Monday, July 11, 2005

linda tatum: stories from the road

A sermon preached by my friend Linda Tatum, who is a member of Saint Timothy's UMC in Greensboro, North Carolina, former lay leader of that church, an award-winning short-story writer and a graduate of the Upper Room's Academy of Spiritual Formation. It is entitled "Stories From The Road", and is based on two scripture passages--Genesis 18 and Matthew 9:

"When I was growing up in Garner, a community just east of Raleigh, I got to spend a week each summer with my grandparents in a small town in the next county. Selma was the town’s name. Even though I visited there quite often with my parents, I always looked forward to the wonderful exhilaration of going away from home on my own to spend a whole week. At the time, I never thought about the even greater exhilaration my parents were probably feeling at about the same time.

The summer I was about 12, my parents drove me to my grandparents’ house less than an hour away on a Sunday afternoon. It was decided that my return trip would be by train. Even though the era of bustling passenger train travel had slowed to a trickle, Selma was a rail hub and Garner had a tiny wooden station about half the size of the house on this property.

My grandfather helped me onto the train bound for faraway places like Richmond or New York City. He saw that I was settled in my seat, and he and my grandmother waved and waved and waved as the train pulled out. They shouted last minute instructions and messages for my parents and sister. My grandmother threw kisses and my grandfather tipped his hat like I was off to Siberia and it would be years before we could see each other again.

It was almost embarrassing to have a big send-off like that for a 45 minute trip. I was always a little embarrassed at the lavishness of their love.

During the train ride, the conductor stopped at my seat and spent a lot of his time in conversation with me. He had seen my grandparents put me aboard at the station. He pointed to the shoebox on my lap—a blue box with white cursive letters spelling out Butler’s Shoes—and wanted to know if the box contained fried chicken.

I guess it was a natural leap in his mind, that such a loving send-off would have included home cooked food for the journey. I barely hid my indignation. The box held my white Sunday shoes. The ones with the little tiny training heels—an important symbol of my sophistication and maturity. The shoebox held shoes, not fried chicken. My womanhood was wrapped up in the precious content of that box.

You would think that something that precious would move me to take good care of it. But I confess, with all the tumult surrounding my homecoming, I did not even know I had left the box behind until the next day. My mother got a telephone call. It was from someone at the Garner train station. There was a package waiting for her to pick up.

The package, of course, was the shoebox. Scribbled in black handwriting over the Butler’s logo were these words: “Little girl in Garner, whose mother is librarian.” I had been tracked down through the clues in our conversation--googled before google was invented. The conductor did not know my name, but he knew who I was through my relationships and my shoes were returned to me, the little girl in Garner whose mother is librarian.

Why should I tell you all this? The point I want to make is about what it’s like to be lovingly sent out into the world. What it’s like to have love behind you and love ahead of you. What it’s like when the Good News of God’s Kingdom is in our hands to share on our journey. We can let it rest protected on our knees, or we can talk about it and share our experience.

If you have ever studied literature in school, some teacher has probably told you that there are only a certain number of plots to a story. There is a lot of disagreement, but some say that the number of different plots for a story is 36.

Some boil it down even further than that. You can sound in-the-know if you cite Tolstoy or Gardner in claiming that there are only two kinds of stories worth telling: (1) a stranger comes to town and (2) someone goes on a journey. Think about it. What are some stories we all know—The Wizard of Oz, someone goes on a journey. The Three Little Pigs, a stranger comes to town. You may not buy that kind of oversimplification, but it’s fun to look at stories and see how they fit one or both of these patterns.

Let’s think about the scene with Abraham and Sarah first. By the time we get to this place in their story in Genesis, God has made a covenant with Abraham, blessing him to be a blessing to future generations. They have made promises of faithfulness to each other and Abraham and Sarah have gone along with the deal even though their marriage has produced zero children for many years. They were both senior citizens now. At age 100 for Abraham and 90 for Sarah, thoughts of retirement were probably creeping into their dreams, not starting a family. And who would blame them?

But a stranger comes to town. Not just one stranger, but three strangers, three holy messengers. One of them Abraham even calls Lord. The Celtic devotional writer David Adam paints an imaginative picture of what the scene could have been like. Abraham notices a rise of dust in the distance, maybe wavering figures in the intense heat. When they are close enough that he realizes they are strangers, he rushes out from the shade of his tree to greet them. He welcomes them, treats them like royalty, offers them every hospitality. He sees that their feet are washed. He orders a fancy feast meal to be prepared, he sees to their comfort.

Strangers have come to town, and do they have big news for the faithful couple. They tell Abraham, and Sarah overhears, that by the time they return “in due season,” Sarah will have a baby. This comes as pretty shocking news to Sarah listening on the other side of the tent flap. She lets out a famous hoot of laughter. It’s all too wild to imagine. But it’s true.

The strangers are no ordinary travelers—not tourists passing through, not businessmen or herders—but travelers carrying God’s message for them. Abraham and Sarah will indeed be the revered parents of generations of followers of God, and the generations will start with one flesh-and-blood baby, to be called Isaac, born to a very unlikely woman. After decades of a barren life, incredible as it may seem, new life is on the way. God is in charge. God is changing things and messengers have traveled to tell them the news. It was an interruption of the status quo. A stranger comes to town.

Now, let’s look at Matthew’s story of Jesus getting his disciples ready for an important road trip. In this passage, Jesus has been preaching to a big following. As he looks out on the crowd, he sees all kinds of needs that are not being met. He sees the suffering people as “sheep without a shepherd.” His heart goes out to them and the tasks ahead seem overwhelming. There are not enough hands for the harvest, he says. So he asks his disciples to pray for more laborers. And they do pray.

This may be a case of “be careful what you pray for,” because as soon as the praying is over, Jesus commissions 12 followers to be apostles, which means to be sent out. He commissions them to go out on the road and do what needs to be done to get out the word that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew lists each one by name and it looks like an odd mix of guys for the job—fishermen, sets of brothers, a tax collector, for goodness sakes—how effective do you think he’ll be as a door-to door purveyor of the Good News?—even the man who will betray Jesus is on the list. Are these really the guys for the job?

These men are going on a journey. They are preparing to be the strangers who come to town. We know enough of the story to know that they will not always be welcomed with lavish footcare and fancy feasts, even though they bring the most wonderful news that has ever been told.

And how, exactly, does Jesus tell them to bring the message? Start classes? Buy a piece of land and build a church? Publish a scroll? No.

He tells them to get out there in the world, be a first class shepherd. Care for the sheep who suffer, the sheep who are lost, the sheep without hope.

I’ll say a word about just one of Jesus’ directives—cleanse the lepers. I know something about feeling like a leper, an untouchable, and maybe you do, too. A few years ago, I broke my left arm very badly and had to have a metal bar called an external fixator surgically screwed through the flesh and into the bones to hold them together. Have you ever gone to the grocery store with a metal bar screwed into your arm? Even with the protective cover, it looks like you are carrying an Uzi or some other kind of weapon. People winced when they saw me or turned in fear. At a dinner party, I thought one man was going to lose his lunch, and he told me the sight of my arm made him sick.

People from church were very generous and very kind. They prayed for me. They brought food, flowers, books, sent cards, offered me rides and I was very, very grateful and very, very depressed. I never went out if I could avoid it and I learned to hide my arm as much as possible when I had to be out in public. Until one day while I was walking toward my Sunday School class, a very loving person stopped me and said, “Here, let me see that,” and he reached out and touched my arm and carried on a conversation as if I were a whole human being. He didn’t draw back, he didn’t throw up, he just lightly touched my arm and that’s the day I started to recover. All the prayers and sacrifices and kindnesses of this loving community had come together is a very special way in that moment. In that touch, I finally got the point. I was a citizen of the Kingdom and I hadn’t even known it.

God is in the business of interrupting status quo. Things are going to change. Whether you are going on a journey or a stranger comes to your town, there is going to be change. The Kingdom of God has come near whether you welcome the stranger or you let townspeople welcome you—whether you are the one who receives the message or the one who carries the message that God is with us and God is in charge, the message that something as ridiculous as a little baby born to an unlikely mother can change the world.

But it’s not the message that changes the world. It is God working through the harvest hands. It is you and me sent on the road to do God’s work. It is you and me welcoming the Word into our homes. We have God’s word on it.

Someday, there will be little left of me that won’t fit into a shoebox. And what I would like to see scribbled on that shoebox so that it gets to the right place is a little different from what the train conductor wrote years ago—little girl in Garner whose mother is librarian. I’d like the words to say something like this:

Child of God who traveled far from home, sent by love, and left some love behind.

And that’s the point I want to make.

We are all being sent BY love TO love.

Sometimes the Good News comes to us through messengers like it happened with Abraham and Sarah. We have to be able to be open to what we hear and act on it. Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?

Sometimes we are the ones called to bear the message that the Kingdom of heaven has come very near. What’s that message again? A global war is exploding around us. The environment is being ripped up by the roots. Betrayal of trust can make you rich. And we are called to deliver the message that the Kingdom of heaven has come very near?

Yes. That’s pretty much it. That’s the message. We are called in a world where suffering often had a stranglehold on hope, to let our lives show that the Kingdom where God is in charge is close enough to taste. All we have to do is live like we are already there. Care for the sick and dying, touch those who are untouchable, help them get rid of what drives them crazy, be present for them when they weep, encourage them when they despair, feed them when they are hungry, find them shelter when they are lost.

And if each one of those things sounds like a full-time job, it is. It’s not a life-style; it’s a fully lived life. And we don’t have to do it alone. God calls many hands to the harvest and the communities we form, person to person, are important to the work. But even better than that, is the message engraved on our hearts—The one who sent us is always with us. God is with us, even now. The one who sent us is always with us".


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