisations, our sight. A story that leads to detention centres like Yarl’s Wood, that leaves elderly people alone in care badly run care homes
– The story of fear and security where we perceive someone to be a threat to us and so we need to be better armed than them. If we have the armaments that can destroy them should they attack us then we will be safe. A story of deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction, of fear and paranoia. A story where our lives are more valuable than theirs.
These stories speak of separation, scarcity and powerlessness
• Separation – we are separate from each other, from nature, from the world. What we do doesn’t affect anyone else and we can’t change things because we are on our own.
• Scarcity – the things we need are in short supply. There is a shortage of wealth, of material goods, of love, of happiness, of good things and we have to compete for them if we want them and then hoard them and protect them at all cost once we have them.
• Powerlessness – we are powerless to change things because we are on our own. Even in the groups we form we cannot change things because the problems are too big. If I change the way I do something it will have no effect on the rest of the world so why bother?
Just some examples:
The story of our political system screams, “Us versus them”
The story of our economic system screams, “Scarcity!”
The story of our medical environment screams, “Be afraid!”
Together, they keep us alone and scared to change.
These stories are breeding ground for violence – not necessarily the use of guns or of domestic violence but the violence we find in competing for things where other people get trampled underfoot or the world gets trashed, where things of real value in the world are actively rubbished.
So how do we change this?
It is often said that we can’t change the world using the same stories that the world runs by. We can’t bring peace by force, we can’t bring equity through inequitable systems. There is a saying “You can’t grow corn by planting tomato seeds”. The story that we live by is born out in how we live.
So maybe we need a new story. A story that brings hope to our world, a story that brings healing, that brings
• interdependence instead of separation
• abundance instead of scarcity
• freedom instead of powerlessness
• peace instead of violence
This brings us to the story of the Bible and the story of Jesus. People over the ages have discovered that the stories woven throughout the Bible can transform and bring healing, not only to individuals, but to society, to the world.
The Old Testament has many examples of people trying to move from an old story of separation, scarcity, powerlessness and violence to a new story of interdependence, abundance, freedom and peace. A classic one that Heston has talked us through before and I believe you looked at two weeks ago is the Exodus story. The Israelites were in Egypt, separated from their homes, kept as slaves and in fear of violence by an oppressive regime. They had been swallowed up by the story of the land of Egypt. God, through Moses, leads them out of Egypt into the wilderness where they struggle to let go of the old story of Egypt and embrace the story of interdependence, abundance, freedom and peace. They keep falling back into the old ways – they worship a golden calf, they try to hoard the manna that feeds them, they argue and bicker and have power struggles. It takes a whole generation before they are ready to embrace the new story and move into the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey.
A similar story can be seen with the life of Jesus. Despite all the miracles and teachings of Jesus the people struggled to let go of the old story of Roman domination, of religious manipulation, of fear and violence. It takes the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to change that story, to open the eyes and minds and hearts of his followers, to lead them into a life of interdependence where they share in the abundance, freedom and peace that they find in the new story.
“Before they are able to enter a new story, most people—and probably most societies as well—must first navigate the passage out of the old. In between the old and the new there is an empty space. It is a time when the lessons and learnings of the old story are integrated. Only when that work has been done is the old story really complete.” (Charles Eisenstein)
Lent and Easter are a time where we can examine the stories that we live by and take the time to bring them to a conclusion and move into the new story that God brings, a story that will bring healing to our lives, to society and to the world.
So let’s have a brief look at a bit of those stories that we see in today’s reading in Luke:
1. love your enemies
But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.
This is so “other” to what we are brought up to believe. The story of the world is that the enemy is to be feared, to be resisted. We should arm ourselves to the back teeth to deter them and to threaten them with annihilation should they try anything. Whether it is the Germans, the Russians, Chinese, North Vietnamese, Iraqis, Iranians, North Koreans, Muslim extremists, hackers or aliens! This pervades our story books, our films, our whole life story. And yet here we are told a new story – love them. Love our enemies.
And this isn’t a passive love, it is an active love. We should do what is best for them – bless them if they curse us, pray for those that mistreat us. And verse 29 is an incredibly powerful verse. This isn’t saying “lie down and let them trample over you”, it is an act of resistance. A slap around the face was what the superior did to the inferior, the masters did it to their slaves, husbands to their wives, parents to their children, and Romans did it to the Jews. The point was to put someone who was out of line back in their place, to reinforce the hierarchy. But if you turn your other cheek you can’t be slapped (right hand only here!) you would have to use the fist – but only equals used their fists and the last thing the oppressor will want to do is demonstrate equality. By turning the cheek the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”
In that story of honour and shaming, the “superior” has been rendered impotent to instil shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.”
The new story is saying “Stand up for yourselves, defy your masters, assert your humanity; but don’t answer the oppressor in kind. Find a new, third way that is neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal.”
2. Give your tunic
If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.
Debt was a big problem in Jesus time, and is now as well. Debt is part of the old story of scarcity and the Bible challenges this again and again. In this verse where Jesus says “If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them” Jesus is not saying give them what they want, he is again saying use the system against itself. Don’t live the old story, live the new one. People were usually poor because they were in debt due to an oppressive system. The land grabbers of Jesus time imposed exorbitant interest rates to drive land owners deep into debt and eventually people were literally left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. A cloak was a very important piece of clothing. It was the way you kept warm in cold weather. It kept the sun off in the hot weather. It served as a blanket or pillow at night. So if you were letting your cloak go it was probably as a pledge – you are so poor you have nothing else you can offer as surety. In Exodus 22:26 God commands that if a man takes another man’s cloak as a pledge, the cloak must be given back before nightfall so that he can have something to sleep in.
So why give your undergarment as well as your cloak? This would mean that you would be stripped naked! In Judaism at the time nakedness was taboo but shame fell not so much on the naked person but on the person who saw you naked (Gen 9:20-27). The creditor here is being shamed, the poor man has turned the tables on him, he is protesting against the system that has created his debt, it is almost as if he is saying “You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?” The story changes from one that shows a poor man down on his luck to a story that unmasks an unjust system that creates debt. The rich man, the creditor, is revealed, not as a legitimate money lender, but as a party to the system that impoverishes others. The action of the debtor changes the story and offers the creditor a chance to see what he is doing and a chance to change his ways.
I could go on. The next verse is verse 30 “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back” There is a story here as well, this is rooted in the Old Testament and God’s teaching about borrowing and about the principle of the Jubilee which includes forgiving debt every 7 years.
The story that Jesus gives us is so different from the story by which the world operates. The story of the world is about separation, scarcity, powerlessness and violence – if we stop and look at how we live and find these things we know we are living by the story of the world. If we find that we are bring interdependence, abundance, freedom and peace then maybe we are starting to live the Jesus story and bringing healing to our fragmented and hurting world.
But doing this on your own is almost impossible. As we know from New Year resolutions and trying to commit to giving things up or taking things on during Lent, it is so difficult to do. The story of separation, scarcity, powerlessness and violence that the world gives us is shouted so loudly and whispered so subtly through everything around us that we often feel powerless to change things and to live that different story. It is like building a house on sand, everything keeps collapsing.
Charles Eisenstein says “usually, people cannot hold a new story by themselves. A story can be held only in community” and that is one of the reasons we come together. So that we can
• Share the story of Jesus, of hope and of healing, of interdependence, of abundance, of freedom and peace.
• Support each other and remind each other that there is another way,
• Encourage each other and cheer each other on,
• Stand with those who are naked and with those who are in debt, those who are threatened with deportation, those who are lonely and isolated, those who feel undervalued or worthless, those who feel they have nothing
• Celebrate with those who find release and healing, who have found abundance in life
• When we share the Feast of Life we are re-enacting a new story of hope and healing, a story of interdependence and reconciliation, of abundance and freedom, of peace. A story that contrasts with the old story of the world.
In short, by living the new story together we bring in the Kingdom of Heaven here and now.
The world tells us to seek success, power and money.
God tells us to seek humility, service and love.
— Pope Francis
References and resources
Jesus and Non-violence – A Third Way, Walter Wink
The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, Charles Eisenstein