Lucy Strong – A sermon on Psalm 78

Covenant Network Regional Conference / November 8th, 2014
Idlewild Presbyterian Church / Memphis, TN

Listen and hear, remember all the things you have known and heard. Take the memories and share the stories of the mighty acts of God. Don’t keep silent or hide the things of the past from the children but rise up and tell the coming generations of the wonders of God. Teach the glorious deeds of the Lord, so we might set our hope in God. Remember the works of God and keep God’s commandments. Give the past life in our stories.  How else will we learn and cherish the faith and perseverance of our great cloud of witnesses surrounding us?

The author of Psalm 78 is issuing a call, a call to listen and remember, but also a call to pass on the stories of our faith and the faithful. The psalmist understands the power of the story, a power that not only creates memories and teaches but also provides hope.

My family is a family of stories. For nearly every situation, there is a story at the ready. Stories of heartache and stories of joy. Stories that are simply for laughter and stories that we simply can’t live without. Stories that explain who we are and whose we are. Some of our stories are true, some of our stories are not as true. All the same we keep telling our stories, remembering the past that shapes us today and pushes towards the future.

The people of Israel are also a people of stories. A deep and rich history is passed on through the telling of stories from generation to generation: stories of Adam and Eve and our place in creation, stories of Noah and family and faithfulness in the midst of what seems to be a crazy request, stories of Moses and the commitment to the commandments of God, stories of Ruth and Naomi and the reshaping of the definition of family. The teacher in Psalm 78 summons Israel to listen and be ready to be instructed by the stories of the past, to learn from those who have gone before. In a way, the words of the psalmist “create a historical memory of the mighty acts of God, which when remembered, bring great wonder.”[1]These stories of the faithful of Israel remind us of the ways God works in the world in and through the people. When we look back and recall these stories, we begin to recognize the cloud of witnesses that shapes our faith.

Even as we gather here today to seek answers to why marriage matters to the church, if we listen and heed the call of the psalmist, these stories of the past shape our answers.

When we hear the story of Adam and Eve we are reminded that we are created in the image of God, and blessed by God. We are reminded that we are created to be in relationship, to not be alone, but to have a partner for this journey. When we hear the story of Noah and his family, we are reminded that Noah is not sent alone on the ark, but the call to trust the Lord is held by a family. When we hear the story of Ruth, we learn of the deep bonds that are formed in marriage, not only between the two coming together but also in the family and those gathered around. So while these stories of our ancestors in the faith do not give us definitive answers to our question, they teach us all the same.

We keep hearing the stories that connect our present with our past. The stories continue but what is our place in the stories? What are the stories we tell? What are the stories that shape us today and give us life? Having grown up in this sanctuary, the people and stories permeate through the walls. As we gather for this conference of the Covenant Network, I think of the ways the deep and rich stories of the cloud of witnesses in this place shape us and shape our call, giving us life and gathering us in. Stories of the saints who have gone before, paving a path for the rest of us. Stories of congregations, doing the hard work and tackling the hard subjects, working toward the unity of the PC(USA). Stories of people struggling together, with the support of a great cloud of witnesses.  These stories, our stories have power to connect us and give us hope. This week, in particular I think of the story Pam Byers lived. Even though I never met Pam, her story of faith had a great impact on my own life and call. Her tireless work towards bringing about a more just and generous church affected so many of us in this place, and as we celebrate the witness to the resurrection we have in her death, we must continue to tell Pam’s story.

As I mentioned earlier, my family is rooted in stories; and while this is great, it must also be mentioned that the stories we tell LucyStrong (2)often are shared over and over and over again. Occasionally they change to some degree, but there is a good deal of repetition. Some people might even get tired of these stories . I imagine that on occasion our friends and family might be thinking to themselves: “is she really going to to tell that story again, it isn’t even that great of a story” but fear of repetition rarely stops us. And I think the psalmist agrees with us, the call is to tell the things you have known and heard, sharing with the children so that they might share with their children. The stories pass through the generations. All these things we have known and heard, but why is it so important for us to keep telling our stories from generation to generation, over and over again?

I spend my days with a feisty and inquisitive three-year-old named Ann Thomas. She knows what she wants and when she wants it. A normal occurrence with Ann Thomas is for her to find a book, climb up in your lap and ask, “Will you read this to me?” So you read Curious George from cover to cover, stopping occasionally as Ann Thomas likes to examine all the pictures just to see what George is up to these days. You get to the end and discover George recovered from whatever mishap occurred and as you go to close the book, Ann Thomas quickly asks, “Again?” Why not, one more time, right? You close the book and once again, Ann Thomas asks for a repeat performance. You can easily read the same story five to ten times in the span of an hour, the same story — over and over and over again. The amazing thing is not Ann Thomas’ attention span — although it is impressive — the amazing thing is that the story becomes a part of her life. You will find her later in her room with her guys, a combination of Han Solo, Captain America, and a plastic green lizard, reenacting the story we read. At lunch, she will begin the conversation with a fast paced, “Ms. Lucy, Ms. Lucy, Ms. Lucy, remember that time that George ended in a hot air balloon because he was trying to save Hunley?” By the end of the day Ann Thomas has roped her brother Sam into being a part of the story as she pretends to be George in the backyard. This one story, a mere ten pages, shared a few times is now a permanent fixture in the imagination of Ann Thomas. She remembers all the ins and outs, and you never know when the memories will resurface. She is giving the story life.

Now I am not saying that the “dark sayings of old” or the stories of the “glorious deeds of the Lord” compare with the adventures of Curious George, but I do think Ann Thomas is a prime example of what the Psalmist is trying to teach us. The repetition of our stories shape our memory and our experiences, and it is through these memories and experiences that we grow and learn. In the repetition of stories, we don’t simply remember the stories, they become a part of our lives, ingrained in our thoughts and actions, and we (like Ann Thomas) are able to give the story life. The stories of the faith bring great wonder to all the generations — when we share them.

So we continue to lift our voices and share another story, stories of faith and faithfulness, stories we pass on from generation to generation, stories we have heard and known from our great cloud of witnesses. We share our stories so that we may not grow weary or lose heart as we journey along. We share our stories so that we remember to set our hope in God, and give life to God’s commandments — after all, what is the good in a story if you don’t tell it.

[1] Brueggemann, Walter. New Cambridge Bible Commentary: Psalms, p. 341.

Lucy Strong is the Presbyterian Campus Minister for UKirk Agnes Scott and the Greater Decatur Area.  She was recently approved for ordination as a Teaching Elder by the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta.

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