Call Us What We Carry (1): Story

[special_heading title=”Call Us What We Carry (1): Story” subtitle=”by Louise Westfall” separator=”yes”]There it was on the registration form for the outpatient surgery facility where I had a hip replacement procedure almost 3 weeks ago. “Religion” — with multiple choice responses:  Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Other, None. When I expressed surprise to the receptionist, she just shrugged and said that it helped them assign a chaplain if requested.

But it got me thinking about what it means to check “Christian” as my religious preference. Oh, I get it — I’m not a rabbi or imam, Zen Buddhist or atheist. But what makes me Christian?   Is it membership in a Presbyterian –that is, a Christian–Church?  Is it a set of beliefs identified as “Christian?”  Is it a worldview that shapes my perspectives on politics and social issues? Does it unite me with the cloud of witnesses known as Christians—that includes the late Dr. King and Archbishop Tutu and Mother Teresa, Jack Bogle and Jeff Bezos, Peyton Manning, every President of the United States in the last 245 years, Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotamayor and Amy Coney Barrett, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert? It was said of the atheist philosopher Frederick Nietzsche that he didn’t “hate Christians” because he’d never met one. A thoughtful young person I spoke with recently mentioned that he hesitates to describe himself as “Christian” in many circles these days because of associations with vocal anti-LGBTQ, anti-women, anti-science positions. What—or who– is a Christian?

Questions like these prompted this year’s Lenten theme, Call Us What We Carry. The title comes from a collection of poems by Amanda Gorman, the young Black woman who delivered one of the remarkable offerings from this collection at President Biden’s inauguration. Human identity, she says, is formed by the experiences, stories, and memories we hold on to, both good and bad, generative and destructive. There are specific ways that the trafficking and slavery of Black persons have forever shaped Black reality and her poetry aims to give an account; not, she writes, what was said, but what was meant. Not the fact, but what was felt. What was known, even while unnamed. [from Call Us What We Carry: Ship’s Manifest, Amanda Gorman, Viking Press, 2021, pp 1-2]

Friends, this honest accounting of Black history is a necessary ingredient for us who identify as “Americans” whether or not our ancestors held slaves. Call us what we carry–which includes constitutional exclusion, broken treaties, criminal treatment, economic exploitation, as well as civil rights legislation, economic reparations, and a shining torch lifted against tyranny and towards freedom.  In a similar way, our Christian identity emerges through a story of a particular people–a narrative that begins with a call and promise, continues through the experience of slavery and liberation, exile and return, is renewed through prophetic word and action, and is fulfilled in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s a human story–if Divinely-inspired–which contains both shadows and light, and points to a transformed reality in which all people thrive in the Kin-dom of God. My hope is that this Lenten season will offer opportunity to consider our Christian identity by exploring the stuff we carry, the good and the bad and how we’ve incorporated both in our mission and purpose.

So, we begin at the beginning, our book of origins, Genesis, and how it all got started. The original call to our spiritual ancestor Abram (who would soon be re-named Abraham). It’s worth noting the fact that we share this part of the story with Jewish neighbors, also members of the family, the chosen ones. A reading from the twelfth chapter of Genesis, verses one through nine. Listen for God’s Word. [GENESIS 12:1-9]

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve watched the PBS show Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. Each week features a genealogical search for deep connections with relatives and communities. With detective-like finesse, experts suss out clues from documents, letters and postcards, photographs, news reports and police records, even shared recipes, art work and household items, leading to information about a family tree and details about its roots and branches. Some of the episodes have included actual identities of long-lost relatives, but often the outcome is nothing more than deeper understanding of the complexity of the ties that bind us together, at times provoking gratitude, relief, or regret.

I wonder what this account of our origin story sparked in you. Here is the documented call of God to a member of the Israelite tribe, Abram, and a promise of land and blessing throughout the generations and over all the earth. The rocks of the altar Abram raised to the Lord became the foundation of faith, a Judeo-Christian religious tradition that has continued over the millennia right up until today. Though just think for a moment of the evolution and revolution, resurrection and reformation it has undergone! Call us what we carry–a story of God’s continual relationship with people.[callout_box title=”The story of our faith is the blessing of relationship.” subtitle=””]Now let’s take a closer look at that story. Some of us will notice the patriarchy at its heart.  Though Abram is married to Sarai and it is through her that God’s promise of offspring is realized, she’s seldom listed among the giants of faith. We acknowledge that the story of Christian faith privileges males which resulted in sadly exclusive practices in leadership and lack of recognition of the gifts of women. Some of us will notice that our spiritual forebears held slaves–“persons whom they had acquired in Haran” and the little aside that the land God promised them was inconveniently inhabited by “the Canaanites.” We’ll talk more about land next week. But for today, it’s enough to notice the contradictions and paradoxes of this story. Our history has rough patches with terrible consequences that echo across the time and space. I want us to see that, not to shame us or spit on our religious heritage but to recognize the truth and in that recognition discover what essentials we may be missing.

Our story was written through the lens of patriarchy–yet I am standing before you as an ordained minister. (I’ll grant you that it took 1,956 years—progress was … incremental…)  Our story was written at a time when human slavery was part of the social order–yet we have come to understand its inhumanity, fight for its abolition, and even to this day, seek to dismantle its systemic chokehold. And here’s the thing: the changes in our story came through engagement with that story. Old Testament prophets railed against oppressive economic systems that held people in slavery. Sacred law centered care on widows and orphans, immigrants and refugees. Jesus overturned tables of injustice and made a place at the table for vulnerable people. Martin Luther’s eureka moment came from the witness of Scripture and the amazing grace that holds each of us imperfect people in loving arms.

By remembering our story, we come to see its influences upon us now. We find what is most important. The call of God doesn’t change, but our perception of it surely does. Perhaps Abram and his offspring were too quick to attribute to God what they themselves desired. I wonder if we do that too. Fashioning a god in our likeness, whose will seems 100% congruent with ours. Imagine!

And that’s why, despite the limitations of history and culture and the growth of human knowledge and global reach, the story of our faith is what we have to tell to understand who we are and why we’re here. It’s there, perhaps buried under layers we can rightly discard. God’s promise to make of Abram a great nation is for one purpose and one purpose only:  so that you will be a blessing… [so that] all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

That’s it, my friends. The story of our faith is the blessing of relationship. We know God not as a vague spiritual force, but as Divine Being whose very nature is offered us in blessing. That outpouring overflows in our life together as blessing. Oh there are so many chapters yet to explore, and so many times when we mistook our calling!  But call us what we carry:  a story in which God is reaching out to us and through us to bless the entire world. Here at the beginning of the Lenten journey, may we read the story from a larger frame–not simply as a tale of individual self-improvement but as a call to the practice of love within community?  [The previous sentence draws upon the wisdom of bell hooks in All About Love, William Morrow and Company, Inc, 2000]

….and how much is that love needed. We didn’t even have a moment to celebrate the decline of Covid infections in our city and nation before the invasion of Ukraine canceled anticipatory feelings of peace and well-being. We’re coming to live with much less certainty about even rock-solid institutions and realities than we ever thought possible. We’re weary and struggling and I’ve noticed in myself a decreased ability to wait with patience for the turning of the world to the light.

The best antidote I know is to read the story. Read it and remember that God is hard at work calling and equipping and blessing us. Read it and remember that the story is not over; even death couldn’t end it or diminish its power to en-liven and in-spire. The One whose death we remember in this meal invites us to eat and drink…to life. To love, overflowing and redeeming and reparative and whole. Come friends, back to the past to receive Love’s blessing for today, and forever.