Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on 27th January 2008
“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom” Matthew 4:23
My favourite Christian writer is a man called Bob Hartman. He’s not a writer on doctrine, he’s not a writer on spirituality, he’s not a writer on ethics; he’s a storyteller. He tells Bible stories, sometimes for children, his best known book is The Lion Storyteller Bible; sometimes his stories are for adults. I heard Bob Hartman speaking over in Rathfarnham Parish back in the autumn—he is very funny and very clever.
Bob Hartman is important because he understands what has happened in our society—we have become post-modern, which sounds complicated but for the church it means that we have become people who question all authority, whoever and wherever that authority might be. We know this.
Anyone living in Ireland during the past fifteen years knows that there has been a revolution: the world has changed, the authority of the church has collapsed and people now believe and act as they choose. How do we respond? Do we shout louder, become stricter, hammer the pulpit more strongly? Do we tell people that they must believe what we tell them? Or do we have the courage to say that we don’t have all the answers, but that we have a story to tell, if they will listen to us?
Inspired by the Booker Prize winning Canadian author Yann Martel, who wrote The Life of Pi, Bob Hartman writes,
“Here are two stories. Which one do you prefer?
The first story begins like this:
Once upon a time, a very long time ago, there was a series of accidents. Energy and matter and molecules collided and somehow you are here today. Here by coincidence. Here by chance.
The second story starts this way:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And you are here today, not by accident, but because he designed you, and loves you and wants to have a relationship with you.
Here are two stories. Which one do you prefer?
The first story continues:
The fit live. The weak die. So kill or be killed. Survival is the name of the game. Look out for number one.
And here’s how the second story goes:
Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the peacemakers. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
Here are two stories. Which one do you prefer?
The first story finishes like this:
You die. The end.
And the second story?
Actually, the second story has no end at all: ‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth … There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away … I am making everything new!’
Here are two stories.
Two stories to explain the world. No one can prove which one is true.
No scientist, no philosopher, no politician, no priest.
It’s up to you to choose.
So here are two stories.
Which one do you prefer?”
I think Jesus preaching in the synagogues throughout Galilee would have liked Bob Hartman’s story because it is a story about faith, it is a story about us deciding, it is a story from the heart.
Very few people will now believe anything because they are told that this is what they must believe. The days when a preacher could stand and say that we must believe something simply because we are told we must believe it are in the past. People still write letters about religion to the Irish Times and quote the Pope or quote the Bible and think they have made their point, yet in a post-modern society most accept the authority of neither.
So what do we do? We can form ourselves into a tighter and tighter huddle in the manner of some of the evangelical churches, surrounding ourselves with like-minded people; or we can behave in the manner of the traditional churches and try to carry on as if nothing has changed and that when we talk in church language, everyone will still understand us; or we can have the confidence to put our hands up and say that we can prove nothing, but we can tell anyone who would like to listen the story of Jesus.
Isn’t this the way Jesus does things? He goes through Galilee preaching and teaching, telling people about God, telling people about himself, and he invites people to join him. No-one is compelled; response to him is about making your own choice.
I cannot make anyone believe anything, whether in church, in confirmation class, at the National School, at meetings, out visiting, wherever. All I can say is that I believe that there is a meaning and a purpose and a destination in this life. All I can say is, “Here is the story of Jesus. Compare it with other ways of seeing life. Which story do you prefer?”