John 4:1-29 - Luke 7:36-50 - Luke 19:1-10
Whoever tells the story determines the heroes and villains. Western history has been written primarily by wealthy, white, heterosexual Christian men – the holders of societal power for the last 17 centuries. We learned the story of Oz from Dorothy’s point of view, but there are other perspectives and HERstories. Jesus engaged people based on a true understanding of their background stories rather than the external presumptions or common assumptions.
No one alive today is older than the original story of the wonderful Wizard of Oz. Or of the first Broadway musical adaptation from 1902. The movie which made the story of Dorothy ubiquitous was released in 1939. Which means that in various ways everyone alive today is inheritor of imagination shaped by this narrative. But what if the narrative is wrong.
Wicked the musical is presented as a prequel to the wonder wonderful Wizard of Oz, offering some backstory imagining how the characters and situations we discover in the Wizard of Oz along with Dorothy came to be. How did the wizard come to be the wizard and how did it come to be that Glinda is the good witch and Elfaba is the bad witch? The “Wicked Witch of the West.” Popular history is always written by the winners. Other groups write history but it doesn't survive at all or remains hidden.
From early childhood we are taught by intentional peer and adult messages along with narratives from the wider culture that there are insiders and outsiders, people who are on our side and those who are on the other. Even in the Bible we see indications of this in Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament when God’s people struggle with their relationships they have with those outside their own tribes. How often do we make assumptions and snap judgements about people based on where they are from, who their people are, what we think they say or do?
One of the challenges we face theologically is wrestling with the presence of evil in the world. Are there actually evil people, or is it rather that evil “spirits” take control of people and organizations and pull them away from the divine image in which they are made? What does it take to bury the Light and Breath of God in each person that would then allow them to behave destructively toward others? And what about mental illness or other expressions of distorted nature (like brain tumors) which prompt people to act in ways contrary to the love of God that creates, redeems and sustains all things?
Perhaps you had the experience of visiting with aunts, uncles or cousins as an adult and hearing alternative versions of stories you received as a child from your own parents. As you're sitting around the kitchen table you hear them talking and the dissonance rings in your years. Either their version is incredulous, or you hear a truth in it that brings to clarity the discomfort you always felt with the versions of the story you received as a child.
My purpose here is not so much to challenge the validity of whether certain actions were good or bad. Rather to help us see behind the actions to the person of the actor and wonder about what led them to take those actions. As Brene Brown asks of herself and those she teaches, “What story are we telling ourselves to makes sense of the world as we experience it?" The story you tell yourself then gives rise to the actions that you take. In Rising Strong, Brown tells the story of swimming in the lake with her husband. She thought they were going for a swim together and he apparently thought they were competing and so he took off swimming without her. She began to create a narrative in her own head to make sense of what her husband was doing. She became increasingly upset because he abandoned her in the water. After having conversation with him later that day she realized that they simply had different understandings of the situation and therefore different expectations and different actions. Her interpretation was based on her understanding and expectations which were completely different from his.
Even when it is objectively true that another person's words or actions are hurtful and harmful, it is still worthwhile to understand what's behind their choices. We may discover sympathy, empathy or compassion toward them for the brokenness behind their bad decisions. At the very least we can experience a reduction in our own resentment when we see that they were perhaps not as free or complicit as we imagined.
During the spring of 2017 we gathered in small home groups as a congregation simply to hear one others' stories. I don't know about you, but as I listen to people's stories from childhood, adolescence and earlier adulthood, I gained a much greater appreciation for their personality and how they live and move in the world. Through this process people may become four dimensional beings rather than the two-dimensional caricatures we often project upon them through our presumptions and laziness.
As we look around our church, around our community, and around the world, how can we learn to see others as God sees them, rather than as our dominant cultural narrative or our own distorted stories present them? Until we move beyond our assumptions and see the image of God in each person we will not be able to love our neighbors and our enemies as Jesus both commanded and demonstrated. Each person has the spark of God in them, and each person has a story that shapes their thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, words and actions. Let us learn to listen and appreciate each person as a child of God.