First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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The Power of Storytelling

July 5, 2015
Rev. Sandra Fees

I’ve been a writer most of my life. I’ve written prose, poetry, now sermons, and marketing communications materials. I’ve even taught English composition, yet there are times when the writing gremlin descends. She sits on my shoulder and tells me that whatever I’ve written is irrelevant at best, or that there are lots of good writers out there who can do it better. That gremlin – that critic – is not my friend. She tells me a story that holds me hostage, inhibiting my creativity and silencing me.

Most of us have at least one story or several stories like that. These stories control us. They keep us from doing the very things we love most or most want to do. They keep us from being the people we really are and hope to be.

Let me share with you what some of these stories sound like. Maybe you tell one of these stories to yourself or you hear others who do:

I don’t have enough time.
I don’t have enough money.
Nothing ever works out for me.
No one will help me.
I’m always disappointing people.
People are always disappointing me.
I’m too loud, too quiet, too short, too tall, too old, too young.
I’m unlovable.
I’m not a leader.
No one wants to hear what I have to say.
I’m not ready.
I’m not good enough.
I don’t have anything to offer.

The Beautiful Tiger, which we heard in our Time for All Ages, is a cautionary and hopeful tale of what happens when we surrender our power to stories like these. The strong and beautiful tiger is captured by a mean man and placed in a cage. Over and over, the tiger hears that she is weak and ugly. Even though the tiger spies her own reflection in the water and recognizes her beauty, and even though she moves around the cage and feels the power of her own body, the tiger allows herself to believe the man.

That mean man is like my gremlin that sits on my shoulder, the gremlin that speaks to me and to you of our insecurities and limitations and fears. It isn’t until a lion, perhaps the tiger’s original self, the tiger’s authentic presence, arrives to befriend and challenge the tiger’s narrative that the tiger can unlock a self-limiting story. As it turns out the cage isn’t even locked. The cage is of the tiger’s own making, the bars of a story that’s been repeated so often that it became her truth.

Take Up Your Mat and Walk (John 5: 1-18) is also a cautionary and hopeful tale, one that illustrates what happens when a story of powerlessness defines us. The ailing man lingers at a distance from a lovely pool in Bethesda.

People gather by the sought-after beautiful water – people with all sorts of maladies who are just waiting for a chance to enter the water at just the right time and be made whole. This particular man has been waiting for 38 years. He’s been sick that long. He’s tried to enter the pool, but others always get there ahead of him. He’s been living this story for 38 years. Are any of you 38 or younger? That’s your whole life so far.

A curious thing happens. When Jesus sees the man, Jesus asks him: “Do you want to be made well?” Now if you were ill and someone asked you that question, what would you say? I would probably say, well of course I want to be made well. I might even add a bit sarcasm or frustration. As Unitarian Universalists, we might also opt to say something highly skeptical like I don’t believe in miracles or supernaturalism or faith healing.

But think of Jesus as a different kind of healer, a healer whose medicine is story. Story medicine. Imagine Jesus being a shaman or a master storyteller or the rabbi he was who could help to reshape the man’s understanding of himself and his situation.

What does the man say? He says: “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up... when I try to get there myself, someone else gets there first.”

Jesus says, Do you want to be made well. And the man offers excuses. He says: I can’t get to the water. For 38 years, this has been his story. You all know that expression, “that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.” He’s sticking with his story because changing the story means changing who he is. And while that may be liberating, it can also be terrifying. It requires something of us – courage, self-awareness, self-compassion, empowerment. Like the tiger, the man who is sick is confined in the prison of his own story. (special thanks to Unitarian Universalist minister Larry Peers who offered this insightful perspective on the Take Up Your Mat story)

In The Beautiful Tiger, the lion says: what are you doing lying about in that cage? … I am … surprised to see you lying here when you are clearly strong enough to break out of that cage.” Jesus is like that lion. He says it a little differently. He says: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 

The tiger and the man both need a new story. They both need to take up their mats and begin to walk. And so do we. So do we. We all have times when we get stuck in our stories.

This happens to religious communities too. Ours is no exception. Sometimes I hear stories about how this church is small and poor. There’s only so much so few of us can do. I know those stories are rooted in some of the church’s history and also in some of our personal histories.

Those stories are rooted in times when the church had only a few members, had no money for a minister or staff, and the building was in serious disrepair. These were times historically when this church’s future felt frighteningly uncertain.

That isn’t who we are today. Frankly, other congregations would be thrilled to be so small, so poor. We recently received a large bequest, the largest in the church’s history, which has more than doubled our existing endowment. Eugene Hussey who made that gift was a man of vision - and financial resources. Many of our UU congregations don’t even have endowments to sustain them into the future. Our endowment gives us assurance of $8,000 or so dollars a year toward special projects like anti-racism efforts, special building needs, and other projects and stories we have yet to imagine for ourselves.

Our community needs a new story for our time, a story of who we are now and who we are striving to be. I believe we are writing that story but that we have not yet explored it adequately or intentionally. We need to pick up our mat, metaphorically speaking, and begin to walk.

I see us doing that more and more. I see us looking into the water and seeing our reflection as a beautiful powerful tiger, as people who are generous, loving, grateful, and joyful. I see us striving to be a prophetic church, a church that speaks and seeks justice, kindness, and compassion. A church that will not be controlled by self-limiting stories of powerlessness. A church that will not be silenced. A church that grapples with the issues of our time and builds the beloved community.

A church that ventures boldly into the public square to demand justice and fairness – and to challenge the stories that are imprisoning and limiting all of us.

You know the stories I mean. Stories like these: People who get arrested or spend time in prison must have done something wrong. Everyone has an equal opportunity in this country and if you work hard you’ll get ahead. Marriage is between a man and a woman. My religion makes it acceptable for me to deny your rights in the public square. Some people’s lives matter more than others.

Last week, on June 26, we witnessed the way cultural narratives can evolve and can become more inclusive. The Supreme Court established federal recognition of same-sex marriage. I’m so glad that Keith Orts lived long enough to see that decision become a reality in our country.

Yes, there are already challenges being made to that decision. Nevertheless, the story that marriage is between a man and a woman is no longer viable as a grand narrative in this country. The tide has shifted thanks to the persistence of the prophetic voices of faith, science and secular society that would not be hushed in the face of longstanding discrimination and exclusion. Our voices.

Our religion has been part of writing this new narrative. The ruling is a victory that needs to be celebrated and named – it’s a story worth repeating and it’s a story we helped to shape. It is a story to pass down from one generation to the next. When future generations speak of marriage, the phrase same-sex marriage will have no import. That’s a story worth telling. We’ll be joining with the interfaith community for a Pride service Saturday night to share stories and celebrate.

There are other stories that sorely need to be changed. The ongoing and pernicious racism that has been coming into greater and greater visibility in the past year or so is a story that must change. Unitarian Universalists are sincerely endeavoring to get their story straight.

We are trying to change our narrative around race and our understanding of racial justice and our understanding of our role in perpetuating, however unintentionally, racist structures and systems. Our congregational work on anti-racism is one of our collective efforts as a religious community to pick up our mats and walk. To walk in solidarity with people of color. We have a long way to go.

And - at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in Portland, OR, last week delegates (including Adele Wallace and Donald Davis who were there and Carol Orts and me who were offsite delegates) overwhelmingly passed an Action of Immediate Witness to “Support the Black Lives Matter Movement.” It calls on our spiritual communities to “take initiative in collaboration with local and national organizations fighting for racial justice against the harsh racist practices many black people are exposed to.”

The Action of Immediate Witness goes on to declare that:  “We must not just proclaim black lives matter. We must also engage and act with love and compassion. It is the only way to stop the hatred from spreading. We can make a difference, and we must. It is a matter of life and death. Black lives matter.”

Our UU religion offers us many stories of love and justice to choose from as we strive to frame our personal, congregational, and cultural stories. Our principles and our sources provide us with a wide range of narratives that support the inherent worth and dignity of every person and celebrate the connection among all living beings.

Our principles and sources root us in stories of kindness, fairness, peace, justice, and compassion. We can look to the lion and to the prophet Jesus alike for stories that challenge the structures that keep people confined.

What stories might we tell that would offer transformation and healing in our personal lives – for ourselves and each other? What might free us from the prisons of our minds and spirits? How might we change our story and take up our mats and begin to walk?

How are we doing that for others?  What stories are we crafting to help heal our world and make us whole?

Amen. Blessed be.