First Reading Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm Psalm 19
Second Reading 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Gospel Luke 4:14-21
Readings for this Sunday:
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a | Luke 4:14-21
My daughter Claire and I have a running joke. Most of you know Claire. She’s grown up at St. Andrew alongside you and we get her back every now and then. Her story is changing now that she is well into her undergraduate work at Western, and it is one of those wonderful and heartbreaking things to watch her do well and find her place in the world and realize that her living into her own life means that it will be lived apart from us more and more.
Just about every time she’s home from school and back with us in worship here at St. Andrew we get to share our little joke. It has become so familiar it takes just a quick glance to renew it. It happens in a moment during what we just did a bit ago—the singing of Glory to God right after we share God’s peace with each other. Sometime during the second verse of the song, once we’ve started to clap I’ll glance over at her and we’ll make eye contact, and we’ll laugh. Because here’s the thing. We’re not very good at it—at the clapping I mean. Well, at least I’m not. Now, I know you don’t know that because I’m just so smooth—“cool as the other side of the pillow,” as Sportscenter host Stuart Scott used to say.
I work on clapping on the beat—well, off the beat, on two and four, not one and three, and actually as close to on the offbeat as I can and not some close approximation. And I try to find a balance of looking cool, but also not drawing attention, looking off at something, nonchalant, because one of my jobs as a leader in worship is to help you to relax your way into the movements and the words and the moment so that we can get beyond ourselves and encounter the God that’s bigger than us and the insight that changes our lives.
So I’m trying to keep it all in check while looking like I’m totally into the moment. And Claire knows otherwise. As much as I absolutely love our singing, and love the way we do that song, it’s hard to figure out exactly how to do a song like that authentically. It’s not my first language. I grew up in a church tradition in which I felt compelled to act in a particular way, so now I’m kind of ruined to the whole thing. I’m re-learning how to do what I need to do to be fully here, and Claire just seems to get a kick out of watching me try to manage it all.
You see, the thing is, it’s awkward.
And that’s always been ok with me, because I suspect some of you feel the same way, but for others, it’s your jam. So it is becoming a part of us—this song, and this idea that its ok to do things some of us aren’t really accustomed to for the sake of the rest. And the singing of that response does express the joy we know we are trying to both name and live into as God’s children in our life together. And it’s good especially because it is for a larger purpose, for a value that we know is more deeply true than we will probably ever experience fully—that we are a part of each other, that we are better together, that we are a body with many parts, and when they are diverse and unique and different and all functioning well, we’re going to be in good shape.
So I was given an unexpected gift this past Tuesday at the worship service that was a part of our Seattle Presbytery meeting—the gathering of people from the fifty something churches that are a part of our regional denominational body. Lina Thompson is the pastor of Lake Burien, the church that was hosting our gathering, and during her sermon, she used that term awkward to name what happens when they worship.
Lina’s parents were among the earliest Samoan families to settle in the Seattle area, and I suspect her story has shaped her to be drawn to diversity as a source of hope for life. I also suspect as a minority among what is still a very white church and region, she is accustomed to awkwardness.
The beautiful insight she brought out, and that her church, and ours, I think, is trying to live into is that we are better when we are together—that we are better in our difference, that peace is our light in the darkness, that violence can only be overcome as we move from being strangers to being friends. And so her congregation is trying to grow accustomed to singing “awkward” and worshipping “awkward” and doing lots of things together awkwardly.
And I realized, that that’s what we’re about too. I mean, it’s not that our goal is to be awkward—as much as some of us seem to be naturally gifted for it!—but that our goal is peace, and the joy of life. The Christian shorthand for that is salvation, and its what we wish for one another as we go around and exchange handshakes and hugs and fist bumps right before we gather and sing that great song with great words and a great beat and sometimes awkward clapping. We want lives that are whole and joyful. We want tables filled with food and friendship that was provided by people all along the way who are paid fairly for their labor. We want streets that are safe. We want abundant opportunities for everyone, not just ourselves. We want an end to the startling dysfunction and manipulative hate-speech that is such a part of the most powerful country on earth. We want a better future for our kids and grandkids. We want good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind.
And what we know is that some awkwardness is to be expected along the way because we are going to have to deal with people who think and live and act differently from us if we want to get there.
The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie—a name I can’t say, by the way, without a degree of awkwardness—speaks of the danger of a single story.[i] Adichie tells the story of leaving Nigeria for college studies in the United States when she was 19:
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.[ii]
Adichie’s father was a professor and her mother an administrator. As was true of many middle class families, they had servants, and her own upbringing produced moments when her own stereotypes of others were shattered, so she was ready to make meaning from this troubling encounter. “What struck me was this,” she says of her new roommate:
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 any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.[iii]
The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity. Our ignorance is a form of violence that hurts not only those we make assumptions about, but us too. We make ourselves vulnerable to the kind of fear that we see being peddled by people we call leaders in our country, and we become enslaved to lives of mistrust and competition and violence.
And in comes Jesus offering another story. It is not a single story, but a common one. It is a bigger story, a story we share because it is ours together of a Spirit that holds all of us, of a way that is good news not just for the poor and the blind and the lame and the immigrant, but ultimately to us all.
It is also an awkward story because it requires that we open ourselves to what we don’t yet understand. As we will see next week in the continuation of our gospel reading, not everyone gets it. At this point it seems that everyone in the synagogue is admiring Jesus’ gracious words, but then it occurs to somebody to consider the source, and suddenly familiarity starts to breed contempt. Someone asks, isn’t this just Joseph’s son?
But that’s where we can see especially the importance of this way. Singing awkward and worshipping awkward and meeting together awkward to share our stories builds in us a capacity to receive the gifts that God offers that give us what we need to be whole.
So, if you watch closely, you may see me miss the beat a little on one side or another of it as I’m clapping during the second verse of Glory to God. And, you know, that’s ok. If Claire’s not here to smile at me, maybe you will, and our little joke can grow until it is ultimately shared by many of us and we begin to know inside and out that “world without end” God wants for us. But, in the meantime, I’m going to keep acting as cool as I can.
[i] See, for example, her 2009 TED Talk “The danger of single story”: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en.
[ii] Ibid.: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en#t-248180.
[iii] Ibid.: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en#t-293180.
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