The Stories We Pass Around

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Epiphany + January 14, 2018

Reading: John 1:43-51


Early in November I went to Houston for a training session for the ELCA National Youth Gathering, which will take place there this summer. As part our training we did a practice run-through of our Synod Day worship and activities, and the pastor of a local congregation gave the sermon. I remember one of the personal stories he shared.

It had been a little chilly in Houston in October, well, at least chilly for Texas, and at least before the sun came up, which is when Pastor Jackson liked to go running. So one of those chilly mornings he pulled on a sweatshirt and pulled the hood up to keep his head warm, and went for his usual morning run. As he jogged around the quiet streets of his suburban neighborhood, a police car pulled up beside him, and the officer stopped Pastor Jackson to ask him a few questions. “When the police officer first saw me,” Pastor Jackson said to us, “He saw a black man in a hoodie running around a nice neighborhood in the dark, and that’s why he stopped me. I explained who I was, that I lived in one of these houses, that I was pastor at Living Word, that my accent was from my home country of Liberia.”

I think the point of this part of the sermon was how important it is to get to know one another, to share our stories and to listen to others’ so that we can live in a stronger, more caring community. “He saw me and thought of one story,” Pastor Jackson said, “but when we said good-bye, he knew my real story.”

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when our nation remembers the work of Dr. King and the others who fought for the rights of African-Americans and other people of color in the Civil Rights Movement. We remember how, eighty-eight years after the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, after eighty-eight years of Jim Crow laws kept people of color segregated, prevented them from voting, relegated them to schools with poor funding, and backed a host of other abuses, finally civil rights were again legally enforced and protected through things like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the desegregation of schools and other public facilities, and the more general protection of the Civil Rights Act.

But even more important than looking back on those important dates and pieces of legislation, we ought to remember the most difficult challenge faced by Dr. King and others who fight for the protection of civil rights and for recognizing the worth of all humans: the harmful stories that get passed along in our culture (sometimes unintentionaly), the harmful stories that automatically come to our mind as we observe and understand our world.

Dr. King and his contemporaries had to deal with these stories in order to affect any legal changes. They had to work to contradict the stories that undergirded the laws and common practices that harmed people of color. Some of these stories were outrightly racist, stories like: People who are black are dangerous; people who are black are less intelligent; people who are black are from an entirely different race and ancestry than people who are white. Other harmful cultural stories were simply apathetic: People who are black are exaggerating; they have all the same rights I do; they just need to work harder; why are they causing all this trouble?

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Memphis sanitation workers during a 1968 strike. Via CNN.com

Though much has changed in the United States since 1965, harmful and incorrect stories continue to be passed on in our culture. It’s one of those human-nature things that’s been going on since ancient times.

Jesus had to deal with his own share of cultural stories as he did the work of God’s mission. In church we talk a lot about the various stories some of the Jewish people told in the first century about the coming messiah. The messiah will be a mighty warrior; the messiah will take back the throne of Israel; the messiah will judge us all according the law of God (and make the same judgements I would make). It was hard for Jesus to be seen as the messiah when his work was humble, he stood against the religious leaders, his judgments were either gentle or unexpected, and he won his great victory through public execution on the cross. His story was not the story people expected.

Today’s gospel reading reminds us that Jesus had to deal with the misguided stories people told about him on a personal level, too. There were people who knew only one or two things about Jesus, and immediately judged him to be lesser, they completely sidelined him. All Nathanael had heard about Jesus was that he was from Nazareth, and already he’d put Jesus into the cultural story of what people from Nazareth were like. Maybe he was repeating a common hometown joke when he said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus had to almost supernaturally shock him out of that story in order to get Nathanael to see Jesus for who he really was. People form Jesus’s hometown dismissed him because they did know him, and couldn’t shake the story they knew: “Isn’t this the carpenter? Mary’s son?” they ask, offended when he starts to teach in the synagogue (Mark 6:1-6).

Throughout the gospels we also see that Jesus engaged in the work of contradicting common stories and telling new ones for the sake of other people, namely, those people who are most vulnerable in society. In fact he does this so often that it must have been a major part of his ministry. Some examples: Samaritans were hated figures in Jewish culture, yet Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous parables (Luke 10:25-37). When men pointed out to Jesus that the woman in their company was a sinner, Jesus evened the judgement playing field by pointing out that those men were sinners too — aren’t we all? (Luke 7:36-50; John 8:1-11). When his own disciples said that little children weren’t worthy of Jesus’s time, he encouraged all the adults to be more like children (Mark 10:13-15). While it was seemingly natural to admire the religious and political leaders, with their beautiful clothes and obvious righteousness, Jesus told a different story, calling those leaders hypocrites, pointing out all they did to hurt the poor, and instead lifting up the example of the people who were lowly but faithful as the better examples of righteous living (Luke 20:45-21:4). And of course there are the famous Beatitudes, where Jesus turned our idea of who is blessed upside-down: “Blessed are the poor… blessed are the hungry…blessed are those who weep…” (Luke 6:20-26)

Jesus constantly contradicted the cultural stories that did harm and told new stories to help people see the world differently. Jesus called his disciples to be part of his new stories. He wanted them to hear the new stories and also to live those stories. To hear the story that all are sinners, but that God extends grace to all, and then to live it by befriending those society cast out as “too sinful.” To hear that God blesses people who are poor, hungry, suffering, misunderstood, hated, and then to be a blessing to them.

Today Jesus continues to call disciples, to call us, to be part of this work of spotting the harmful stories and telling new stories. We do this when we tell and retell the stories of Jesus, so that his stories are always louder in our minds than the harmful stories of our culture. We do this when we listen to the stories of other people and reflect on them. We do this when we tell our own stories. We do this when we don’t let the harmful stories go unchallenged.

And Jesus calls us to live his stories. To live so that through our actions others may see the truth of God’s story in action: what it looks like in everyday life when every person is valued as a child of God and grace abounds.

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God’s Call, Like Gravity

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday After Epiphany + January 18, 2015

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the ordination of my friend Scott. I met Scott during my first hours at divinity school, and if I could take you back in time to that day, to tell Scott that in four years he would be wearing a stole and presiding over communion, I think his eyes would have popped out of his head. He had come to divinity school with a deep sense of call to ministry, but also with a deep distrust of all religious institutions and with a heavy load of cynicism. And that’s still pretty true of Scott: Actually, when we had coffee a few weeks ago and he told me about his ordination process, he still seemed totally shocked about where he is today. But he also felt in the very core of his being that he was exactly where God had called him to be.  And so he titled his service of ordination: “The Miracle in Nashville: The Bet Las Vegas Lost: The Ordination of Scott Jamieson.”

Our Bible readings for today tell other stories of miracles and lost bets — of God calling surprising people to surprising work. First, we heard the story of the young child Samuel, called by God (rather than the much more experienced priest Eli) in the middle of the night to challenge the rulers of his nation. Next we heard the story of the Christians in Corinth, who were surprised to hear that God’s call on their lives included claims on their bodies as well as their souls. And finally, we heard the story of Jesus calling two of his disciples: Philip, who seems to follow Christ immediately, and Nathanael, who needs to see a little proof that this Jesus guy isn’t just another weirdo from Nazareth. Three people and one group, each called to different tasks in very different ways.

Last weekend the Companions in Christ Sunday school class shared their own call stories with one another. And just as if we could ask Samuel, Nathanael, or Scott about their experience of God’s call, and each of those people would give a different story, so each person in the class had a unique story to tell. Some people could vividly remember a single experience that changed their life and faith in an everlasting way. Many, though, could not really name a single grand moment, but rather thought of their faith-life as a series of less dramatic — though no less significant — calls from God. Some emphasized the call we all receive through our baptism.

But even though we have all these examples of call stories, I don’t think we can set down a specific formula for figuring out when a person is being called by God. Each call story we know is a little different, and a little differently miraculous. The Bible doesn’t even seem to suggest that we can get to such a formula: after all, Samuel’s story is the most-clear cut of all of these calls stories — the little boy actually hears the voice of God calling his name, and runs to a priest for help — and even the priest can’t figure out what’s going on until God’s third try at calling Samuel.

A “call” — Christians tend to believe — is God’s doing. It has something supernatural about it. So maybe it makes sense for it to be confusing, ungraspable, outside of our ability to understand and control. Maybe it makes sense for it to be less like a memo from the boss and more like “the bet that Las Vegas lost” – an experience no one can really predict.

As I prepared this sermon, trying to figure out how exactly I can talk about this weird “call” experience that we all seem to share but which is so hard to pin down, I’ve been thinking of the feeling of a call like the feeling of gravity. As I understand it, Einstein described gravity like this: think of space as having substance and shape. Think of space as a trampoline. If you put a bowling ball on the trampoline, its weight pulls down the fabric. Then, if I roll a baseball onto the trampoline, it follows the fabric and rolls down to hang out with the bowling ball. The trampoline is space, and the bowling ball is a planet. When a smaller object, like the moon, feels that forceful pull that we call “gravity,” it is actually just following that curve made by the large object in space. (For a great video demo, click here.)

From TheConversation.com

OK, enough with the physics. But what I’m trying to say is that there are moments in life that seem to have the weight of planets. There are people, places, events, ideas that seem to so strongly shape my space that I start rolling towards them, almost as if I am being pulled towards them, or as if my life is moving towards them and I’m just following the curve. Joining the ELCA was like that for me: I had not been an official member of a church for at least a decade. I’d been going to Christ Lutheran for only a couple of months when Pastor Gordy mentioned that the congregation would soon be receiving new members. I knew I was going to tell her I wanted to join before I’d ever even thought about it. I felt a pull I could not bring myself to resist, like gravity. Maybe, I think, that pull was from God.

Tomorrow is a day set aside to remember one person who served as a planet for many people: Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a name, a voice, a message, that pulled others into his mission. His speeches moved people to action like the Earth moves us to touch the ground. But King always pointed beyond himself, to the source of his own sense of call. King always believed he had one real mission: he was called by God to preach the gospel. His civil rights campaigns for minorities and for the poor were to him one more way that he preached the gospel. And through King this gospel message moved others to join in the work of God in that time and place.

I think we all have the opportunity to be planets like Martin Luther King, Jr. — beings which shape the space around us so that people are drawn to God. After all, we are all members of the Body of Christ. We are members of the big church on earth, which is undoubtedly one of those places that God uses to call people to God. Most of us here today are members of St. Andrew or another Christian group, some specific organization that God uses to call people to God. And as individuals, too, we can be sources of that mysterious sense of call.

Now, I’m worried that some of you are thinking “Yes, there are sure are some people in this congregation who draw others to God!” Now I don’t know why you jumped to that thought: maybe you just really admire that person a few pews ahead of you. But I’m worried that you feel like your faith isn’t good enough, your gifts aren’t fit enough, your call isn’t strong enough.

So let’s take a minute to return to my friend Scott, whose ordination was “the bet that Las Vegas lost.” Or, better yet, to Martin Luther King, Jr., since you’ll be reminded of him a few times tomorrow and have to think about this. Did you know that he had serious doubts about God since he was 13 years old? And though he’d responded to an altar call at the young age of six, he later confessed that he was just a young kid following his older sister, and that he had no idea what was happening at his baptism. He spent his years in college and in seminary wrestling with his doubts about miracles and the truth of scripture and the divinity of Christ. And if he’s like all the other pastors I know, he never really stopped wrestling. But he also felt himself pulled with all the force of gravity in the direction of the gospel. And as he followed the shape the gospel made in his life, he shaped the lives of others in the gospel direction, too.

So, where are the “planets” in your life? What draws you toward itself, and through it, towards God? Some might feel that way about the bread and wine we are about to share. Or about a program you’re involved in, or an important person in your life, or a powerful moment from the past. Take just a moment now to think about those times you have felt God’s call on your life most clearly.

As we sing our next hymn together, remember that you are called – like Samuel, like the Corinthians, like Philip and Nathanael. You are called – somehow, someway – to shape the space around you as the gospel shapes you. Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.