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The Story’s Thread

A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock

at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 28 November 2021 [Advent 1]:

Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

It’s not a greeting you hear very much anymore: “What’s the story?” Given as a salutation, nowadays we are more likely to ask, “How’s it going?” or “How y’a doin’?” or even the potentially tender inquiry, “How are you?” When we meet, we quite naturally want to catch up with one another to find out how our life is, to learn what’s new – or not -- and to recognize how these events shape us. In these pandemic times, so many events seem to be bombarding us that it is quite easy to lose track of how we are. More to the point, there is so much going on with us that it becomes simply easier to answer these greetings with the deflecting “fine” and move on to discussing the weather or sports or some other innocuous topic that allows us to live in a protective bubble of denial.

Amid all the upheavals you and I have experienced in this ongoing pandemic, with all the unmooring of our lives from our comforting routines and expectations, I think the question we need to ask ourselves goes back to that old phrase: “What’s the story?” What story links all the pieces of our lives together? What story provides meaning and direction to our lives, especially when all hell is breaking loose? More specifically and troubling, do we even have access to such an integrating story; or are we left to make up such a thing on our own?

Recently, I came across a short poem from the late, American poet William Stafford. The poem is called “The Way It Is”. Let me read it to you because I think it speaks about what keeps us and our lives together. Stafford writes:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change. People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it is hard for others to see. While you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread.

For me, Stafford’s image of the lasting thread contains the echoes of Advent because both the thread and the season call us to come to grips with what is always moving its way through all the scattered pieces of our lives – both the good and the bad, the strange and the wonderful, the pleasant and the difficult. That thread and the thread’s story have the capacity to hold us together. Yet, from the looks of things in the news, most of us have lost track of that thread and its attending story. And so, at the beginning of this season of Advent, with all that Advent conveys about the thread that is God’s presence among us and the hope that this thread’s story conveys, I want to remind you of two things: One is the unchanging and connecting thread that is “God with us: Emmanuel”; the second is the God-story that lovingly and perpetually threads its way through our lives to provide purpose and hope and new life.

Having this idea of the thread and its story in mind, I was struck this past week by a PBS program on the plight of the Native Americans, particularly as they sent their children to government sponsored “Indian Vocational Schools”. The most famous “Indian School” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the facility located in Carlyle, Pennsylvania. In the wake of the ending of the plains “Indian wars”, the United States government rounded up the defeated tribes and placed them in reservations, where the reality of living amid the dominant, white culture eroded their own distinctness and began to siphon off their indigenous strength and hope. Most significantly, in the 1870’s and thereon, the tribal chiefs, whose responsibility it was to guide and protect their people, made the decision to send their children to the government schools, to Carlyle specifically, so that the children could learn how the white culture worked and thought.

The chief’s decision was a matter of pragmatism. They sent their children east to the “Indian School” to prepare this next generation to lead the tribes in dealing with the dominant white culture: To know how to be in the white culture but without being of it. Unbeknownst to these leaders and their families, the schools existed to “whitewash” (pun intended) the Indian children, robbing them of their heritage. Carlyle’s program aimed to sever of all cultural and family ties. The kids were forbidden to speak their languages. Their hair, normally kept at ceremonial length, was cut short, military style. Generally regarded as “savages” by the white culture, it was believed that these Native kids needed “civilizing”, and the church unfortunately did its part in this process.

Yet, the deeper, nearly unspoken tragedy of this situation lay in the fact that even if the chiefs and their people had assimilated to the social norms of white America, they would still not have been accepted as equal human beings. One result of this fact can be painfully seen in the graves of the “Indian School” students, many of whom died of broken hearts and the abuse foisted on the powerless.

A kind of spiritual sickness emerged from this experience – a sickness that in many cases still haunts the Native Americans. The thread that had always connected them spiritually, emotionally, and physically as a people, the stories that provided purpose and hope no matter what – this thread and its stories were buried. But as Stafford’s poem points out, this thread does not cut, and it cannot be eliminated; nor has its hope and vision been lost among those who truly yearn for a deeper life.

Sad and tragic as this part of our national history is, what surfaced for me was how similar is the impact of the dominant culture to the life of the church. What I mean is to point out how we church members have taken the thread that is God-in-Christ and all those scriptural stories for granted, to the point that the church in our time seems to be fading away, that God-thread seemingly absent, its stories lost.

Recently, I participated in a conversation with some clergy colleagues, when one of us recounted hearing someone read the “Christ the King” gospel of last week’s worship. Tellingly – and painfully --when the name of Pontus Pilate’s came up, the individual pronounced the Roman Procurator’s name as “Pontus Pilates”. Not only was there no familiarity with the name; but more to the point, there was no recognition of the larger story surrounding Jesus and connecting us.

Our God-stories matter because they all speak of the “thread”, the “tie that binds” – to use the phrase from the old hymn. Just as William Stafford’s poem implies, God’s thread can never be broken, which is the fundamental message of the cross. But clearly folks like us can and do lose sight of that thread and consequently, of what exists in to hold our lives together. And when we lose track of or forget about our Godly thread, when we neglect the stories that our hearts and souls yearn to have once more, from where does our hope come?

Today, we begin the season of Advent and its offering both of a new spiritual year and an opportunity to grow as God’s people. We can make a fresh start, beginning once more to locate God’s thread in our lives, which continues to make its way in us and through the many pieces of our lives. But “What’s the story?”, folks? The answer lies in the thread of God’s Christ: “Emmanuel, God with us”.

Our parish moto is: “Be careful: If you come here you will grow!” My New Year’s invitation is to ask you to help tell of the stories of God’s life, which speaks about what we need and cannot give to ourselves – namely, that life-giving thread that never breaks – no matter what. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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