Given to Story — an Easter Vigil Sermon by Nathan Kirkpatrick

Given to Story
The Episcopal Church of the Advocate
Easter Vigil 2015

Several months ago, we had one of my housemate’s nephews spend the night with us. He’s at a great age. He’s old enough that he can do a lot for himself, but he’s not so grown up that hanging out with his aunt and her friend is a real drag. After a full afternoon at the fun-park and having watched a movie and eaten more pizza than I thought possible for a child, it was time for bed. He climbed into bed, and in that way that some children do, he said to me, “tell me a story.” So, I read him the book he had brought from home. We finished it, and what did he say? “Tell it again.” So, being slightly gullible and not having children of my own, what did I do? I told it again. We finished it a second time, and what did he say?

To my credit, by the third time I had caught on to his little scheme.

There are stories so good that we hear them and we just say, “oh, tell it again.” There are stories so lovely, so true, so needed that all we can say is “tell it again,” and with childlike wonder, we listen every time it’s told and we lose ourselves in the story. “Oh, tell it again.”

A few years ago in the The New York Times Sunday Review, the Swedish writer Henning Mankell wrote that “a truer [name] for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, [story-telling creatures].” Mankell’s argument is not that the biologists are wrong or that we are not thinking creatures, that’s what Homo sapiens means of course, but it is that we are also – and maybe even primarily – story-telling creatures (Homo narrans). We make sense of the world and our place in it through story. It is how we create meaning. It is how we interpret reality. It is how we come to know who we are and why we are. It’s who we are: Homo narrans, the story-telling creature. It is why when we hear a story that we know is good and true we say, “oh, tell it again.”

The literature professor John Niles in a book called Homo Narrans says it this way: “it is through storytelling that people possess a past.” But, it works both ways. In storytelling, we possess a past, but that past possesses us, too. It’s through storytelling that we find an identity. This whole liturgy is an embodiment of that. We tell story after story after story to remind us who we are, whose we are and how we have come to be. Each story is a reminder of the identity of God’s people. Each story is a testament to the enduring and faithful love of God. Each story is an invitation to take our place again in the good work of God in the world. “Oh, tell it again.” It’s through story that we possess a past and that a very particular past and the God of that very particular past lays claim to us.

Tonight, in just a few moments, we will celebrate the baptism of a beautiful baby named Emma Frances. Tonight, in a real way, as she is plunged beneath the waters three times (much to her parents’ chagrin), she is immersed not just in water but in story. “The early church fathers [and mothers] compared the waters of baptism to the [waters of creation], the Red Sea waters [through which the Hebrew people were delivered from Egypt], the water from the rock, the water in which Naaman was immersed [and healed], the water of Mary’s womb, the Jordan River [in which Jesus Himself was baptized], the living water promised to the woman at the well in Samaria, the healing pool of Bethsaida, the water from the side of Christ, and the waters of Paradise” (Hatchett, 253). As the love and grace, peace and mercy of God envelop her in those waters, she is made part of the story of what God has done in the world. In the waters of baptism, we tell it again.

My Church History professor was a wondrous Roman Catholic nun, Susan Keefe. Part of why I loved Dr. Keefe was because she was really less interested in our knowing every date of church history and much more interested in our knowing the stories, the people of church history. I’ll never forget how she began her last lecture. Looking at us, with tears on her face, she said, “A lifetime of reunions awaits you.”

That’s what Emma Frances has to look forward to – a lifetime of reunions with the stories that claim her even as she grows to claim them. That’s what we all have to look forward to. A lifetime of encounters with creation, with flood, and with sacrifice, reunions with pharaoh and deliverance through the Sea, with dead, dry bones that grow flesh and live again. She gets to look forward to enduring friendships with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, with Moses and Miriam, with Isaiah and Jeremiah, with Ruth and Naomi, with Peter and Paul, with the saints down through time. A lifetime of encounters with the God that these stories proclaim. Oh, tell it again.

And each time the stories get told, we wrestle with the past, too. We wrestle with the violence of God’s people. We struggle with the sometimes inscrutable ways of God. We try to hear in some of these words words of life, however faint they may sound. But, in the telling of the stories, the past lays claim to us and we lay claim to it. So, tell it again.

And yet, it is not just the past that lays claim, it is not just the ancient work of God that lays claim to Emma Frances or to any of us tonight, because through story – through the particular story of Easter – God’s future lays claim to us, as well.

I doubt I can ruin this evening’s surprise for you. But consider this a preview of coming attractions.

In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St Mark, early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women arrive at the tomb of Jesus and they find the stone rolled away. They enter the tomb to a find a young man sitting inside. What they do not see is the body of Jesus. And the young man says to them: “Do not be alarmed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (v 7).

Did you hear it? Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.

Jesus, the One that the stories have so often getting there first, once again is going on ahead. Jesus, the One who waited on the shore while the boat was still at sea; Jesus, the One who got to the point in parables that still confound His people; Jesus, the One who chided the slow of heart; this same Jesus, now risen, will go on ahead of the women to Galilee.

The resurrected Jesus will go on ahead of us, too, outpacing us, calling us into God’s future. The point of the story of Easter is not to linger at a tomb that is empty. The point is to go, go faithfully forward, to head in the direction that the Risen Christ is leading. Risen from the dead, Jesus is now leading into the future that only God dreams possible. Oh, tell it again.

In that old play by John Masefield, The Trial of Jesus, the centurion who oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion reports back to Pilate. Pilate’s wife, you remember who had dreamed about Jesus the night before his sentencing, asks the centurion to describe the death of Jesus. In the play, after listening to his report, she asks, “Do you think he’s dead?” “No, my lady, I don’t,” says the centurion. “He’s been let loose in the world where neither Roman nor Jew can stop him.” Oh, tell it again.

The story that claims us tells us that the Risen Christ is out ahead of us, let loose in the world, leading us into a future beyond hatred and bloodshed, beyond poverty and prison. Jesus goes ahead of us into a future that cannot be defined by death or grief or loss. Jesus goes before us into a future of peace and love, justice and truth, restoration and reconciliation.

And the story says that He is waiting for us there. Tell it again. Amen.