My friends Janis and Ted have an adopted daughter from Korea. I don't know how many times I have heard them tell the story of going to Korea to get her the joy of taking her into their arms for the first time, and the interminable flight back across the Pacific Ocean when a kindly Jesuit priest helped them attend to her, their precious bundle. Helen, their daughter, is in her mid-20's now and I think of the hundreds of times she must have heard that story; how it must feel by now like a soft garment wrapped around her, a story of profound desire and love that brought two people thousands and thousands of miles to find her and to bring her home.
Sacred stories do that for us. They envelop us, ground us, and enchant us. I notice that when people are hearing a sacred story, their breathing slows and their eyes get softer with a kind of inward vision, as they imagine the tale as it unfolds.
Here's part of one that I heard a lot growing up:
"Once upon a time, a long time ago, your great grandmother and grandfather came to America on a boat to escape persecution in the Old Country. Great grandpa Max pushed a fruit cart and worked his way up, and then we got the big house in Connecticut."
You may remember something like this from your own life:
"Once upon a time, when you were a tiny baby, you got very, very sick. We stayed in the hospital with you and the doctors said it was a miracle that you got better."
Our congregation tells a version of this sacred story:
"Once upon a time just down the road from here, some people wanted to start their own church and so they gathered together and wrote a covenant and got themselves a building and a minister, and here we are 365 years later, still worshiping together."
We hear so many stories. Our days and lives are full of them. "Honey, how was your day" leads to a story -- or we hope it will! "Hey, did you see that shark at Rexhame Beach this summer" leads to a story. Stories weave us together as families, friends, communities and nations. We share a national story that I have no doubt we'll tell each other all day on Tuesday of this coming week -- "The Story of 9/11." It's a story of fear and tragedy but it's our story and we need to hear it. We need our stories. Thomas Moore says that "stories offer a powerful way for the soul to find a space for itself and to have some relief from the pressure of just getting along in daily life."
But how do we know when we're telling or hearing a sacred story, the special interest of any religious community? Our lives are full of those, too, but we don't always know them when we hear them. I think we should.
I think we start to sense that a story is sacred when the energy shifts in the room in the telling of it something in your heart opens to a listening place and you get the feeling that you are hearing something that helps a person or a people better understand who they really are. Sacred stories get us out of our rational heads and into a place of "ah" -- and even awe. They shape life's very meaning they work on us. A person experiences something life-changing and shares it. They were grabbed by something awesome, you know, and in the hearing of their tale, you get grabbed, too. There you have a sacred story. "We were listening to that preacher from Galilee and by God there must have been five thousand of us there, all hungry. The rabbi had these followers with him a few guys and they took out a little fish and some bread. For five thousand of us, how crazy is that? But you'll never believe it they just kept feeding everyone with that fish and bread, every single one of us had enough! No one went away hungry. It was amazing!"
Wow, what a story! That's how all the religions begin stories that grab people and don't let go.
I especially love the miracle stories that I get to hear from your own lives. I've heard several versions of this one:
"The day after Lew died, this cat that he used to feed in the neighborhood came and sat on the stoop where Lew used to sit. We hadn't seen him in weeks, that cat. And he sat there all day, keeping vigil. It was as if he knew. He was saying goodbye."
You get drawn in. Something numinous has touched the ordinary. You see things a bit differently after that. Sacred.
On August 10th I phoned my friend David in Minneapolis when I heard on the radio about the 35-W bridge collapsing. He said he was okay but that the city was in shocked grief. "Everyone has a story," he said. "My mother-in-law would have been right on the bridge the moment it went down if she had left work at her usual time. She's freaking out. Everyone has a story like that."
What all of us will merely remember as a sad news story will become for Mrs. Wood a defining sacred story of her life. She now has a sacred story called "The Day The Bridge on 35-W Collapsed And By Some Miracle I Wasn't On It."
We come together for another year of ministry, and a lot of you have probably figured something out by now. You have figured out that ministry happens, in large part, by listening to each other's stories. It starts when you show up you just show up during a moment of confusion or crisis, and you get around the kitchen table, maybe in the middle of the night, and you listen to someone tell for the millionth time what happened to them. You show up to church and hear it.
There was an accident, or a sudden sickness, or a death or a betrayal or a frightening piece of news. Someone tells and re-tells their story, adding a new detail each time, hearing themselves get it out there out loud, integrating the experience with what had been a totally ordinary day. You just sit there, receiving the story, hanging in there with it, and with the teller, just letting them tell it. Another person squeezes into the kitchen, just got there, they need to hear the story too. And so the story gets told again but this time the voice is stronger, the tears aren't getting in the way so much, others are chiming in with bits and pieces. Now it's everyone's story. Now this thing that has happened isn't some random event that came in like a mangy coyote out of the woods and snatched away your happiness, it's a story. You get your hands around it, you see it in its real size, you tell it and you know that later you'll tell the story again and again and it will be part of the fabric of your life. You see things a bit differently.
I think it's important to say that not all stories come to some great conclusion like "the moral of the story is!" Some stories never come to any sense; let's not pretend that they do. A beautiful night at the theatre with your friends, you slip on a piece of stage scenery, you fall and break your shoulder. That's just lousy. There's no sense in that, but there can be meaning. You sit there in your sling, healing, thinking about accidents and vulnerability, about dependence and how much you generally take everything your right shoulder does for you for granted. There's some meaning in it. Now, I'm not suggesting the story of my mother breaking her shoulder is a sacred story. I'm saying, though, that every story has some learning in it, and sacred stories have a lot of deep learning in them. Sacred stories illuminate the Big Questions: why are we here? What's the meaning of life? What do I believe about God in light of what's happened?
I was fascinated this summer by how many people I saw all dazed and enchanted by the final Harry Potter book. How many of you read it, or are reading it? Well, I admit that I got the book and just skipped right to the end because I quit reading the series in the middle of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire but I wanted to know how it all came out. Would good triumph over evil? I'm not going to give it away, but I just want to say how exciting it was to see thousands of people sharing this marvelous, rich story and making it part of a kind of national (if not global!) mythology. The end of Harry Potter is all about the soul. It's profound spiritual stuff and best of all, it's a shared story told in such a spellbinding way as to draw millions of readers into one circle to consider big questions together. Great questions: how do I use my power? Is it ever okay to lie to someone if you feel it might protect them from danger? Why do good people die? Can you ever totally defeat evil forever? Wonderful story. Watch your children's eyes shine and see how trance-like their breathing is when you read Harry Potter to them. They're in the grips of one of the most sacred narratives ever produced by popular literature. I think people of all ages have learned a lot about themselves through reading the Harry Potter series.
I want to tell you about some trouble I'm having lately with a story that isn't over and I hope won't be for a long time. I've been thinking about the sacred story of Unitarian Universalism, which I always believed was a story about the wonderful moral improvability of humankind and the marvelousness of human enterprise and intelligence. Our story is a long, noble tale of free-thinking men and women breaking out the shackles of superstition and away from the kind of religion that shoves beliefs down your throat and warns you not to ask any questions. It's a story of skeptics and intellectuals and innovators and hard-working activists who fought for peace and justice and freedom of conscience. It's a great sacred story for which you could say the moral is, "Yay, humanity! Onward and upward forever and ever!"
But here's my trouble. I look around today and I wonder about the moral of that sacred story. Are we getting it right?
Because I see the environment and what we're doing to it, and I see the stupid, pointless kind of poverty that can be solved rampant right here in the world's richest nation. I see a disastrous war in Iraq and I see China and I see Darfur and North Korea and I'm less and less sure about this "Yay humanity! Onward and upward forever and ever" business. I still believe and will always believe with all my heart that we're a morally improvable species but you certainly wouldn't give us an "A" for effort in that category lately, would you?
I think one of the reasons our denomination isn't growing much lately as we wish it would is because we're really so optimistic about the strength of human character and sometimes folks stop by and visit our congregations and say, "You sure do have a high estimation of the human species, but from where I sit, I don't see much reason for all that optimism." This hurts. It hurts my heart when I hear it, and I've heard it quite a few places lately. It hurts because it has hard truth in it. And then I say to myself "Okay. Hang in there, now. I can handle this without getting defensive because one thing I also know is also part of our sacred story (and I want you to know this, too): it is not fixed. We have a responsive faith, a faith that claims that revelation is not sealed. We seek ever after new understanding. We are hopers, not "holder-oners." We can revise the moral of our story if it's necessary to do that.
Once upon a time, my friends, a religious community gathered together and made big and glorious claims about how intelligence and freedom and open-minded inquiry could save the world from its ills, and save people from the worst kinds of snares they got themselves into. After awhile they looked around themselves and saw that the world was still broken, and people were still as prone to mess up as ever, even where knowledge was vast and freedom flourished. So the people said to themselves, "It seems that maybe we have a lot more to learn. It seems that intelligence and freedom of conscience are essential things, but perhaps they are not Every thing. Perhaps we have discovered only part of the secret of life, and have much more wisdom yet to discover."
What happened next? I don't know. That's why we're here. We will live into our story, all of us, and we'll find out together. We may not go "onward and upward forever and ever," but we'll go forward, and we'll go inward, and whatever pages we turn, whether they be inspiring or upsetting or inconvenient or confusing or whatever they be, we will turn them together. Our story goes on. Thanks be to God, and to the human heart.