Stories matter and the story we share particularly so for bringing people and communities together. Having a common story that tells how we got to here, mapping out the centuries past, is an important part of a community’s identity. And it is important to ensure that each generation knows that story and therefore understands what makes this people who they are, why they see what they see and understand what they understand. I often find I understand people so much better when I know their story and it improves how we relate. We need to know who we are talking to; we are not just talking to some kind of biological robot. To be human is to have been shaped by a story, a journey, and some of that is our personal one and some of it is the bigger story of the people where we are. Each person brings something different into that mix and so the story evolves.
I was at the Cohesion and Diversity Forum meeting for the city the other week and our subject was looking at Integration. There is a Government green paper, the ‘Integrated Communities Strategy’, which has been produced and is out for consultation. The key message of it is that Britain is on the whole a well-integrated society but in too many parts of our country communities are divided, so people don’t mix. This not mixing leads to mistrust, misunderstandings and it prevents the most isolated from taking advantage of the opportunities which belonging and participating in society brings. And the green paper identifies what it sees as being a number of drivers of this poor integration. These are the pace of immigration – where people have arrived at a greater speed than can be assimilated (and we might add the failures to be welcoming and enable joining in), school segregation where children do not meet and so grow up without meeting, the low levels in some communities of being able to speak English at an adequate level, segregated communities where people of different backgrounds just don’t interrelate, employment levels in these places, some cultural attitudes and how much social mixing there is. It is quite a wide range, but related collection of issues. There is an agenda aimed at tackling each of these areas, which in Peterborough looks at language, young people, tackling segregation, increasing economic opportunity and looking at some cultural blockers. Interestingly the budget for addressing the growing homelessness problem in the city is coming out of this agenda, not least a Migration Limitation Fund!
An important factor in Integration will be how we tell stories about who we are. And in the discussions the Heritage Festival came up. How do we use, as a city, this opportunity to tell the story of this city and not just battles? This is a city where people have arrived over many centuries, but where is the story of those who have come here in the last 50 years? How do we help one another understand the story of this place and also the story of the people who are now here, which has to come together? Some of these stories will intersect, and not always well. Those who have ancestors who were slaves mean we all have to come to terms with Britain’s past involvement in the trade and its abolition. Those who come from former Empire lands and places of British rule and misrule, will require a coming to terms with this. Heritage is a mixed legacy. I find in each place I live, I don’t really inhabit it until I have a sense of its story – the good, the bad and the ugly. And sometimes I need to know just what darkness, untold stories lurk beneath the surface, but are still working on the corporate psyche.
The importance of story featured strongly in our readings this morning. The book of Deuteronomy (5:12-15) reminded its readers that they were once slaves in Egypt. Their common story has slavery, oppression, liberation and the forming of that people as they journeyed through the wilderness. The Sabbath, then, so fundamental as a weekly day of religious observance, is a day to remember who they are, their story. God has chosen them and shaped them. God has defined who they are. That story is important for them to remember.
But Jesus was not limited by it and neither should we be by our stories. Walking through a corn field when he and his disciples were hungry, no story should interrupt them from preparing food – just like King David raided the larder when his men were hungry. A man with a withered hand was healed, despite the expectation that the surgery would be closed (Mark 2:23-3:6). The point he was making was that while the story of the Sabbath is important, it was made to assist who we are not us made to serve it. Remember and live, be set free, which is what Sabbath connects with, and being free from hunger and a crippling disease are dramatic ways of demonstrating that.
Stories also set out the direction of travel. They shape how we see the world. So the Christian story is rooted in God the creator, the redeemer and the sustainer of our life. It proclaims the love of God in Jesus Christ and calls on us to live that love in everything we do and are, and to draw others to join in, to follow Jesus Christ too. That is the story that this church sits here to proclaim and stand as a witness to. It is not just an old building that has been around for a while. The Sabbath is to remind us of the heritage of faith which has brought us to this point and which we live today.
And at the heart of this service is God’s presence in word and sacrament. The bible readings have an honoured place, rightly so, in all our worship. They are the story of our faith and it is a living story to inspire and give the hope that means while we might get ‘perplexed, we do not fall into despair’, ‘afflicted we are not crushed’, and however we are ‘struck down, we are not destroyed’ (2 Corinthians 4:5-12). We also remember through bread and wine, as we share together in a meal that has the primary intention of keeping the story of Jesus in front of us: his life, teaching, dying and rising.
So stories matter. They remind us who we are and they change over time as new people bring their stories to join in. Integration requires stories to be known and shared, to be learnt along with the language, and to be celebrated. When they bring different outlooks these need to be brought into the open so that there can be mutual understanding. There is no dialogue if that does not happen and just like we need to know what is important to others, they need to know what is important to us. And significant festivals are part of making that known, to others and to ourselves.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy… Remember that you were a slave… and the Lord brought you out.” (Deuteronomy 5:12,15) In doing this we are not just observing laws, but allowing the story to shape us, the story of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Trinity 1 – Sunday 3rd June 2018