I was reading a blog this week, in which the writer was writing about ‘stories,’ describing them as something “the author has constructed to exist on its own out there, with the possibility of it being taken up, and taken in, to become a reader’s own.”
Whilst that’s written of contemporary fiction, I think it can be illustrative for an approach to biblical stories. How do we make stories our own? The three passages we’ve had read today, all tell of dramatic changes in people’s lives. Isaiah, Paul and Simon Peter. How do they become ours?
Isaiah appears to have been a prophet who had official status in the Jerusalem temple and court. He was married, and his wife is called a ‘prophetess’, his father was Amoz, also a prophet, Isaiah is from a family of prophets. If we go by the narrative of the book of Isaiah, he’s already been prophesying for a while, there’s five chapters of prophecies.
Chapter six is set in the year King Uzziah died. Now in 2 Chronicles 26:16-22, King Uzziah is said to ‘trespass’ against the LORD. He went into the Temple to offer incense on the incense altar, which he shouldn’t have done, and he is challenged by a group, led by the priest Azariah, but not by Isaiah. There’s a suggestion that Isaiah was very close to Uzziah, because the only reference to Isaiah is in 2 Chron. 26:22, where it says that Isaiah recorded the other events of the King’s life. So, it looks like Isaiah was close to King Uzziah.
I imagine Isaiah walking towards the temple in the cool of the morning in Jerusalem. There he is this well-connected prophet, maybe a royal advisor, who’s King, and perhaps friend, has died. That morning walking to the Temple, is he affected by grief? Probably. However, there are also there suggestions he seems to have kept quiet about the King’s behaviour. The earlier chapters of the book the prophecies are more about the northern kingdom, less the southern kingdom of Judah where he lives. Is he aware of this inconsistency?
The vision speaks of the holiness of God, and seems to challenge Isaiah, to make him uncomfortable about who he is. When the divine question comes, whom shall I send, Isaiah responds ‘behold me’. As a result, he seems to have a new message, to speak against his beloved city, region and king.
So, this story, set where it is in the book of Isaiah, might be a ‘re-call’ for the prophet. He believed in God, was a prophet, and yet, something changes. He now has a new, challenging message to proclaim.
And Paul? He’s talking of the many who believed, but when he describes himself, he says: “Last of all, as one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church.” He’s recalling the time when he believed his calling as a good follower of God was to persecute followers of The Way, the early Christians. And rather like Isaiah, he has a mystical, visionary experience which sets him on a different path. Instead of persecuting he proclaims Jesus.
Two stories of change. People who genuinely believed they were on the right path, doing the right thing. I don’t believe that either Isaiah or Paul, before these visions, thought they were in the wrong, or that they were doing the wrong thing.
And then Simon Peter? In terms of the narrative of Luke’s gospel it suggests he may have already had contact with Jesus, who’s been around Capernaum for a while, and there’s a healing which has taken place in Simon’s mother’s house in the previous chapter.
Simon’s had a hard night at work, he’s a professional fisherman, has his own boat with his partners, and probably is competent at his job. He’s not doing anything wrong.
But then he is asked by Jesus to take him a short way out on the lake, and Jesus probably sits in the boat, sitting is what a Rabbi would be expected to do when he delivered his message, and Simon is sitting there, listening.
And there’s this astonishing story about the miraculous catch of fish. As a result, he like Isaiah feels himself to be unworthy, to not be up to the standard. And certainly, in the eyes of the religious elite who would probably have been looked down on, as he probably wasn’t able to get regularly to synagogue worship, and especially not to the temple in far away Jerusalem.
And yet he is called to follow Jesus, along with his two business partners, James and John. And they’re called at a moment where they have great success as fishermen. They have landed the catch of their lives, and this would mean good money for their business.
Three stories of change. Unexpected changes of direction. Three people whose lives get transformed, and of course there are extraordinary elements to these stories, visions and miracles, but in each case they listen to what is being said to them, and their lives turn around in dramatic fashions.
Last weekend I was in Liverpool at a conference about Liberal evangelism and liberal mission. It was a good day with a hundred plus people present from all around the British Isles. One of the emphases was how to live out the idea of mission as a liberal church in a postmodern society.
There were a few stories shared during the day which I’d like to mention.
The first story was about a street in a city in the north east. A group of Christians move into the street with the intention of evangelising the neighbourhood. However, they have little impact, and five years later move out. By contrast at about the same time two Franciscans move into the same street, and move into an empty flat. Within a few hours there’s a knock at the door, and a young boy comes to say hello. He’s invited in, and notices the flat is empty. He asks where there furniture is. They say they don’t have any. Over the next few days people from the street turn up to bring them odd pieces of furniture, and things which can be adapted to be tables and chairs. Over time they become the ‘go to’ people to discuss letters from the benefit office, or the local authorities, they help write replies. They are asked to officiate at ceremonies which bridge the different religions. They tap into the community. They don’t try to proclaim and put something onto the community, but they become part of the community.
There was a story about a toddler group, which reminded me of the toddler group which members of Cotham run. It was a story of being there, of offering a welcome to their neighbours without demands. And to then be able to offer a compassionate response when needed.
There was a story about the church that began to invite people from the community to do the preaching. The car salespeople, local activists. And who used to offer those coming for baptism with their children the chance to do the prayers, choose a passage to read, and preach the sermon.
The final stories were from a woman who works with an informal coalition of religious leaders across faiths, working with the United Nations Office for Genocide Prevention. She was speaking about searching for God in the other, and showed us some photographs. The first set were taken in a Hindu temple, and had scrawled on the walls and doors graffiti left by, presumably, some Christians. It said: ‘Jesus is Lord’, ‘Fucking bitches’, and ‘Go home’.
On the other hand there were pictures of Christians going into demonstrations against the English Defence League, and Britain First, of Christians reflecting with Muslims in dialogue and conversation. A group who were ‘walking for peace’. Who were meeting with the Dalai Lama, Kofi Annan, and other leaders to talk about peace issues. Interestingly, in that group it was all young people, there were no faith leaders.
And of a visit to her vicarage by a leading member of the Bahai faith. He asked her a question: “Where is the soul of your village? Are they welcome?”
She reflected on her village, and the artists who lived there, the workers on the land, those who made things like the baker. She wondered about what welcome they offered?
We were asked a series of questions during the day to reflect on. One of the questions was “Who’s voices do I need to listen to in my community?” In another talk we were invited to ‘listen and learn’ before we acted.
Our actions flow from who we are, so change when it happens has to be about a change of being, and why change is so difficult, because our habits are deeply rooted.
Isaiah, Paul, Simon Peter all in their way listened to a call. Theirs were quite dramatic in their stories. Change can be dramatic.
But, if their stories and the ones I heard last week in Liverpool reflect change then it’s often about small changes, listening to our values and desires. Who do I want to be? It is also listening to others, listening to our community, listening to what God is doing in our society already.
To go back to that reflection I started with, that stories are something “the author has constructed to exist on its own out there, with the possibility of it being taken up, and taken in, to become a reader’s own.”
How might we take in these stories and make them our own, communally as well as individually?
I’d like to finish with a poem by a poet and songwriter, Carrie Newcomer, it’s called A Permeable Life.
I want to leave enough room in my heart
For the unexpected,
For the mistake that becomes knowing,
For knowing that becomes wonder,
For wonder that makes everything porous,
Allowing in and out
All available light.
An impermeable life is full to the edges,
But only to the edges.
It is a limited thing.
Like the pause at the centre of the breath,
Neither releasing or inviting,
With no hollow spaces
For longing and possibility.
I would rather live unlocked,
And more often than not, astonished,
Which is possible
If I am willing to surrender
What I already think I know.
So I will stay open
And companionably friendly,
With all that presses out from the heart
And comes in at a slant
And shimmers just below
The surface of things.