In the early years of his retirement my father organized decades of family photos into a dozen loose leaf binders. After he and my mother died, I loaded those binders into my car and brought them back to Pennsylvania. For six months, I used my spare time to digitize them so they would be accessible to all the members of the family. The binders were piled up in a corner of my study. After I finished with one binder, I’d move it from the “to do” stack to the “finished” stack. About six weeks into the project I had a surprise as I opened the next binder in line to be digitized. Instead of a collection of photographs, when I opened this one I saw a page in bold print that said, “A Memoir for My Heirs by Rufus Gilbert Lytch.” I turned the page and discovered that instead of pictures, it was a collection of type written pages, arranged under headings like “Childhood,” “War Years,” “Marriage and Family,” and “My Career.” There are over 260 pages of memories and stories and reflections. Some of them I’d heard many times around the dinner table. Some answered lingering questions like, “Why did we make that move when I was six years old?” Some filled in things that couldn’t be spoken. I had heard his war stories, but these memoirs filled in some of the parts he had left out, some of the horrors that led, in Dad’s last years, to his diagnosis of PTSD. Some stories were completely new to me, like the one about his first girlfriend. He wrote a preface saying that he recorded all those stories because he wanted his great grandchildren, who would not be born for another 20 years, to know who he was. He admitted that he left some things out. There were some episodes in his life that didn’t fit in with the story. When I finished reading his memoirs, I knew even better the man I’d known my whole life. Here was his story as he knew it, the narrative that shaped his life, that guided the way he reared my brother and me, how he cared for my mother, how he claimed his place in the world.
Every life is shaped by a story. We don’t all take the time or the energy to write it down like my father did, but we human beings make sense out of our lives by fitting them into an ongoing narrative – not just the narrative of our individual lives, but the ongoing story of the whole world. The prophet Habakkuk was struggling with what to do when the story that he had built his life on didn’t seem to make sense any more. He cries out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!” and you will not save?” He had lived his life trusting that God was good and just and caring, yet this is what he saw: “The law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” What do you make of your life if you’ve based in on the story of a God who can be counted on to uphold what is good but all around you the bad seems to have the upper hand?
God answers that question in chapter 2. “Write the vision,” God says. “Make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and it does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” That vision is the continuation of the story of God’s dealings with God’s people. The story starts when God created human beings out of dust and entrusted us with the care of creation. The story continues when God chooses Abraham and the people of Israel to be the ones through whom God made himself know to the world. The story tells about exodus and how God delivered God’s people from slavery and defeated their oppressors. It is the story of David’s glory and the wisdom of Solomon. It is the story of God’s promise of a Messiah who would establish goodness and right and peace forever. God tells Habakkuk not to abandon that narrative. That is the story that shapes his life, a story of love and hope and peace. The competing story is a small one. That small story is what he sees all around him. It looks like wickedness and perversion and violence are the real story. If that’s the story that shapes his life, then he will live by cynicism, a “Who cares?” attitude, a goal of getting whatever he can however he can get it. That’s not God’s story. That’s not the story of the One who scattered the stars, sparks love in the human heart, and shows his power by standing for the poor and the oppressed the downtrodden. God’s story is the one that lasts. That’s the one that shapes us into the people God made us to be.
Within the larger narrative that shapes our lives, we follow lots of smaller ones. When we go to the polls to vote, we choose our leaders based in part on whether or not their opinions are shaped by the same narratives we use to shape ours. For instance, if you understand the story of illegal immigrants to be one of bad hombres who are flooding into our country to destroy our civilization, you’ll be inclined to vote one way. If you understand the story of illegal immigrants as one of hard working, enterprising people who contribute to America’s labor force, you’ll be inclined to vote another way. If you see gun control as part of the story of government trying to strip us of our rights to protect ourselves, you’ll be inclined one way. If you see gun control primarily as part of the story of trying to make America safe again, you’ll be inclined another way. If you see same sex marriage as an illustration in the story of America’s moral decline, you’ll be inclined to support certain candidates. If you see it as an example of America’s ongoing commitment to equality for all, you’ll be inclined another way.
Or think how we are shaped by our understanding of the story of our family. When a husband and a wife understand their marriage as the story of two people who share experiences and values, and which will not end until death do they part, then a marriage can endure lots of challenges. Mistakes and disappointments and fights can be incorporated as incidents in a larger story of working through hard times and emerging stronger on the other side. Marriages fall apart when spouses begin to realize that the story isn’t working, that the narrative is pointing in a different direction, that the one you loved can’t fit into the story of your life after all.
When Paul greeted the Christians in Thessalonica, he addressed them as the church “in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He said that he boasted about them to other churches for their steadfastness and faith during all their persecutions and afflictions. The church is those whose lives are guided first and foremost by the narrative of what God is doing in Jesus Christ. Our overarching story, the story into which we fit all of our other life stories, is the story of Jesus Christ. It is the story of the one God has sent to continue the story that sustained Habakkuk, the one who shows us how to live as participants in the story of what God is doing in the world. On the cross Jesus demonstrated what perfect love is. He draws us into that love and puts to death the evil, wicked part of us that is shaped by those small, false stories that beckon us and cause us to do things we are ashamed of. Those are probably the things my father chose not to record in his memoirs. Those are not the things that define us. Our mistakes and our failures happen, but they don’t define us. Our story is the story of the one who raises us with him into eternal life and makes us part of that grand story of transforming creation in love and justice and peace.
As he ascended into heaven, Jesus said, “I am with you always.” He is not an absentee landlord who watches passively over us. In the power of the Holy Spirit, he is with us, participating in our story, taking the incidents of our lives and weaving them into his grand narrative. Becoming part of his story means that we don’t just follow rules to make sure we qualify to be snatched out of this world and escape into heaven. We know that our lives matter because we matter to God. Knowing they are part of that story leads some people to do heroic deeds. Mother Teresa lived among the poor in Calcutta. Millard Fuller gave away his fortune and started Habitat for Humanity. We can think of people, right here at Eastminster church, whose lives we’d like to emulate because they make such an impact on this world God loves. But living into the story of God’s love for creation doesn’t have to involve heroic deeds. Receiving each day with a prayer of gratitude, looking for those places that you can reveal a glimpse of Christ’s love while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, living today as a prayer offered up to God, those are ways we can glorify God by letting our lives be shaped by God’s narrative of love and grace.
Knowing that we belong to that story allows us to complain to God, to shake our fist at God, to cry out to God like Habakkuk did, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?” The psalmist tells us that God gathers our tears in a bottle. God takes what happens and folds it into the ongoing story of life and hope. We never know the details of the story line that lie ahead, and we are continually reinterpreting the story that has already occurred. But we know where the big story is headed. That’s why Paul closes his greeting to the Thessalonians by saying, “To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
This morning we install and commission those whom we believe God has chosen, through the voice of this congregation, to lead Eastminster as we claim our part in the story of God’s work here in East York. Those elders, deacons and trustees have accepted the call to lead us as we pray, study scripture, listen to one another, and discern what is going on around us and tell the story of what God is doing here and now. We are going to make a promise to pray for them, encourage them, respect their decisions, and follow as they guide us. Like the Thessalonians, this is a church in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We are living out his story, the one that shapes our lives.