Our Stories: A Sermon

There is a part of God, a part of faith, a part of community, that we get to fill in for ourselves. And it’s not always about the God we inherited, but the God we call forward into our present lives in contemporary ways. Available specifically for us. We complete God. God becomes God for us. 

Negative, or Apophatic Theology teaches us that as soon as we picture God, we make God “an object” — and objects don’t move on our behalf. I invite you to try your hand at this co-creative act.

I want to get you ready for genealogy month, and our wonderful Bearing Untold Stories: Genealogy Event Series. Mark 1:21-22 speaks of Jesus and the disciples going to Capernaum; and how when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. The people in the temple were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 

I love this story because it reminds us that the one who usually tells the story about us is not the authority. We are the author and the authority of our stories. This Black History Month, genealogy is for all of us, black and white, straight and gay, young and old, rich and poor, blue and white collar, artist and academic, to stand in our truths. When we tell our stories, people will be astounded because we have come to understand how the stories made it to us. We are as far as our family’s stories have ever gotten. 

I wrote the other night on Facebook about our event series with our Genealogist-In-Residence, Alex Trapps-Chabala, that this month we will be having an intimate conversation, between you, Alex, me, and all of our ancestors. Together we will write and share our stories. Before you join in our group workshops and 1-on-1 genealogy sessions, I invite you imagine your own story. As I do in my creative writing workshops, take a moment to imagine, starting with the prompt: “I come from a long line of…”

I come from a long line of quietly powerful women.

            Women who cried as a last resort.

            Women who loved babies more than men.

I come from a long line of charismatic men.

            Men who could charm women out of anything.

            Men who could shoot dice and shoot pool to raise money.

I come from a long line of boys who were taught to be men by women.

I come from a long line of Jehovah Witnesses who didn’t witness anything.

I come from a long line of [fill in the blank] people…

Take this moment to think about who you come from and who they come from and who they come from, and what they all mean to you. And if your map has been erased, think about who you are, and know that who you are is probably who you came from. You are not the first of y’all to move, be and act like you.

After you’ve taken that moment, I’d like you to consider the story of “What did it take for you to get here?” What did it take for you to get here physically, emotionally, mentally, creatively, wholly, holy here today? Here to this sermon. Here to your family. Here to your life. Here to your possibilities.

It took time.

It took hitting a million walls.

It took learning that I can’t walk through walls.

It took running scared but running still.

It took moving to New York at 21 and back home at 23.

It took people who were my signposts, pointing me towards life.

It took caregiving for my grandmother, mother and partner until they died.

It took learning that caregiving can feel like sacrifice.

It took learning that I am not a sacrifice.

It took learning to be so still as to know that I am worth coming home to.

This is your declaration, and the thing about declaring who you are is that if you ever act outside of that, your community can hold you accountable, can let you know you’re not acting like who you said you were. If you say you are loving, but are exhibiting hatred, we will know that hatred is not you, because you never told us you were hatred. If you say you are free, when we come looking for you, we won’t look in the bondage section. And if you are in the bondage section, we will know something is very wrong, and we will ask you if this is who you are now or if you need us to remind you that you already declared freedom.

Who I am is rooted.

Who I am is funny.

Who I am is someone who loves laughter.

Who I am is someone who brings joy.

Who I am is someone who walks with the ancestors.

Who I am is a brave soul.

Now consider the prompt, “I came to free my people from…” Think about everything your ancestors ran from, ran to, had stolen from them, think about the ways they felt limited, and less-than, and what is the thing that has been passed down from generation to generation, unnoticed. “We always had blue eyes.” Yes, but was the genetic introduction of blue the curse or the blessing. “We have always voted this way, thought about women, black people, gay people, poor people, rich people, church people, artists, old people, young people, that’s just how our family is.” And it is there, named in the, “that’s just how my family is…” that stops with you today.

I came to free my people from low bar dreams…

I came to free my people from a failure to thrive…

I came to free my people from sexuality secrets…

I came to free my people from the fear of being powerful…

Great. Now that we know history has often been lacking in nutrients, has left us hungering and thirsting for something unnamed and unknown, now that we know that there are holes and gaps in our stories, what will you fill your history with? How will you make sure you have a whole truth of your family? 

Consider how you will fill the holes and gaps in your story.

I will fill the holes and gaps in our story with recovery.

I will fill the holes and gaps in our story with more husbands than baby daddies.

I will fill the holes and gaps in our story with fine print of contract readers.

Now focus your meditation on the role of history, historic events, natural, political, and economic events and how they changed the course of your family’s history.

“We survived…” 

We survived a dynamite explosion.

We survived back and dirt roads in Louisiana.

We survived lean days stretched into months and into years.

We survived greyhound bus rides to and from Indiana.

We just participated in our decennial, our every ten-year census where we were counted, we just voted in a historic election, our W2s and 1099s are starting to come in. What we are doing today will be the record of us in the future? What are you on record as having done or said in the face of racism, homophobia, misogyny, ageism, anti-poor, and anti-rich, anti-religious, and anti-democratic sentiments?

I spoke up for equality.

I spoke up for the unhoused.

I spoke up for Christians.

I spoke up for American Descendants of Slavery.

You see, we have to know for ourselves who we are rather than being told and sold who we are. We have to know what the implications of the times our ancestors were living high on the hog, and when they were wiped out by dust bowls and Boll weevils. We have to know who they made money off of and how, and what does that mean to us and our relationship to money. 

We have to know who left and who loved who and what is left for love in our DNA because of their choices. Our histories think that they are protecting us by glossing over the seemingly bad choices, the mundane, and the plain old weird relatives from your daddy side. But if we want to know how we got to the shape that we’re in we have to trace around the best and worst of our ancestors. What did they leave behind? Whose voices are calling out in joy?

This month, and going forward, we have to trust the ways that we know work to locate each other and the each “othered.” And maybe when we find our people who are asking us to recognize their selfhood and their humanity, we recognize that we might ourselves one day require a witness. Somebody someday is going to have to testify on your behalf. Gonna have to dig through some rubble and rubbish to find your story. And maybe when we realize that we might be the person buried in the history, the person standing in line for food, the person in need of an acknowledgment of their existence, then we understand that we are worth someone taking the stand for us, calling out to us, looking for us, and that is where we will find ourselves in our truth! 

Maybe then we realize the answer to the ontological questions: Who decided that you don’t get to exist? Who made you the other? Who said you had to believe them? Who said your belonging is in vain?

And one day, beloved, one day somebody gon’ remember your story before they remember somebody else’s speech. Same with your smile. Same with your laughter. Same with your body. Same with your dreams. Hey, did you know that when your dreams belong to you, then you control your awakening, and when you are in control of your awakening, then you get to have your own enlightenment and your own renaissance? Belonging is beyond Old and New Testament. We’re living into the new evidence now; we are the first collected books of a new bible, a bible that belongs to us, is about us, and is for us, a Belonging Bible where Our Name Be Witness.

Wait. I forgot to ask you, and I desperately need to know, do you want to be happy? 

Wait. What is happiness for you? 

Wait. Do you know that you are worth it? 

Wait. Do you know your worth? 

Wait. Do you know that you are free? 

Wait. Do you know that you are supposed to be unique? 

Wait. Do you know that every promise to you has been kept? 

Wait. Do you know that love and joy and peace and abundance is your inheritance? 

Wait. Do you know that you can’t get yesterday back? 

Wait. Did I tell you about my “Tomorrow God?” 

Wait. You ready for real? 

Wait. Do you know that the absence of fear and judgment is love? 

Wait. Do you know that just because you happy with something don’t make it good for you? 

Wait, why are you looking to be loved the same when you are not the same person? 

Wait. You know there is healing for you, right? Do you know that there are new and good times, and the ability to walk away from anything, and the ability to come back from everything? Do you know that you have your family’s full support and that if anything ever happens to you, I will never forgive myself? And that a way has been made for you? And that you are not stuck? And that you do get a next time? And that you are not alone? And that God resuscitates? With every breath this world takes from you, God breathes life back into you. And that even your ancestors still love you. And that your dreams and not your nightmares are supposed to come true. And that you got enough left over to care for somebody else. And that change is possible. Wait. Wait. Wait. Where you from? How you get here? Who yo kinfolk? What you finna do?