The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost in Year C
21 July 2013
The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
*Disclaimer: The text below captures about 85% of what was said on Sunday morning. I like to leave a little room for the Spirit to blow through in the moment, so there may be a few places where the audio and text don’t match up. A special thanks to the women of the lectionary study whose content may not have shown up in recognizable ways, but whose inspiration is all over this text.
Dante J Vaghi is a UFO expert. His office is the Sycamore Diner in the sleepy little New England town of Bethel, CT. If you ever happen to belly up to the counter at the Sycamore, Dante will waste no time in coming over to you. He’ll smile and introduce himself as the local welcoming committee, and then he’ll lean in and whisper, “We are not alone.” He’ll then straighten up and announce in a more declarative voice, “No sir, we are not alone.” And so begins Dante’s epic story that chronicles his journey from an air force enlisted man, stationed in the deserts of Nevada in the early 1950s, to his current position as UFO expert dealing with abductions in New England. Sometime in the first hour, usually about the time Dante explains how he came to have four kidneys, you’ll fall in love with his passion for telling his story.
For above anything else, Dante lived for someone to listen to his stories. he could care less about money, or food, or even his health, he just wanted his voice to be heard. As Dante grew older he was less and less able to care for himself, but the people of Bethel loved their Spaceman (his local appellation), so they rallied around Dante and helped to take care of him. Local families would come over to his old homestead and cook him meals or clean up his garage or even do minor repairs on the house. Yet most of these kind souls rarely stuck around to talk with Dante. They had lives of their own, and only a little time to help out. Cleaning up the tripping hazards in Dante’s cluttered hallway took precedence over listening to stories they had heard 100 times before.
However, there was one woman, Valerie, whose sole purpose was to address Dante’s storytelling needs. Valerie would pick Dante most Saturday mornings and drive him to the Sycamore, where he could either share his stories with unsuspecting customers, or if no one presented themselves for enlightenment, Valerie would listen attentively for the 77th time of how Dante came to have four kidneys. Valerie gave Dante the gift he most cherished - someone he could share his story with.
Valerie understood what Mary understood from our Gospel reading today. There is a basic human need to have one’s story heard. Food, water, and shelter are of little concern if a person believes their story does not matter to anyone. And so one of the greatest gifts we can give one another is to listen to each other’s story. And I mean really listen to their story. The kind of listening that requires our full attention. The kind of listening that turns off cell phones, ipods, ipads, TVs, and radios. The kind of listening that does not interrupt, does not make judgments, does not formulate responses, or anticipate outcomes. It’s a kind of pure listening that shares in the life of the storyteller.
Dori Laub, a holocaust scholar, calls this kind of listening, witnessing.
In her research as a holocaust survivor with other holocaust survivors she came to recognize the need for witnessing before healing could begin. My own work in trauma narrative theory, especially in working with fellow veterans, confirmed this notion that humans need attentive and compassionate listening before healing can move forward. For witnessing is more than an exchange of information. Witnessing is an interweaving of story lines. In witnessing, the storyteller shares his or her burdens and the listener helps to bear those sorrows. Likewise, the witness participates in the storyteller’s joys and celebrations. In witnessing, a kind of mutuality occurs, and people share in one another’s lives.
Too often we think this kind of listening is best left to professionals - counselors, clergy, or therapists. But as studies progress, those same professionals are coming to realize that the best healing occurs when everyday community members witness among one another.
Especially revelatory is the power for faith communities to heal through witnessing. We are all healthier when each of us listens attentively to the stories of others. The body of Christ grows strong when younger generations sit at the feet of their elders and listen to tales of riding through the holy land on camels, and the church is a healthier place when the elders sit at the feet of the youth and listen to stories of mission and the pitfalls of salads in Bolivia. We are better followers of Christ when we pause to witness to each other.
Which brings us to back to Mary in today’s gospel reading. Mary is witnessing to Jesus.
We are so accustomed to seeing the Christ in Jesus that we sometimes miss it in others. Here is one of those places. Mary sits at the feet of a stranger and offers the gift of listening with her whole mind, body, and soul. In witnessing to Jesus, Mary interweaves her story with his; Mary participates in the life of Jesus. And in sharing in Jesus’ life, she eventually shares in his death and resurrection. Mary does indeed choose the better part because Mary chooses to join her life to Christ’s through witnessing.
Today we get to see others joining their life to Christ in baptism, and we have an opportunity to follow in Mary’s footsteps. During this sacrament Father Howard will turn to us, the body of Christ, and ask, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” To which I hope we answer, “We will.” And I hope we continue to witness to these children and their families by listening to their stories as Mary listened to Jesus. I pray they hear the Gospel in our attentive silence and know that they are not alone...that they know this body of Christ is serious about listening to their story, committed to helping them bear their burdens, and excited about sharing in their joys.
And after the sacrament of baptism, we will come to this rail to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his story once again. Curiously enough I suspect Jesus will tell us the same thing Dante has told people for 50 years, “We are not alone. We are not alone. For as long as we witness to another in love, we are never alone.”