This is my second time living in Pennsylvania. A few months before I turned three, my family moved from Philadelphia to a 7-acre farm in Indiana to live communally with some other simple Brethren. We all shared the farmhouse for a while, then spread out. Now there are two houses, a trailer, until recently a yurt, a big old barn, lots of chickens and cats, so many worms and bees and veggies and herbs and berries... There’s also an old windmill on the farm; tall and sturdy amidst hundred-year old buildings, without any blades or function left.
Except one. When I was three years old, I used to climb to the top of that windmill, look around while my stomach flipped, then climb back down. I don’t remember the first time I climbed up. I don’t remember the first few years of climbing up actually – like probably most of you, I really don’t have any clear memories before age 5. I definitely don’t remember that my dad followed me up to protect me. I wouldn’t have believed he did this if there wasn’t photographic evidence. I thought that windmill was my private playground.
Physically, I was a bold kid – climbing not just windmills, but trees too, wrestling, doing flips off the bed or through the banister.
Socially, I was timid. One of my earliest memories is eating at a restaurant with my extended family and playing with the ice and straw in my water glass – novelty items that I never enjoyed at home. My aunt scolded me (reasonably, I’m sure). I hid under the table for the rest of dinner.
I hated – still hate – being yelled at, criticized, talked down to. Obviously, no one likes being criticized. But I never got over wanting to hide under the table; I never got used to being called out. It didn’t happen much in my childhood, since my parents weren’t the scolding type.
I’ve always known myself to be accommodating, insecure, and inclined to give in or hide to escape trouble as quickly as possible.
But that probably doesn’t sound like the person you’ve known me to be, does it?
Before moving to the Indiana countryside where I could climb windmills to celebrate my newly acquired walking skills, in Philadelphia I expressed my physical freedom by running into the busy street outside our Germantown apartment – not once, over and over. My parents panicked and tried spanking me to teach my barely verbal brain the danger of toddling into traffic. But I just did it more. Same with turning on the stove; once I learned that it bothered my mom, I did it even more. They gave up on spanking pretty fast.
I don’t remember any of this, but my parents tell me the stories. Apparently my grandma, my dad’s mom, thought that my parents should discipline this wild child differently, and she still believed in spanking. Once, again around age 5, I crossed the country road that ran between her house and her barn without her accompanying me. This was against the rules, so when she found me she said, “If you do that again, I’ll spank you.” I told her, “If you spank me, I’ll do it again.” My grandma was a smart woman, and quickly ate her words of parenting advice.
I don’t know how to jive my 5-year-old self hiding under the dinner table with the one defying my grandma. I know a big part of it is that I felt very comfortable with my grandma, and was shy with my aunt. But when I think back on these stories I feel like they must be about two different girls.
Working as a hospital chaplain for the first time brought the shy girl out of me again – I was intimidated by the lingo, the lab coats, the hierarchy, the haughtiness. It took me a long time to find my voice, and I was rather miserable while I was at work, and often still miserable at home in the evenings, because I let myself be so small.
I came to recognize the disconnect between my hospital self and my familiar self as the same gap between the girl hiding under the table and the girl telling grandma what’s what. I decided to be more strategic about how I tell the story of who I am. That starts with getting smart about how I tell the story of who I’ve been. And all of this shapes the story of who I’m becoming.
We have a wealth of stories in scripture, and the ways we share these stories shape who we understand ourselves to be as people of faith. When we read today’s passage from 1 Corinthians we hear that our own bodies, our very beings, are God’s temple, filled with God’s Holy Spirit. Scripture is full of stories and statements that teach us we are blessed, beloved!
But plenty of people read the same bible and instead of telling stories of being blessed and beloved, tell stories of being wretched and terrible! And you can find it all in scripture, there are seeds for all sorts of stories in our scriptures – so we should be serious about the stories we choose to tell.
Does your family have favorite stories that you hear year after year at the Thanksgiving table, or sitting around the living room on Christmas morning? My family’s favorite stories are either funny or poignant. We either laugh, or get a little teary. There are infinite true stories we could tell, but we tell those stories, they are our favorite stories, because they serve our coming together. By laughing together at Uncle Gary losing those two toes, or getting a lump in our throats about what Grandma used to say, we get closer as a family.
So as a church family, we have infinite stories we could tell, stories that are true! But true isn’t enough – which are the stories that serve us? That serve our coming closer to each other, and closer to God?
Hearing Paul’s words that we are God’s temple – our very beings and bodies are filled with the Holy Spirit – draws us close to God by reminding us who we are, and whose we are. And it’s not just feel-good, warm fuzzy, easy theology – this is challenging! To be so utterly beloved and blessed challenges us to live as God’s temples and treat ourselves with such deep respect that we honor God, and honor that of God within us.
Jesus says the greatest command is to love God, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This letter from Paul reminds me that if we aren’t loving ourselves well, we won’t be loving our neighbors well, either.
Our stories shape us, shape everything about us and how we see the world.
We can only tell stories about the past, but we tell them with the perspective we hold in the present. We change our stories as we change, when we see different shades of them and ourselves.
We hear a lot these days about the “right” way to treat immigrants and refugees – should we deport people? Deny visas? Build walls? Offer sanctuary in this building for families?
Even before we get to those choices, we choose which stories to tell. What stories can you tell of Iraqi people? Do you know anyone from Iraq? If you had to come up with a story right now, would it be some vague summary of people from the nightly news, maybe some villagers fending off the Islamic State armies, maybe some people trying to cause terror around the world…most of us don’t know any Iraqis personally, but that doesn’t stop us from telling stories….
But whatever images come to your mind when you think of Iraqis or Syrians or refugees or immigrants shape what you will choose about deportation, visas, walls, sanctuary.
I told you about that communal farm of simple-living Brethren where I grew up. One of my neighbors, someone I started out sharing a farmhouse with as a three-year-old, is Cliff Kindy who has worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams for 30 years. He’s lived all over the world with communities who are as serious and organized about peace as soldiers are about war.
Cliff lived in Iraq during the US Operation Iraqi Freedom. Remember Shock and Awe in 2003? Some of you weren’t even born yet…I was in college, watching on the tv in our dorm’s basement because that was before we hit refresh on internet browsers to get breaking news.
Nine days into this undeclared war, the US had already dropped over 8,000 bombs on Iraq. All the Americans in Cliff’s group were kicked out of the country and a car caravan was speeding them toward the Jordanian border. A tire blew – maybe they hit shrapnel – it was all over the roads after those first 8,000 bombs. The car flipped and flipped. Cliff’s skull fractured, his head split open. He and a Mennonite pastor from Seattle looked like they might die at the side of the road. Who would stop to help them? These bleeding, battered foreigners, enemies, at the side of this road?
The first passing vehicle stopped. They were going the other way, this was a war zone, then it turns out they’ve stopped to help Americans, whose government and military are showering them with bombs. These three Iraqi men picked up the Mennonite pastor and carried him to their truck. They got Cliff and the others in the truck.
They drove to the nearest hospital, in Rutba. And it was a smoldering mess, bombed by the Americans three days before.
Injured people were lined up at the makeshift clinic, no running water, no electricity, understaffed by doctors and nurses who had no sleep or food. And the people waiting in line, sick and injured, these people sent Cliff and the Mennonite pastor to the front. With dozens of stitches across his head, Cliff survived and continues to tell this story. Because when their friends asked the doctor, “How can we pay you for saving our friends’ lives?” the doctor said, “You don’t owe us anything. Please just tell the world what has happened in Rutba.” [you can read a whole book about it: http://www.thegospelofrutba.com]
When you catch yourself commenting on those Muslims or those immigrants or those refugees or those anyone, remember who you are, and whose you are. You do not belong to CNN. You are not Fox News’ beloved. You may be grateful to live in the US but you do not belong to this country. You were shaped by it, but God is the one who created who, who blesses you, who designed you with love and fills you with the Holy Spirit.
What stories does God ask you to tell?
In the midst of so much political turmoil, at Stone Church we’re facing a whole bunch of change.
So much work has been done in the past few years. Heart wrenching and heartwarming work, all at the same time. Saying goodbye to Dale, a most beloved pastor, teacher and friend. And you’ve welcomed me into this interim role. And now we’re all living into the reality that Christy will be leaving in a few months. And all along the way, we do all the large and small and loud and subtle things that make church happen. It’s tiring and thrilling work, isn’t it?
We tell stories to figure out where we’ve been, who we are, and where we’re headed.
What stories can we tell each other amidst this change that help us become the church God calls us to be?
There are many true things we can say, but which stories will bring us closer to the abundant life Jesus’ offers? It is true that Christy has loved and led this congregation in exceptional ways for nearly 18 years. And we should talk about that! But if we tell that story without going further, it can be pretty scary. The implication might be: no one else can love and lead us! Last week one of you told me, “Stone Church always gets wonderful pastors.” That’s part of our story, too.
It is true that Christy knows all of us and many of us don’t know each other very well. And if we end the story there it sounds like we’re going to drift apart after she goes. But I’ve heard your stories over and over of the spiritual insight and intimacy you’ve found with each other through small groups, in the vital ministries journey or in Sunday school or chopping vegetables in the kitchen.
We are creating stories right now that we’ll be telling each other in the months and years to come.
We get to do this with Jesus’ stories in our hearts and minds. Jesus, who waded in the water with weirdos and broke bread with beggars and turned-over tables at the temple. Jesus, who witnessed and felt pain, who was denied welcome, given welcome, and shared welcome. Jesus, who didn’t stop at this, but demanded the world change, that we change. “Pick up your mat and walk,” he said.
How will we tell the Stone Church story of healing, of changing culture and institutions? How are we picking up our own mats to walk, whole and holy, in this ever-struggling world?
We wield such power with our stories. Let us listen to each other’s stories remembering that we are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in each one of us. Let us tell stories with that much reverence for all who are in earshot.
We put on stories like clothes, we wear them and they shape us. Jesus keeps telling us to love our enemies, but Paul says we still have battles. He writes to the Ephesians, “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness....Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Take the shield of faith! Take the helmet of healing!”
Beloved, God’s blessed, chosen, beloved creations, put on stories like clothes, stories of compassion, forgiveness, kind strangers. As the choir will sing, let love be your raiment, which means array yourself, dress yourself, in love. Your own body is God’s temple and filled with the Holy Spirit. Wear clothes worthy of being God’s temple, wear clothes of kindness and tell stories of love.