PRAYER: God of grace and mercy, we know that we have a story to tell – one that speaks of your love, your mercy. Strengthen our resolve that we may not be afraid of telling our story and of re-presenting Christ to our neighbors and building community based in your love.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
This is the third in our four-part series Heroes of the Faith. In our first week, we looked at Deborah and talked about the partnership she had with Barak. They needed one another to accomplish what God had put before them. And we talked about how we, as the church, must not think of ourselves as an entity separate from the rest of the world, rather we should explore the partnerships that are possible with those around us as we seek to be the church of the 21st century.
In the second week of our series, we looked at the story of Rahab in the book of Joshua. Rahab demonstrated a boldness in the face of adversity. She showed us that sometimes we are called to be bold in order to fulfill God’s purpose – despite our challenges and circumstances. Sometimes this will define what you will say in a particular moment, and sometimes it will determine what you won’t say in a particular moment. And understanding the difference between those two can also take a great deal of boldness.
It’s always important – when we’re looking at scripture – to have a sense of context because sometimes, what may seem unimportant to us was actually a significant element of the story. “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.”
Purple cloth… seems like an odd detail to include, right? Today, we could walk into any Michael’s and buy as much purple cloth as we could possibly want; it’s manufactured in enormous quantities. But in that time and place, purple cloth was a luxury item; it was a symbol of wealth and a symbol of royalty. The color purple had to be extracted from a certain type of shellfish; it would have been very expensive to create, and then, of course, it would have been very expensive to purchase.
Lydia would have had access to people in power and prestigious people, and she would have had wealth. In converting to Christianity, she was taking a heroic leap of faith, because all of those worldly riches could have been jeopardized. God uses the most unlikely people to achieve God’s purposes.
As part of seminary at Drew, we had to go on what’s called a “Cross-cultural” trip. For my trip, I went to El Salvador with seven others and we visited a number of locations to experience the people and culture of the country. One of the last places we visited was a little community located on the side of a volcano just outside of San Salvador.
This community had no running water; they lived in tin shacks. There is a water pipe that goes through the mountain that gives them access to water once a week in the middle of the night. The members of this community has to walk about a mile through the woods in the middle of the night carrying pitchers and buckets so they could get enough water to last them a week.
The people of that community live in abject poverty. They live in squalor. And they were the among most welcoming people I’ve ever met. They opened up their living space to us, welcomed us, shared their stories with us. They had no reason to be that welcoming. We were a bunch of American seminary students coming to study them. We weren’t there to make their lives more comfortable. We weren’t there to give them anything. The only giving that took place on that mountainside that day came entirely from them.
They shared with us their stories, and they demonstrated for us their joy.
God opens our hearts. God opened Lydia’s heart, resulting in her whole household being blessed by her faith. The baptism of Lydia’s household reminds us that baptism is a long tradition in Christian history. In the United Methodist Church, we teach that baptism is a welcoming into the family of God. We are all part of one community, all welcomed, all included. And we are all called as one community to practice that same welcome, that same inclusion to others.
Christians are called to hospitality. Lydia’s household will become the church in Thyatira. She shares her hospitality with Paul and Silas and her home becomes a hub where siblings in Christ find encouragement. There is a small church in the middle of Brooklyn called St. Lydia’s and they practice this form of welcoming, of inclusiveness that we all should be exhibiting in our Christian walk. It is a welcome that proclaims that no one is ever excluded from the love of God.
One of the ways that we have been practicing our ability to welcome is through the art of storytelling. Storytelling is a form of welcome that conveys to people that they are included. It helps share one’s humanity in a profoundly beautiful way.
Since launching our Breakfast Church services in Kingwood, and relaunching our Dinner Church services in Frenchtown, I have made a concerted effort at each service to give you a prompt in which our stories can be told. Usually, they’re pretty broad prompts, hopefully encouraging you to find a story from your life that fits the narrative of a particular day.
Our storytelling is an act of welcome by being an act that reveals the humanity in all of us. When I sit down with a grieving family to plan a funeral service, I don’t ask about accomplishments or achievements that their loved ones may have made. I ask about the stories. I ask them to tell me the stories about their loved ones that make them laugh or even cry. I ask them for the memories that they will carry on. Stories about a family vacation, or stories from around the family dinner table. Stories from some adventure, or stories from a time that all of their best laid plans got thrown out the window. Because at the end of the day, your stories ensure that you are remembered for your humanity.
It may seem like a paradox, but our own unique beautiful stories are what we all have in common.
I was recently reading about a woman named Elena who works with corporate clients to help their employees tell their stories in the interest of inclusion. She says, “We are natural born storytellers. We develop the syntax of storytelling very early. We’ve been wired for it ever since we were at the fireside as cavemen.”
You know, I spent most of my first career building spreadsheets and analyzing statistics. Statistics and data are important; strategy and analysis are essential parts of the way we do things and deliver our work. But stories are what tie it all together. People remember us for our stories, not for our statistics.
People remember Kingwood United Methodist Church for the memories they forged during our Roast Beef Dinners or for the friendships and relationships they forged. People remember Frenchtown United Methodist Church for the stories of inclusion and hospitality, for the stories of our own willingness to be vulnerable in order to lift others up.
I’d like you to consider how your faith is more than just an individual pursuit and more a part of a community story, just as Lydia’s faith contributed to a more communal and familial experience, that played an essential part in the story of the early church. Lydia’s faith was part of a larger story – one that we are invited to also be part of. How can we move beyond seeing faith merely as beliefs and practices, statistics and results if you will, lived out by individuals, and instead as the way our lives are creating cultures of hospitality and encouragement in our homes and communities, empowering and giving hope?
Consider how your story is intertwined with the church’s story, how your life, and your gifts and graces are connected to and contribute to the larger story. We should remember that Lydia used the blessings she had – the access and social resources she had and used them to establish the church in her community. We too can use the blessings we have at our disposal that can help us build up the community of faith and transform lives.
On the side of that volcano in El Salvador, I heard stories of joy and resilience, peace and community. What’s the story that we tell?
What is the legacy we are presenting as a community of faith? What are the resources we collectively have, and how do we use them in such a time as this to further God’s Kingdom? We are called to be and build the church where we are and with what we have, so let us each prayerfully and boldly consider how God is calling you – and by extension, all of us – to provide hospitality and to further God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Let us prayerfully and boldly consider how our story is one that includes others and builds partnerships with the community around us. Let us prayerfully and boldly make our story one in which Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, is revealed and re-presented in how we love one another and in how we listen and embrace the story of others.
One thing I know about our story: it’s not done yet. Let’s continue to embrace the story God has given us, and to be the people – the community we are called to be offering partnership, offering boldness, offering hope to others. That would make a great story.
To God be the glory.