Wineskins Archive

November 26, 2013

Living the Story (Sept-Dec 2003)

Filed under: — @ 1:25 am and

By Jerry Taylor

We come to worship God with our own stories. We come with stories of triumph and tragedy, victory and defeat, joy and sorrow, faith and doubt. We come to the worship looking for the assurance that our story makes sense. In our hearing of the Bible story, we should conclude that our story is not radically different from what has been happening to people throughout the course of biblical history. Our story, therefore, finds correction and clarification when it inhabits the biblical narrative itself.

In my experience with preaching the Bible story, I view this telling as an invitation to the listener to enter into the life of the biblical narrative. For example, when I served as minister of a congregation in the Southeast there was a labor/management dispute brewing at a distribution center for a major retail store. Some of these workers were members of our congregation. Many of the workers believed they were the victims of unjust labor practices. They had to choose between raising a voice of protest, risking their jobs and remaining silent, accepting the indignities they were experiencing. I saw it as my responsibility as a minister of the Word to tell the Bible story to bring clarity and understanding to congregants’ story as it unfolded within this situation.

I sought to present the biblical narrative in such a way that members of our congregation who were not directly affected by the dispute would be challenged to get involved. I wanted them to realize that we as a church body should be concerned about our brothers and sisters who were being directly affected. Preaching through the Sermon on the Mount and using passages from the book of James and the Old Testament prophets motivated many of the members to stand with the workers. Many participated in a citywide process that held the corporation to be accountable citizens to our community.

We learned that the biblical narrative must not only be told but also lived. The story had to journey from the pulpit to the pew to the streets and marketplace. Simply hearing the Bible story without a movement to concrete action would indicate a disconnection between the story and the listener.

Our involvement in this labor/management dispute brought sharp criticism from the business community and from some religious leaders in the city. We were advised to stay in the pulpit and keep our members contained within our churches away from the thick of this conflict. The local newspaper and television stations seemed to slant the coverage of the dispute in favor of the management side of the conflict.

Some of our critics came from within our own religious fellowship. They accused us of preaching a ‘social gospel’ and misleading church members into involvement with social justice issues. Such critics felt that social justice issues were outside the scope of the mission of Christ and his church. They believed that Jesus only cared for the spiritual welfare of people and that the church should only be concerned with saving souls.

In response to these views I preached sermons from the book of Esther. I highlighted the crisis that Esther faced and how she and her cousin Mordecai refused to remain passive in the face of Haman’s plot to systemically destroy all the Jews. This story helped the congregation to see that there are times when God’s people must confront evil directly by exposing it to the light of justice.

I also appealed to Isaiah 58 to show that God rejected the solemn worship of Israel when she failed to stand in defense and protection of the most vulnerable in her midst. This helped members see that the authenticity of their worship to God depended upon their commitment to compassion, justice, and mercy—the weightier matters of the law.

Once more we were confronted with taking the story to the streets. The Greensboro Pulpit Forum was an alliance of ministers who provided leadership for our members and laborers during this crisis. As in the ministry of Jesus we also encountered opposition, betrayal, denial, death threats, and eventual arrest. As religious leaders within our community we refused to withdraw ourselves from this dispute and continued to lead non-violent demonstrations. This resulted in seven ministers of the Greensboro Pulpit Forum being arrested. Released on our own cognizance, congregants and the entire community were re-energized and remained with the struggle with greater determination. As a result of the constant telling of the Bible story coupled with prophetic leadership beyond the confinement of the pulpit, and through much prayerful discussions, community meetings, and conversations with all parties involved in the dispute, a resolution to the conflict was eventually achieved.

Too often people come to the assembly to hear a word from the Lord, but they leave disappointed because the only thing they heard was a cold sterile presentation of religious facts that have no relevance to their personal human condition. The biblical narrative must be told in such a way that we are convinced we are hearing our own story as well. The constant challenge is discovering the accuracy of wording to articulate the divine/human intersection in the place of holy worship.

Some believe that the human story is worthless and should be given no serious attention. For instance, while working in the inner city of Atlanta, Georgia I became more convinced of how important it is to listen with understanding to the stories of those outside the walls of the church. Many of the poor people living in the unmercifully tight grips of poverty made me aware that they felt unwanted and unwelcome in some middle and upper income churches.

I knew that if I wanted them to give attention to what we offered them in Christ, I would have to first pay genuine attention to their stories of powerlessness, unemployment, rejection, and exclusion from the economic system of our nation. Without first listening to their stories and seeking to understand them, I had no reason to expect them to seriously listen to the preaching and teaching of the biblical narrative.

After we had shown interest in their story, they wanted to know more about the Bible story that shaped our attitude of acceptance towards them. As a consequence they were willing to attend worship with us and expressed a desire to listen to the proclaimed Word.

Christians who were a part of this outreach ministry were challenged to see the poor through the eyes of Jesus Christ. Participants were challenged with passages from the Old and New Testaments that demonstrated God’s concern for the oppressed, the orphans, the widows, the exploited laborers, and the aliens. I appealed to Jesus’ own mission statement in Luke 4:18 to remind Christian workers that Jesus’ mission targeted the poor and powerless. We visited many of the stories in the gospels, such as the woman caught in adultery, the rich man and Lazarus, and the rich young ruler. All these Bible stories depicted Jesus as being touched by hurting and powerless people.

We stressed that whatever we did for the least in our midst to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners, and provide shelter for the homeless, we were doing it unto Jesus.

Yet in challenging the Christian workers who were a part of our ministry I felt the need to be totally honest with them. I informed them that we were going to be going into a very dangerous context to do the ministry of Jesus. We would be entering into a social environment where people were being constantly robbed and murdered. On one occasion our ministry team went into a major public housing area. Once we went inside a particular unit to visit a family we were informed that we were being watched by some of the other residents and that we faced the possibility of being robbed.

Nevertheless, since our ministry team had heard and embraced the story of the cross, we were not intimidated by this and other dangerous and threatening situations within our ministry context. Having grounded our ministry in the gospel narratives, we were empowered to courageously enter some of the most poverty-stricken places within inner city Atlanta. These Christian workers, though small in number, were actually risking the safety of their own lives in order to give themselves through relationships to poor families trapped in the cycle of poverty.

As this small band of Christian workers went to the poor, they were taught to respect the poor by listening to their stories. We attempted to overcome the attitude that caused some Christians to say that “if the poor want the good news they need to come to us and we will tell them what they need to know.” Our ministry team concluded based upon the gospel narratives that we could not expect the poor to hear the Bible story if we refused to hear stories that were significant and meaningful to them.

The telling of the Bible story, therefore, demands a living of the story in the historical settings and concrete situations of life. As we walk in the midst of greed, political and corporate scandals, religious corruption, poor communities, and the breakdown of civility, we must model the Bible story with our lives by demonstrating the indestructible life quality inherent in people informed and inspired by the Holy Spirit. We are compelled by a fascinating story that infuses us with the ability to stare death in the eye, face rejection, receive criticism, and not be afraid.  When carrying out the ministry of Jesus we are not afraid of dying, because as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, dying is exactly what Jesus calls us to do.

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