Epiphany: "Just Telling Stories"

The Revd Brutus Green


Like many people, I’ve been feeling a little sorry for Ed Miliband the last few weeks. It’s a shame for him that pity doesn’t convert well in terms of votes. I was surprised though to hear across the media, including the BBC and the Guardian, that even Ed’s intellectual guru, Maurice Glasman, had turned against him. Well I read Baron Glasman’s article and was again surprised to find it was actually very supportive, concluding: ‘we all need to show [Ed] love and support… I’m backing Ed Miliband.’ So much for stabbing him in the back.

It’s not that anyone’s lying, but what so often seems to be the case, especially when it comes to politics, is that certain narratives appear, take hold of people’s imagination and then colour all future information. Once an idea has caught it’s very hard to shift. So the Labour party is keen at every opportunity to spin the story that the Conservative party is “out of touch”, but Miliband now finds himself in a story of being weak, ineffective and economically irresponsible, and that seems to have taken some hold in the media and popular imagination.

Probably the most successful spinner of tales was Stalin. Like Napoleon he made great efforts to conceal his diminutive height (he was only a plucky 5’4”) and managed to win Time person of the year twice and get nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, all the while being responsible for more human deaths than anyone in history (estimated at around twenty million). Even now, a 2006 poll found that 35% of Russians would vote for him were he still alive.

The point is that people like a straight-forward story and it takes not only a lot of evidence, but also a more credible story and an awful lot of persuasion to change people’s minds once they’re made up. It is not surprising then that when Samuel hears his name being called, that the first few times he assumes that it is old Eli calling rather than God - especially as ‘the word of the Lord was rare in those days’. And something similar is happening with the disciples call in our Gospel reading - in Nathanael’s world, the things of God happen in Judea, not in some provincial Northern town. It would be like hearing that Seb Coe had decided to move the Olympics to Grimsby. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

But the disciples are different. They are prepared to take the chance of seeing the world in a different way. So when Jesus calls Philip, he immediately leaves everything behind to follow Jesus. The slightest inclination of something special about Jesus - knowing where he was earlier in the day - and Nathanael also drops everything. The disciples are people who are looking for God. They are ready to be surprised, to make any changes necessary to their lives in order to be the people God is calling. And they are forced to change. It becomes clear that Jesus is not the messiah they are expecting. He is not going to free the nation, lead as sovereign and warlord. Neither is he a religious conservative calling people to be more religious, back to a stricter form of piety. Jesus is changing the story that Judaism tells, changing it by telling stories and touching people’s lives, but ultimately persuading people with the integrity of his own life, stopping at nothing to demonstrate God’s unrestricted compassion. The new story is the story of grace: the story of the free gift of love.

This story remains surprising because human stories are usually about justice. The ‘wisdom’ literature in the Bible tells you if you act in this way then you’ll be rewarded by God, that the wicked seem to be doing well, but their feet are set in slippery places - they’ll get their comeuppance. For Israel, when they’re good they get prosperity, when they run after false gods, baal, moloch and the like, they get carried off into captivity. This is the logic of justice - the logic of the insurance salesman: keep up payments when it’s going well and when things go wrong you get compensation. But Jesus’ line is not this at all. His is not a prosperity Gospel - be good and you’ll get rich, or as Destiny’s Child put it, “if I surround myself with positive things I’ll gain prosperity.” He says that the poor, the meek, the persecuted are blessed, because actually grace, the gift of God’s love is for everyone regardless of where they find themselves.

The thing I would like you to remember from today is that we all see the world in terms of stories. Our way of looking at the world is not made up first of all of facts, experiences and the like, but of stories that give shape and meaning to the things we know and experience. We have a working autobiography that tells us who we are; usually carefully airbrushed to avoid the most disturbing parts of ourselves. We have our stories about what makes us happy, what the perfect love story is (usually involving Anne Hathaway or Meg Ryan), what being British means, or American, or Latvian - or Scottish, what people, religion, life in general is about. On bad days we question these stories, very occasionally we completely re-write them. But on the whole we cling to our stories, because they are what tells us what to expect and who we are. They’re the source of our security.

The reason Jesus taught in stories was because he wanted to change people’s stories. It was not enough to fiddle with the details, change the nuance, be more assiduous in practice. He wanted to change the way people saw the world by giving them a new story. It’s a bit like when Copernicus finally delivered definitive proof that the earth went round the sun. No one wanted to hear it - it made humans seem a little less important - but it was true and nowadays most people (except perhaps in Texas) don’t have terrible difficulty with that particular story.

So what does it mean to accept Jesus’ story? To take it into our own story? Well, first of all it is to accept Philip’s invitation to ‘come and see’ - to be open-minded enough to believe there might be something in the person of Jesus that can speak to us today across 2000 years. We certainly live in a time where the word of the Lord is rare. The stories of materialism and secularism assure us that evolutionary biology has the answer to every human question. Faith demands the intellectual humility to believe the human soul has more depth than selfish genes. But it also demands intellectual curiosity to seek the eternal truths of the nature and needs of the human soul, and not to always relax in the expected patterns of everyday life - to allow ourselves to be surprised - like Nathanael. But above all we only meet the story of Christ when we experience the superiority of grace over justice. When we trade our stories of fairness, exchange and punishment for the story of forgiveness. When we experience ourselves as loved individuals and are able to give up our resentment and point scoring for the grace of forgiveness and an unreasonable generosity. This is the story Christ died for. It is a story that shows how all public life, religious, political and social is dominated by barriers of exclusion, who is good enough, who is in, who is acceptable. But it is the victim of exclusion who is blessed, who is glorified, who is resurrected, who is justified. Our stories are all marred by moments of justice - of punishment, of resentment, of losing and being excluded. Accepting the story of Jesus is the way of leaving that all behind.

The call to the disciples remains the same today as it was 2000 years ago. It is a call that is surprising and life changing, that requires an uprooting of our set ways and easy living. It means taking a risk and investing our time and energy in something that does not obviously serve ourselves. It is the repeated, demanding call for change. It pokes out the stories we keep telling, whether they’re stories about Ed Miliband, Richard Dawkins or ourselves, and asks - are you being lazy? Its call for our attention stands in contrast to the “me, me, me” stories that dominate the clamour of modern life. But we willwe only hear it if we allow ourselves a moment of quiet, if we say in the night:  “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  Amen.