This post is based on a service which I led in 2014. I explored the idea that Bible stories have multiple layers of meaning, using the story of a steam train trip my dad Paul and I took earlier that year. I showed a short video I made of the trip.
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Introducing the Theme (2014)
In a moment I’m going to show you some photos and video I took when my Dad Paul and I went on a trip from Christchurch to Greymouth and back again on a steam train. I took 379 photos and 2 hours of video... but you will be pleased to know I have kept this morning’s presentation down to just under 4 minutes. This is the first of the three stories we will consider.
One of the challenges of preaching is to identify, understand and share the deeper meanings of the stories and passages in our lectionary scripture readings. I heard recently about a Christian who asked the Dalai Lama whether she should become a Buddhist to gain a deeper sense of God. He answered no, you should delve deeper into the mysteries of your own faith. A wise answer.
I seems to me that stories have four layers.
First there are the background, context, social conditions, and location of the story. John Dominic Crossan calls this – Matrix. I like that. We need to know how the story came to be told.
Second there is the story itself – the narrative layer. Characters say and do things, events happen, journeys are taken, children are born, people die, there are conflicts and their resolutions.
Third there is the first interpretive layer – where we see the obvious surface meaning of the story, the points that the original storyteller wanted to get across to her audience.
Fourth there are deeper meanings, where we bring our own experiences and wisdom to bear on the story. Perhaps we compare and contrast two or three similar or connected stories. Here we find a message that we can learn from and apply today in our context or matrix. Here we will find general principles and broader ideas.
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Let’s get back to the steam train trip.
I’m just old enough to remember when steam trains were still in service on NZ railways in the late 1960s. The Christmas I was seven I was given a Triang model railway set and have enjoyed railways both full size and in model form ever since.
My Dad Paul remarried and moved to Brisbane in 1979 when I was 19. He has often come to visit and got to know his grandchildren in the years since then.
Second layer – A few details about our adventure.
We went by ferry from Wellington to Picton, then by bus to Christchurch. The ferry ahead of us was late getting into Picton, where only one ferry can berth at a time, so our ferry soaked up the time by going around the top of Arapara Island instead of the usual route through Tory Channel.
We stayed with Heather’s Mum Averil for two nights before and after the steam train trip.
The railway between Christchurch and Greymouth is single track, with passing loops, where we had to wait for coal trains and regular passenger trains to pass us.
Because the Otira tunnel, down from Arthur’s Pass to Otira, is very long and steep, and our carriages were older rolling stock, Kiwi Rail required us to disembark at Arthur’s Pass and catch buses down to Otira for safety reasons.Let’s see some photos and video clips
Click this link for the 3:57 minute short video on YouTube:
(In case you are interested, my full 25:30 minute video is on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/lHMq1_7ygVI)
Third layer – some more obvious points.
Dad and I planned the trip and made bookings. But we had to rely on other people to help along the way. Sarah let me have a day off from the shop. The ferry crew, bus driver and Mainline Steam who ran the steam train, were professional and gave us safe, enjoyable journeys. Averil shared her home with us for two nights.
Unexpected events sometimes have silver linings. We saw a part of the Marlborough Sounds we had never seen before when the ferry captain made a detour.
When they announced on the train that we would have to transfer to buses at Arthur’s Pass we were disappointed at first. But then it was pointed out to us that if we stayed in the train down through the Otira tunnel, all we would see was 20 minutes of darkness. Instead we travelled on a dramatic, steep winding road, passed over the new Otira viaduct and saw bush and mountains we wouldn’t have seen from the train.
On the train the seats were fixed, with two facing forward and two facing backwards and a table in between. So we were face-to-face with strangers at the start of the journey. But we soon introduced ourselves and got to know each other. One of the men across the aisle had a birthday and his wife had packed a surprise birthday cake, which got cut up and passed around. By choosing to make new friends we had a more pleasant time.
Fourth layer – a bit deeper
Because Dad and I have lived physically so far apart for more than half my lifetime, we have to both be intentional about nurturing our relationship. I can’t just pop down the road to see him. This trip was about having a shared experience and growing our relationship.
So, for relationships to succeed, we need to work at them.
On the steam trip getting to the destination was not the most important thing – the journey was. If Heather and I are driving somewhere, she is the one who wants to stop at a roadside stall to buy fruit or park and look at the view. I’m usually focussed on getting from point A to B in the shortest time.
On the steam trip I enjoyed the many photo stops and took lots of photos and video. The snowed covered mountains and the scenery were inspiring. I was thrilled to stop at Cass – we have a print in our lounge of Rita Angus’s famous painting of Cass, and I was there. I felt the wind in my face when I went up to the open air observation carriage.
So, I learned a little about enjoying the journey, being mindful and aware of the moment.
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Back to the Bible (2023)
In the 2014 service I used the idea of multiple layers of meaning to explore: Exodus 32: 1-14. The Golden Calf, and Matthew 22:1-14. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet.
A clearer example is Matthew 14: 13-21: Feeding the Five Thousand.
Here is the text from the NRSV. The highlights are mine.
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled, and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Finding the layers of meaning
Matrix: Jesus is journeying through Galilee ministering to the people who come to see him. The disciples journey with him. Under Herod Antipas’ rule life is hard for people at the bottom of society and food is never plentiful.
Narrative level: It is evening. The people who came to see Jesus are hungry. Jesus takes the five loves and two fish the disciples had with them, blesses the food and distributes it to the crowd. Everyone is fed well and there are 12 baskets of food left over.
A little deeper – trying to make sense of the story: I used to believe that there were two possible ways to interpret this story. Either the story is factually correct, and Jesus miraculously created a surplus of food. Or the people all had some food with them which they kept hidden and only brought out and shared when they saw Jesus example, i.e. they were in a sense shamed into sharing their food. Neither explanation appeals to me.
Deeper still: Perhaps this story is really a parable; its meaning is symbolic. John Dominic Crossan draws attention to the words: Took-Blessed-Broke-Gave. What does this remind you of…? Yes, the last supper, the love feasts that the early house church Christians shared, and the Eucharist / Communion we participate in today in our churches.
The story tells us that Eucharist / Communion is not a private act (as in the closed Upper Room) but an event to be held in the open to which all are invited.
This parable has a provocative edge: “…you give them something to eat” Jesus says to the disciples. We are challenged to do the same today.
Short videos which you create can be a useful tool in worship. Less than 3 minutes is ideal.
Most mobile phones today take excellent quality video. If you don’t know how to edit a video to show in worship, ask your congregation for help. Someone will know what to do and will enjoy working with you.
Do you find the idea that Bible stories have several layers of meaning useful?
How could you apply this to the services you lead?
Our scriptures were written at least 2,000 years ago for people in a different time, place, society – matrix to us.
Showing how something from today, e.g. a train excursion, is related to a given story in the Bible will help your congregation to engage with and get new understandings of scripture.
Use your imagination…
24 January 2023