“In our challenge to recover and reinvent the human, in living with radical individuality and radical communion, we have to face anger and resentment as people reject the idea of shared humanity. That makes telling stories very important,” the Very Rev. Alan Jones said at the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning worship service. As Garrison Keillor said, “There are no answers, just stories.”
His sermon title was “Telling Stories: The Invention of God! And the Invention of Humanity!” The Scripture reading was John 3:1-8, the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.
Trying to live in the Spirit, to float where the Spirit wills is hard, Jones said, because we are stuck with ourselves. He reminded the congregation that the good news is “life’s not about you. There is another story going on — that God is madly in love with us.” That knowledge doesn’t take away the pain, but it puts the pain in context.
Our identity politics means we have a small view of ourselves. Jones cited a book written in the 1920s whose author said Jesus was the greatest salesman, a business organizer who welded 12 inefficient men into an effective machine. But the author forgot that part of Jesus’ job description was “must get crucified.”
Are humans more than our desire for economic growth?
“What is our raison d’être? There is more to life than the promise of material wealth,” Jones said. “Society is held together by force or moral order, by the police or respect and common law.”
That is why religion is important; it puts the sacred at the center of life.
“To say God is dead means we are dead and society has no center,” Jones said. “In the West we spend a long time looking at our mortality. We want a long, lively life and a quick painless death.”
The reality is that death is rarely quick or painless. Even though the average life span worldwide has increased from 32 years to 70 years in four generations, in the Western world, most people will endure a slow, progressive deterioration preceded by pointless treatment. By 2040, Jones said 40 percent of the population will die alone in nursing homes.
“Life is a school and Chautauqua is a school for training the inventive imagination,” he said. “The marks of educated people are large sympathies, intelligence and the magnificence of soul.”
He noted that of the Five Pillars of Islam, one is about belief and four are about the practice of the faith. The first, faith, is what Muslims believe: there is one God and Muhammad is his prophet. The other four are about practice, he said: prayer, charity, fasting or participating in Ramadan, and the Hajj to Mecca.
The weakness of Christian creeds is that they contain no practices, Jones said. He suggested five possible pillars for Christians. The first is telling the truth, about reality and about who we are. The second is courtesy, a way of speaking that recognizes that what we say and how we say it matters.
“We have to pluralize, apologize and ecologize how we talk to one another or we will die,” he said.
The third pillar is a sense of the sacred. Jones shared a story from an essay by Salman Rushdie, who grew up kissing the books or chapatis that he dropped as a way of apologizing for his clumsiness.
“The act was a reminder that there is food for the body and food for the soul,” he said.
The fourth pillar is the recognition that what we tell are stories, not objective facts.
“Storytelling binds people together,” Jones said. “The lesser truth of our ethnic identity gives way to knowing there is one human heart.”
The last pillar is to treat everyone as a neighbor.
“This is discipleship,” he said. “We have to travel light and be subversive to help our neighbor.”
Jones said many people have to cope with being “W.E.I.R.D.” — Western, educated, industrialized, rich and demonic.
“As this is the time for reinvention, we have a need for self-restraint and civil discourse,” he said. “Because many of us are W.E.I.R.D., we can render other people invisible.”
As a college chaplain said, hell is filling up a resume with wonderful accomplishments to justify your existence.
The world pays a heavy price for the absence of soul. Relief comes in knowing that there is another story, larger than our own drama, he said.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Jones said. “The way we are in the world can make a difference; we need to hold hands and reinvent the world together.”
The Rev. George Wirth presided. The Rev. Kent Groff, an ordained Presbyterian minister and the founder of Oasis Ministries in Pennsylvania, a writer and poet, conference speaker, and spiritual guide living in Denver, read the Scripture. Joseph Musser, piano, and George Wolfe, soprano saxophone, performed David Stern’s “The Inner Call” as the prelude. The Motet Choir sang “Set me as a seal upon your heart” by David N. Childs. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the choir. The Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund and the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy support this week’s services.