Last week during Worship, we heard some heartfelt stories shared by members of our community about their mothers while others shared some lovely reflections in writing that were shared with our wider church. I know that many of you enjoy reading and the power of the written word, whether through fiction, non-fiction, prose or poetry. There is something about the process of finding the right words to communicate a time in one’s life or a moment that can be very powerful. We know Jesus was a storyteller and often turned to parables as a way of attempting to make a point to his listeners. So often, he shared things that he clearly believed would be familiar to his listeners…parables of nature or human interaction that sought to make a point. He did this again and again and they are an important part of the Gospels and important way that we have come to understand his message even today. Let us pray, Loving God, you have inspired many stories in our lives, the stories of our families and friends, the moments we hold in our memories that continue to remind us of special times when we shared a laugh or wept in sorrow. Be with us this morning and open us up to new ways of hearing the stories of your Son and of one another. Amen.
When families get together, wonderful stories are often shared and told again and again. We think about the really funny incidents that we may have shared with siblings or cousins that get revised and enlarged with each telling. In my own family, as we’ve listened to the stories become ever more exaggerated with time to provide a good laugh, we often say, “it could have happened.” And how many of us have experienced something both deeply funny but maybe embarrassing at the time and we think, oh I can’t wait to tell someone about this. And when we have a loss and family and friends gather, it’s so interesting to listen to the best of stories that emerge…often the funniest or most poignant stories are retold and sometimes, we hear a story about something we never knew before. A friend of mine from high school who lost his son two years ago told me about the stories he would never have known about him if his friends or colleagues hadn’t shared them with the family. They have taken great comfort in hearing how their son, even in his too brief life, shared kindness, support and love with the kids he coached, with his colleagues, and certainly with his many friends.
We also have stories that have been passed down through the generations, and whether positive or negative, they tell us something about those who lived before us. In recent years, research in psychology has pointed to the benefits of sharing the stories of resilience of past generations with our children and grandchildren to remind them that their ancestors also lived in hard times but somehow found a way through. Those kinds of stories can provide a foundation for the generations to come. I imagine many of us have also carried stories of the strength, the dedication, perhaps of the deep and abiding faith of our grandparents or aunts and uncles. All of these can provide us with strength when we face hard times. These are the sacred stories of our lives, the stories that serve to remind us of our worth, our strength, our own faith.
Rev. Victoria Weinstein writes, “I think we start to sense that a story is sacred when the energy shifts in the room in the telling of it – something in your heart opens to a listening place and you get the feeling that you are hearing something that helps a person or a people better understand who they really are. Sacred stories get us out of our rational heads and into a place of “ah” — and even awe. They shape life’s very meaning – they work on us. A person experiences something life-changing and shares it. They were grabbed by something awesome, you know, and in the hearing of their tale, you get grabbed, too. There you have a sacred story. We imagine the retelling of the story of Jesus’ feeding of the crowds…”We were listening to that preacher from Galilee and by God there must have been five thousand of us there, all hungry. The rabbi had these followers with him – a few guys – and they took out a little fish and some bread. For five thousand of us, how crazy is that? But you’ll never believe it – they just kept feeding everyone with that fish and bread, every single one of us had enough! No one went away hungry. It was amazing! Wow, what a story! That’s how all the religions begin – stories that grab people and don’t let go.” ” Writer Thomas Moore says that “stories offer a powerful way for the soul to find a space for itself and to have some relief from the pressure of just getting along in daily life.”
As our daughter was recently in France, I was reminded of the inspiring story of the courage of a small town during World War 2. One book that tells this story is called Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There by Philip Hallie. Rev. Terry Hershey shared this story in a recent reflection he shared. He writes, “Some stories are like restorative prayers. They invite (no, they require) retelling, for the healing of our spirit and our soul. In 1942, the Nazis were actively and forcefully rounding up Jews in France. In the picturesque farming village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon (in southern France), Reformed Church minister Andre Trocme inspired an entire village to change lives. And, as it turns out, the world in which we live. Each of the citizens of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon voluntarily risked their lives to hide their Jewish neighbors—in homes, on farms, and in public buildings. They chose to risk their own lives to save as many of the Jews as possible from being rounded up by the Nazi SS for shipment to the death camps. (It is said that there was not a single home in the village that did not shelter a Jewish family.) Le Chambon-sur-Lignon became known as the “City of Refuge.” As the story goes, whenever Nazi patrols searched the village, the Jews were sent, surreptitiously, out into the woodland countryside. One of the villagers recalled, “As soon as the soldiers left, we would go into the forest and sing a song. When they heard that song, the Jews knew it was safe to come home.”
Can you imagine the feeling when you heard the song?
It is estimated that as many as five thousand lives were saved—many given passage to Switzerland. One reason for this display of compassion? These French villagers were descendants from the persecuted Protestant Huguenots. Their own history of persecution connected them to the plight of the Jewish people hiding in their homes. Magda Trocmé (Andre’s wife) said this, “Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought had to be done—nothing more complicated. It was not decided from one day to the next what we would have to do. There were many people in the village who needed help. How could we refuse them? A person doesn’t sit down and say I’m going to do this and this and that. Sometimes people ask me, ‘How did you make a decision?’ There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not? Then let us try to help.”
This story is one of great courage. Those humble villagers risked their very lives to help those who were most in danger and their story continues to be told to this day. I imagine that story is also told again and again to the children and grandchildren of those who were saved in that village. The book The Assisi Underground tells a similar story of the ways in which the Franciscan priests and others in the community helped to save countless lives of their Jewish brothers and sisters.
These are important stories that must never be forgotten. We may sometimes feel that this was a long time ago, but I am sure that many of you are aware of the rise in anti-semitism in our own country and across Europe in recent years. Tragically, each generation must work to oppose the many forms of hatred that continue to find root in our society through acts of racism, sexism, violence towards the LGBTQ community and others in our communities. What will inspire us to stand up with one another? How may our faith give us the courage to do what needs to be done to create a society that welcomes all, embraces all, and respects all? Jesus was always a person of inclusion. There was no one whom he turned away. Many chose to turn away from his message because they felt that it was too challenging or that they would have to give up too much, but if we take seriously what it means to be followers of Jesus, we are meant to be part of a larger story of love, of peace, and yes, of courage.