Rev. Danielle K Bartz October 31, 2021
Mark 12:28-34 “The Stories We Love to Tell”
I think it may be written somewhere in Minnesota law that each year we are obligated here in the state to mention the Halloween Blizzard of ’91. As this is the 30th anniversary, I have been seeing quite a bit of news coverage about that historic storm. Last week a Twin Cities meteorologist uploaded some old video he had of doing weather updates during the blizzard. Pictures of kids in snowsuits standing next to snow drifts with carved pumpkins perched on top have been filling up social media. I read a story the other day about a Minnesota couple, who were only 1 year old at the time, who have created novelty t-shirts of the ’91 blizzard and are selling them in their store, and struggling to keep them in stock. They remarked at the end of the article how they hoped their infant son would get to experience something like that storm in his early life. And I read another story of a woman who moved to Minnesota in 1992 and has grown exasperated by the retelling of the ’91 blizzard over and over again. “It snowed a lot,” she said in a video that was making the rounds, “get over it.”
But, it is a story most of us love to tell. Indeed, last week while in the car, I reminisced with my mother about how school was let out early, and as I recall rather suddenly, that day, and the fear I had while walking home – which involved crossing a bridge over highway 52 in Rochester, the snow swirling and blowing so hard I couldn’t see anything at all. And, quite proudly, I always remind anyone who will listen that I did in fact go trick or treating that evening, even if I only got as far as the immediate neighbors.
We all have these stories we love to tell. And even if we have heard and told the same story year after year, most of us engage in the conversation willingly. There is something reassuring about those mutual experiences of hardship overcome, hardiness proven, and neighborliness solidified. Every group of people have their stories. Some tragic of course, many funny, and all reminders that in a busy and divided world, there are some things that tie us together. These are the stories that make a people a community.
I have been thinking a lot about these stories that form community recently. In addition to being the anniversary of Minnesota’s favorite blizzard, today the Protestant church celebrates Reformation Sunday – a day to retell the story of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg Germany, an act that began the Protestant Reformation, and changed the course of Church history in the world. The story isn’t actually true. There is no historical evidence that Luther actually nailed his 95 theses to the church door. But we tell and celebrate the story anyway, and if you travel to Wittenberg, you will see those 95 theses ornately carved into the doors of the church in the town center.
Halloween typically marks the start of the holiday season, and soon families and friends will be telling the old stories of family lore. My family loves to tell the story each Thanksgiving of the year that my aunt was put in charge of buying the turkey, and couldn’t understand why it cost $50. Only to realize she had in fact bought a kosher turkey. Your families have similar stories. This congregation has stories – I have heard one told several times about the Christmas Eve service when a choir member’s hair started on fire – though the details tend to change every time I hear it.
The Gospels are other stories we love to tell. Each year we tell the story of Jesus’ birth, even if we conflate the details of the different Gospels to tell a story that isn’t entirely accurate – the Wise Men didn’t actually arrive for a couple of years. But we tell a beautiful and awe-inspiring story, year after year, because it holds us together as a people. Next week we will celebrate All Saint’s Day, and I will remind you that it is in the telling of the stories of those we have lost that their memory lives on. Communities are held together by their stories.
Today’s scripture is another story we love to tell. In it, we hear Jesus teach his followers, and us, what are the most important commandments to follow. Love God and love your neighbor. Nothing is more important than this. It is hard to find a person even tangentially aware of the Christian tradition who can’t repeat this lesson. Not only is it a vital lesson, it is the underpinnings for how so many people move about in the world. If all we can remember is this, then we are well on our way – near the Kingdom of God, as Jesus says in today’s scripture.
But there is something about the way this story is told in Mark’s Gospel that I think we also need to remember when retelling it. The conversation is held between a scribe, a leader of the Jewish religion, and Jesus. Throughout all four of the Gospels, we read one account after another of the scribes challenging Jesus – offended by what they perceive as his lack of faith in the history and tradition of the Jewish religion. So, when a scribe asked Jesus which commandment is the first of all, we would normally hear an argument. Or, if not that, a parable or lesson that requires careful thought and interpretation. But, instead we get a clear, straightforward answer – something so rare, I was reminded this week, that it only happens three times in the Gospel.
But, Jesus doesn’t offer nuance or complications. The answer he gives is simple, the first commandment is to love God with all that we have and are. He doesn’t stop there of course, he goes on to add that the second great commandment is equal to the first – that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Now, I could stand up here and preach at you for hours about this lesson. I could lament that we have forgotten what each of those commandments actually mean. I could say we need a new word for love – because too often the idea of the love Jesus is commanding of us is watered down to some sort of Hallmark holiday movie version of affection. I could remind you that all of our actions and work for justice and public witness need to come first form a place of love, and not some sort of desire to prove the other wrong. I could go on and on and on – but instead I want to point out something remarkable in this story. In this moment, two people on opposite ends of the theological, even political spectrum, came together in conversation and found mutual ground that they could both stand on and be in relationship with.
The scribes never hesitated to attack Jesus, his teachings or actions or beliefs. Jesus never hesitated to call the scribes hypocrites and worshippers of their own power. They saw one another as a threat to the future of the faith and the people around them. The polarization between the leaders of the faith and the followers of Jesus was reminiscent of the polarization the left has for the right, the liberals have for the conservatives, that is so pervasive in our world today. The question, “Have we lost the ability to talk with one another,” has been worried over by political pundits, theologians, commentators, and our own 1st Congo Convo group.
So, rather than extolling once again on the importance the lesson Jesus taught, I want to instead simply revel in the story of two people on opposite ends coming together to agree on what is the basic necessity of following God. I am sure, I have no doubt, that if the conversation were to continue there would be disagreements. Jesus would remind the scribe that while ritual and tradition have their place, they are not the center of a faith-filled life. And I am sure the scribe would point out to Jesus that dismissing as superfluous the rules of how a people live together is extremely dangerous. If the conversation continued, they would not be in total agreement. But, I also believe the conversation would have been respectful, thoughtful, and genuine. All because it started in a place of mutuality – no matter how much they differed on the details, both Jesus and the scribe declare that love of God and neighbor are fundamental.
So, when we tell the story of Jesus teaching the greatest commandments, let’s not leave out that crucial detail. Especially today, when we worry that agreement is no longer possible. Because, it is in the telling of stories that a people are formed and if we as Christians tell this story, with the important reminder that is was a moment of opposites coming together, then that story begins to take hold in new ways. So, tell this story when people ask you what it means to be Christian and to follow God. Tell this story, but make sure you include that vital detail – that this lesson was taught in the midst of a conversation between two people who rarely, if ever agreed. Tell this story, and point out the miracle. Tell this story, and offer it as an invitation to find mutual ground with someone. Stories form community, and this story can change a people. Amen.
God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow – it is so often that we experience you in the telling and re-telling of stories of your presence in our lives. When we laugh with family and friends, let us remember that you were rejoicing in that love with us. When we reminisce with neighbors, let us also remember that you are present whenever two or three are gathered. When we remember the lives of those we have lost, let us also remember your presence in the totality of that person’s life. It is in the telling and retelling of our stories that we find you.
Even as we tell the old stories of you God, help us to be creators in the stories our descendants will tell. Help us to live our lives in ways that create a future we are proud of, a world that is so steeped in your love that our hopes become reality for all those who come after us.
And today, in particular God, we rejoice that for one day at least our lights are turned on, our doors opened, gifts are given without thought of return, and the imaginations of children and adults are celebrated. May today be a day our children remember as one of joy – a story that can be told to their children, a story of community.
We pray all of this in the name of the one who taught us so much, and who lived his life as an example for us to follow. In Jesus name we pray all of this and so much more, and raise our voices in the way he taught…Our Father…