Stanley Hauerwas created a monster.
I don’t think he necessarily meant to, but I’m just saying . . . after reading his books, especially A Community of Character, I cannot, ever, understand Christian community outside the power of narrative, or story. Phrases like “your faith story” and “our narrative of faith” and “telling the Gospel story” just make my heart beat fast.
And, to be perfectly honest, I thought for sure I would find my Hauerwasian bias toward faith narrative exceptionally appropriate this Sunday, when my preaching task intersects with the 145th anniversary of the Calvary congregation.
What do you know? A perfectly legitimate opportunity to talk about our corporate faith story and how exactly we go about living that story!
And so, I turned with relish to the Gospel text this week expecting a really meaty story, you know tying the ancient story to the story of this congregation, etc., etc., etc.
Alas, our passage for this week, John 16:12-15, is Jesus talking in mysterious phraseology about nothing that seems even remotely tangible to me (though after my recent attendance at the Festival of Homiletics I am quite sure Fred Craddock would find a way to make it life-changing). In the Gospel lesson for this week Jesus is saying goodbye to the disciples (though they don’t quite know it yet) and introducing a critical, life-saving element to their spiritual stories (though they don’t know that yet, either)—the Spirit.
And the Spirit, my sinking heart recognized as I read in preparation for sermon-writing, is not something that lends itself to tidy story telling, parables that tie up loose ends or carefully structured institutional organization.
(I would type here my exclamation upon making this discovery, however my mother in law reads this blog and she is already concerned about her grandchildren.)
But then, as unpredictably as we know (or guess, rather) the Spirit works, while I was struggling over Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel, the 145th anniversary of the church and my ever-present need to tell stories that explain faith, I picked up Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Leaving Church (which I cannot read in large doses or I start to cry with envy and frustration).
In the part I happened to be reading the other day she was talking about the mystery of faith, the eternal human need to institutionalize, categorize and organize our faith . . . and the striking revelation that, instead of understanding the work of faith as an effort to tie everything up in nice bows, we are actually living an ongoing narrative of faith—I mean, the story is still unfolding.
The story, in fact, is still being written:
“I know the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve a very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to becoming living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.” (p. 107)
And, hey! Wait a minute! Isn’t this just what Jesus was saying in John 16:12-15?
Though not a story in a “Parable-of-the-Good-Samaritan” kind of way, what Jesus was saying IS about a story.
A faith story.
Our faith story—not limited to ink on a page or dusty pictures in church archives—but a story that’s being written even as we speak. Embracing the ongoing work of the Spirit, leading us to write and to live the Gospel story . . . well, I can’t think of any better way to celebrate 145 years of trying to be The Church.
(See, I KNEW Stanley Hauerwas was right!)