“What Shall We Tell The Children?”
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
January 31, 2016
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Bruce Feiler is a popular American writer. He has recently published a best selling book entitled Secrets of Happy Families. In the book he makes a rather interesting point. He writes: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” He cites a study from Emory University that shows that the more children know about their family’s story, “the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self esteem, and the more successfully they believe their family functions.” Our family stories and narratives are important for our well-being.
On Wednesday, at the Oak Bluffs Library, I came across a quote from the late Alan Rickman also known as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter stories. He wrote: “,,,it’s a human need to be told stories. The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are here, where we come from, and what might be possible”.
We read about some significant story telling from the prophet Nehemiah. He tells the story of the people of God, Israel, returning from exile in captivity under the Babylonians, resettling in the towns they had left many years before.
This is a stunning story. In the unfolding of the scriptures, it is the first time that such a public reading of scriptures happens. The stunning part is that it happens at the request of the people – – not by the command of God. A people governed by foreign forces not of their choosing – – a people who for a generation or more had experienced no control over their own destiny. They need and want to hear their story.
It is not at all certain exactly which texts Ezra read, but tradition suggests that he may have been reading from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number and Deuteronomy – the Law of Moses – the stories of creation; the stories of the journeys of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; the stories of Joseph and his brothers and the descent of Israel down into slavery in Egypt; the stories Israel’s liberation from slavery and the story of the 40 – year sojourn in the wilderness where they gradually become a cohesive people of God with a shared sense of identity. So perhaps we can imagine Ezra standing in front of the gathered multitude, answering their hunger for their story – recapitulating their family history – for hours on end.
But, as interesting as that image is, I think it is even more interesting to see how the people respond – keeping in mind that they are the ones who asked Ezra to read to them. It was a highly emotional time. We read that the people were in front of and below Ezra as he read from a special platform built for the occasion – perhaps with the rubble of the war ravaged city behind him. When Ezra began to unroll the scroll, all the people stood up as Ezra blessed God and gave thanks. They lifted up their hands and said “AMEN!” – -They bowed their heads, prostrated themselves, and worshipped God. Some of them wept, whether with joy and relief at being home again or with recognition of how far away from God they had drifted. And Ezra tells them to eat good food and drink sweet wine – tells them not to grieve because the day is holy and “the joy of the Lord is their strength” – – and they ended the day rejoicing because they had understood the words that had been read to them.
This is the power of the “family” narrative.” Through the hearing of their narrative, covering their faith history from the beginning, the returning exiles were being “reconstituted” as a people – finding again their joy and their strength as the people of God after a long time in exile –finding their identity as a people.
Some 500 years later, the story has been transmitted and received by Jesus. He enters his Jewish life. He is circumcised on the eighth day according to the ancient custom. He grows to adulthood and enters the waters of Jordan along with his fellow Jews, claiming his identity as the beloved child God. He heads out into the wilderness and wrestles with his demons. Each of these events in Jesus’ life symbolically reflects the story of his ancestors who entered the waters of the Reed Sea and sojourned in the wilderness and claimed their identity as people of God on the other side. Jesus claims and lives out his family narrative – until we find him on the steps of the synagogue, unrolling a scroll, delivering yet another word of hope to a deeply troubled people – this time in exile in their own homeland.
The new word to these hungry people is that Jesus is living out his family story by identifying himself with the ancient promise. His family narrative gives him his identity: ”The Spirit of the Lord is upon me – -I am anointed to bring good news to those of you who are poor – to proclaim a new kind of liberty and freedom to those of you who are in captivity, oppressed.”
In every generation, we human beings have needed to connect and re-connect ourselves to our faith narrative. This is what the constant re-telling of the story is all about. We are the children who need to hear the story. In a challenging and often chaotic world, we are the ones who need to hear it over and over again. But we are also the ones who need to be telling our faith narrative to our children. And just as we need to be telling our ancestral faith story, we need to be telling our children and grandchildren who their great-grandparents were – what our own personal family narratives are.
A few years ago I took the opportunity to ask my aunt, the only surviving member of that generation on my mother’s side of the family, what some of the family stories were. I learned that my grandmother, an Irish immigrant, saved her pennies, literally, until she had saved enough for a $5.00 sewing machine on which she then stitched clothes for my mom and her 5 siblings. She walked the mile or so into town to purchase the machine and carry it home. Apparently, back in Ireland, my great- grandmother had done much the same. My mom, in turn, bought an ancient Singer sewing machine early in her marriage and made all my clothes when I was a kid. Early in our marriage, I, in turn, bought a second hand Borletti – New Home machine and sewed clothes for Armen and our sons. Until I heard the story of my grandmothers, I had no idea how the deep satisfaction of owning a sewing machine and creating a garment was connected with my family roots. Some subtle sense of my own identity fell into place with the hearing that part of my family narrative.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “A family narrative connects children to something larger than themselves. It helps them make sense of how they fit into the world that existed before they were born. It gives them a starting point of identity. That in turn becomes a basis of confidence. It enables children to say: This is who I am. This is the story of which I am a part. These are the people who came before me and whose descendant I am. These are the roots of which I am the stem reaching upward toward the sun.”
Ezra read the “family” narrative that re-connected and reconstituted Israel after years of separation from her own sense of identity. Eventually, the people lived out their dream of re-building the temple and reclaiming Jerusalem as their home. We hear Jesus claiming his family narrative and we witness how he re-connects the people of his generation to the hope and promises of God. He passes the story telling on to us. It is our job to tell and re-tell both our faith narrative and our family stories – to make the connections between them in a strong way so that our children grow up with a healthy sense of who they are. There is no right way to do this –we are left to develop our own creative way of continuing the narrative. As Alan Rickman reminds us “…we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are here, where we come from – – and what might be possible.” The seeds of our own future rest dormant in the stories we tell about our history –as a church and as families within the church. This is where we draw our strength as we move forward as a community together. Perhaps in this new year, we can commit to finding the time and the space to tell the important stories. If we can do that, we will surely bless our children and grandchildren. May God bless us as we take up the task. We do, indeed, belong to a God who loves a good story.