Third in the Series, Seven Stories: Jesus’ Big Story, and the Other Stories by Which We Live
Could we start this morning with a prayer? A moment to pause and orient your heart to God. A moment to check-in and ask yourself, “how is my heart this morning?” Let’s take a few minutes to check our hearts and check-in with God. If it helps you, you can put your hand over your heart. “How is your heart this morning?”
Dear Jesus, maybe our hearts are all over the place this morning – heavy, curious, weary, broken, or numb, impatient, eager – maybe all we can say is, “well it’s beating!” I want to give thanks to you for all of that, Jesus. Thank you Jesus that when we ask for your presence you point us back to our hearts. Could you, this morning – let our hearts hear your voice – and feel your presence?
Stories and our Hearts
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus in his longest sermon says that “people speak from the fullness of their hearts” (Luke 6:45). Now, what fills our hearts, Jesus says – is wide open with possibilities – the full spectrum from goodness to evil.
From the beginning of our existence I believe Jesus has been speaking good into our hearts. He’s been filling our hearts with HIS great story of peace and mutuality and connection that holds wilder power than we could ever imagine. A story that has the potential to shape our lives, to build new things and hold our humanity to a greater purpose – to dream and to vision – for greater justice and peace than we say today.
I think he keeps speaking His story to us – for this very purpose – to stretch our imagination.. And the capacity of our hearts… . To keep imagining just how generous Jesus’ story of love is – because it’s a hard one to believe on a daily basis – when the stories we are fed are ones full of antagonists like harm and anxiety – fear and oppression – frenzy and death…these characters SUFFOCATE and flatten the story of love into hard, dark stories. They are such hard stories, BUT they catch our attention, because they are so LOUD and prevalent – and forcefully vying for space in our hearts.
These stories prove to be effective weapons at piercing our full hearts and deflating them to dead end stories like of domination, redemptive violence, isolation, purification, victimization and accumulation.
These are the six primary stories, that authors Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins suggest we tell and have been telling, writing and listening to, for a really long time.
These are the stories that we are visiting in this current sermon series. Pastor Steve talked about domination and redemptive violence the last two weeks and today I’ll talk about our tendency to isolate – and what effects ripple out from a seemingly benign posture.
These stories are important for us to inspect. To find out just how much space they have taken up in our hearts – to do the work of excavating where they are rooted, and unweave them from the language and vocabulary we speak in our lives and that we speak of God.
This is important so that the spiritual fibers of the Holy Spirit that were written in our DNA from birth, can rise back to the forefront and can be familiar words in God’s story, that speak to bind us to one another – ones that say “we are not alone”, “that we are loved” and “blessed by God”. Today we’ll look at just how sly – but powerful isolation can be at separating us not only from each other – but from this deep, true story of God in us – that was planted long ago.
We are the ones that get to fill out the story of Jesus – we are the ones that give it shape – dimension – the height, the depth, the width – how beautiful and powerful this story can be if we speak from hearts that are filled with the greatest, most generative protagonist of all, LOVE.
My STORY – Part I
I’ve shared about my upbringing here and there in sermons. I’ve talked about the coldness of growing up in Maine – the poverty, the rigidity of my faith experiences in my religious context. But I haven’t talked that much about the pervasive sickness of this small town in Maine.
And it hit me this past Friday, when I entered the doctor’s office for a colonoscopy AT 10 years younger than the recommended age, of just how strong the link between isolation and sickness is. ((This is not going to be a sermon about a colonoscopy – mercifully! Just in case you are wondering if that’s the trajectory we are going on – it is not!))
(*little health alert here*, if you are of recommended age or you have a family history go, go, go, go get a colonoscopy! I’ll make you some broth and pour gatorade for you, but go get one!).
The sinister thing about isolation – is that it can seem so confined and benign. We can witness people or groups of people at the periphery of our life, doing their own thing, seemingly happy, not harming anyone – and feel like there’s little impact of this distance on our lives. But often that separation has felt effects – it is destructive, because it breaks off all connection with sources of good – relationship with one another, God, and ourselves, and in the separateness a leeching of poison and decay spreads out into all the surrounding areas.
The small town I grew up in and neighboring small towns revolved around this epicenter of powerful, paper mills. An incredible source of revenue for these towns, for the livelihood of so many people and their families – and a badge of honor in many ways to carry on the generational line of hard work and honest living. These were the stories of the town that were told … of security, loyalty, pride… comfort, happiness..
The stories, that were told and the stories that I watched lived however, always held for me a bit of dissonance… (it’s the same feeling I get today, when I see Maine’s license plate that says “vacationland” on it – or the big sign that you see going North at the border of NH into ME – “Maine, The Way Life Should Be”).
Because what the mill also provided were stories of generational lines of sickness and death. In the decade I was born, the river which the mills were built along, flowed through the center of town and out into the farmlands – the mighty Androsccogin River, had dissolved oxygen levels of exactly zero. Which means that fish became unable to breathe and died by the millions, along with any other aquatic life, plants, etc.. Newsweek named this river, one of the ten filthiest rivers in the United States. Everything in the river died. *source: (Kerri Arsenault, https://lithub.com/growing-up-in-maines-cancer-valley/).
Not only were the waterways poisoned….. but the fresh air we breathed was contaminated with chlorine leaks and other poisons billowing out from the smoke stacks…
The byproducts that compromise the air we breathed, the water we drank and the land we walked upon were a medley of toxins , “Dioxin, cadmium, benzene, lead, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, arsenic, chloroform, mercury…(and many more that I can’t pronounce)..*source: (Kerri Arsenault, https://lithub.com/growing-up-in-maines-cancer-valley/).
This cocktail of poisons – leeching into our water, air and land – of course poisoned the bodies of so many humans I knew and loved, in the form of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer, esophageal cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, emphysema, cancer of the brain, cancer of the heart, and undetermined cancers.
This week, I connected with an author, Kerri Arsenault, from a town next to the one I grew up in – who has a book coming out in September called, “Mill Town”, (and from which I was able to quickly get all this data). We shared the commonality of cancer taking both of our Dad’s and witnessing so many other humans we love, decay in our towns… but the greater underlayer that we also held in common was the powerful posture of isolation in these towns from the government, mill authorities to families, neighbors and friends.
The possible link of sickness to the production waste of the paper mills started to get more widespread attention – more attention outside of Maine…
I remember that a Boston TV station investigated the flurry of cancer diagnoses in their NEW series at the time, called Chronicle and called the episode, “Cancer Valley.”
And during this time, Dana-Farber in Boston starts asking questions to doctors in neighboring towns to mine, “What the heck is going on in your town? We’re getting all these kids with cancer coming in from your area.”
As attention spreads, of this link, people in these towns who had their livelihoods built into the mill – started to feel threatened. Their way of life, this mill their energizing force for security and happiness is called into question. Fear starts to leech into the fabric of the town as much as the pollutants…
With this fear, isolation increases and is embodied as denial.
The Los Angeles Times talks to the state representative at the time, asking “why do you think there is such a high cancer rate?” Her reply was, “We have a very, very high cancer rate, but we always have lived with that. Nobody can prove anything, I don’t want to make [the paper mill] out to be a villain. They’re here to make paper and—there’s no question about it—this valley depends upon that paper mill.”
And the mill responds by claiming there’s “no clear link between mill wastes and cancer or other diseases.”
As late as 2012, local paper headlines says that “toxin spikes is a good sign and state officials are not alarmed”. “9.6 million pounds of chemicals released do not alarm authorities, because the increase in pollution shows an increase in papermaking.
“When anyone tried to connect the dots between the mill’s pollution and these illnesses,
This is the subtly and slyness of isolation. The story lines that are created when a “way of life and living – of certainty” is disrupted – people feel threatened – they pull back from reality … and they isolate.
The possibility of losing that which they have held on to for meaning, identity and their shape of life – is too much to deal with, too much fear to negotiate and it’s too much of an ask to release, with vulnerability, what’s really going on in their hearts. So instead it is easier to write story-lines that say “Nothing to see here”, “We’re just doing what we’ve always done – leave us alone”, “Everything is just great, never been better!”
Meanwhile mills start closing, with the increase of the digital age. Jobs are lost … and cancer is still the leading cause of death in Maine, and now along with suicide rates above the national average and illicit drug-related deaths exponentially increasing by 340%. (https://www.addictioncenter.com/rehabs/maine/)
The wicked lie of isolation, despite heaps and heaps of data to the contrary, despite tons of personal stories that suggest elsewise – is that “everything is ok” – and the fullness of hearts that we speak from are the lies that have leeched into our being…. Polluting and depriving us of the very thing we need most – the breath of God and human connection.
In isolation – we can’t see a horizon – there is no “looking out”. We can’t imagine or hope for a different way, we can’t vision for change…in fact we center our hurts, and our fears and our judgements as the only things that we can rely on.
There were real things to be scared about! And yet the story on the streets if you were to listen was, “I”M FINE!” “I”M FINE!” “I”M FINE!” Keeping everyone at arms length.
This is the active harm, that not one ray of light, or breath, or salt or yeast can get in to catalyze change in an environment of isolation. The mill, was the system that provided people with what seemed like limitless opportunities, fortune – certainty. “People were given something to believe in, a place to belong, but at the cost of their own suffering.” *source: (Kerri Arsenault, https://lithub.com/growing-up-in-maines-cancer-valley/).
We make ourselves believe that to survive, it is better to report to ourselves and others, that this is the “way life should be”. Because we believe deep down that we couldn’t survive telling the stories that we think are unspeakable. Unspeakable stories of our heart – of fear, of vulnerability and perceived failure.
We couldn’t entertain questions like:
“How’s your heart?”
“I’m scared.” (way too much)
“How’s your heart?”
“I’m so hurt.” (not even on the table)
I grew up determined not to be poor.
Determined to get a respectable education.
To always be employable.
And to never get sick.
But I never talked about how scared I was. How much fear filled my heart.
We are so scared of being vulnerable – and yet we don’t realize that when we isolate, draw away – we leave ourselves in the most vulnerable of states. At the mercy to our own fears, judgement and thoughts (that grind and churn in our heads). . . Which in isolation are the only things that grow.
Isolation turns our inner posture of going out and connecting with the things and people that we care so much about – into a posture of protecting ourselves from the things we are scared of , or that we hate, or that we don’t agree with.
So we go out and gather educational degrees, and bank accounts, and piles of really witty comebacks, and gym memberships, as resources to fill our hearts and protect ourselves from any possible unforseen change in our future..
But the byproduct to this way of life, this isolation, is similar to the poisoning of the mill. It’s a weapon really – that leeches out and suffocates our beating hearts – it deadens the way we were made, our very constitution – to be in relationship with one another- and forces of separation, and suspicion take over.
Causing us to miss our greatest resource – each other.
It’s one long, hard, flat story.
And by the way – it’s not just a story about a small mill town in Maine.
These are stories that permeate our nation – it’s endemic – all across America.
This isn’t just a story about sickness and disconnection and poverty – it’s a story about our tendencies as human beings…
It’s a story that says “no one cares”, “go it alone”.
It’s a story that is a “church” story, a “religion” story, a “family” story, and so on – as much as it is a “mill town story”
And it is the story that reigns as gospel – to so many who are heart-sick and “poor in spirit”, who are bereft and mourn the state of our world, who are weary from efforts of justice-seeking, who are afraid, who have just worked so hard, for so long. It’s our story.
Jesus as you might imagine, is incredibly curious when we start to try to define the gospel for ourselves. So here on your program are his thoughts on the gospel,
Matthew 4:25 – 5:11 (NIV)
4:25 Large crowds came from all over to follow and listen to the story of Jesus – “ from Galilee, [a very Jewish area], the Decapolis, [these 10 towns – a very Greek area which is not Jewish, not religious, not pure, not clean, not holy], Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan.”
All sorts of different people, from many backgrounds – races, ethnicities, non-christian, christian, very, very, elite religious – and non-religious.. .
People who were curious.
People who were suspect.
People who yearned to know more about this Jesus fellow.
And people who thought they knew all there was to know of this Jesus fellow.
This crowd is a representation of the wide, massive spectrum of humanity.
5:1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them – this story.
3 “Blessed are [you whose stories are of] the poor in spirit,
for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are you [whose stories are] full of mourning….
for you will be comforted.
5 Blessed are you [whose stories are] meek, – lowly, humble…
for you will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are you [whose stories] hunger and thirst for [justice*],
for you will be filled.
7 Blessed are you [whose stories] show mercy,
for you will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are you [whose stories are] pure in heart,
for you will see God.
9 Blessed are you whose stories center on peace,
for you will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are you [whose stories are] of persecution because of your struggle for [justice*],
for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when your stories are full of insult, persecution and accusations that falsely fall against you – because of me.”
*”justice” from The First Egalitarian Translation
Jesus says, “I bless you. I bless you. I bless you.”
“Blessed are you whose stories are of isolation.”
This is the gospel story. This is Jesus’ story.
This is the good news. This is not good advice. This is not a passive aggressive story that Jesus that says, “you know what you need to do, you need to be a little more “meek” , a little more “mourn-y” a little more in “pain”, a little more “poor in spirit”…… to get my blessings, to enter this story…. NO! THis is Jesus saying to EVERYONE, this massive crowd of humanity: “I LOVE YOU! YOU ARE NOT ALONE. I BLESS YOU – YOU ARE CONNECTED TO ME – My heart is connected to your heart.
Even in these states where everyone else on this Earth will want to ignore/avoid/judge/think you are TOO much, hurl insults at you, toss you aside – I BLESS YOU! This is the story written on your hearts.
You are not alone.”
Can you imagine what it feels like when you are at the end of your rope, when you’ve been so oppressed for so long, when you’ve lost what is most dear to you, when you feel so alone – Jesus says, “My friend, I’m here with you.”
Jesus’ story goes nowhere in isolation. Connection is the key to this story of love.
It can’t live in the dark.
The large crowd also held the religious elite who had upheld a “way of life and living, loving God” that had never been touched. Generational lines of being at this religious pinnacle – knowing what it looked like, what was required to ‘obey’ or ‘not obey’ the commandments of God. They already had this religious way of life locked down.
And yet, Jesus in these verses says, here’s a different story, “here’s a new way to live and love” – and it requires you to move in from the edges of the crowd, and connect to all of these people here.”
To drive this message home, Luke records these extra words of Jesus:
Luke 6:24-26 (NLT)
24 “What sorrow awaits you who are rich,
for you have your only happiness now.
25 What sorrow awaits you who are satisfied and prosperous now,
for a time of awful hunger awaits you.
What sorrow awaits you who laugh now,
for your laughing will turn to mourning and sorrow.
26 What sorrow awaits you who are praised by the crowds,
for their ancestors also praised false prophets.”
Woe to you.
Where a posture of relationship and mutuality is absent.
Woe to you.
Where the expansive spectrum of humanity is shrunk to a suffocating corner in your heart.
Woe to you.
Where love is void from your vocabulary.
For you heart will speak of stories that are bereft of meaning, God and life.
And your life will be but a weapon of isolation.*
(*I added that – Luke didn’t say that (just in case it wasn’t obvious).
What we try so hard to possess, protect and preserve – turns to poison in our hands. It turns hard and brittle and falls apart…
The active threat of the story of isolation – the real damage that is incurred – is that it flips the Jesus story upside down – it says that “Peace, security, happiness, love, ” – are all things to possess for ourselves – hoard and compile.
To have enough of these – to hold them tightly in your hands is winning at this story of life.
If they start to slip, the story of isolation says, hold on “tighter”, fight “harder” and defend more vehemently.
The religious elite in this crowd – already thought they had “won” God. Happy on their formed island… of certainty and “rightness”.
Jesus comes in and says, “woe to you, I have a different story, and it starts with I BLESS YOU.”
“Bless you! and bless you! and bless you!” Jesus zigzagging across the crowd, inter-connecting those who shouldn’t be connected – by the religious law, societal law, telling the new story of love.
“Don’t be afraid, you aren’t alone”.. Look! Bless you and bless you and bless you”….
“Loosen your grip. Peace, hope, blessing and belonging – were never meant to be held so tightly, they can’t be contained in one place. THEY ARE MEANT TO BE GIVEN.”
Their very essence is to spread and be magnified and fill all the dimensions of our hearts.
This is the flow of Jesus’ story – to receive and to give…
“You shall receive mercy – as you give mercy.. . you shall receive peace as you give peace.. You shall receive blessing as you stay connected.”
THIS IS THE STORY OF LOVE. The great protagonist… and love needs its space to roam and be free… in, and between, and through ALL OF US.
Jesus is telling a new story – an UPENDING story, where winning, and strength, where the biggest and most powerful don’t take center stage – and HE invites us all as crucial participants into this – into something so much bigger than a story of isolation can achieve.
When we step out of connection, when we sit at the edges of the crowds around us – we disallow the love of Jesus to be completely expressed in the world.
We DEAD END the Gospel story.
MY STORY – Part II: DECAY
I went back to my home town this December, the first time in a couple of years. And I connected with a friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in some time. I was in a full room of people, and she came in through the side door…
When I saw her, I was pierced right in the heart.
Have you ever had the wind knocked out of you? That’s what it felt like – Here it was all at once – the decaying impact of the story of isolation, in human form. Written across the face and in the lines and eyes of my friend… The poison of it, the weight of it, the corrosiveness of it. She represented the stories of decaying governmental bodies that wouldn’t change policies, the decaying bodies of water and land – the wearying story of poverty – the grind of working so hard – it was almost too much to bear.
And I felt my heart rush with care and love and I had a split second of wanting to hug her and hold her and ask her “how her heart was?”
… and then I shut it all down…I shut my heart down.
I said to my husband, Scott, “we have to leave”.
Rush back to my space, my story of comfort, peace, warmth, DRIVE AWAYYYYY….. *my own move to isolation*
(and we did, we only stayed one night instead of two).
But Jesus says in these verses…. “Come back, come back! Stay connected. STAY connected. Her story of isolation is your story too… you can’t shake it. You can’t’ turn your eye.. And sit on the pile of your satisfaction and fullness…
You see, stories of domination, revolution, isolation, accumulation… are not just someone else’s story to struggle with and experience – to point fingers at… they are ALL of our stories – they impact all of us…
I think this is Jesus’ point if we are going to tell this story of love,
We can’t use words like peace, when we only carve peace for ourselves in this corner – WITHOUT trying to restore peace where it is not…
WE can’t use the word “connection”, when we use power as a way to distance ourselves from others, divide ourselves – when we could utilize it as a way to approach each other, unite and connect us to one another.
We can’t use the word, “belonging” when the binding commonality is who we hate or what we don’t like … when we could set the foundation of belonging as what we share – what we love and hope and dream for.
We can’t tell the story of love… with words like, “safety, security, certainty” because the story of love is too big, too dynamic to hold those words… It’s a story where words like courage, resilience and grit build new pathways. A story that rests on risk, trust, mutuality …..where we hope that the flow of love will create something new that we can’t yet see… a horizon we all long for.
Jesus’ story of love – speaks of blessing and connection – not hate and decay.
Ruby Sales, the civil rights elder – says we need to do more of this – we need to speak more of blessing and of LOVE. She’s been quoted as saying that she joined the civil rights movement not only because she was angry about injustice but because she loved justice itself. She says that, “most people begin their conversations with, ‘I hate this,’ but they never talk about what it is they love.”(On Being Newsletter January 2020).
When I left Maine in December I went away with things in my heart that I couldn’t stand the sight of – stories of poverty, sickness, weariness, decay. Things that I HATE and am outraged by. But I couldn’t get to this spot that Ruby Sales talks about in my heart.
What was it I cared so much about – what was it that I loved so much?
When I got back from Maine – after seeing my friend. I went to write her a letter.
A simple “thank you” note, for the Christmas presents and for opening her home to us.
I was still so full of anger and frustration and sadness at seeing her…
And as I sat down to write, my heart and fist clenched…
words came to the paper that I didn’t consciously scribe,
And the first line I wrote on that page was: “I love you, mom”.
“I love you – even if you couldn’t take a day off of work”.
“I love you, even if we couldn’t stay another night”.
“I love you” ..
Ruby Sales says the reason she wants to have justice, is because she loves everybody in her heart – and if she didn’t have that feeling then there would be no struggle.
ANd perhaps, there would be no reason for me to keep telling the story of Jesus, if I wasn’t so torn up at seeing the story of isolation decaying on people’s faces.
The words written on my heart – came through my pen – but they come through our actions, and our words too – so long as we don’t stop the flow of God’s love… It’s love that is meant to be received by us and given by us – but not held by us… It’s then that I can see with clarity what and who I love.
God is still writing his story in my heart…and it starts with, “I bless you, Ivy”.
And “I bless your friend.”
“Your stories are the same.”
“YOu are not alone. You are not alone in your outrage and frustration and sadness – and your mom is not alone in her sickness and pain.
You are both blessed in love, by me.”
We are all part of God’s big story.
What story of God will we write?
What stories will be told to the next generation of our day and age?
Will they be stories of growth, and healing, and blessing?
Stories of resilience, courage, connection and birth?
We are the living words, the sacred texts, the verses and the chapters – that others will read, we are the living Bible stories.
What Gospel will we write?
Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing:
Trust that you are actively disarming others, when you devote yourself to love and connection. Start by infusing your conversations with the words “love,” “heart,” and “hope.” Ask yourself, and people around you, “What do you love?” “How is your heart?” “What do you hope for?”
We need to start changing our vocabulary. Our actual spoken and written vocabulary. When you meet people try saying “How is your heart today?” Instead of “how are you?” And listen. Watch. Notice. Their heart will speak… even if they don’t yet have the vocabulary. Watch their eyes, their face – listen for the intake of breath, the sigh – the silence… we need to start listening to each other’s hearts… and it might have to start with our language.
Spiritual Practice of the Week:
In moments this week where the tug of isolation is strong, say as a prayer, “I am blessed by God, I am not alone”. And then take a practical step and move into the sunshine and/or reach out to someone for connection.
Thank you Jesus that you bless each and everyone of us here today, in our full humanity. In every state of heart, mind, spirit or body.
May we receive your blessing and give your blessing today, and tell the story of this blessing with a heart full of your love. .