The following is the text of the sermon preached for Rev. Bethany’s Call Weekend, Sunday, March 15, 2020
Text: Matthew 5:14-16
A few years ago, I took an unexpected trip back home to Michigan for my Grandpa’s funeral. My Grandpa was a larger than life character, and as my family gathered together we couldn’t help but reminisce about the many odd and eccentric things that he had done over his life.
My Mom shared about the time he took her old, ratty looking electric blanket back to Sears because it had stopped working, and actually convinced the manager to let him return it for a new one. My aunt reminded us of how when he was no longer well enough to own a car, he took a taxi to a used car lot and signed up to test drive a car, just so he could use it take himself to the casino. As you can imagine the Car Salesman was not happy about that…
As we shared story after story of his antics, I thought about how beautiful it was that even though he was no longer with us, our stories about him always would be. The stories that he told us over his life and the stories of our own memories of him are a gift, something that will live on through the people who love him.
I think maybe this is one of the reasons why humanity has always naturally gravitated towards storytelling. Our stories help us to share who we are with other people, to build relationships. When we share our story, and it’s received by another person, it helps us to know that we are not alone. Our stories connect us to each other, and they connect us to God as well.
Our religious tradition comes out of a storytelling culture. Our spiritual ancestors learned lessons that they passed down orally through generations. And then later on they wrote them down on scrolls, and reverently and painstakingly copied them by hand, and then translated them into other languages so more people could learn from them.
The Bible is one great big story book! It is a collection of stories about people. People who messed up. People who took the wrong path. People who had faith, and some people who didn’t. People searching for God, and finding God in unexpected places, and doing their best to be people who followed God’s example in the world. People who looked and acted an awful lot like we do today.
Our scripture today comes from one of my favorite Jesus stories. It happens early on in the book of Matthew. Just one chapter before, he began his ministry in Galilee and called his disciples to follow him. The text says that the news of Jesus had begun spreading like wildfire, and people were traveling to Galilea from all over to bring him their sick or just to listen to him speak.
And it’s here that he preached his Sermon on the Mount. He blessed the poor, and the meek, and the merciful, and the peacemakers. And he told them, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Now remember, he was talking to a conquered people who were struggling to maintain their traditions and their religion in the midst of a Roman dictatorship. The Romans were trying to control the story. For those listening to Jesus that day, making too much noise, being too outspoken, shining too brightly was not a safe thing to do.
But Jesus told them that there was so much more to their story than just being a conquered people. They were a blessed people. Their story mattered, and they had to be willing to tell it.
I recently had the opportunity to hear Chimamandie Adichie’s TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story. In it she sh ared about leaving her native home in Nigeria at the age of 19 to attend college in America. Her roommate at the time was impressed by her ability to speak English, and asked to listen to the folk music of her people. She was shocked when Chimamandie told her that English was the official language of Nigeria and that most of the time she listened to Mariah Carey.
Chimamandie went on to say, “…after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate’s response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner… that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
The danger of one single narrative dominating the conversation about a continent, or a group of people, or a religion, is that the beautiful diversity of narratives which exists gets lost.
I think the same thing is true of Christianity today. All we have to do is turn on the television or scroll through facebook and we are bombarded by one story of Christianity. We see Christians who are known more for what they’re against than what they’re for. We see Christians that promote bigotry, and misogyny, and racism in the name of Christ. We see Christians who are so anti-LGBT that they use their faith to promote legislation that legalizes discrimination. And if this is the only story of Jesus that is there, no wonder so many people want nothing to do with it.
But, for those of us in Open and Affirming churches like this one, we know that there is another story of Jesus that has to be told. And, thankfully, there are people who are telling it.
My favorite example of modern progressive Christians telling their stories is the Why Christian Conference. I have been lucky enough over the last 5 years to attend all 4 of them, and each year I learned more about what it means to be a Christian today.
Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber and Christian author/blogger Rachel Held Evans, put together this conference to give a diverse group of Christians the space to answer the question: Why are you a Christian?
As Rachel Held Evans put it, “Why—with all the atrocities past and present committed in God’s name, amidst all the hostile divisions ripping apart Christ’s Church, in spite of all our own doubts and frustrations and fears about faith—are we still Christian? Why do we still have skin in the game?”
The answers have been as diverse as the people who were asked to speak. Catholic writer Anna Keating said that she was a Christian because she needs to be a part of the story “of a God who doesn’t act like a God is supposed to.”
Jeff Chu, who shared his story of being ostracized from the church because he was gay, said that the church may have cast him out, but the love of God never let him go.
Trauma therapist Sandra Valdez Lopez said that she is a Christian because the story of Jesus does not begin or end in the pain of crucifixion, but shows us that there is hope in the aftermath of violence and turmoil.
And Asher O’Callaghan, a Transgender Lutheran Pastor shared that he joined his church because he had a crush on a girl who attended there, but stayed for the Eucharist. For him, the church is why he is still a Christian, because they loved him before his transition, they loved him through his transition, and they love him as the person he is now.
When I attended Why Christian for the first time in 2015 and I listened to story after story over the course of those two days, I realized how desperately I needed them. I needed to listen to people who could stand boldly in their truth and say that they were gay, or transgender, or a survivor of sexual assault, or a black lives matter activist, and then proclaim that they are a loved and beloved child of God. That being a Christian is a part of their story.
I am thankful for the Why Christian speakers, who were courageous enough to let their light shine rather than hiding it. I am blessed to know that each one of them is out in the world now, letting their light shine in congregations, hospitals, nursing homes, and non-profits across America.
They helped to remind me that each one of us also has a story, and that our stories are important.
Letting your light shine takes a lot of courage, but it was what we were made to do. We don’t need a pulpit, or a bestselling book, or to be the featured speaker at a conference for our story to matter. It matters because if we don’t tell our stories, God’s story in the world loses a piece of its beautiful, colorful diversity.
The Message Bible, which offers a contemporary paraphrase of our ancient texts, writes Matthew 5:14-16 this way: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God.”
When I look out at you, I see those God-colors. I hope that as you reflect on this place, and these people, and the God that we a worship together, that you might find a way of sharing your own story with someone who needs to hear it. God is the liberator, but it may be your story of God which liberates someone else.