The Power of Story
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
Sept. 30, 2018
Preface: This month we have been talking about current issues, some big issues, some hard issues, some uncomfortable issues, looking at them through the eyes of Scripture. We have been holding the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other hand. As we ask “What Would Jesus Do?” we realize part of the answer is Jesus didn’t avoid hard things. Our church invitation is “Come, just as you are.” And that doesn’t just mean what you wear or who you love, it means bring your questions and vulnerabilities, and find the spiritual support you need. So, if feelings come up for you as we talk about hard issues, like today, I hope that you will feel safe in coming to talk with me or someone else you trust.
Once upon a time….and they lived happily ever after. These were some of my favorite words to speak to my children. I loved bedtime when my kids were young. After their bath, I would tuck them into bed, and then the fun began. I snuggled in next to them, we said prayers, and then they would invariably ask, “Would you tell me a story?” And so I would begin, “Once upon a time….there as Ranger Rick or Safari Sam or Princess and the pea”…..and they would end with “and they lived happily ever after.” Every night, as they closed their eyes and drifted off to sleep, I was amazed at the power of stories.
Christians know the power of story because our sacred text--the Bible--communicates truth through story.
Stories have the power to inspire awe: “In the beginning, God said let there be light. And there was light.” God created the the whole world and called it good.
Stories have the power to inspire faith: Jesus healed a woman from her illness, saying, “Go, your faith has made you well.”
Stories have the power to inspire hope: On that first Easter morning Mary went to the empty tomb and proclaimed, “I have seen the risen Lord!”
Stories also have the power to call out sin: When King David raped Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan called him out, saying “You are the man who did what is evil in the sight of God.”
Stories have the power to challenge and correct, to teach a moral lesson, which is why the Bible was written and passed down throughout the centuries, and why it is read in church each Sunday, because we need to be taught what is right and what is wrong, so that we can turn from evil and do what is good.
That’s the purpose of the story in our Gospel lesson today. Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
“Cause to stumble” is from the Greek word skandalizein, in which we hear the English word scandal. It is a scandal to do anything to hurt little ones or to exploit the trust of children, so scandalous that it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around your neck--a sure route to death. To avoid the sin that gets you thrown into the sea, Jesus offers an alternative: If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” Is Jesus proscribing self-mutilation? In Jesus’ time, the body was a common metaphor for the community of believers. The point is that members with various roles in the community--like the eyes, the hands or the feet--they need to be removed--cut out--if their actions harm little ones and threaten the integrity of the whole (Sharon Ringe). This is an allusion to one of the most important Jewish legal concepts called lifnei iver rooted in Leviticus 19:4. So serious is the commision of lifnei iver is that it is just cause for excommunication from the Jewish community (Don Johnson). Setting somebody up for harm is as bad as it gets. And usually such is done to the most vulnerable, the "little ones," the children.
I did not choose this Scripture lesson--it is the lectionary reading that occurs every 3 years and is read in most Christian churches this morning. In Bible study, we were struck with the shocking relevance to our time. The footnote for this passage in one of our Bibles actually referred to the sexual abuse of children.
Many scandals have surfaced over the past year. In February of this year, nearly 100 women told their story of the sexual abuse they suffered when they were child gymnasts at the hands of their team doctor, Larry Nasser, who was found guilty and sentenced to 40-125 years in prison.
Last month, a Grand Jury report found that more than 300 Catholic priests across Pennsylvania sexually abused over 1,000 children (and probably thousands more who were too traumatized to report it) over seven decades, protected by a powerful hierarchy of church leaders who hid it all. Many of the priests are dead and so will never have to be held accountable for their despicable behavior that left little ones wounded and adult survivors forever scarred.
At the beginning of this past week, Bill Cosby, once revered as a model father on tv, was found guilty and sentenced to 3-10 years in prison for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand. Sixty other women report being victims of Cosby, some were girls as young as 15 years old.
At the end of the week, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary committee that when she was 15 years old, she was sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Mnay Senators remarked that Dr. Ford had everything to lose and nothing to gain, and yet she courageously told her story.
These stories are not new. Until now, they have been dismissed. But, in the wake of the sexual harassment and assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, a movement emerged on social media that empowered people to come forward to tell their story. It is called #MeToo, in which thousands of women stood up and said MeToo, I was sexually abused and it is time to tell my story, so others might be spared. Statistics support their stories: 1 in 4 girls, 1 in 6 boys, 1 in 3 female college students are sexually abused. The numbers are probably even higher and the percentage of false claims is so incredibly low for a reason--because survivors lose so much and have to re-live the trauma by speaking up, so many do not.
The stories of the #MeToo movement are not new. What is new is the response. For the first time in history, women’s voices are being heard and powerful men who have harassed and abused women are being held to account. The #MeToo movement has harnessed the power of stories to change our culture of sexual abuse and secrecy.
Even in the #MeToo era, sexual harassment and abuse remain part of growing up, part of being in school, part of dating, part of going to parties, part of working, part of walking alone, part of jogging alone, part of going to church, part of everyday life for girls and women. Even now, politicians working to save the nomination of Kavanaugh are saying that the behavior he is accused of is just the kind of stupid thing boys do to girls at that age and shouldn’t have a bearing on this appointment. This is not a political statement. Regardless of who you think is more credible, I want to be sure tat we understand that the message that we are sending our children is clear: what happens to children is not important. Abuse of teenagers is something that just happens. It doesn’t matter.
But Jesus said it does matter, very much. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble cut it out. That is, those who hurt children need to be held accountable and removed from their positions of power.
As Christians, we can use this cultural moment to address abuse--in our families, in our churches, in our communities, in our culture. It begins by listening to our children. And it includes telling our stories, and encouraging others to tell their stories. Because stories have power: power to unveil, power to unite, power to correct, power to change, power to heal, power to hope, power to break silence and speak truth.
One night this week, in the midst of all of the news, I told my children a different kind of story….
Once upon a time, there was a little 12-year old girl who was abused by a man, a friend of the family called Uncle. After 2 years, she realized that this didn’t seem right and that she didn’t want to keep her uncle’s little secret any more, so she got up the courage to tell her parents. They believed her and protected her and cut off relationships with the man. But still she felt confused and angry and guilty and ashamed and diminished and hurt. And so she buried it away, as far into her consciousness as she could. But she could not get rid of the memory, she could not forget, and it would come back and haunt her, cause her to fear and not trust. Over time, by telling her story to a few people she could trust, she has found deep healing and is OK. Now, she is able to help other victims of abuse by listening to their stories and believing them and doing everything in her power to protect children from being sexually abused. This is a true story. This is my story. #MeToo.
My story, and many of your stories cannot be tied up neatly, ended with “and they lived happily ever after.”
But even stories of brokenness can be redeemed.
As my children grew up, they did not appreciate my bedtime stories as much. They read their own stories. One day years ago, I was tucking Rebecca into bed. She was about 11 years old, as I recall, and she had just finished reading a book. I asked her how she liked it? She said, she did not like the ending, so, she said, “I wrote a different ending.” I asked, “You did?” She said, “Yes, I can do that. Anyone can do that. We have the power to write a different story.”
She’s absolutely right!
We do have the power to write a different story, a story that does not end in fear, but in faith.
A story that does not end in despair, but in hope.
A story that does not end in evil and darkness, but in goodness and light.
A story that does not end in powerlessness, but in power.
A story that is transformed by the power of a God who created us and called us all good.
The power of a God who redeemed us and claimed us all as beloved children.
The power of a God who sustains us with strength for today and hope for tomorrow.
This is God’s story. This is our story.
This is the only story that has power enough to heal the wounds of the world, one precious child at a time.
Friends, let us for forth to tell this story, to live this story, and let its truth set us free.