The Story Was Saving His Life – The Great Vigil of Easter: April 15, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Great Vigil of Easter
April 15, 2017

Let us pray.

Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

A character in Salman Rushdie’s novel The Enchantress of Florence laid chained up in a deep dungeon, where he was crawled over by roaches, snakes, rats, scorpions, and lice. But the character, as he buckled under his restraints and was trampled on by creeping creatures, was concerned foremost not with the filth that surrounded him or his inability to escape his conditions; he was distraught primarily because he could not tell his story. “All men needed to hear their stories told,” the man thought to himself. “He was a man, but” he believed that “if he died without telling the story he would be something less than that, a…cockroach, a louse.” In the dungeon, all the man could feel was “his story slipping away from him, becoming inconsequential, ceasing to be.”

Eventually, the man was taken out of the dungeon, and as he slowly adjusted to his new surroundings the story came back to him. “There was once,” he heard within himself, “there was once a prince.” He could feel life stirring within him as more and more phrases appeared in his mind: a reference to “enchanted weapons,” something about “four terrifying giants,” and a mention of “the most beautiful woman.” The story kept taking shape and the man’s strength kept increasing until finally the man was able to see a candle in front of him. “The story,” the man came to realize, “was saving his life.”

Tonight we huddled together in the deep dungeon of a pitch black church and, like the man from Rushdie’s novel, found our way out of darkness by the glow of a candle and by the telling of a story. We began with the darkness of nothing, when all was a formless void and God created everything and called it all very good. We shifted to the times of Noah, and heard how a flood came to destroy much of what had already been created and also how a small band of humans and animals withstood that purge by following God’s instructions and planning ahead. We then traveled to Egypt, where the Israelites escaped the terrifying army of the Egyptians as they marched from slavery to freedom. And we ended just a few moments ago with the triumphant story of an empty tomb and a Savior, risen from the dead.

What is it about stories in general and these stories in particular that we keep telling them year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia? What benefit do we receive from repeating ad nauseum, time and time again, the same characters and plot lines and morals? Perhaps we need the reminder of who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be. Perhaps we need to remember that God created us in the image of God as a precise reflection of God’s absolute beauty and holiness; perhaps we need to recall that we are strong enough to withstand any disaster, even an epic flood; perhaps we need to affirm our capacity to defeat all that threatens to enslave us; perhaps we need to realize that not even death can bring us down. Stories, even Biblical ones, may not always hold scrutiny under the most stringent scientific standards, but they often serve valuable functions by shedding deep insight into our identities and our values and by giving vigorous voice to our hopes and our dreams. In telling stories, we keep touch with the past, escape the dreariness of the present, and envision the future with boldness. In telling stories, we embrace mystery, engage our imaginations, and transcend our limitations. In telling stories, we fall in love, conquer enemies, and save lives.

The fabulous thing about the story we tell tonight is that it is not a static one, fixed firmly in the past. The story we tell tonight is a continually developing story in which we are all invited to participate. That’s why Baptism is always included in some form in this service. As Paul teaches us in the letter to the Romans, in Baptism we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, in Baptism the distance between Jesus and us breaks down as the story of Jesus becomes our own. In being baptized, Eden, Gavin, Lucas and Graceyn have taken on Jesus’ story for themselves, and we who have witnessed their baptisms have committed ourselves to walking with them as they live that story out in this moment and far into the future.

But the story of Jesus can make a difference tonight for everyone, not just the newly baptized. I wonder in what way the story of Jesus can save your life tonight. I wonder what deep dungeon you’ve fallen into that the story of Jesus can help you find your bearings in and escape. I wonder what flood you’ve found yourself flailing in that the story of Jesus can help you navigate safe passage out of. I wonder what enemy is chasing at your feet that the story of Jesus can help you outrun and vanquish. I wonder what grief you feel that the story of Jesus can help you gladden by rolling away the stone.

The next time you feel sunken in despair, the next time you’re struggling to survive, the next time it seems like no future is left, consider telling yourself a story: Once upon a time. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. The story won’t change everything, at least right away, so you’ll have to keep at it. But try it. It just might work.

Categories: Holy Week, Sermons