The Power of Story
Catherine Fox and Francis Spufford explore the way we find our identity as we discover our place in God's story. With the Rev Dr Sam Wells live from St Martin-in-the-Fields.
"Story's the way we discover who we are." Winner of the Costa First Novel award Francis Spufford is the preacher, with fellow writer Catherine Fox as they explore the way we find our identity through discovering our place in God's story. Led by the Revd Dr Sam Wells with the Choir of St Martin-in-the-Fields, directed by Andrew Earis. Producer Stephen Shipley.
This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.
It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events.
BBC Radio 4. Costa First Novel Award Winner Francis Spufford and Catherine Fox join the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London's Trafalgar Square for today's Sunday Worship which looks at the power of Story. It begins with the hymn 'When a knight won his spurs, in the stories of old.'
When a knight won his spurs – arr. Andrew Earis Flute, Piano, Choir
Good morning and welcome to St Martin-in-the-Fields. We learn how to live by working out of what story we find ourselves we find ourselves to be a part. We learn how to believe by finding our place in God’s story, and working out what character we are called to play.Story’s the way we discover who we are and how we are to work out what we are to do. The first question is, ‘Where am I coming from?’ and it leads to recognition of our family, community, race, nation. But the second question is, ‘Where am I going?’ and that discloses vocation, destiny, and hope. Story is a profound and powerful way of identifying where we are each coming from and where we believe we are going. Being baptised is, more than anything else, setting aside a story that I desperately try to author for myself and gladly being clothed in a story that is fundamentally being authored by God.
Let us pray.God of the past and the future, in your scripture you show us your character and the way you tell your story; in your church seek to imitate your love and we anticipate the truth to which you draw us. Open our hearts to the depth and texture of your purpose; humble us that we may participate with joy in your unfolding drama; and bring all your people into the wondrous promise of your glory, revealed in your son Jesus Christ. Amen.
Francis Rowley turned story into song, when, in 1886, he saw that our identity was as those who’d been lost, and now were found. I will sing the wondrous story.
HYMN: I will sing the wondrous story [Dim Ond Jesu]
When the prophet Nathan confronts Samuel over his murder of Uriah and marriage to Bathsheba, it’s through story he changes the king’s heart.
READING: A reading from Second Samuel chapter 12.
Nathan said to David, ‘There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meagre fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’ Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’
The novelist Catherine Fox was enthralled by the power of story from an early age.
TestimonyI grew up in a world of books. I didn’t love them, particularly. Books were just there, like the weather, like dust. What I did love was stories. I loved reading them and playing make believe—up trees, in the old shed, on the wasteland. The pretend world was far more interesting than the world of doing sums, and putting things away properly.I learnt early on that stories had a way of getting out of the covers of books into the real world. What if—at the bottom of the stone steps in the dank cellar under our house—Gollum was lurking, Precious? It seemed probable. Robin Hood wasn’t content to lie flat in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Chronicles, either. ‘Look,’ I’d say to my sister, ‘the hall is the stream. I’m Robin, and you’re Friar Tuck, and you’ve got to carry me across.’ It was two-way traffic. People could vanish from the real world into a book just as easily—judging by how difficult it was to get my mum’s attention when she was reading a novel at the tea table. My childhood was a place where hobbits, Little John—and the characters from my own secret stories—all wove in and out of the world of real people. And then there was Jesus. I grew up with bible stories, too. ‘Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear’. That was a hymn we used to sing in chapel Sunday School. ‘Words full of kindness, deeds full of grace’. I’ve lived with the stories of Jesus for decades now. It’s been two-way traffic here, too. Jesus has come out of the pages, just as I have entered into a story far bigger than my own. I turn the stories over in my mind often. Jesus, asleep in the boat in a storm when all hell breaks loose—how can he sleep through this? Or I’m fighting my way through the crowd, just to clutch the fringe of his prayer shawl. With every passing year the story becomes more real to me.
And increasingly, I ponder the final chapter. How will it end—the world, me? I sense the company of that huge cast of characters who have gone on ahead, who already know, who have met the author and finisher of their faith. So yes, tell me the stories of Jesus. ‘Words full of kindness, deeds full of grace—all in the love light of Jesus’ face’.
MUSIC: Tell me the stories of Jesus – Spiritual/American song
Jesus is the storyteller who becomes the story. We hear one of his most famous stories, after which Francis Spufford tells us about the power of story.
READING: A reading from the gospel of Luke, chapter 10.
Jesus said, A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.'
SERMON:The Christian scriptures are unusual in the space they give to stories. The Buddhist sutras contain some, but mostly they’re treatises. The Quran has narrative bits, but they tend to be there as illustrations to support an argument. The Bible, on the other hand, is stuffed with stories, right through the Old Testament, as we call the part of the book we share with Judaism.And then when you reach the New Testament, the part of the book sacred only to Christians, you find yourself reading the story of a storyteller, and of all the stories he told. Jesus narrated, not just some of the time, but virtually all of the time. Ask him a question, and he would tell you a story. Ask him what he meant by a story, and frequently he would tell you another story. The stories were about everyday things, but they had the odd characteristic of lingering in the mind, and becoming stranger and more complicated the more you thought of them, so you could never be sure that they had quite finished giving you what they had to teach. For my money, Jesus of Nazareth was the best producer of weird Jewish fable until Franz of Prague came along. (Kafka, I mean.) He was as reluctant to explain why he told stories as he was to explain himself every other way. But he did once say this: ‘The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand”’. A difficult and ironic statement – but one thing Jesus might have meant was, that storytelling struck him as a way of getting around people’s inability to perceive, to listen, to understand. People might understand something in the form of a story that would otherwise be blocked by the limits of our sight, our hearing, our deeply entrenched and well-established judgements of the world.And I think this happened because Jesus always left open the question of who his hearers were supposed to identify with. The story was for you, about you, in some way, that was plain. But who were you supposed to be in it? He would never say.
Often our response, over the two millennia since, has been to tidy the stories up. Take the story we just had in the lesson: one of the most famous of all, the story of the good Samaritan. It’s a nice, transparent fable about being kind to mugging victims, yes? Don’t walk by on the other side; do pick people up and look after them.No, it isn’t. It’s an offence to common-sense and conventional wisdom, that’s what it is. A deliberate provocation. Look at the context. Everyone knew before Jesus even opened his mouth that you were supposed to be good to your neighbour. It said so in the Jewish law. The perfectly sensible follow-up question, was: okay, who is my neighbour, then? Where do I draw the line, because in a world of finite people with finite resources, it’s obvious that I can’t care for everybody. And Jesus’s response is to pick, as the hero of his story, his demonstration of what you owe to strangers, somebody who is the least sympathetic kind of stranger. A ‘Samaritan’ is someone from Samaria, a place where in minds of everyone listening, they did their religion wrong, in a distorted and repellent way. If you let this be just an example of a prejudice you’re naturally too enlightened to fall into – you’re missing the challenge. You need to substitute for the Samaritan someone to whom you have a genuine, serious objection, backed by the principles of which you are genuinely proud. Not, for you, the good Samaritan, but the good homophobe. The good racist. The good drug dealer. The good terrorist. The good Brexiteer – or the good Remainer, just as easily, because when it came to offence, Jesus was an equal-opportunity messiah. The priest and the levite, meanwhile, are not caricatures of selfishness and indifference. They’re obeying the religious law, which says, no exceptions, that contact with blood, such as the poor muggee has all over him, is polluting and will stop them carrying out the duties the community depends on them doing. They’re the reasonable, virtuous, well-intentioned boundary-preservers here, who know you’ve got to draw a line somewhere.
So here’s the story. The victim lies groaning in the alley, and whoever it is that you instinctively trust in the world walks on by without stopping, for the best of reasons; and the only person who helps, who pulls up in his ratty car with the ISIS flag on it, or the vile bumper sticker, or the wraps of heroin strewn on the back seat, is the one in whom you least want to recognise yourself. But those are the choices. Those are the possible answers to Jesus’ perennial question, who are you in this story? You could be the victim, but that’s too easy. You could be the priest or the Levite, secure in their righteousness: but the image of their virtue’s limitations is the blood unstaunched, still pooling on the road. Or you could be driving to A & E as the agent of God’s unreasonable compassion, His insanely large definition of what a neighbour is, but only on condition that you step outside your sensible zones of good and bad, and onto God’s map of the world, where none of us are reliably virtuous, but even villains suddenly do saintly things. The first hearer of the story, back in the Bible, doesn’t even want to say the word ‘Samaritan’. He just mumbles ‘the one who helped’. Tell me honestly, how surprised are you that this storyteller ends up getting crucified?One more story. Once upon a time, this one goes, the creator of the whole universe walked and talked and laughed and suffered and died among us, as a kind, fierce, tricky rabbi from Galilee. Maybe you don’t think the universe is the kind of thing that requires, or even could possess, a creator. Fair enough. But the question the story of Jesus is meant to make you ask is the same one he prompted in the stories he told. Who am I in it? Who, in this story of hope offered whether we deserve it or not, and all our categories bust open, and the mess and drift of time turned to unexpected good, might I be? What news of me, troubling and wonderful, might it bring? Who am I in it? Amen.
MUSIC: A man there lived in Galilee
Bob Chilcott’s setting of William Walsham How’s hymn, which vividly describes what it means for a child to find a place in God’s story.
Let us pray.Storytelling God, you unfold the creation and call a people and send your Son to draw us into your story and make us your companions forever. Visit today any who feel they’ve lost their place in your story, and see their circumstances as ones of cruelty, randomness, or hopelessness. Bring them the kindness of strangers, the company of the open hearted, and the life of your kingdom. Lord, in Your mercy – Hear our prayer.
Transforming God, through your prophets you continue to tell your story and invite us to find our place in your purposes. Bless those who are new to faith; inspire all on whom you bestow the gifts of telling your story; and show each one of us what character to imitate, what words to say, what life to inhabit that sings your praise. Give strength to all who face big decisions or anticipate vital news today. And place your story in our heart, that we may walk with you forever. Lord, in Your mercy – Hear our prayer.
Reconciling God, your people learned to sing your song in a strange land. Show your church how to dwell among people who tell a different story, who find its story alien, unhelpful, or impossible. By your Spirit shape a world where people of different stories may find a way to live together in peace. And when we forget how your story goes, sing it back to us in words of love.
MUSIC: We shall walk through the valley in peace – Spiritual
Our Father,who art in Heaven,hallowed be thy name;thy kingdom come,thy will be done on earthas it is in heaven.Give us this day our daily bread;and forgive us our trespassesas we forgive those who trespass against us;and lead us not into temptation,but deliver us from evil.For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory,for ever and ever. Amen.
Like the great Greek poet Homer, Fanny Crosby believed being blind only increased her ability to tell a wondrous story. In 1873 her friend Phoebe Knapp played her a new melody, and said to Crosby, ‘What do you think the tune says?’ Crosby replied, ‘Blessed assurance; Jesus is mine.’
HYMN: Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine
BLESSING:May the God who invites you into the story of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit enfold you in that story forever. And the blessing of God almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.
MUSIC: Organ Voluntary
Radio 4 Closing Announcement: Sunday Worship came from St Martin-in-the-Fields. It was led by the Revd Dr Sam Wells and the music was directed by Andrew Earis. The organist was Martin Ford and the flautist Sarah Maxted. The producer was Stephen Shipley. Next week's Sunday Worship comes from Manchester and looks at a Christian approach to the world of work.