“United by Spirit and story”

A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on May 28, 2017

Texts: an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy; John 17:1-11

Clare L. Hickman

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale

May 28, 2017—Easter 7A Watkins Thompson wedding

Excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy; John 17:1-11


          Today is a wedding day (for which we give great thanks), but it is also, undeniably, graduation season. It is graduation season for those who anticipate and celebrate and spend nights worrying about their children as they complete some phase of their preparation and move out into the world. And, it is graduation season for the disciples of Jesus.

          So, Congratulations! You’ve learned a lot, and now it’s your turn, your responsibility to go out into the world and put all of this into practice. To DO something with all this knowledge and power and perspective you’ve been given. Which sounds a little scary. Frankly, it is a little scary (for all of us, trust me). But, just as we hope that our graduating young people will have support and advice along the way, so does Jesus promise us, before he floats up into the sky, that we won’t be left flying solo.

          Last week, he promised to send the Holy Spirit. This week he reminds us that we also have each other. No, actually, he says it MUCH more strongly than that. What he says is that union with God and union with each other are inextricable. In fact, you can’t have a relationship with God, you can’t be connected to the infinite, without also being connected to other people. Salvation is all, all all ALL, about relationship, and your relationship with God, your relationship with Christ, and your relationship with other people are all utterly intertwined. If one of those is broken, if one is allowed to fall into disunity, then they will all suffer.

          The Good news is: all of these relationships are made possible by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that makes it possible for us to be united on a deep level. It is the Spirit that weaves us together, binds us together, giving us the power and ability not only to pray to God but to love each other.

          The Spirit lives and moves in the cracks … whether those are the broken places or just the spaces between us, the spaces between ourselves and those with whom we seem to have little in common, those with whom we disagree, those whom we have hurt or who have hurt us. The Spirit flows strong into those spaces, if we allow it. She holds the space between us, giving us time, and holding our hand as we step into that space, waiting to see if the other will join us. The Spirit is there to bind us together, to fill the spaces that can’t help but be between us, even when we are as closely linked, as deeply enmeshed as a married couple.  

          Because there are times… times when we wonder, if only for a moment, whether we have bitten off more than we can chew. Times when we fear we don’t have the necessary patience, or empathy, or patience, or flexibility, or patience, or understanding to be in relationship with this person or this God!

          That’s when the Holy Spirit blows in. Filling the space in a way that defies our explanations. It is a mystery. It is a gift. It is a full-on divine visitation that just might leave us breathless.

          Not only that, it will lead us into eternal life. No exaggeration: that’s what Jesus says here, that’s how he defines eternal life. Eternal life IS knowing God, and knowing Jesus. Which means that Eternal Life, which suggests something unimaginably spacious, something indestructible, something vast and resilient and strong, eternal life is found this side of the grave in the ways we are bound together by the Holy Spirit: knowing God, knowing Jesus and knowing each other.

          And one of the keys to all this, throughout all human history, has been the telling of stories. We are connected by our shared stories, and we learn about each other (and God, actually) by listening to new stories. They are the gateway to compassion and understanding, to knowing and being known, to a sense of being valued and heard.

          Stories expand us (which means, perhaps, that they put us in touch with the eternal), especially when we are willing to broaden the band of voices to whom we listen. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks eloquently about what she calls the danger of the single story, first describing her love of the English story books she read during her childhood, but then speaking of all that opened up for her when she discovered that brown children in the sun could exist in literature, as well as all those lovely pale children exploring houses because it’s raining outside.

Hearing our own story told, amid multiple other stories, teaches us that we all have equal worth, that we are indeed all beloved children of God. It lifts up those who have been silenced, and broadens the perspective of those whose story has dominated.

It can also be transformative on a personal level. Adichie tells an example from her own life, from her interactions with her family’s house boy. He came from a nearby rural village, and the only story she’d ever heard about him was of his family’s poverty, as her mother sent food and old clothes home with him. Then one Saturday, she recalls, they visited his home and the boy’s mother showed her a beautiful basket that his brother had made from dyed raffia. And Adichie was astonished, and humbled, to realize that they had a story beyond their pitiable poverty: that they could be artists; that they could make something so lovely (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story#t-220531).

The danger of a single story is not necessarily that it isn’t true; it’s that it isn’t the whole truth. Which means it limits our understanding. Which means it can limit our capacity for compassion, can make it hard to imagine the other as a full and complex person or culture. Which means it cuts us off from each other, even if the story is benign.

To be connected to one another is to listen to the stories. To listen even if it challenges our worldview or our stereotypes. To listen even if their pain hurts our heart or threatens our sense of security. To listen, even if we have heard the same litany of complaints and anecdotes about work every day for the last 24 years!

Which brings us back to the wedding day. Because this is one more way in which choosing to marry is such a perfect way to obey Christ’s command for us to love one another. Because when we marry, we promise to listen to the stories: to hear it all, the good and the bad and the boring. To hear the full story of a whole person, a complicated person with gifts and faults and pains and joys and all the in-betweens.

And so, Brenda and Pam, we thank you for coming into our midst to remind us of the power of this work that you’ve been doing with each other for so long now. Thank you for listening to each other’s stories, and hearing each other in ways that have allowed you to become softer, braver, and truer people in this world. God, indeed, understood what He was creating in bringing you together, and surely God rejoices with us today as we make it officially official. So, let’s do this thing, and may it be so! Amen.

Clare Hickman