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“Once Upon a Time..." or, "Long Ago and Far Away...”
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, February 5th, 2017

Audio available for download at the link, or use the streaming player, below.

Our first reading is from the Christian Scriptures, Chapter 2 of the the Book of John:
Two days later there was a wedding in the town of Cana in Galilee. Jesus' mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited... When the wine had given out, Jesus' mother said to him, “They are out of wine.”
“You must not tell me what to do,” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”

Jesus' mother then told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
The Jews have rules about ritual washing, and for this purpose six stone water jars were there, each one large enough to hold between twenty and thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill these jars with water.” They filled them to the brim, and then he told them, “Now draw some water out and take it to the steward in charge of the feast.” They took him the water, which now had turned into wine, and he tasted it. He did not know where this wine had come from (but, of course, the servants who had drawn out the water knew); so he called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone else serves the best wine first, and after the guests have had a lot, he serves the ordinary wine. But you have kept the best wine until now!”
Our modern reading is by John Shelby Spong. Bishop Spong is a liberal Christian theologian, religion commentator and prolific author. He is retired from the Episcopal Diocese of Newark New Jersey, where he served as Bishop for 21 years. He has been a guest speaker at our own UUA General Assembly on several occasions. In an interview he said:
The oral tradition is the only way that the stories of Jesus could have lived between his death in 30 C.E. (approximately) and the writing of the Gospels between 70 C.E. and 100 C.E. This means that everything we know about Jesus lived for 40 to 70 years in oral transmission before it was written down. The real questions are where was this tradition preserved, by whom and in what context?

…it was in the synagogue that the oral tradition was born and in the synagogue that it thrived. Most of the gospel stories existed first as sermons, preached about Jesus against the background of the synagogue readings of the Torah and the prophets. In this process, Jesus in the oral tradition came to be understood as the fulfillment of both the expectations of the Torah and the hopes of the prophets.

… [the] stories of Jesus appropriate to the great feasts and fasts of the Jewish year were developed in the oral tradition that enabled the Gospels to suggest that not only was the crucifixion of Jesus to be interpreted against the Passover, but also that every other major Jewish holy day was in time given Christian content by the oral tradition during the synagogue phase of Christian history. more at link
Each of the two years I've been with you, we've designated February as a focus month here at First Unitarian. This hopefully provides an opportunity to look deeply at a particular theme over the course of several weeks. I always encourage various groups within the congregation to look at how the work or the doing of your group relates to the theme.

This past Tuesday evening your Prudential Committee began a process of discerning the developing story of your church in its transition from what has been toward what will yet be. Having a focus month gives us all an extended opportunity to recognize and own who we are in relationship to the theme. My hope is that We Are a Community of Story will provide an entrée into narrative, story, as a primary religious vehicle for finding and making meaning from the experiences of our lives, as well as providing a roadmap into the world of our aspirations.

Today we begin with "Once Upon a Time..." or, "Long Ago and Far Away..." My hope is that through this exploration of narrative we can begin to see its potential for engendering faith and hope in the future. Heaven knows that we can all use, that we all need, faith and hope in the future! The future of our lives; the future of this congregation; the future of our nation and our world.

Before placing narrative in its religious context, which may be an impossibility altogether because perhaps all story is religious story, let's look at the idea of narrative itself. Alan Moore, who wrote V for Vendetta, says that "Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.” Mythologist Robert A. Johnson puts it this way – myths are stories that aren't necessarily true on the outside, but reveal deep truths on the inside.

When we attempt to touch on a deep truth that we experience in our lives, to comprehend or to express it, any name we might give it could too easily fail to incorporate the intricacies or the nuances that give our truth significance. Names are important; narrative though, provides all sorts of ways to gain proximity to the truth with which we are attempting to relate.

For example, I might utter the sentence, "Parenting is an ultimate experience in the course of a human lifetime." We all know something about parenting, whether we've been a parent or not. We've all been parented by someone; some of us have even committed the act ourselves. But because our experiences related to parenting vary so greatly, my sentence really doesn't invite anyone into much of a truth about it, regardless of my claim to its ultimacy.

If, though, I were to tell you a story about parenting, I’m guessing you'd have better access to the human truth that I'm trying to explore with you. Here’s an example, in the wake of her death, I've been thinking a lot about Mary Tyler Moore these last few days. I'm a lifelong fan. In her award-winning movie Ordinary People, as some of you might remember, she played the mother of a child who was lost in a drowning accident. The story of a mother who has lost a child invites us all, whether we've had that experience or not, into a place of knowing, or at least understanding, something of the human condition that comes about through such devastating loss. It touches a deep, deep part in each of us. The story lets us in.

I'm not altogether sure that there's any such thing as a nonreligious story, but let's move into the realm of what might more widely be acceptable as religious narrative. If I were to simply use the word god, it would mean many different things to many of us. What I mean by the word god, when I choose to use it, is akin to placeholder. It would be akin to a placeholder for that essence or energy that cannot be directly known. By the word god, I mean that mystery, which is at the core and the periphery of our being, of being period. I'm guessing few of you would have that same understanding or response to the word god.

But… but if I were to tell you a story about god, about that mystery, maybe not even mentioning the word, I'm guessing that most, if not all, of you would be able to grasp at least something of the essence of what I was trying to convey. I'd bet that you might be able to recognize your relationship with the truth of it, or perhaps with its lack of truth, in your own life.

Let's take the story of the Wedding at Cana from our reading this morning. This is one of my favorites that I like to use in marriage ceremonies. Jesus and Mary attend a wedding. All of a sudden there is a wine shortage. Mary presses Jesus into service; he whines a little bit (perhaps this is an element that would fit well into a narrative on parenting) but then complies with his mother's wish. Jugs of water are brought forward; a ladle of water is drawn out, and from it the steward tastes the best vintage of wine ever. Ta-da!

The thing is though, it's not ta-da. And that's the point; it's much deeper than ta-da. There is a miracle here, sure enough. But the miracle is not that Jesus is a grand magician who can, or even would want to, change the nature of anything into something else. The elements of the story tell us that something else is true.

What Jesus directed the steward to do, what he directed that bride and groom and anyone else who would ever get married to do, what he directs all of us to do in this story, is to look into the very ordinary nature of something as basic as water. Look into the very ordinary and in it find the extraordinary, find that which is filled with grace, and beauty, and fulfillment. The character of Jesus, through this narrative, tells us to pay attention to our very ordinary, day-to-day lives, for in each of us and in each of our days, there exists the extraordinary, that which can provide us, and waits to provide us, with grace, and beauty, and fulfillment… if we pay attention and are open to it.

The story of the Wedding at Cana doesn't just throw the word god at us to see if it might stick. It offers us a way of deepening our experience with the potential for finding and making meaning in our lives. It offers us the potential for making more of ourselves, and of this time we have of being alive on this earth.

I'm a big fan of Bishop Jack Spong. He's a theologian of significant renown within the structures of Christian orthodoxy. His understanding of the Gospels as he describes in his book Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes is not just similar to how we’re using religious narrative here; he's talking about the very same thing.

Where did the Gospels come from? Jack Spong explains that they were created by rabbis in the synagogues between 30 A.D. and 70 to 100 A.D. In order to fool the people? No, Spong answers. It was to create narrative that would help to make the deeper meanings of the Torah more accessible to the people through stories that held relevance and contemporary significance. It was no different in many ways to the apocryphal stories that we tell about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and other Saints who inspire us by their lives and by their character to go deep so that we might rise high.

Jack Spong says, "True religion is not about possessing the truth. No religion does that. It is rather an invitation into a journey that leads one toward the mystery of God. Idolatry is religion pretending that it has all the answers... God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don't think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me [toward] God."

Fill in your own word where he uses the word god, but we are here to go deep, to go as deeply into the mystery as we can, so that we might suck out the very marrow of life as fully as we can. We are a community of story because it is through story and the proximity, the access to truth and meaning that it provides us that we are called into community.

The word religion comes from Latin roots meaning “to bind”, as in the binding of community. The earliest religious experiences for our human ancestors occurred when the people of the clan or the tribe gathered around the communal fire, telling stories that would better enable them to find and make meaning in their lives. From the grasslands of Africa to the prairies of North America, from the Andean mountains of South America to the banks of the fjords in Scandinavia, the people gathered; they created and told stories about themselves and about their gods. This doesn’t mean there weren't gods; it meant that gods could not be known. It meant that any understandings of that which is mystery might be made more available through story.

I'm not suggesting that we pitch history and science, or math and music, or any of the other disciplines, overboard. Facts are important to us, however short-lived they might be. Facts are really, about things. But things are the stuff upon which we stretch the canvas of our day-to-day lives, what we are talking about this morning is not things as much as the meaning of things. In truth, I think our various disciplines of study are really so many languages and so many approaches we have to telling ourselves stories that help us to understand this human experience, that help us to find and make meaning in it.

I suspect that we join together in community, in religious community, specifically in this First Unitarian Church religious community, in order to share stories and in order to be a part of the story about transformation, about the transformation of our hearts, our homes, our community and our world. Stories are a bridge leading us from the past through the present and toward a hope-filled future.

The past is filled with stories of challenge and struggle and even devastation, but also of resurrection and redemption. Each of our own personal stories, and our corporate, shared stories, is similarly filled with challenge, struggle and devastation, just as they are filled with resurrection and redemption. We are not only players in our stories; we can choose to be the authors, or at least the co-authors, of them.

What are the stories that you want to learn from? What are the stories that you want to be a part of? What are the stories in which you are, or want to be, the narrator? Being grown-up, being a religiously intentional person, is about being responsible for our stories.

This congregation will soon be calling a new minister to come and walk and work and to be with you. What is the 300-year-old story of this congregation that compels you to turn its next page in faith, in hope and in love?

I can tell you the story that I've seen lived out in my short time here with you. It's a story of spirit and devotion and service. It's a story of commitment and daring. It's a story of vision that encourages you to put together the pieces that are required to provide an organized structure in which members of this congregation are cared for. It's a story of commitment to standing on the side of love, standing up against injustice, and making justice for those in the larger community who, because of race or class, gender, sexuality or gender identity, have been marginalized. It's a story of learning to be fiscally responsible in your relationship to the past of this congregation and to the promise of its future. It's a story about learning to communicate in effective ways, where truth can be spoken and heard, where information can be given and received.

You have an incredible story here that you bring to this pivotal moment in the unfolding life of this congregation. You have every reason for faith, every reason for hope, every reason to share love in and for the future that is yours.

I would be remiss in this moment of angst, anger and fear if I were to fail to relate our theme to the emerging narrative of our national story. What stories ought we pay attention to in this moment? I would think it wise for us to remember the fascist stories of Nazi Germany. I would think it wise to recall our own national stories of Japanese-American detention centers right here in the US during that same war. I think it would be good for us to remember stories in which human fear gave birth to the basest of human instincts.

Why these stories? Surely not so that we might repeat them, but so that we can learn from them that, in the end, love does triumph over hate, that faith triumphs over fear.

There were many in Nazi Germany, including our own Unitarians Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who risked life and limb to defend and protect the Jews, the homosexuals and the Gypsies who were being exterminated by the Third Reich. Perhaps some of you saw the movie Sharps’ War about Waitstill and Martha Sharp, produced by Ken Burns that aired on PBS this past October. There were many in this country who protested the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, who were guilty of nothing more than their genetic heritage. Perhaps something similar is beginning to happen to some of our Arab neighbors today.

In the days to come we will need the support of stories of resistance and persistence, of service and of love for justice. We will need to remember stories of challenge and struggle and even devastation so that we might help to write the next chapters of this American story to be sure we include resurrection and redemption in them.

We are a community of story. "Once Upon a Time..." or, "Long Ago and Far Away..." These are always about the here and now. The sharing of stories is an age-old practice in the traditions of religion. Stories are a way of telling the truth that lives within. Stories tell us each to pay attention to our very ordinary, day-to-day lives, for in each of us and in each of our days, there does exist the extraordinary, that which can provide us, and waits to provide us, with grace, and beauty, and fulfillment… if we pay attention and are open to them.