August 5, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Today we listen again to the story of Moses when God rained manna from heaven to feed the Israelites in response to their complaining and suffering. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he writes to remind them of their unity in Christ as a community. He uses that wonderful language of being One Body with many gifts, pleading with them “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Both readings speak of the challenges that communities have faced over time, both from the adversity they discover on the journey and the struggles that come from disagreements within. Let us pray, Loving God, be with us this day as we listen to your word and seek inspiration. May we open our minds and hearts to new ways of understanding your message through the stories of those who have been part of the communities of faith throughout history. Amen.
Many years ago, I attended a gathering on the Cape in Massachusetts. A friend invited me along, and I remember we were invited to take part in the following exercise. I’d invite you to imagine how you might respond to these same questions we were asked that day. The presenter invited us to imagine that we were writing a book, the story of our life and he said, first imagine your story as you are the hero in your story. What would the titles of each chapter be? What are the moments or experiences of your life that would help tell that story? And then after we had time to write some thoughts on that topic, he then said, now imagine the story of your life as the victim’s story. At what points, have you felt like a victim in your life? When have you felt victimized or powerless? What would those chapter titles be? And finally, he said to us, now I want you to imagine your life as a Learner’s Story. What are some of the most important things you have learned in your life? What are the questions you have asked? How have you sought out learning and a deeper understanding of things through the course of your life?
When we read stories from the Bible, we are invited to enter into some of the stories of the experiences that people faced at different points in history. Sometimes, it takes a form of narration where we hear a story told; for example, the famous story of Moses leading those who had been enslaved in Egypt to the Promised Land. We know it took them along time and that they suffered and they lost hope, feeling that God had somehow abandoned them. But Moses assures them that God has heard their cries and will respond to their physical and to their spiritual needs. In the act of providing the manna from heaven, they are both fed in body and spirit because the manna provides them with the actual sustenance they need to continue to journey forward; it also serves to remind them, as a people of faith, that God is with them and has not forgotten them. It’s like we get to listen in on their complaints and struggles, the hard questions that they raise to God through Moses. Certainly, the felt that they were victims in this story. Moses was the hero in the story, but eventually, it becomes a learner’s story, not just for that given community, but for people over time, who drew hope and encouragement from this very important story. We know that many who were brought to our country as slaves from Africa looked upon the Exodus story as one of the central stories of hope that they too would one day live in freedom and be led to the promised land.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we may infer that he is responding to difficulties in that community of Ephesus and offering them encouragement, guidance and hope. We don’t have all the particulars of what they were going through, but we can gather a lot from how he writes to them, asking them to be patient and loving with one another and reminding them…and of course, us, that they are One body and one Spirit. He speaks about the gifts that each of the members of the community has, but reminds them that together, they are one community in faith…and can’t behave like children, but ‘speaking the truth in love’ that they should live together united and not divided. I love the language that Paul uses where he actually says, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the life to which you have been called” and he asks them to act in “humility, gentleness, and patience…bearing with one another in love.” I can almost hear my own parents when we would start fighting as kids…my mom would say, “I’m begging you to stop fighting…we didn’t bring you into this world to hurt each other” or something like that. We can imagine how upset Paul must have felt to hear that these communities were struggling and being torn apart by internal challenges and struggles. He has a higher vision of who they are and who they might be.
It’s not easy to live together in community. None of us is perfect, whether in families, living communities, faith communities or citizens of a country. We are invited to bear with one another in love, to try our best to be patient with one another and to work towards some higher vision, to value the ways in which we are connected and unified and not allow our differences to cause irreparable damage such that we cannot find our way back to one another.
We listen to stories from Scripture here at church and we often include important writings from other spiritual writers so that we can continue our own journey of learning, so that we may be encouraged in faith and hope, knowing that others have likely been through much of what we experience, even if they lived in a different time and place. In our own lives, I’m sure each of us has taken in much learning over the years. If we take the time to reflect on our lives, we often discover that our most important learning has often come from times of adversity, times of distress and struggle.
We are called to be heroes in our own lives, heroes to ourselves and to one another when we have summoned the courage and strength needed to face the hardest moments in life; we also have had times when we may have felt like victims, certainly; we’ve all had times when we may have felt down on life or felt like events conspired to cause us pain, but the most important thing, is to continue to learn, to take in wisdom and knowledge from past experiences and allow that to provide guidance and wisdom at future moments when we are most in need of that encouragement and hope.
The most important learning from our readings today is that we are united as a community of faith, that we are One, both as Christians but also as citizens of this big, beautiful world and that we are brothers and sisters to all of humanity, and that we should lift up that vision of unity as something that should be respected with patience, humility, gentleness and love, always with love.
I’d invite you to think about the learning you have received from those who helped raise you, those who taught you about faith, from experiences in your lives, from your own children and grandchildren…and from so many other sources in our lives…from the arts and nature, from books and poetry, from words and silence. The famous Italian renaissance painter and sculptor Michaelangelo is said to have written the Latin words Ancora Imparo on a sketch that he completed at the age of 87. It was translated as “Still, I am learning.” It was a common phrase in his time and it certainly stands as a reminder to the idea that learning continues throughout our lives. And Henry Ford, the American inventor and businessman once wrote, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”