By Matt Handi
As a child, my grandfather would tell me that he was singlehandedly responsible for the end of World War II. For much of the war he was stationed in New Jersey but as an invasion of Japan seemed imminent, he was transferred to a post in New Orleans. He served in the Navy and started to prepare for war. He was nervous but ready to ship out. Then word came down that the Japanese had surrendered. He, like the rest of the country, was relieved that the war was over.
When he came home, he made a life. He married his high school sweetheart. He had three wonderful children, one of them my father. And he told my father about the time he ended the war, because, you see, once the enemy heard that my grandfather was due to be shipped out, they surrendered. My father then told this story to his friends at school. They laughed and Dad didn’t understand why.
When the story got to me, I imagined my grandfather, 10 times the size he really was, muscular and wild eyed, perched atop a battleship yelling tally-ho or something like that, and it made sense that he was singlehandedly responsible for the end of World War II.
These are the stories we tell and they create a legend.
When my son was five, he went to an outdoor birthday party and they served chocolate cake. My son does not like chocolate and would probably prefer green eggs and ham if given a choice. Not realizing what the cake was made of, my boy took a bite and then quietly put the plate down.
The party’s hosts were concerned: “Don’t you like the cake”, they asked?
Rather than saying that he just didn’t like chocolate, he replied: “No, I’m allergic”. And with that the parents hosting the party went over to my wife and apologized profusely, to which Jenn replied: “He’s not allergic, he just doesn’t like chocolate!”
When the story got to me, I imagined a tidal wave of people rushing towards Jenn, knocking over strollers, lawn chairs, small children to alert her to the fact that our poor allergic son was in imminent danger of experiencing anaphylactic shock. And when she told them the truth that there was no allergy, I imagined the wave receding, baby dolls and strollers with broken axles left in its wake.
These are the stories we tell and they make us family.
A man once walked the earth preaching peace, love, and reconciliation. He looked at the world around him and disagreed with what he saw. And he talked about it. He went from town to town, village to village, from Galilee to Jerusalem and he preached about a better world, a better human, a better life.
He told stories, wonderful stories about a kingdom promised to each of us if we choose love over hate, peace over war, acceptance over intolerance and so much more. He ordered storms to cease. He criticized those in charge. He violently protested against secular business taking place in the holiest shrines. He turned over tables. He upset the authorities and the authorities would not stand for such insolence. Those authorities, the Romans, the Pharisees, humanity, us, upset at his words and actions, sentenced this man to death.
This man was then put to death in a most agonizing and cruel way for he was nailed to boards and then propped up on those pieces of wood to await a final breath that would take hours for him to breathe. The people around him watching the crucifixion mocked this man. They taunted him. In response to this, the man forgave his executioners. And in front of this man, as he struggled against death, his mother watched, the woman who loved him from his first day, who birthed him in spite of danger to herself and raised him and loved him and loved him always until forever.
When this story finally got to me, I didn’t focus so much on the violence of his death but rather the miracle of his life. That a man would so willingly point out the wrongs that surround us in order to save us astounds me. That this man stood up against those wrongs and knowingly risked his life to do so fills me with hope that there are such people around us today. And not only was he man, he was the son of God. We worship him today, this day and every other day and we call him Jesus Christ.
These are the stories we tell and they make us aspire to holiness.
A group of people once gathered to tell the story of this man who gave his life for us. And they told his story over and over and they aspired to holiness. They reenacted the some of the most important parts of the story. They acted as Christ told them to act. Some would seek shelter in a wilderness and they were known as hermits. Others would preach to those unfamiliar with Christ and they were known as missionaries. Still others would lead a group of the like-minded and they were known as priests. And all of them, from the bishop to the priest to the laity would seek to be more holy.
They told the stories and they became a family, a church family. Sure there would be disagreements and they would bicker over time, but what family doesn’t? Still, they never stopped identifying as Christian. Some would split and travel long distances across oceans so that they could form their own brand of Christianity. Other times there would be great wars between them. But in times of calm, we do not so willingly highlight our differences and with a polite nod, we acknowledge that we are all a part of a Christian family.
And over time, they told the stories some more and this man who sacrificed everything for us became legend. These stories connected everyone to each other. The story of ultimate forgiveness grew. The story of a man’s resurrection grew. The story of a man who promised us salvation, this legendary tale of a man was told first by his apostles and then shared throughout the ages, passed down by word of mouth then read in books. At the heart of this legend is a fantastic truth and it unites here today.
And when these stories of a God who was at the same time man reached me, I understood them to be stories that became enmeshed in our very humanity for the stories define us as Christian and we seek out goodness in others and in ourselves. Indeed it completes our very humanness. For without wanting holiness, for without the stories that map our family tree, without the legend, we are more separate, less whole, less human.
And today, these are the stories we tell and they define what it means to be human.
We are not islands. We are not on this earth a lone person floating in the sea. We are a part of a community. We are all brothers and sisters and we are each other’s keeper.
In southern Africa there is a philosophy called Ubuntu. It is a philosophy of a shared humanity that reads: I am, because of you. Read another way, you can say: Because of you, we are. Basically, we are all in this together and I thought of Ubuntu when I read probably my favorite books in the Bible, The Acts of the Apostles.
From Acts: “Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”. In that quote is a very important word: Fellowship. The believers in Acts were not alone, but were sharing communion together as a community and because of each other, they became whole.
They were not just there for communion though, not just there for worship. Instead they were building relationships, telling the stories of the wonderful things being done by the apostles. These stories bound them together. And to this day, we tell the stories of the Apostles and the wonders they performed and we tell the stories of Jesus and the miracles he performed and we praise God and look for the goodwill of all people.
Because of these stories and in sharing the stories, we are coming together as one body, each an individual part of the entirety we define as humanity. Because of these stories, we are.
Those stories, those stories are such a great part of being Christian. For so long I was able to wander along in life bouncing from place to place which is fine for a while, but until I renewed my faith in God, there was always that nagging sense that there was something else, something more to this world and I found it. I found it in the stories told at parish dinners, sermons during mass and in scripture. I hear the stories every Sunday as we worship together and in quiet moments of reflective prayer. Every Sunday, I am reminded how wonderful it is to be a part of a community that is defined by love and I so enjoy hearing the words from so many. For you see, because of those stories, because of our faith, we are. And because of we, I am.
Matt Handi is an Operations Manager for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. He resides in Southington, CT with his wife and two children, who he loves very much. In his spare time he enjoys reading, hiking, and watching the Mets flirt with greatness every year before their inevitable late season decline.