The Power of Story

I do not remember  the content of the many conversations I had with my grandfather over my growing up years – but I DO remember the stories. Many of them I continue to tell, and tell, and tell… Stories have great power over our lives. It is important to note what stories we remember and which stories we tell. Especially our faith stories

Isaiah knew this and in Isaiah 43:16-21 is reminding the people of their stories – of the defeat of Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea – “they lie down they do not rise…”; the sustaining presence in the wilderness of the exodus “ for I gave water in the wilderness… rivers in the desert” These stories point to the future more than the past for Isaiah – “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth do you not perceive it?” Just as the mired chariots in the seabed, and the water in the wilderness were new things, unexpected things that eventually become familiar stories for the people; so the prophet tells the people then and now, that God continue to do the unexpected….

Psalm 126 looks back at the Exodus. Seeing a dream of returning to the land fulfilled. They recall laughter, and shouts of joy.. The psalmist recognizes that the good old days of then is not now. Yet, the stories told of that past, fuel the hope for the future… “restore our fortunes… may those who sow in tears – reap with shouts of joy…” may those who go out to plant the seed bring in the harvest as happened of old. May God do for us this new thing we cannot fully imagine.

In the letter to the church in Philippi Paul (3:4-14) tells of his life as a Pharisee, his zeal as a persecutor of the early Christian community. Never was anyone less likely than Paul to become a leader for this sect of Judaism which deified a rabbi who was publicly executed. Yet on the Road to Damascus all that changed… and with it Paul’s life changed… becoming both harder – and more filled with meaning and purpose. One could not project the unfolding of the story from looking at Paul’s past. God is doing a new thing in Paul’s conversion.

The Gospel from John (12:1-8)  is a recollection of Jesus at dinner with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Lazarus who Jesus raised from death. Jesus spends an evening with them as he is getting ready for his encounter with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. This story recalls for us that Martha on a previous visit asking Jesus to tell Mary to help her with domestic duties. Jesus told Martha she was too busy and Mary has chosen a better part. Martha once again serves, her way of demonstrating her caring for their friend.

Mary on the other hand brings out a jar of nard a costly ointment and perfume. Such a precious perfumed ointment would have been brought from almost a continent away as far as the Himalayas perhaps. We can scarcely imagine what that would have cost her. (It is estimated to have cost a year’s wages…) Mary caringly anoints his travel weary feet with this ointment. Each of these vignettes shows the value of Jesus presence and friendship to these women.

This scene of affection was tastelessly broken by Judas. Judas who handled the money for the apostles complains that the perfume could have been sold and the money put in the treasury – thus making it available to him… showing what Judas valued most.

Jesus tells Judas to leave Mary alone. He understands the caring behind her action and speaks of its use in the future final anointing at his burial.

Then Jesus says” The poor you will always have with you, but you do not always have me.” This oblique statement reveals Jesus’ valuing of care for the poor, the marginalized, the outcast. I believe what he is saying to Judas is “let her do this for me now while I am here – once I am not here you can serve me in the poor who you claim to care about.” God is doing a new thing in that authority, greed, death, and lust for power will not win in God’s economy. Jesus life, teaching, death and resurrection are the seeds of a new reality – a new way of God’s re-creating the world as God would have it, using people committed to this new way of valuing and acting.

There is power in each story to illustrate and to move people to reflection and to action.

When these stories are told, we who tell them make them our story – and that produces courage and hope that helps us persevere, overcome and endure while waiting for our perception of the new thing emerging from God and God’s people.

Paul tells his story, of hos being a former persecutor, to people under oppression to give them hope to endure- assuring them that what they face is worth the glory that is to be revealed in and to them.

In the Gospel Jesus receives Mary’s gift of generosity and brushes aside Judas false indignation. Jesus actually is quoting Deuteronomy about the poor – but he simply implies the instruction that precedes it. The verse in Deuteronomy begins “open your hand to the poor” and adds “because there will never cease to be those in need”

What stories do we resonate with? What stories move us – help us to endure – inspire our hope?

These are the faith stories we have to share – stories that in our telling invite others to find what we have found in the faith community; that tell what has sustained us to endure in the trials and vicissitude of our life…

These are stories that have power in our life and when we live them, share them and use them to inspire our values, and mold our actions these stories focus us into that future into which God is calling us.


About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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