“The Greatest STORIES Ever Told”
A few years ago, the Cheyenne Interfaith Council, made up of liberal and conservative Christians including Mormons, Catholics, Methodists, Disciples of Christ and even Presbyterians…as well as Jews, Muslims, and Unitarian Universalists, sponsored a three-week seminar on the Book of Mormon. Wally Stock, a popular local attorney and his wife, both active LDS leaders, explained the Book of Mormon and other LDS beliefs.
One evening as I walked out of the seminar with a Christian friend, he said to me, “Weird, just plain weird, don’t you think?” I said, “Yes, I suppose it is, but I’ll tell you what’s really weird is the Old Testament story about Moses and the snakes. Now, that is really weird.”
What a preposterous story the elves of the lectionary put in our Lenten path this morning. Cathy read it from the 21st chapter of Numbers. The Israelites set out on a journey, so the story goes. From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea. I’m guessing at least some of them suffer PTSD from the last time they saw the Red Sea; but along the way the people became impatient. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water.”
Remember in Matthew where Jesus asks, what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” Well, now we know the answer.
The Lord’s response is not to send a fish, but rather…poisonous snakes. These serpents bite the people and many Israelites die. The people come to Moses and say, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prays for the people. And the Lord says to Moses, “Okay…just do this Moses. Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a real live serpent bit someone, that person could look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
I’m sorry. I know that is our story, a part of our Bible. But it’s weird. And yet from the pulpit of nearly every Christian church this morning preachers will connect this story to the most compelling of all Christian stories, the story of Jesus being lifted up on the cross. The connection goes like this. Just as whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live so it is that we can have life by looking upon Jesus on the cross, knowing that in three days he will rise from the dead and walk out of the tomb.
That story is so compelling that Christianity in all of its many forms is the largest religion in the world. That story drove us right to the top of the charts. There are about 2.1 billion people on the planet for whom this story is compelling enough that they identify themselves as followers of the Risen Christ. It’s called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
But, it’s not the only story that propels people into a meaningful relationship with God. When Joseph Smith was 21 years old, so the Mormon story goes, an angel named Moroni gave him some ancient records. Joseph had little formal education and was unfamiliar with the ancient language written on the sheets of gold, but he was able to translate them because God gave him the gift and power to do so. The translation took less than three months, and in 1830, 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon were published.
The Bible is written by and about the people in the land of Israel and takes place from the creation of the world until shortly after the death of Jesus. Mormons accept the Bible as the word of God as do we. But they also have The Book of Mormon, what Mormons believe is the history of God’s dealings with the people who lived in the Americas between 600 BC and 400 AD. The prophets in the Book of Mormon recorded God's dealings with these people, which were compiled by a prophet named Mormon onto gold plates.
I understand that may seem silly to you, but it is the Greatest Story Ever Told for millions. Missionaries are handing out copies of the Book of Mormon all over the world, even we speak. What kind of book can cause so many readers to go out into every corner of the world and knock on the doors of houses and huts, testifying to how that book and its stories have changed their lives?
Worldwide, there are over 15 million Mormons, a few more than the numbers of Jews. In North America the LDS Church is the 4th largest individual denomination with over 6 million members, a population about equal to the number of Muslims.
Did you realize that Jesus is a significant part of the Greatest Story Ever Told for Muslims? Muslims find his birth to Mary and his ministry as a great prophet to be a compelling story. He is one of the five greatest Muslim prophets along with Moses, Noah, Abraham, and Muhammad. True, they do not believe he was divine, neither do they believe he died on the cross.
The Quran tells a story about a group of Jews who insulted Jesus and his mother. He appealed to God against them. God transformed those who had insulted Mary and Jesus into monkeys and swine. Then the Jews, according to the Quran, took counsel on how to kill Jesus. But, Muslims believe it was not possible for men to kill someone so close to God. They teach that God told Jesus that He would raise him up to heaven, and so Jesus said to his disciples, “Who among you will agree to make yourself look like me and die in my place and be crucified and then go straight to paradise?” A man among them sacrificed himself, so that Jesus could live. God changed him into a form resembling Jesus and it was he, not Jesus, who was crucified.
Weird story? Right? But a story compelling enough that Islam is the second largest faith on the planet following close behind Christianity. Islam is growing much faster even in the US than are we.
It is a conceit unbecoming a faith in God to see our story as the only story. Yes, the Book of Mormon is strange. The Quran has teachings with which we disagree. Native Americans and other indigenous peoples as well as the Hindus and the Buddhists tell stories we find off the wall but they find compel themselves into a life of faith in a divine being.
I like this Buddhist story. It’s called The Thief and the Master. One evening, Zen master Shichiri Kojun was reciting sutras when a thief entered his house with a sharp sword, demanding "your money or your life".
Without any fear, Shichiri said, "Don't disturb me! Help yourself with the money, it's in that drawer.” And he resumed his recitation. The thief was startled by this unexpected reaction, but he proceeded with his business anyway. While he was helping himself with the money, the master stopped and called, "Don't take all of it. Leave some for me to pay my taxes tomorrow.”
The thief left some money behind and prepared to leave. Just before he left, the master suddenly shouted at him, "You took my money and you didn't even thank me! That's not polite!" This time, the thief was really shocked at such fearlessness. He thanked the master and ran away. The thief later told his friends that he had never been so frightened in his life.
A few days later, the thief was caught and confessed, among many others, his theft at Shichiri's house. When the master was called as a witness, he said, "No, this man did not steal anything from me. I gave him the money. He even thanked me for it." The thief was so touched that he decided to repent. Upon his release from prison, he became a disciple of the master and many years later, he attained Enlightenment.
During Lent, we Christians seek enlightenment on a path leading to the greatest story we have ever been told. We are on a path to the cross and an empty tomb. This is OUR story, the one that invites us into a relationship with God. But it is not the ONLY story by which people come to know God.
There are consequences God didn’t intend if we claim our story as exclusive to the world. Losing sight of the fact that we do not have the ONLY story, but one of many can lead us into the worship of idols. If we believe our story is the only story, we are turning our version of God into a Golden Calf. I don’t thing God intended our story to be seen as exclusive. God intended stories to be the way in which we all come too see God, to understand God, and most important…to have a relationship with God.
When we care more for the story than for the relationship, we have stepped over a line intended by God to separate believers from idolaters.
What should we care if Mormons find the story of the angel Moroni to be compelling? Who are we to say the Muslim story is wrong or that the stories of other faiths are weird while only ours make sense? Maybe ours make sense because we have been raised from children to believe these stories. They make sense to those who have long been taught about God through the images of these stories.
But what about others who were raised differently, with different stories and different faiths. What does it matter which story they adhere to IF the story compels them to love God, to love others. Please don’t say, What about radical Muslims who believe the Quran teaches them to kill us” unless you also want to talk about how fundamentalism causes people of every faith to do evil.
Don’t tell me how violent the Quran is until you go back and read Joshua and Judges and compare the body counts and atrocities there with whatever you read in the Quran.
Stories that inspire believers to kill others are not God’s story. When a story, whether from the our Bible or the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, the Book of Mormon, or the Bhagavad Gita leads people toward God’s love and causes them to love others…it is the word of God.
We’re nearing the end of our Lenten journey for another year. Let’s finish strong. Let’s not worry about whether the greatest stories others have ever been told sound strange. Instead, let’s be thankful when their stories bring them into a relationship with God such as causes them to join us in bringing hope to the world. AMEN