The Power of Storytelling

Rev. Chris Jimmerson
June 18, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756
austinuu.org

Telling stories is central to how human beings make meaning and view our world. How do the stories we learn and tell ourselves affect our lives and our society?


Sermon

Genesis: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the deep. Then God said, “Let there be light”. And there was light.

Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters, which were under the firmament from the waters, which were above the it; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven.

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The Sky World Woman: Back at the beginning, the world that we now know as earth was nothing but water, while above it was a larger, more ancient world – above it was the sky world.

And a woman from the sky world, who was very curious, had dug a hole in that sky world. She dug and dug until she dug all the way through and fell into the hole and out the other side of it. And so it was that this sky woman came tumbling down toward the vast ocean of water that was the whole of our world at that time.

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Then God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so.

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind”; and it was so.

Then God said, “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth. Let the earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind: cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth”; and it was so.

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Now, living upon our ancient watery world were all manner of water animals, and the animals looked up to heavens and saw the sky world woman falling toward them at an altogether alarming rate of speed. And so the geese and ducks and other water birds flew up to her, forming a net with their bodies and catching her as she fell, bringing her gently to the face of the waters, where they placed her on the back of a giant sea turtle.

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Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created male then female. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply.

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Well, now the sky world woman and the water world animals had a problem, because the sea turtle could not hold her up forever, and the woman really could not swim all that well. One of the animals, many say it was the platypus, recalled that there might be a substance called mud deep below the surface of the waters and perhaps that could be brought up to create something upon which the woman could rest.

And so one by one the animals began trying to dive as deep as they could in search of mud. The pelicans tried. A walrus tried, and on and on, but each of them returned to the surface without having been able to go deep enough to bring up any mud. Finally, the otter tried. It was gone avery, very long time under the waters until they all feared it had drowned.

Suddenly though, it popped to the surface of the waters a scoop of mud in its paw.

The sky woman spread the mud on the back of the turtle and began to sing and dance upon it, and the animals sang and danced with her and the mud began to spread and separate the waters until there was plenty of muddy land for the Woman to live upon, as well as son1e of the animals who had decided to go with her.

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Now, you probably know the rest of the biblical Genesis story.

God puts Adam and Eve into a great garden – a perfect world of beauty and bliss where all their needs are met. He tells them there is only one rule. They may not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They do anyway, many tellings of this story blame the woman, and an angry God thrusts them out of the garden and into a howling wilderness, after which much toiling, trouble, sinning and suffering ensue.

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In our other story this morning, which I found through the work of two Native American writers and storytellers, Robin Wall Kimmerer and Thomas King, the Sky Woman gives birth to twins, who work with the animals to mold the mud into mountains, valleys and plains, as well as to cut rivers and streams through it. From seeds the woman had in her hand from all her digging before she fell, they place upon the land all of the plants and vegetation that the animals and early humans will need for food and shelter.

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Now, for those of you on this side of the sanctuary to whom I just told the Genesis creation story, let’s think about some of the key themes and elements of this story.

There is a formality to it. It creates a hierarchical world – God, then humans, then animals and plants. Humans are given dominion over all other life. We have an omnipotent, male God who speaks of all creation into existence in a solitary, individual act. We have humans being given abundance and then, because of their original sin (and thus their fundamental depravity), being thrown into scarcity. The world is a competitive place – God versus the devil – humans versus the elements – and each other. We have woman made second and blamed for the original sin. We have harmony being transformed into chaos.

And let’s think about what sort of culture those of us with this creation mythology might form – one that is hierarchical, staid and individualistic – one that focuses on competition and scarcity?

Perhaps it might become a culture that values power over others and thus could easily become warlike, could justify imperialism, colonization, slavery, racism and other forms of oppression – a culture that is foundationally patriarchal and that sees the natural world as a resource to be exploited.

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And for those of you on this side of the sanctuary, some of the main themes of the Native American creation story I told to you are quite different.

It is far less formal, even playful. There is no omnipotent God.

Instead, the humans and the animals start with divine-like abilities. Working in cooperation, the humans and the animals bring the world into being, turn chaos toward harmony. They exist communally and with far more balance and equity – no human dominion here. The original human is female, and the story has a maternal quality to it.

With this as a creation myth, what sort of culture and society might we form? Might it not be very different?

Now, I am over simplifying a bit. Still, the differences are stark.

The power our stories have over us at a very fundamental level as individuals and as communities and societies is clear.

We are storytelling creatures. We make sense of our experiences by folding them into a narrative that our brains are constantly constructing and reconstructing for us.

And this is important to know, because once we let a story loose in our world, we can never really take it back. We can only change the telling of it or create a competing narrative.

Of course, we should not read these mythological stories as being literally, historically true. They are to be read as metaphor, as poetic and symbolic. Reading them as too literal is a mistake we often accuse fundamentalists of making.

Yet, I think we too can do this in a sort of reverse way, by also reading these stories too literally and thereby dismissing them without considering the poetic meaning and beauty we might find through them.

Many of you are likely familiar with the Christian story of the virgin birth of Jesus, the divine son of God, whom God sent to the earth only that he might die on the cross to wash our depravity clean with his very blood so that whosoever should believeth in him should not perish, but rise again as he did after his crucifixion.

I, personally, cannot take this story in a literal sense. And told the way it often gets told, it sometimes embodies values and ideas that I believe can be harmful – violence, human depravity, redemption through suffering, the spilling of blood and death.

There are other ways this mythological story can be told though, with a poetry that I find much more agreeable.

Here’s an example.

Once there was a spark of divinity that arose out of humanity’s highest aspirations for living more fully, with more love, compassion and joy. And this spark lured humans toward the more life-giving, lifefulfilling choices available to them within the creative possibilities of their universe.

But the evils of avarice, jealousy and tribalism obscured their ability to see these creative choices held before them. The powerful could not see past their dominance and greed. The poor and oppressed were prevented from reaching for their full potential.

Still, there was good in humans. And this found expression in the story of a child – a child who represented our highest human aspirations. The child grew into a wise leader, teaching others the healing power of love, drawing them toward compassion, calling them to give preference to the poor and oppressed until such circumstances would no longer exist.

But some of the most powerful among them would not hear this call. They vowed never to allow such teachings to continue, and they killed this wise one to extinguish that spark of divinity.

What they did not know, is that human aspirations transcend any one person. They rise again and again even up against the physical loss of one or more among us.

What they could not know was that by killing one person, they only caused that spark to grow stronger, carried forward in the hearts of those who wished to dwell in love and in all that is life giving.

Same story told metaphorically and expressing a very different set of values, not to mention far less blood and gore than in the Mel Gibson film about it.

And I think it is important for us to reclaim and recast some of these ancient stories because they have been implanted into the very foundational structures of our societies. Social and political science research has found that these myths are transmitted even into modern secular societies where, for even the non-religious, they are enculturated through the ethno-symbols, memories, values, rituals and traditions embedded within the ongoing practices of a people. They are present even within the very language in which we think and speak.

Some of you may have heard me talk about how when I was five years old, I told my mom I was going to be a minister when I grew up. But we were Southern Baptists, and when I found I could not fit within that religion, I created a story about what all religion was and so thoroughly rejected the religious stories of my childhood, that I left my self with absolutely no context within which to even consider ministry.

It wasn’t until many years later that I found Unitarian Universalism and began to feel a calling toward ministry resurging.

I described that calling to a rather sharp-tongued friend of mine as “a really really persistent little voice inside me”. She replied, “Well, tell the little voice to shut the hell up.” I laughed. She did too.

Later though, I realized that telling the little voice to shut up was what the story I had created for myself about religion had been causing me to do for all those many years. I began to recreate my own story about religion, as well as reframe the religious stories of my childhood, so that I could finally fulfill the aspiration toward which I felt beckoned.

And I think that it is vital that we as a liberal religious faith reclaim and recast these religious stories even though we may not share the beliefs and theology they have sometimes been used to express. They are a part of the very fabric of the culture and country in which we live.

And currently they far too often are being used to cast a narrative that justifies vast wealth inequality, authoritarianism, violence, oppression, hyper-individualism and the destruction of our planet. Certain folks are among the valued, chosen people and thus deserving of their wealth and power and others are expendable or even to be debased.

The New York Times recently ran an article about how a new public and political, liberal religious voice is awakening after lying largely dormant for nearly 40 years.

I believe that voice is sorely needed right now. It’s been too quiet for too long. To amplify our highest aspirations for greater peace, environmental stewardship, compassion and communalism, we have to be willing to reclaim our religious voices in the public square and recast the religious narrative that has taken hold. We have to be willing to use words like morality, good and evil.

And, if we are to ever develop greater understanding and compassion with those whom we disagree, we must also be able to hear and understand their stories and to speak our own.

The stories we tell and the ways in which we tell them define us as human beings.

To change ourselves, our relationships, our communities, our nation and our world for the better, we will have to reclaim and reframe some stories that have already been let loose in our world.

From time to time, we will even have to create new ones.

It may not be as hard as it might seem. Maybe we dive into the deep, bring up a little mud and begin the act of creation over and over agaIn.

May we sing and dance as we do so. Amen.

Benediction

As you go out into our world now, may you carry with you stories of compassion, joy and peace.
May the story of your life be centered in love.
May the ongoing story we write together be one of justice and healing.
May the congregation say, “Amen” and “Blessed Be”.

Go in peace.


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