Rev. Tina Walker-Morin
Pilgrim Congregational Church, UCC
November 22, 2015
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you Oh God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
This morning I have a message for you about stories.
I saw an online post this week drawing a historical parallel to the current plight of Syrian refugees. The image was dated January 20, 1939 and stated “It has been proposed to bring to this country 10,000 refugee children from Germany – most of them Jewish – to be taken care of in American homes. Should the government permit these children to come in?” Below was a bar graph which showed the results of the poll, 30% Yes, 61% No and 9% No opinion.
This post raised the question: How apt is the comparison between Syrians today and German Jews before WWII, and what can and cannot be learned from it?
When I began thinking about this question, I was taken back to my time as a high school student learning about WWII. In my 9th grade history class we had a concentration camp survivor come and tell us her story. Her story of suffering, of fear, and of survival. She believed she survived the concentration camp because of a kind Nazi soldier who allowed her to keep her red coat. This small act of kindness she believed is what enabled her to survive.
Stories. We all have stories. And all of our stories are full of bias and uniqueness. As Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen states, “they fix facts with meaning. This is the root of their power. Stories allow us to see something familiar through new eyes.” The meaning we may draw from someone’s story may differ from the meaning they take away. “Facts bring us knowledge, but stories lead to wisdom.” Which stories in our lives are told and retold? Usually they are our favorite ones, ones where we triumphed or maybe learned a great lesson.
Think about King David from the Old Testament. What story first pops to your mind when you hear “King David”… is it David vs. Goliath? That generally is the one I first think of. As I was working on today’s sermon I went back and read that story as well as the other stories in 2 Samuel chronicling his time as King.
If you look in chapter 22, just before today’s passage, you will find David’s Song of Thanksgiving. Seems rather appropriate for this time of year, and then we arrive at today’s scripture: “The Last Words of David”.
The opening of this passage states, “Now these are the last words of David” (2 Samuel 23:1) which is a reference back to the last will and testaments of the many great leaders before David such as: Moses in Deuteronomy 33, Isaac in Genesis 27, and Jacob in Genesis 49. In ancient Israel, as in most cultures, last words and wills carried great significance. We still see this today. These words are David’s way of passing down what he wants his family and followers to remember…it is his story.
If we break down this poem into three sections you find three themes. First, in verses 1-3 David mentions that he was divinely inspired. He felt God was calling him and asking him to act on God’s behalf. Secondly, in verses 3b-5 David wants to be remembered as a fair King, “One who rules over people justly” and to be remembered as a dynasty. And lastly, in verses 6-7 he concludes with remarks about the fate of those who do not have faith in God. So he wants his children and the next generation to remember him as a leader touched by God, who was fair and he warns them against not having faith.
Imagine if David had told this at a Thanksgiving table. Everyone sitting around the table, David sitting at the head and he begins to speak. If I were sitting there I would have thought, “oh boy here he goes again talking about beating Goliath. Yeah, yeah we know you were the underdog and won.” It reminds me of my uncle who has told me the same story over and over again. But then David surprises the family and leaves them with this story instead.
Stories, that is how we remember people and it is how we get to know one another. I read a story this week in the Washington Post about a man who is 105 years old and is a Syrian refugee. Let me share it with you…
Abdul Rahman Ahmed
From Elmah, Syria
Now in Zaatari Camp, Jordan
Left Syria January 2013
Abdul Rahman Ahmed is 105 years old.
He was born into the Ottoman Empire. He hasn’t had teeth for 42 years.
“My wife took them out with her kisses,” he says.
By his count, Ahmed has had six wives, nine children, more than 100 grandchildren and at least 150 great-grandchildren. “After that I’m not sure — I don’t keep in touch with them all,” he says, laughing. He’s always laughing, his rheumy, cataract-clouded eyes twinkling with mischief.
He lived for most of his life in the Syrian village of Elmah, where he was a farmhand tending wheat, lentils, chickpeas and watermelons.
Then the Syrian war came, and his house was destroyed by bombs dropped by Syrian government planes. Now he lives in a 20-foot-long trailer among 120,000 other Syrians crammed into the sprawling chaos of the Zaatari refugee camp in the desert of northern Jordan.
Most elderly refugees worry about doctors and health care and spend a lot of time at the camp’s numerous medical clinics. Not Ahmed. He feels great. He says he has never been to a doctor in his life, ever.
He doesn’t take medicine, doesn’t like it. Won’t even take an aspirin.
“God will take care of me,” he says.
He says he has perfect eyesight — doesn’t even need reading glasses. But that’s not a big problem since he never went to school and never learned to read or write. His village didn’t even have a school until 1930.
He eats a lot of hard candy. He loves coffee and drinks buckets of the high-octane, mud-thick brew that is coffee in this part of the world.
His white beard is stained yellow at the center of his upper lip, from the cigarettes he is constantly puffing. He says he smokes three packs a day, and there is always a pack of Manchester Lights sitting in front of him on the foam pad on the floor where he spends his days and nights, wrapped up in gray blankets from the U.N. refugee agency.
The secret of his longevity?
“The keys to a long life are cracked wheat, olive oil, tobacco and God,” he says, with the dead certainty of a man who has lived a century, his face almost disappearing in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
About the only concession Ahmed makes to old age is his wheelchair, which he uses to get around the rutted dirt roads of the refugee camp. He likes to walk a few steps every evening for exercise.
He mainly passes the time with family and neighbors, who seem to love to crowd around him. He’s fun. He’s a smart aleck. He says his final dream in life is to travel to Venezuela. Why Venezuela? His friends practically shout at him as they ask, since he doesn’t hear so well. “For the weather and the women,” he says, and everyone roars.
But there is a serious side, too. Ahmed is sad about being forced from his home.
He says it happened to him once before. After World War II, he spent a couple of years working in Palestine. But during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, he was forced to move home.
“When you leave your country it’s hard,” he says. “It’s okay here, but I lived in Syria for 104 years. My whole life in the same village. But if I have to die in Jordan, I will die in Jordan.”
He keeps up on the news from Syria through his friends.
“The crisis is getting worse and worse,” he says. “Right now I’d like to pick up a gun and go join the Free Syrian Army.”
Asked whether he knows the name of the U.S. president, he shakes his head and says, “Why would I know that?” (There have been 19 in his lifetime.) But when prompted by his friends, a look of recognition spreads across his face.
“Yes, Obama,” he says. “I want him to come save us.”
That is part of Abdul Rahman Ahmed story. After 105 years I am sure there is much, much more. But he gave me pause and reminded me of all the elders in my life who I have loved, like my great aunt Cece who lived to be 104. What if Abdul’s story was her story? It makes me want to go over to Jordan and bring him here to live with me! That is the power of stories.
Stories touch us. I think God gives us stories so that we can open up to one another and let each other, and God into our lives. Once we know a person’s story we have a better understanding of who they are and maybe, just maybe we have more compassion.
I have never forgotten that concentration camp survivor and seeing her prisoner ID tattooed on her arm. She believed that small act of compassion, the solider allowing her to keep her red coat, kept her alive because it gave her warmth through the harsh winters. I would have to agree but I also interpret her story as God’s love staying with her through those horrific days and keeping her warm. Just as Dr. Remen says, I drew a different meaning from her story than what she took away.
This Thanksgiving I invite you to listen to other people’s stories. May it is your parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, neighbor or friend. Or maybe it is to listen to a Syrian refugee’s story. Either way listen and let them into your heart, you just might be surprised at what you find.
 Remen, Rachel Naomi Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (Riverhead Books: New York, 1996), xxviii.