Do you have a favorite childhood story? I have long been fascinated by stories—and how we tell them—whether it is through spoken or written word, images, art, movement, or music. As an undergraduate student I studied communication arts, which included debate classes, rhetoric, radio, television, and film. As someone drawn to the stories in the bible, I love how the past, present, and future intertwine. How we tell our stories weaves into who we are as individual, as a community, a nation, and a global community.
This week, one of my favorite childhood stories came to mind—all over one word. One tweet. One statement. About trolls. Yes, the world was “troll.” Once upon a time, one of my favorite stories was the 3 Billy Goats Gruff. For me, it was all about the images, the goats, the bridge, the lurking danger, and the repetition of the sounds: the trip, trap, trip, trap of the hooves on the bridge; the raging, hand waving question, “Who is going over myyyyy bridge?” and the shifting pitches of the goats’ responses: “It is I” (the high pitched baby goat’s), “It is I” (the middle pitched middle sized goat), and the “It is I” (of the large, full-grown goat). I was pulled into the narrative as my parents told the story of the ruff, grumpy, curmudgeon of the troll who lived under the bridge stomped about ranting and storming. A disturbing encounter over which a happy ending occurs only when the troll is overcome.
Today, trolls take on another meaning as we scroll through social media. If you are not on FaceBook, Twitter, or Instagram, you still likely hear about trolls, bots, and fake news through the media. There are trolls alright: lurking and stomping, and storming about. These are the disturbing encounters we are dealing with today… not in fairy tale mode… but in our living, breathing, life and death reality.
This week, on Twitter, Diana Butler Bass flipped my concept of “trolls” upside down. It was a “duh” moment. A spiritual “ah-ah”! In snippets, she tweeted out the reading from Mark (Twitter has a 280 character limit for each post, so the maximum length of each tweet is fixed).
- Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
- Then Jesus said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were perplexed.
- But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
This is a story we’ve heard. This is a narrative with which we have been struggling since the crowds gathered around Jesus and heard it told. It is one of the stories that is told in Matthew (Matt. 19:16-30), Mark (10:17-31), and Luke (18:18—29) that challenges us most directly. And it has disturbed people throughout time. We know it disturbed them then. The rich young ruler was shocked when he heard it. The disciples were astounded. And Peter said, “Look! Look! I’ve already do that! I’ve given up everything to follow you!” In response to which Jesus complicates the narrative. For them, and for us.
So often we have turned to this passage and justified the “what needs to be given up?” as “whatever keeps you from following Jesus.” What is separating you from God? Busyness? Stuff? Bass tweets out, “The Gospel is NOT about ‘whatever keeps you from following Jesus.’ It is Jesus’ take down of a system of injustice… It isn’t a metaphor. Jesus was being quite literal. Wealth is at odds with the kingdom (of God).”
This. Is shocking. Astounding. Complicated. And, Bass notes, the lectionary… today’s reading… is trolling (us)…” She draws, “a contrast between the injustice of this sort of wealth and the justice of God’s abundance. The first is built on exclusive & hubris; the second flows from the beloved community and grace. The former prizes entitlement; the latter is established on a foundations of gratitude and thanksgiving.”
This was my “ah-ah.” My “duh” moment. This is what scripture does. What Jesus and the prophets have always done: Troll our reality. Challenge us. Shock us. Astound us.
But as we shift the story, change the narrative, flip over from wealth and injustice we can begin to celebrate God’s abundance. In this third week of our 8-week reflection on the renewing… resiliency… and resistance… of gratitude… Bass notes that “Opening our hearts to the constant flow of receiving and responding to gifts—the reality that surrounds us all the time—makes us both more grateful and more generous… What a beautiful vision of the world: abundance! Gifts constantly flow around us like a river. And we can live in that flow.”
Once upon a time…
In the 1950s, 1960s… People felt that it was a solemn obligation to go to church. A solemn obligation to give to the church. But in our lifetimes there has been a shift. We are living into a Second Reformation. A change in church. Today, most people do not come to worship out of solemn obligation. They do not come and sit in the pews because they feel they are required to do so. And most people no longer give to the church out of a sense of solemn obligation, or duty. And we know this. The shift is happening all around us. It is a movement. A change. A transformation. And this should be celebrated.
For this transformation is not just happening now – it has already happened. A shift away from solemn obligation. And guess what? This is GOOD NEWS. Really! I think that this shift in how and why we give to the church is good because people are now giving more often to the church because they are inspired. Stewardship, our financial gifts to the church, happens more often now out of inspired choice, than from solemn obligation. People are responding financially because they, you, I, we… have heard the Good News and we are excited, energized, and ready! Ready to change the world. To celebrate God’s abundance. Rev. John Dohauer, the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ writes that, “(People) want to know that their life’s energy will be spent on something meaningful. They want to be called into action. They want to know that they are needed. They want to experience something transformative… Being elected or appointed to serve on a committee and deliberate about how to finance or fund a dying institution has no appeal to them. They want to be sent…”
Once upon a time is today. Today Jesus calls to us. Calls us to action. To change the dialogue. To change the story. To be inspired. By God. By Jesus. The Spirit. Each other. Each and every one of us, long time members, youth, those new and new(ish) to the church, have been invited to purposefully gather together in small groups over the upcoming weeks for House Church. Cottage Meetings. Small gatherings in which, as Kaitlin Young writes, “we invite you to bring yourselves… to bring yourself… to delve deeper into what makes Memorial (UCC) run: all of the amazing things we do as a congregation, what it means to give to the church, and to get feedback from all of you…This is not a meeting to collect your money or pledges. It is a time for fellowship, conversation, and questions.” And… I would say… inspiration. An opportunity to celebrate abundance.
For it seems to me, that how we tell our stories today, the NEED TO TELL OUR STORIES, our truths, our faith journeys, is just as important… maybe in ways more important… than ever. How we respond to the trolls, the bots, the fake news, and tell the truth of our lived experience with God—with Jesus—matters. And that the trolling that arises out of the words of the prophets and the life of Jesus, these words that shock us, astound us, test us:
- proclaim a new narrative
- a new hope
- a new understanding
… of abundance, of gratitude, and the inspired choices that challenge us to live differently… to follow Jesus… differently… so that all may live fully into the flow of God’s gifts.
 Dorhauer, John. Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World. Chicago, IL: Exploration Press, 2015. 35.