There’s this story in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is in the Temple with the disciples, and he’s watching people drop money into the treasury coffers. After some rich guys drop in sacks that make a nice jingle when they hit the pile beneath, an old woman drops in two small coins that barely make a sound. Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “This poor widow put in more than all of them; for they gave out of their excess, but she, in her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.”
You may know this story. I’ve read it many times. I remember hearing it told in Sunday School and from various pulpits over the years. This story is often called ‘The Widow’s Mite’, and the general take on it seems to be that Jesus is teaching his disciples about how to give sacrificially. The story is a favourite for church stewardship seasons, or capital fund campaigns: we need to give like this woman so God can be glorified in our ministry or in our new church building. The message of the story is clear: don’t be like the rich who give what they can easily afford, be like the widow and give sacrificially.
The bible is full of stories. I love stories. Stories engage us at multiple levels. Stories draw us in. And stories often help us make sense of life. Many of us have the sense that the Bible is one big story – the Story of God. The trouble is, the Story isn’t told in chronological order, and there’s all this other stuff mixed in along with the narratives. So, if you are like me, when you first heard someone you respected say, “Here’s the story the Bible is telling…”, you were ready to believe their version of it. And usually it is something along the lines of, “Because of the Fall, we’re all condemned to spend eternity in hell. But Jesus died on the cross so that we have a way out, and if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, then we will spend eternity with him in heaven.” Perhaps that sounds very familiar. And so we build buildings in which to tell that story, and invite people to come and hear it and be saved. And when they do, we need to build bigger buildings, and so maybe we turn to ‘the widow’s mite’ story to help get that done. But what if the story we’ve heard is not the whole story? What if the bible is telling a Story that is much more sweeping in scope than that version? How many of us have yet to hear that Story?
Ten years ago I heard that Story for the first time. I was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary and took a course in New Testament Theology with Mary Fisher in which I was introduced to the idea of the meta-narrative of scripture. We read “The Challenge of Jesus” by N T Wright, which became a watershed moment for me – I experienced a conversion of my imagination. To that point I had approached scripture as something along the lines of an instruction manual – God’s guidelines for living on the way to heaven, perhaps. But that class, and the hours I spent with Mary in her office afterwards, profoundly changed the way I read scripture. For the last ten years I have read the bible as the Story of God – and one that does not begin with ‘the Fall’ in Genesis chapter 3, nor end with heaven and hell in the Revelation chapter 20, but a Story that begins in Genesis chapter 1 with life in the goodness of creation feasting on the fruit of the tree of life and that ends in the Revelation chapter 22 in the new creation, feasting on the fruit of the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
Originally hailing from Norwich, England, Sean Gladding has made his home in the U.S. for the last two decades, where he has served in various forms of pastoral ministry, getting around on his ’84 Ironhead Sportster. During his time at Asbury Theological Seminary he first encountered the concept of the metanarrative of scripture, an experience that has deeply shaped his life.
His first book, The Story of God, the Story of Us, has its origins in a Bible study Sean led during a summer internship at Mercy Street, a church in Houston, Texas, for people in recovery from addiction and from bad church experiences–often both. Sean went on to co-pastor Mercy Street for seven years, during which time he and his wife Rebecca narrated the “Story of God” with people who had never heard it before or who had only heard a fragmented version. Hearing the “Story” with both the enfranchised and those on the margins has continually deepened their understanding of scripture, and shaped their lives and the way they tell the “Story.”
Over the years they have made “The Story of God” narrative freely available to anyone who wanted to use it. The “Story” has been told in homes, churches, college campuses, coffee shops, pubs and laundromats, spread over five continents.
Sean and Rebecca have two children. After their time with Mercy Street they returned to Lexington, Kentucky, to rejoin friends at Communality–part of the family of New Monastic communities–where they are seeking the welfare of the city.