May 21, 2017 / LEARNING TO LOVE OUR STORY / Katy McCallum Sachse / Acts 17:22-31 (NRSV)
I feel a little bit like I remember feeling when my parents would leave us with a babysitter for the evening and the door would close and we’d all look at each other like, ‘here we are! Now what?’
But truthfully, although I’m going to step away from the metaphor of me as a babysitter because that doesn’t seem good AT ALL, this is a moment of transition for us at Salt House. And given how central transition is to this community, it’s a good thing. It’s good to experience a transition together, in addition to the changes many of you, of us, are experiencing in our own lives too. Being a school of love in the midst of transition is something I know Pastor Sara holds before you pretty much every week. And this moment is right in line with that.
It’s transition for me too, to enter into this community for awhile, and get to be a part of the story of this place, and I am really delighted by the chance. I know some of you know Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, the parent church of this community, but if you don’t, that’s where I serve and work on a daily basis, and it’s quite different in many ways from Salt House. Holy Spirit is pretty big, especially for a progressive main line Christian church on the Eastside, and being big has both its advantages and disadvantages. We have about 500 people in worship on a Sunday. I’ve been a pastor there for about nine years, so I’ve gotten to know a lot of people, but in a place that size it’s hard to get to know people deeply and intimately.
So that’s something I look forward to doing with you – and I thought I’d start by sharing a little bit about myself. I’m a Northwest native; I grew up in Edmonds. I’m the oldest of three in my family; I have 2 younger brothers. Ask them and they’ll probably tell you that I am the oldest in every stereotypical way: I’m boringly obedient most of the time, and I often default to being in charge, and I like things organized and predictable. I’m just wired that way. I also grew up very much as a shy kid, an introvert. If you had told me at, say, 10 years old, that my day job would eventually be one where I would speak in front of groups of people on a weekly basis if not more often, I would have probably burst into tears and thrown up. But here I am, yet more proof that God must have a sense of humor.
I’m married to Brian, who teaches middle school PE and yes, if you would like to pause for a moment and pray for him, that would be great, and you might as well pray for all teachers as they work with kids who are itching for summer with every minute of the day. And we have a six-year old daughter, Maren, who is in kindergarten this year and loves – in no particular order - her beta fish JoJo, the colors blue and yellow, the Moana and Hamilton soundtracks, dinosaur chicken nuggets, and the Mariners.
There are a lot of ways to get to know someone. A lot of different questions we ask each other, a variety of answers we give. But when I look at my own life, probably because deep down I am still an introvert, one of the things that tells you the most about me is what I’m reading. I love reading, and I always have. Reading is paradise for an introvert – you can travel around the world, you can interact with ideas and people and events and you can learn so much and you never have to talk to a single person. This was ideal for me as a kid, but reading has continued to shape my life in huge ways. And so I took a snapshot the other day of the books that are currently on my bedside table.
Let me say first that I did not specifically choose these books, but they do make me look much smarter and more scholarly than I actually am. If this were really honest, there would be a copy of People magazine in there somewhere. But this photo does tell you something true about me right now, which is that I am actively trying to expand the diversity of voices I am reading and listening to. When I woke up the morning after the presidential election last fall, that was one of the first things I decided to do. Because although reading by itself is not enough, it has always been a place for me to start. I love stories. I always have. But I realized I was reading a lot of the same stories, from the same voices, by the same kinds of people. While reading brought me joy, and that’s not a terrible thing, it also let me be comfortable. And it was time to stop being comfortable. It was time to listen.
Story is bigger than reading. A lot bigger. You don’t have to love reading to love stories, or tell stories, or be able to listen to them. But storytelling does take time, intentional time to put down all the other things that fill our daily lives – some of which are very good, and some of which are not – to put down those things and stop to listen, or speak, the stories about who we really are. And I mean really are, beyond the carefully edited versions of ourselves that we present in public all the time. Telling those real stories is a scary thing to do. Admitting that we have failed, that we are unsure of ourselves, that our relationships are not as good on the inside as they look on the outside, saying that we are not sure what we believe or where our lives are going – those are not easy stories to tell. And they are not easy to hear, either.
Over and over again, though, that’s exactly what Jesus does. He tells stories, and – just as importantly – he listens to the stories people tell him about who they really are. And then Jesus invites us into that same work, that same pattern, that same way of listening and speaking. We hear it today in the way Paul, one of Jesus’ early followers, meets the people of Athens. A big part of the story of Acts is how people receive the story of Jesus. Does it make them angry? Afraid? Confused? Joyful? Will they be intrigued by Jesus or run Paul out of town? Both of these happen on a regular basis.
So today we meet Paul, who is alone in Athens while waiting for his friends to join him. He wanders around the city and sees it full of idols. This bothers him, and he finds his way to the synagogue and then the market place so he can debate publically with people about religion. No one is quite sure what to make of him, and so they take him to the Aeropagus, downhill from the temple of Athena, and they place him in a spot which was used mostly as a court of law for trying homicides. Paul himself is not on trial, but the story of Jesus is.
There are a couple of things to remember here: first, Paul is right now deeply invested in the life and story of Jesus. He has left his former profession, his family and friends, and his home and stuff, and spends his life on the road visiting early Christian communities. He has everything to lose, frankly, if and when people do not believe him. Second, Paul is a guy with some OPINIONS. He could easily have held his own on one of those CNN panels with seven people who are pretty much just yelling at each other for 45 minutes. And third, Paul is alone. He is surrounded by strangers, and when he’s been in that situation before, it has sometimes been dangerous for him.
In other words, this is a perfect recipe for a disaster. Someone who has everything to lose, who is known to be an occasional hot head, is left alone in front of a group of people who appear to believe the opposite of everything he holds dear. That combination does not bode well.
The world has always been full of competing stories. That is nothing new. So much of the time, the voices that manage to be the loudest are the ones that get the most attention. The stories of the victors are the ones we read in the history books; the stories of the powerful are the ones that get told most often. Stories compete with each other, try to cancel each other out. The voices get louder and louder and it is harder and harder to listen, to find our way through, to feel like there is space, and especially hard to make way for the stories that aren’t in the books, that don’t get on the news, that belong to the people who are told they don’t belong, or aren’t in charge.
And this is especially true when it comes to religion. We human beings love to yell our religious stories at each other, throw them around like weapons, use them against one another as reasons to split us into a million pieces. This is happening now, but it is no new thing. Most of us have at least someone in our lives with whom we just cannot talk about religion because it never goes well. Now imagine a whole gathering of people at the site of trials about life and death, poised to debate whose religion is right and whose is wrong. If you are hearing warning bells in your head, you should.
Paul stands up to tell this strange little story he knows, about a God who came to live among us as an itinerant Palestinian rabbi, who ate with everybody and loved without bounds and took all our human desire for revenge and power into the grave with him so that we could begin to hear that life never comes from getting even. He stood up to tell this story but instead of trying to be louder than everyone else, instead of starting with proving how all the other religions were wrong, instead of putting everyone else on trial, he started with what they had in common. He may not have agreed with the religious convictions of most of the people of Athens, but he started by listening to them and looking for what bound them together, not what kept them apart. “Athenians,” he said, “I see that you are very religious. Well. Guess what? Me too.” That’s where he starts.
Each person in this room has our own particular story, or set of stories, that make us who we are. What we have done and left undone. Where we have failed and where we have triumphed. What has broken our hearts and what has begun to put us back together. And none of us carries the same set of stories. We are all, each, utterly unique.
That can separate us from each other at times. We can feel like no one knows what it is to be us, to live our lives, to endure our suffering or carry our hopes and dreams.
There is so much in this world that tries to drive us apart because of that, but the work of the Spirit in Acts, the pattern we are given in Jesus, is exactly the opposite. The Spirit begins with connection, with the places where our stories meet, with the hard and beautiful work of listening to each other long enough to hear the echoes of our stories in someone else’s. The diversity of stories in this world, Paul shows us, is not a threat, and not an end, but a beginning. We are not here to put each other on trial. We are here to listen, and learn, and grow, and, in all of that, says Paul, in all that seeking and searching and groping around, we are being found. We are being heard. We are being given to each other and bound together in life.
So. What is God saying to us and what are we going to do about it?
I wonder how this week you could hear a story that sounds completely unlike yours. I wonder how we could seek out and invite story sharing in our own lives – which means both listening and speaking. I wonder what story you are hanging onto out of fear, or anxiety, or shame, that you could share and release – and probably find that the person you are talking to has something just like that in their story too.
That’s the journey we are starting together this summer, to love each other’s stories and to learn to love our own, but it’s just as much the work of a lifetime. And above all, it is the work and call of the Spirit of God, who is woven into each of our lives in ways we sometimes hardly recognize, who pushes us to seek out as many stories as we can, who holds each piece of our story in love and care, in whom, as Paul reminds us, we live and move and have our being. As the band comes up I want to invite you to bring into your mind some fragile, carefully tended piece of your story. Imagine holding it in your hand. Imagine what it would be like to place in someone else’s careful hands. And know that the very Spirit of God is woven into that piece of you, those hands that hold your story, breathing life and grace and mercy into you this day.