Reimagining the story

This is my sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21 Year B. The lectionary is found here. I preached this at Christ Church in Short Hills, where the reading from Numbers, Psalm 19, and the Gospel were read.

Many years ago, when I was working on my first Master’s, we did an exercise in class that I think I will remember always.  It was called “Cinderella Revisited.”  In case you are not familiar with the Cinderella story here’s a quick recap:

A young girl is left in the care of her stepmother after her father’s death and her circumstances change significantly.  Previously loved and well cared for, she is relegated to the role of servant, forced to cook and clean for her stepmother and stepsisters, who seem to relish treating her harshly, all the while they enjoy the benefits of her father’s social standing.  This includes accepting an invitation to the king’s ball where the prince is to choose his bride.  With the help of her fairy godmother, Cinderella attends the ball and, this being a fairy tale, she is the one the prince falls in love with at first sight.  Of course, there are some twists and turns in which a glass slipper plays a prominent role, but ultimately Cinderella and the prince marry and live happily ever after.

In the exercise we did in class, we were asked to tell the story in our own words from the perspective of one of the characters.   It was a challenging assignment because all of us knew the story as it had been written in children’s books and portrayed in movies.  Each of us entered into the assignment believing we knew the story well.  All of us had accepted, to some extent or the other, the tropes about poor Cinderella, the wicked stepmother, and the mean stepsisters.  It was surprisingly difficult to put aside the conclusions we had drawn about what the story was and what it meant.

Cinderella Revisited contained many lessons relevant to the courses of study of the students in that class and I have found myself thinking of it at different times and in different contexts in the years since.  If I were asked to summarize the most important lesson from the exercise in ten words or fewer, it would be:  The stories we tell are not THE story.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching the disciples a lesson that is similar to the lessons of Cinderella Revisited.  The disciples have been traveling with him, witnessing his ministry, listening to his stories.  Jesus has been teaching them about discipleship, which in Mark’s Gospel can seem a particularly hard road.  He has been trying to prepare them for what is to come.  He has been presenting to them a different narrative of his life, of their lives, and of what it means to be his followers. He’s been talking to them about his death and what it will mean for the world.  He’s been helping them to connect the dots between the choices they must make if they want to be faithful to his teaching, and the costs of such choices.  He’s been challenging their assumptions and understandings about what it means to be faithful and righteous people.   

In today’s Gospel, using language and imagery that is shockingly harsh, Jesus is saying that the disciples must be willing to give up some of what they “know” to be true, what they consider consider valuable, and that they think is necessary in order to experience more deeply what it means to live more fully into his mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope. In other words, they must make significant changes in order to move more deeply into the heart of God. 

Jesus is telling them they must re-imagine the narrative of what it means to live life grounded in his love and his truth. And they must be willing to do this sacrificially and with a longer, wider view than just their own. 

Jesus’ message to his first followers is entirely relevant to us and the Church today.  Going back to that graduate school exercise, all of us somehow connected our character’s story to that character’s relationship with Cinderella’s father, who though no longer with them, remained the central figure in all of their lives.  The last instruction we were given, which was by far the hardest to follow, was that we had to rewrite the narrative together, finding a way to tell the story so that this central relationship motivated and supported us to be his family in ways that would benefit each of us, all of us, and those around us.

Imagine the Church and the world today if we truly understood how to embody and incarnate Jesus’ love to the world.  What would the Church and the world look like if we did the hard work of challenging our assumptions? Of letting go of comfortable or familiar ideas? Of revisiting the ways we do things, not from the perspective of how valuable they are to us and our identity as Episcopalians, but as the ways and means by which Jesus’ love is shared with others?  What would it look like, who would be here, if we let go of even a little bit of our quintessentially Episcopalian “but we’ve always done it that way” habits?  How much are we willing to do, how far are we willing to go, to ensure that what we do and how we do it is more about God and God’s dream than our own understanding of how the story plays out?

I am not saying that we should eradicate all that helps us to know who we are as people or as The Episcopal Church.  I know, in that way that is difficult to articulate but seems to permeate one’s very being, that we have so very much to offer the world in our prayer and liturgy, in our music and our fellowship, in our expansive understanding of what it means to be beloved of God and how that is not limited just to people who look like us and love like us, who live like us and pray like us.  To paraphrase Madeline L’Engle, I may have been born into the Episcopal Church but that’s not why I stayed.  I choose to be an Episcopalian every single day. 

And yet I worry sometimes that we can get so caught up in the beauty and the tradition, in our comfort and our customs, that we fail to actively remember that belovedness is both a state of being and becoming (to draw on the wisdom of Henri Nouwen).  As hard as it is to hear, not to mention how challenging it is to preach, Jesus’ starkly forthright message in today’s Gospel is one I know we need to take to heart.  

As a people and a Church, faithfully following Jesus means always being open to letting go of ideas and assumptions, of ways of being.  It’s about visiting and revisiting the questions and the answers that shape our story, and looking at them from new, different, and differing perspectives.  It means actively exploring new ways of being and doing, of inhabiting or embodying our discipleship in ways that transform, that heal our brokenness and bring peace to the world.  It means trusting the promise that if we center ourselves in Jesus and his mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope, we will move deeper into the heart of God. 

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland