The Stories We Tell
Jennifer Dault Harris
A sermon delivered by Jennifer Dault Harris at Overland Baptist Church, Overland, Mo., on Sept. 11, 2011.
Storytelling is a natural part of our lives. I often run into several of you at Cooperative Baptist Fellowship events and ask what’s been going on at Overland and can expect to hear stories about sermon series or ways that you have been active in your community. We tell each other stories to relive our experiences. And while that is true for all of the good things in life – an “A” on your math test, a promotion at work, the birth of a grandchild – there is also a need to tell stories when tragedy strikes. Today, on this 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York, we have shared stories of our own experiences. If you have been listening to the radio or reading news or surfing the internet this week, you’ve probably noticed that 9/11 stories are everywhere. We tell stories because we are trying to make sense of what happened 10 years ago. We tell stories because are hopeful that in sharing, we will hear something new, something that will trigger an “ah ha” moment and finally resolve why this happened. And we tell stories because we don’t want to forget.
In our passage today, two apostles are traveling to Emmaus, which our text tells us was about 7 miles from Jerusalem. While they are on this journey, they are talking to one another – telling stories about Jesus’ death and what that might mean. I imagine they are devastated. Jesus held all of their hopes – he was the Messiah, the chosen one, the one who was going to lead the way to a new way of life – a life free from Roman rule. And now what? He’s dead? Were they wrong to place their trust in Jesus? What about the last few years? After all, they gave up their lives to follow Jesus. And now… if anyone recognized them as Jesus’ followers, maybe they’d be killed, too.
So they talk and share all they remember, but the last few days seem hazy, patches of the week seemed to be missing from memory. “If we just tell the story enough, we’ll figure it out. We’ll remember the piece that’s missing and it will all make sense.”
About that time, Jesus shows up – only the apostles are so impacted by their trauma, they don’t recognize him. The next few verses seem very strange. How do you not recognize the person you have followed? Those who study trauma tell us that might not be so unusual – when you’ve lived through something traumatic, your mind gets stuck in a rut. Your patterns of thought become limited and things that seemed commonplace before may completely baffle you now. So it is not completely unreasonable that these two men didn’t recognize Jesus. But it does seem strange that Jesus didn’t identify himself, doesn’t it? Jesus can relieve them of their distress right there by saying “hey guys, it’s me!” and perhaps giving them a hard time for not recognizing him… but he doesn’t do that. Instead, he merely asks what they are talking about. Cleopas answers “you must be the only person in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s been going on.” He goes on to tell about Jesus – the prophet from Nazareth – the one we hoped would redeem Israel was handed over and was killed three days ago. And now, some women who are part of our group say that when they went to the tomb this morning, it was empty. They say there was an angel who said that Jesus was alive. But then some of the guys went over to check it out. The tomb was empty, but no one was there. Hope, dashed yet again.
And Jesus – the stranger – spoke up “you fools!” he said. You’ve got it all wrong. He started reframing their stories, talking through the Scriptures and the prophets and letting them know what the story was really about.
Ten years after the attack on the World Trade Center, I wonder if it might be time to reframe our story, too. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, and author of “Trauma and Grace” tells us that traumatic events limit our ability to imagine. Our structures of meaning have been shut down and we are unable to analyze what has happened and think new thoughts. I believe our nation has been stuck here. In order for healing to take place, we need to tell our story and have someone truly listen to it. And then the storyteller and the listener must work together to tell a new story. This new story doesn’t ask us to forget the hurtful events, but it is a retelling of those events in ways that bring hope back into our lives.
The Scriptures are full of such stories. The Israelites had to continually reframe their identify as they were exiled from the Promised Land. They had to figure out what it meant to be the people of God in a foreign land, under foreign rule. How to have hope for the future that God promised when nothing in their circumstances seemed promising.
We, as Christians in the United States, are charged with doing the same thing. We are charged with looking at 9/11 through the lens of our Christian story, through the Gospel that brings us hope.
What might that look like? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I have some ideas.
God always calls us to look beyond ourselves. We are hurting and in many ways still mourning – both the lives that were lost and the sense of security that was lost in the attacks. Might others be hurting, too? In the United States, we have been priviledged to have a sense of security. We can go to work or school or sporting events without giving a second thought to our security – except maybe when we are inconvenienced by going through a metal detector or having our bags searched. But most of the world isn’t so lucky. Africa and the Middle East especially have been torn apart by war for decades – war that is on their soil, in their cities and villages. War that means civilians are never safe.
Or what about the more than 1 billion people worldwide who live on a dollar a day or less? In that kind of extreme poverty, survival is always a top priority. Death and grief are a part of life.
Or what about those living within our borders who became targets after 9/11? In the summer of 2002, I was a summer missionary in Fremont, California, in an area known as “Little Kabul.” I spent the summer getting to know immigrants from Afghanistan – most of whom were refugees from the Soviet Invasion. Many of my friends told stories of having seen family members killed. Several were being chased by the occupying powers because they were too educated, or held differing political beliefs. They made it to the United States were nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Through hard work they made a life here, most of the people I met had become United States citizens and were incredibly proud of their adopted country. But when asked about how they were treated after 9/11, they became sad. Many women refused to leave their homes for a few months because their headscarves made them targets of rude comments and threats. One story in particular haunted me. A girl around my age – a college student at the time – was born in the United States to her Afghan refugee parents. She was studying to become a journalist, like I was. She was learning Persian languages, because she knew some of the older Afghans did not speak English and needed translators for medical forms and information. She volunteered her time to them and to a clinic. After September 11, she received a death threats – in the mail and pushed into her backpack telling her that she was not wanted and that she needed to go back to where she came from. “Where do they want me to go,” she asked me. “This is my home, the only place I have ever been.”
Does our story of 9/11 make room for those who are different from us? Does it make room for those who are hurting, whether or not their hurt is the same as ours? Does our story provide hope for those who suffer on the other side of the world? If not, it is missing the story of our faith, missing the Gospel news that we are charged to share.
The apostles on the road to Emmaus listened to Jesus’ story. They invited him to journey with them into the village. The text says “they urged him strongly” – they begged him. He was offering hope, and it was contagious. At dinner, Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it and gave it to them. In that moment – with that familiar activity – their eyes were opened. They recognized Jesus. The text tells us that the moment the apostles recognized Jesus, he vanished. “Weren’t our hearts burning while he was talking to us?” they asked each other. “Shouldn’t we have known it was him?”
Jesus wants to be part of our story, too. Wants to offer hope to us and to the world that surrounds us. Will we allow him to reframe our stories?