Sunday, October 18, 2015

“The Danger of a Single Story” (John 3:16)

One late spring morning I took a walk to a small pond.
In my mind I envisioned observing a turtle on a log and a fish in the shallow water.

If I were really lucky, perhaps there’d be a pair of ducks.
What I didn’t expect to encounter was the air thick with insects—invisible to the naked eye if the sunlight hadn’t been streaming.

I was standing in this amazing energy filled with so many living things, including me.

No breathing through the mouth!

Stand perfectly still.

Observe what the sunlight is revealing that normally would be hidden from plain sight if one were to simply observe the little pond from a distance, from the road, perhaps driving by: life, everywhere, life!

Not one dimensional, not two dimensional, but life in 3-D life!

I understood in that moment the whole world as it is—
a sea of activity beyond my comprehension—
and myself as I am—
one with the log, the cattails, the fish,
the turtle, the water, the ducks,
the air, the insects, the light.

Not above the world with an air of superiority.

Not below the world with an air of inferiority.

Not beside the world like a partner, helping the Source of all life but within the world like mother and child.

Within God .

Within God just like the fish, the pond,
and the air, and the insects, and the ducks.

In this moment I understood what psalmist means when he writes “Taste and see the glory of the LORD!”

Have you ever had the glory of the LORD sneak up on you like that—expanding your heart to the point where you think it is going to explore with all of God’s sweetness?

Later that evening I made this note, “God is so big.”
Which means love is so big---because God is love—and God’s love encompasses everyone and everything.

John says the same thing in his gospel this morning: God loves the world. I wonder John penned this part of his gospel after he had experienced the glory of the LORD?

Let us note that John doesn’t say God loves a particular part of the world, or simply the people of the world (although there are biblical translations that say that God loves the people of the world). The translations we are reading in worship this morning God loves it all. Not only does God love it all God empowers the world through Christ, through compassion. That’s what John means when he writes that God gave “his only begotten son” out of love instead of judgment. God GAVE the world the compassionate heart of God so that the world would not perish. When you and I as disciples or students of Jesus BELIEVE in the compassionate life enough to make the compassionate life our goal, we, too empower the world.

Like Jesus we restore dignity, we make peace, we feed and we clothe and we house.

It’s a very big step, this thing called a compassionate life, the Christ life which saves the world God loves. At the same time it is the life we said we wanted when we were baptized—and as we break the bread and lift the cup—we want to be a blessing.

I thought it would be good for us this morning to explore one aspect of the compassionate life that God desires WITHIN us and one road block to the compassionate life that we sometimes throw up. The step towards a compassionate heart is reconciliation, which means “to restore friendly relations” and a roadblock is stereotyping, which means “to generalize or oversimplify a group of people, usually offensively, in order to distinguish and diminish the group.” Stereotyping creates brokenness; separates people from the whole.

Some years ago a young woman from Nigeria was filmed for what is called a TED Talk—a non-profit devoted to spreading ideas. This young woman’s idea is this: Single stories are dangerous. A single story (or stereotyping) is when we let ONE story become the only story, such as “reading a novel called American Psycho,” notes the Nigerian author, “and being moved by the fact that young Americans were serial murderers.”

The young woman writes: “I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. At 19 years of age I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She also assumed that I did not own a stove. What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in anyway, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

Least she keep this challenge outside of herself, she tells the story of how she read American and European books when she was young because they were available. “When I began to write my own books at age 17,” she notes, “all my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now, this is despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather because there was no need to. We are so impressionable and vulnerable when we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Now, things changed when I discovered African books. People like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.”

In other words, there is never a single story about any place, any person, or anything. One story, one slant, one introduction to something is incomplete. When we meet Jesus, we receive in our bibles more than one person’s experience of him. And guess what, they are not all the same. In the Old Testament we meet more than one person’s experience of Moses. There is more than
one story teller. And guess what? Not everyone sees the same thing in Moses OR the people wandering in the wilderness.

This young woman from Nigeria just started a non-profit with her publisher. Their goal is to build libraries and to refurbish libraries in state schools that don’t have any so persons are exposed to lots of stories, and they plan to start workshops in reading and writing so all the people can tell their many stories.

The more stories we are exposed to, we understand, the more complete the picture is of what this thing we call life really is. The more we see God for who God really is. Only she calls it “paradise.” Isn’t that a great word for God, paradise? That’s certainly what I experienced that spring day when I walked to the pond. God is big—diverse—overflowing with energy. And whether it is the migrant and refugee or the mountain and river God reminds us that it is loved. Who are we to diminish anyone or anything?

On this world communion Sunday we find ourselves thinking about WHOLE WORLD and not just a small part of it. We are thinking about family and friends and refugees and migrants and hurricanes and droughts and mountains and oceans. So many people around the world are breaking the bread of life and lifting the cup of blessing…offering their lives in service to Christ…by becoming compassion…that the world might not perish.

Let us pray: We gather at your table today, Story-telling God, to regain a sense of paradise by opening our lives to everyone, and not just a few whose stories sound a lot like our own. Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings. Montana on October 4, 2015.)

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