A Better Story
I’m so delighted to be able to share a message with you today. My mom, Karen, who is a member of your congregation, has really come to love her church family, and she speaks so highly about all of you, about Pastor Alicia, and about the ministries and mission you’re about in Syracuse and beyond. I’m in a season of transition in my life. I’ve been serving as a pastor of local churches for the last 17 years, but I just concluded my time as pastor up in the North Country in Gouverneur and North Gouverneur, and this fall, I’m heading back to school to work on a PhD in Ethics. It’s a big change, and I find myself in a strange kind of limbo this summer. I’ve spent part of the summer staying at my brother’s apartment in Rome, while he’s been staying with my Mom. By the time we share virtually in worship on Sunday, my brother and I will have swapped, and he’ll be back in Rome and I’ll be staying with my Mom in Syracuse. Next month, I’ll move to New Jersey. In the meantime, I have things in a storage unit, and things at my Mom’s, and things at my brother’s, and things in my car, and my cat went to live with my dear friend Bruce Webster. It’s been hard, this summer, to feel grounded, to feel a sense of “place.” So I was pleased when Pastor Alicia talked to me about a worship focus on Exodus and Wandering. I feel like I can really resonate with these Exodus texts in a different way right now, even if my experience is small compared to the decades the Israelites spent in between places.
Pastor Alicia asked me and the other worship leaders who will share as part of this series to think about these questions: What does the Exodus mean to your life, your experience and the story of your people? Organizationally, how do you shift or change? They’re challenging questions. The last one is a question that has always fascinated me, not just organizationally, but also on the individual level: How do we shift or change? We know that change happens all the time. But often it seems to happen to us without our consent, and we’re just trying to catch up to the ground that’s shifted beneath our feet. But what about when we change on purpose. What inspires us to change? Why and how do we do it? I’ve wondered about this a lot, and worked to better understand change.
After all, the evidence suggests that although we’re often not excited about change, even when we do want to change, we’re not always very good at it. Just think about resolutions you’ve made over the years. If you aren’t a New Year’s Day resolution person, maybe there are other times that you’ve made yourself a promise about how you are going to change. You’re going to lose weight and start eating healthier. You’re going to read more. You’re going to kick that bad habit. You’re going to attend worship more regularly. You’re going to commit to a deeper level of social justice activism. But somehow, despite how sincerely and deeply we might long for a change in ourselves, in our behavior, and despite how committed we might be to whatever issue we’re trying to address in our life: we don’t change. Why is that?
This spring I read a book called How to Create a Vegan World by Tobias Leenaert. I’m a vegan - I don’t eat any animals products - and I’m interested in learning the best ways to encourages other to consider plant-based diets too. I found Leenaert’s book fascinating. He points to research that suggests that often, it isn’t our beliefs that change our behaviors, but our behaviors that influence our beliefs. Hear that again: It isn’t our beliefs that change our behaviors, but our behaviors that influence our beliefs. In other words, just because we believe something is right or wrong doesn’t mean we behave in accordance with our stated beliefs. And in fact, we’re more likely to eventually say we believe in a way that supports the way we’ve been behaving. Our minds don’t like it when our beliefs and behaviors don’t match up, so if we have to change one or the other, we’re apparently more likely to adjust our beliefs than our behaviors because sometimes that’s easier to do! So Leenaert talks in his book about how we can get people to adjust their behaviors and then we’ll find that people have adjusted beliefs. For example, people used to be at best ambivalent about or maybe opposed to laws against smoking indoors or about required seatbelt use. Not everyone supported having laws to enforce those behaviors. But once those laws existed, and people weren’t allowed to smoke inside and they were required to wear seatbelts, support for the laws increased dramatically. The belief adjusted to the now-required behavior.
What does this mean for people of faith? For people whose lives are grounded in what we believe? A few years ago I heard a fantastic lecture by theologian and preacher David Lose. (1) He, too, was talking about how beliefs can be changed. Lose pointed to studies that show that people’s beliefs are not impacted by facts. We see that at work in our world all the time, don’t we? We give people facts that seem hard to argue with about a situation, and somehow they’re still convinced that their opinion is right and the facts are wrong!
Lose said that studies show that when we get information that goes against a deeply held belief, the part of our brain that responds isn’t rational. Instead, our brain responds like it does when we’re being threatened by something physically dangerous. He talked about taste tests for soda that showed that people prefer RC Cola over other kinds of cola in blind taste tests. But, RC Cola doesn’t have the highest sales. Lose says that’s because facts don’t convince people. Stories convince people. And we like the “story” that Coca-Cola sells us, the place it has in our culture. People in the test taste didn’t believe the results when they saw them.
So, how do we work for change? Lose says that we use stories to make sense of our lives and to organize our experiences. When we get together, we tell stories. We tell ourselves stories about why we do what we do. I do this ____ because I believe this _____. We elect political leaders who tell a story about who we are and who we want to be that resonates with us. Jesus didn’t present people with facts. He presented them with stories. He tells story after story. Compelling stories with unlikely dramatic events, and dysfunctional but familiar family dynamics, and power struggles, stories about reversals of fortune, and stories about mercy, grace, and love.
Jesus isn’t trying to convince us with facts. He’s trying to tell us a story about ourselves and our world that is a better, more life-giving story than we’ve ever heard before. He’s trying to give us a story filled with God and God’s love that is just better and more compelling than the story we’re living every day. Lose challenged his listeners to make sure we’re sharing a story of good news that is such a good story that people can believe it instead of the story of empire, the story of might makes right, the story of money is everything that we’re told all the time.
By now you might be wondering if I still remember what I’m talking about, and that I’m preaching on a text from Exodus. I do, I promise! For the next several weeks, you’re going to be thinking through the Exodus story. How do a people - God’s people - who’ve been enslaved for generations escape, find their freedom, claim a homeland, and become who God has promised them they are meant to be? The Exodus story is one of the most important stories in the scriptures. Today, though, we look at a small snippet of Exodus that reminds us how the Israelites ended up in Egypt to begin with. In Genesis, a book that spends a lot of time introducing us to the covenant relationship between God and God’s people, we read the story of Joseph and his brothers. Through a series of events that would make a great soap opera arc, Joseph, an Israelite, ends up as second in command to the powerful Pharaoh, King of Egypt. When Joseph’s family and other Israelites are hungry, Joseph, who has helped ensure that Egypt is thriving during a famine, arranges for his family and other Israelites to be cared for in Egypt.
At the beginning of Exodus, we read that the Israelites were strong and growing. The land was filled with Joseph and his father and brothers and their families and their descendents. Things were good. But then time passed. And Joseph died. And his brothers died. And that whole generation died. And in verse 8, we find words that are a bit ominous: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” The new Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph and his family. What he knew was that his land was filled with Israelites, and he didn’t like it. The story of Joseph had been forgotten. I wonder if even the Israelites had forgotten their own story. I wonder how long it took before things went from pretty good for them in Egypt to pretty awful. I wonder when they realized they were no longer in the good old days. I wonder how long it took before the people started crying out for justice. I wonder how long it took before they realized that the story they were telling about themselves was no longer true, and something needed to change.
I don’t know your story as a congregation, but some of you do. What are some things that you celebrate in your history? When have you shown strength and perseverance? When have you had to adapt? When have you been thriving, flourishing? I hope you treasure and celebrate the mission and ministry that you’ve been about for generations! Sometimes, though, so much has changed around us that the story we’ve been telling ourselves about who we are doesn’t quite ring true anymore. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it does mean we have to find a new story. In Exodus, God will help the people write a new story. The heart of the story is the same: God never abandons God’s people. But the story gets told in a new way, unfolding in the wilderness. It takes a long time before the Israelites have changed hearts and really listen to God’s story for them. But God will help them remember.
God is ready to help us, too. God is ready to tell us a story of love, grace, and forgiveness. God is ready to tell us a story of abundant life. God is ready to tell us a story that will change our whole world. We might have to journey into the wilderness before the story really sinks in. But God promises to be with us every step of the way. Thanks be to God. Amen.
My notes on Lose’s lecture can be found here: http://bethquick.blogspot.com/2018/06/festival-of-homiletics-david-lose.html. Lose preached at the 2018 Festival of Homiletics in Washington, DC in May 2018.