I remember when I was a kid, I was fascinated with a place of mystery called Timbuktu. I loved the sound of the name and the possibility of being as far away from home as Timbuktu. No doubt it was a place of mystery, intrigue, and stories. There were tales of gold, riches, and the place where East Africa and Saharan Africa met. The stories abounded so much that in 1855, the French Geographic Society offered a major prize to the first European to go there and report back. What amazing, fantastic stories could be in Timbuktu!
I have always been drawn to stories of people and places, adventures and mystery, where fates and fortunes were found, lost, and again pursued. In time, my appreciation of stories of broadened to include narratives of all kinds. Stories told of love and love lost; stories of wisdom and tomfoolery; never-ending stories and stories with no end; stories that entertained and ones that pressed the mind to an inner exploration of meaning.
In my homily of last Sunday, I shared my experience of growing up in the Baptist South and attending tent revivals. In its own way, the tent revivals were as far from my Catholic experience as Timbuktu was from my front door. I described the experience as one in the well of stories, “Where men stood up and testified, words honed by years of practice. There were epic tales of sin and redemption wherein Jesus pulled them from the devil’s grasp and washed them in His blood. Women, spoke of love betrayed, and of loss and pain and joy so fierce that it almost seems to slice apart the humid summer air. Everyone praised the times Jesus saved them from despair, raised them up, wiped away their tears, and set them on the road to righteousness.” This was a very specialized form of storytelling: giving witness, giving testimony – but storytelling, nonetheless.
Today we celebrate “Word of God” Sunday. There are so many things that could be said about the Word of God, but I would say this: it is a collection of God’s stories as God reveals Himself to his people and the world. It is the greatest stories ever told and our most basic job is to be people who tell these stories to our family, our loved ones, our friends, our neighbors, and folks on the highways and byways of life. When historians consider simple letters and other written items from the first and second centuries, they have described the spread of Christianity – not as simply the evangelical efforts of the big-name people like St. Paul and others – but as people telling stories over the backyard fence.
To know, tell, and share the stories in our own voices is to weave the stories into the fabric of our lives. So much so, that in the shared knowledge of the stories, they can be shared with simple phrases: “O say can you see…” Simple, short and brings to mind the story of Ft. McHenry, the War of 1812 and Francis Scott Key’s composition of our nation’s anthem. Our connection to the Bible, the Word of God, is the same way. Think of the stories of Scripture you know and are brought to mind with simple words or expressions: the Good Samaritan, the Good Shepherd, the Prodigal Son, Garden of Gethsemane, Calvary, River Jordan, and so much more. The stories are already there in the fabric of your life. Share them!
…and then the hesitation begins… “Do I really know the story?” My experience is that people are really asking themselves, “Can I quote the story?” Over the backyard fence, “quotologists” are not needed. Story tellers are needed.
Isaiah was the one who told a story in the first reading when he spoke of “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali.” For folks in Isaiah’s time, the reference was as clear as “oh say can you see.” They heard the phrase and instantly knew of that these were two of the tribes of Israel that were conquered by the Assyrians – but in the gloom of their fate, they were given the promise of a Savior and a new light to cover their lands, rescuing them from the darkness of their enslavement. This is a story of our shared history and the promise given.
In the second reading, St. Paul reminds us all that between here and the final there, the final land of light where joy and great rejoicing reside, there will be suffering. Christ suffered and so we should not be surprised if we too suffer at points in our life. St Paul’s story reminds us that the promise endures, but only in the name of Christ. This is the life: sent to live the Gospel.
The Gospel? Today’s story is about the Call and Mission. While today we hear of the account of Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John – but it is a reminder that the promise is carried to ends of the earth by people just like you and me. The Word is carried from the lake region of Galilee to the end of the earth – even to Timbuktu!
We are called to people who carry the Word of God in our lives. Maybe you are called to carry it only so far as the end of the driveway – then do that. It is in reading children’s bible stories; it is reminding yourself to be a good Samaritan; it is receiving and accepting the prodigal son or daughter – it is reading, listening to our family stories. From the land of Naphtali, to Galilee, to your house, to Timbuktu.
And then telling them in your words, as your stories, over the backyard fences of your life.
Then just as we have enthroned the Word of God in a special way this weekend, you will enthrone the Word of God in your life.