Monday, July 1, 2013

Sermon: "Our Whole Story"

This is a sermon that I preached at Crossroads yesterday. It's about telling our stories. I hope you like it, and that you get a chance to tell your story.

The scripture was Mark 6: 6b-13, 30-32.

It started with minutes 2:00-3:00 of this video:

In it, Jean Vanier says:

“We need an experience of vulnerability....The danger in our strong civilizations is the last thing we want people to learn is to touch their weakness, their vulnerabilities. You can’t ask people to do a curriculum vitae putting all their weaknesses down. You have to show that I’m better than others...So it’s what will help people become conscious that I need help. That I am fragile. But at the same time I am beautiful.


I did my undergraduate studies at a little place called Washington College. It’s located in Chestertown, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. About 10 minutes away from my alma mater is a place called Betterton Beach. Betterton is on the Chesapeake Bay, and it’s not the most impressive beach ever, but to this day if I visit there it feels like home.

Betterton was the place we would go to get away from school for just a little bit. To escape the stress and the drama of life at a small college. It was a place to recharge. For me, it became a truly spiritual place. Looking out over the sun-sparkled bay, ebbing and flowing, I got a hint of a God who is at once vast and unchanging and at the same time dynamic, ever in motion. I remember laying back in the sand and watching a seemingly endless migration of birds over the bay and marveling at God’s creation. I could forget for a second about papers and strained relationships and emotional struggles and just be. It was sometimes a place of solitude, and at other times a place to build community and strengthen relationships.

Betterton was a place of mini-pilgrimage for me. I would say that it has become a part of my spiritual history, of my story of faith.
            If I were to ask you to tell your faith story, what stories would you tell?

            I’m not going to ask you to answer out loud right now, especially not on a moment’s notice, but take a second to think about this:

            What stories would you tell?
            What people would you name?
            What places would you include?

            Take a second to think.


            Now I have to say that it’s fun to ask these questions at Crossroads, because I know people here have such different faith experiences. Some of you might have grown up in the church, and many of your faith stories will be church stories. That’s great! Others of you might have grown up Christian by association, or maybe at some point you drifted away from the church, and many of your formative faith stories might not be connected to church at all. That’s great too--those stories need to be shared! And some of you might not be that comfortable with language like “faith” and “church” at all. If that’s the case, I’m so glad you’re here, and I want you to know that your story is valuable. The church--and the world--need your story, too.
            If you think I’m alone in expressing this sentiment, I want to go all seminary student on you and quote one of the most prominent theologians of the 20th century, a German fellow named Jurgen Moltmann. He says that, rightly understood, “[The church] has no need to look sideways in suspicion or jealousy at the saving efficacies of the Spirit outside the church; instead it can recognize them thankfully as signs that the Spirit is greater than the church and that God’s purpose of salvation reaches beyond the church.” Now that’s a lot, and Moltmann isn’t known for writing in the clearest language ever, but I think what he’s saying is important: that the movement of the Spirit is not confined to the church or to church people. This is what we’re getting at when we take the time for God Sightings--looking for God in places other than our one hour of worship together inside this church building.
             John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement that our community here at Crossroads has inherited, talked about a similar concept. He talked a lot about grace--grace upon grace upon grace--and about “prevenient” or “preventing” grace--the love of God active in our lives before we are even aware of its presence. Christ is at work in the world before we are even able to name God or grace. God is not only at work inside the church.
            This evening I want to talk about telling our stories. Our whole stories. This past several weeks we’ve been talking about finding ourselves in biblical stories, seeing how these stories intersect with our own stories. So this evening I wanted us to look at a biblical story about stories. It’s a bit meta but stick with me:

            Jesus had been traveling and teaching and healing with his disciples for a little while now. Just before the story that we heard Barbara read he’d gone to his hometown, Nazareth, and it hadn’t gone well. He basically got kicked out. Nobody would listen to him. All they could see is the carpenter boy that they grew up with, now pretending to be somebody important. So they ignored him.
            So it’s in this atmosphere of frustration that Jesus calls his disciples together and sends them out to do ministry in the surrounding villages and towns of the Galilee. It’s an odd sort of mission that they’re on. They’re supposed to go out empty handed, relying entirely on the hospitality of strangers--couchsurfing or perhaps networking via distant Facebook friends--telling all that they had seen and heard of Jesus and the coming of God’s kingdom. So the disciples, despite the bad experience in Nazareth, head out into the Galilee and, from what the story tells us, things go well. “They cast out many demons , and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” And then the disciples come back, and the writer of the gospel of Mark tells us that they “told Jesus all that they had done and taught.”
Now if I ever paid any attention to this verse, I think I always assumed that it was describing a sort of bragging session. “Hey Jesus? Guess what? I was in this one village and I cast out 30 demons and cured 10 sick people! I even cured this one guy twice!”
            “Oh yeah Thomas? You think you’re a big deal? I cured 15 people, cast out 40 demons, and put one in a headlock and gave it a noogie for good measure!”
And the whole time Jesus is sort of sitting there passively, nodding and smiling, proud of the superhuman accomplishments of his crusading disciples.
But I was in a Bible study once when I was living in Jerusalem, and somebody pointed out to me that the text says that they told Jesus all that they had done and taught.
All that they had done.
Now, here’s the deal. In the gospel accounts, and particularly in Mark, the disciples are not portrayed as stellar, perfect followers of Christ. The exact opposite, in fact. They are almost Keystone Cops-esque in their failures; constantly misunderstanding or mistrusting what Jesus is telling them. In fact it’s possible that the writer of Mark’s gospel is intentionally portraying the disciples as screwups to invite us, the listeners and readers of the story, into further discipleship--if these goofballs can be disciples, then surely we can follow, too.
So if the disciples in Mark are so perfectly imperfect, then when they gathered to share with Jesus and with each other all that they had done, we have to imagine that there was a significant amount of failure, frustration, and doubt mixed in with the stories of demon-destroying and sickness-healing.
To intensify this, there’s something very particular to the gospel of Mark going on in this passage. I don’t know if you noticed, but the scripture that we heard read was in two parts even though it was one story. We read Mark 6:6-13, and then we skipped to Mark 6:30-32. What happened in between these two passage is the story of the execution of John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod, the most powerful man in the Galilee. Now John the Baptist is the very first character we encounter in the gospel of Mark. He baptizes Jesus, and his arrest marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The disciples would have known John. He was an ally; he was a bit like that guy you call “uncle” even though he isn’t really related to you. And now he’s dead.
This story is inserted in the middle of the story of the disciples’ missionary endeavors. This is something that Mark does quite often--putting one story smack in the middle of another story. There’s even a fancy seminary term for it: we call it “a Markan sandwich.” Sophisticated, right? And the idea of this narrative device is that the story that is inserted helps us interpret and understand the story that brackets it. In this case, we learn that the atmosphere of the disciples’ ministry and their subsequent reporting on it is drenched in fear and uncertainty. Their ministry is being done in the shadow of potential death and defeat. So we can imagine that there was some less-than-triumphal feelings during this report-back-to-Jesus session.
So I have to wonder what the disciples said to Jesus and each other. Sure, they talked about casting out demons and healing and preaching. But do you think some of them also said things like: “Jesus, I have to admit that there were times when I doubted you, and when I doubted myself and my own abilities.” Or things like, “Jesus, in one town I tried to cure people and nothing happened.” Or things like, “Jesus, in one town nobody would welcome me or listen to me and I felt discouraged and afraid.” Do you think they told their whole stories--not just the stories of their successes and their ironclad faith but their whole stories?
Now I asked you what sort of stories you would share if I asked you to share your faith story. And I want us to consider what it would mean for us to tell our whole story. We might have times in our lives when we are riding high on the Spirit. When we feel faithful and successful and good. When we can so easily sing to God the song that we’ve been singing in worship these past two weeks: “You’re always faithful.”
And then there are other times. Times when we doubt. When we hurt. When we struggle. When we ask where God is. Maybe our whole stories would say things like, “God, I’m trying to follow you but I’m afraid. I don’t see you. Where are you, God?” Things like, “I’m struggling with depression or with mental illness and things seem dark and scary.” Things like, “I know I’m called by you but I’m gay and the church discriminates against me.”
Or “I try to take a stand for justice but the odds seem stacked against me.”
Or “I want to learn more about Jesus but Christians seem intolerant and even mean.”
Or “I don’t have a house and I’m hungry, and even when I can find shelter and food there’s nobody who wants to really listen to me.”
Now if you have been thinking some of these things or similar things, I hope you can see that they, too, are part of your story of faith--part of the story that you share with other struggling disciples in the presence of Jesus, who does not judge but who redeems, who gathers all of our hurt and brokenness together and says, “Yes, I am part of this with you. I am present with you, here, in this mess.” 
Remember Jean Vanier? Saying that we never sit down to write our CVs by putting all of our weaknesses down? Many of us have a story that we tell about our lives. I notice it particularly here in DC. We meet someone in this city and what are we trying to find out? Where are you from originally? And what do you do? What sort of position do you have? Of what importance are you? What's your resume? Our faith stories are not a CV or a resume. They are not our DC story. They are stories about deeper meaning. About calling. About doubt. About struggle. About vulnerability. About grace.
            I started off telling you a little bit about Betterton Beach, which is part of my own journey of faith and doubt, hope and anxiety. I told you about connecting with God and marveling at the wonder of creation. But friends, Betterton is where I went when I was stressed. When I had lost faith. When I didn't know what I was doing in my life or felt like maybe I should just drop out of school. Betterton was a place of highs, yes, but it was also a place of lows.

            Yesterday I took a little trip to Betterton and I brought back a bunch of smoothed out stones from the bay. They symbolize, to me, little pieces of my own whole story. I want to share them with you. In a few minutes we’re going to gather together, as we do every week, for a simple meal in the graceful presence of Christ. And after you take bread and dip it in grape juice and eat it, I’m going to hand you a rock. I hope that you will take it, and think a little bit about your own faith journey. There’s even a prayer station in back with some notecards if you want to pray about it or meditate on it a bit and scribble some thoughts down. And what I am asking you to do is to take this rock that I’m going to give you, and sometime this week give it to someone else. Hand it to them and say, “Hey. This is just a little symbol of how we share stories with each other.” And share with them a little bit of your story. And then ask them to share a little bit of their story, and to pass the rock on. If that sounds uncomfortable, practice telling your story to each other. Because we need to tell our stories, and we need to listen to the stories that surround us, if we’re ever going to really understand what  it is to be in the presence of Jesus.
            So we gather around a table with our messy stories. And we proclaim a Christ who is broken. And a Christ who is whole.
            The world needs you whole story. Tell it.

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