Sermon – 3.22.20 – Giving Up the Single Story; Taking On ________
Rev. John Callaway
Having only been a Co-Pastor and senior minister for almost a year now, there have been very few sermons that I did not look forward to writing and preaching. There is something about the preparation and moment of proclamation that is life-giving to me.
I was not excited this week.
The preparation was not life-giving this week.
No, this week I wanted to wallow in self-pity.
This week, I let doomsday scenarios and worst case thoughts get the best of me. This type of anxiety-inducing social distancing and home isolation really messes with extroverted huggers like me. There is an internal, but very real struggle within me. I want to value the time that I have with Sophie and with Katie, and I do. But there is this level of exhaustion that has already hit, I can’t stay focused on any one task, and there is this underlying stream of worry for my family and for our congregation.
Does anybody out there feel it too?
I imagine that we are all struggling right now as you experience new difficulties.
So, It was hard to write this sermon.
It was hard because I know the pressure and anxiety that so many in our congregation must be experiencing.
It was hard because the perfectionist in me wants to give the perfect word of pastoral comfort.
It was hard because we chose the titles and subjects of these Lenten sermons long before our new reality.
The sermon title I chose back in February went along with our theme of giving up Lent. Back then, I had no idea just how much we would be giving up.
The sermon title, “Giving Up Explanations; Taking on Mystery” made sense for this John 9 text because I felt like the certainty of the Pharisees was getting in the way of their ability to embrace a mysterious God—a God that can’t be fully explained.
And yet here we are. There is no need at all to preach about embracing mystery. We’ve been collectively thrust into mystery whether we embrace it or not. There is no end in sight. There is no way to plan. There are very few semblances of normal life. And existential questions abound.
And we are just starting week two here in Savannah.
All that said, I think I’m going to retitle the sermon this morning. Today, the title will be “Giving Up the Single Story; Taking on ___________”
I’m leaving the taking on part blank for you. As you listen today, I want to challenge you to think about what healthy practice or idea you need to take on or embrace. And it will be different for each of you. Just as it was different for each person in our text today.
In John chapter 9, we have this amazing story of the man born blind, but there are multiple stories within the story. Today, I want to us to try and identify with the man who was miraculously healed.
Here’s what we know: the man was blind from birth, his parents are both alive, he is living in a Jewish area, and the town is small enough where everybody knows him.
The story the townspeople and the Pharisees knew was that this man was born blind because of sin and that he should be kept on the outskirts of society because he was unclean. Isn’t it fascinating that everybody in this retelling knows exactly who this man is, but nobody calls him by his name.
His only identity is the singular story that everyone in town tells. And this identity has forced this Child of God into physical distancing for Lord knows how long. If I’m complaining after week one, I can’t even imagine decades of this. But that is his reality. A single story has trapped this man.
Before Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Adichie landed multiple books on the best seller list, she gave a TED talk that spoke of the danger of the single story. When she began college in the United States, Adichie noticed that westerners have one single story of Africa. And you can see this even in the way that many people describe Africa as if it is one country. The people she spoke with had an understanding that Africa was filled with beautiful landscapes, exotic animals, terrible poverty, and AIDs.
Early on, her roommate was amazed at Adichie’s English, even though English is the official language of Nigeria. This roommate asked her share some of her music from home one day and was shocked when Adichie handed her a copy of Mariah Carey’s latest CD.
This roommate treated Chimamanda as unequal because she only had a singular story of Africa and a singular story of Chimamanda. She had never heard the stories from Africa that included technology, innovation, powerful infrastructure, ancient history, and cultural and religious diversity.
Adiche says, “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
It robs people of dignity. I have a feeling that would sound very familiar to our nameless main character in John 9. The Pharisees and the disciples were caught up in a single story and the myth of certainty. This man was this way because he or his parents sinned. This man was only the blind man on the edge of town. This man could not have been given sight because things like that do not happen. This man could not be fully welcomed back into society because it doesn’t fit their narrative about him. When it comes to God’s work in the world, they had the answers.
In sticking with the single story and discrediting everybody with an explanation contrary to their own, the Pharisees were trying to blind this man all over again—continuing to rob him of his dignity, just as Adiche explained.
Friends, the single story robs others of dignity, and it robs each of us of life. Think about the singular story that has taken all of us by storm. There is a pandemic. I check my phone notifications and it tells me about COVID19. I watch the local news and it is all about COVID19. I turn on the Today show and almost every story is somehow related to COVID19. I walk around the neighborhood and I keep as far away from every person walking or riding because I’m worried about COVID19. I have a sore that won’t heal on my finger because I have washed my hands and used so much hand sanitizer to stay away from COVID19. This coronavirus is on my mind when I wake up and on my mind when I go to bed. The singular story of worrying about the pandemic has taken over. This singular story is robbing me of life and blinding my ability to see anything else.
But when I calm down for just a moment and pay attention—when I stop and take a deep breath—I can uncover my eyes and see things clearly once again.
Every time I speak to a member of our congregation, they tell me that they just talked to two other people just to check on them. I hear our people offering to go an get groceries for somebody who doesn’t need to risk being in public. I look outside and see other families going for walks or riding their bikes. They wave and they all intentionally keep their distance. I see leaders of big companies offering video conferencing platforms for free. I’ve watched parents stepping up to help teachers educate their children. I’ve seen teachers and professor shift gears and continue educating in ways that were not thought to be possible just a week ago. I’ve watched teachers volunteer to deliver meals to students in need. I’ve seen stories of five star restaurants change their whole business model to feed communities. These things are happening ALL OVER THE WORLD.
I’ve even watched our two-year-old FaceTime with friends and family, taking all this in stride as she now has to deal with two nervous parents working from home.
These good things are even happening in my house.
The singular story of pandemic is by no means the whole story.
The presence of Christ is all around us and it is a constant, even in times like these. The man born blind experienced it, the Pharisees experienced it, and we can experience it as well. The presence of Christ not only breaks apart the singular story, the presence of Christ is that which connects all our stories into a library of plurality.
You see, there is something else much deeper going on in the text than the Pharisees realize. There is something much deeper going on today that we realize. We are intricately connected to one another. The town we read about in this text and the world we experience right now is more connected that we know.
There is a reason why it felt like there was something different in the air on September 11, 2001. There is a reason why all of the sudden people who aren’t even basketball fans feel connected when a helicopter crashes in Los Angeles with an NBA star, his daughter, and seven friends. There is a reason why the coronavirus is on the mind of so many around the world. We are intricately connected to one another in ways that we cannot explain.
We are connected and we need each other to live. In this story, Jesus wasn’t simply performing a miracle. Jesus was pointing out the value of this human being and the need for his story to be valued by the community. This man’s story mattered. This man’s story is needed.
That is good news and that is a call to action today. We are connected and we need each other.
There is a friend of mine who recently retired from pastoring a megachurch who shared this illustration in one of his devotions. I bet this is probably the first time an evangelical megachurch pastor has been referenced from this pulpit, but this is a prime example of us depending on each other and valuing all stories.
He visited northern California last summer and spent some time in the Redwood National Park. Walking around with his wife, he listened as the docent talked about the heights of these incredible trees, some growing more than 350 feet tall. Many people know the singular story that these are the tallest trees in the world. The redwood trees in the park can be 2000 years old—saplings at the time of our text today. My friends interest was peaked when the docent began to talk about the root systems of these giants. The roots of the tallest trees in the world—over 350 feet tall—only grow 6 to 12 feet deep. That’s it. But these roots are pretty miraculous. They grow out to 100 feet wide. If you go to the Park, you’ll notice that these trees are not 100 feet apart from each other. These tree roots run wide and then intricately connect with the roots of other trees. They form a network and can actually send nutrients to different other trees when the need arises. The trees hold each other up and support each other. They need each other for survival.
You see, everybody looks up to see the amazing height of these trees, but people don’t realize the underlying connection that is holding the entire forest together. There is so much more to the story.
Friends, we are in this together. We need each other. There is so much more happening in our world that is good and life-giving. There is more to the story. Look around you and you just might see.
Christ values you. Christ values your story. What will you write next?