Living a Better Story

We had an amazing day here at St. Mark’s.  The entire community gathered for a single service to mark our desire to commit a portion of our treasure for next year.  In addition, we had a celebration lunch to mark the occassion.

It was a day of joy, of laughter and of thinking on how we can live a better story both individually and corporately.

Here’s the text of my sermon.  I hope you join us—whether a member here at St. Mark’s or not—in living a better story.

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus paints quite a picture in the parable of the sheep and the goats that we read today.  The Son of Man has returned and is sitting on his throne, and the nations come before him.  He begins separating them, some on his left and some on his right.  He invites those on his right into the kingdom he has prepared since the beginning of time, because they fed him and gave him clothing and something to drink and visited him and welcomed him.

“When?” they ask.  “When were you naked or hungry or thirsty or lonely or a stranger or sick or in prison?”  And he tells them quite simply, “Whenever you did it to someone who was being overlooked or ignored—the least among you—you did it to me.”

He runs the same list with those on his left, the goats, except they never did these things.  They ask the same question, “When was it that you were shivering or thirsty or destitute and we didn’t do anything?”  “Whenever you didn’t do it for someone who was being overlooked or ignored—the least among you—you did not do it for me.”

In this image of the Last Day when we come before Christ the King, it comes down simply to what we did or didn’t do.

I read Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years a couple of years ago while I was laid up with a tibial plateau fracture, and it changed my life.  Don subtitles the book, “What I learned while editing my life,” and he talks about living a better story.  In one of the vignettes in his book, he talks about the frustration of writing fiction, because often the characters don’t do what he, as the writer, wants them to do.  As he would walk to his office in the morning after his coffee, he would dream up the plot of his novel.  But there was a problem.  “Stories,” he explains, “are only partly told by writers.  They are also told by the characters themselves.  Any writer will tell you characters do what they want.”[1]  Those of us with kids certainly know the irritation of not having them do what we might want them to do—especially when we know it’s for their own good—but characters in a book you’re writing?  How annoying would that be?

Don writes, “As I worked on the novel, as my character did what he wanted and ruined my story, it reminded me of life in certain ways.  I mean as I sat there in my office feeling like God making my worlds, and as my characters fought to have their way, their senseless, selfish way of nonstory, I could identify with them.  I fought with my [character] who wanted the boring life of self-indulgence, and yet I was also that character, fighting with God and I could see God sitting at his computer, staring blankly at his screen as I asked him to write in some money and some sex and some comfort.”[2]

As this idea percolates, Miller questions his desire to take over his own story, to not listen to God as the writer of his life.  He talks about wresting control, of hijacking the story for his own means.  But then he reconsiders.  “At first, even though I could feel God writing something different, I’d play the scene the way I wanted.  This never worked.  It would have always been better to obey the Writer, the one who knows the better story. … So I started obeying a little.  I’d feel God wanting me to hold my tongue, and I would.  It didn’t feel natural at first; it felt fake, like I was being a character somebody else wanted me to be and not who I was; but if I held my tongue, the scene would play better, and I always felt better when it was done.  I started feeling like a better character, and when you are a better character, your story gets better too.”[3]

And then he writes this, “At first the feeling was only about holding my tongue.  And when I learned to hold my tongue a bit, the Voice guided me from the defensive to the intentional.  God wanted me to do things, to help people, to volunteer or write a letter or talk to my neighbors.  Sometimes I’d do the thing God wanted, and the story always went well, of course; and sometimes I’d ignore it and watch television.  But by this time I really came to believe the Voice was God, and God was trying to write a better story.”[4]

“Be the master of your domain, the king of your castle,” we’re told by our society, but God wants to write a better story for us.  We want more for ourselves—whatever that more is—but God longs for us to have more joy and fullness of life.  God wants us to have deeper relationships with those we love.  God asks us to hold our tongues, and take a little time to talk to our neighbors.  God calls us to feed the hungry and hand out cups of water and visit the ones we know who are sick and in prison.

There have been times in my own life when I wanted create a story of my own choosing.  Times when I ignored those who are the least among us.  Times when I said something I shouldn’t have said.  Moments when I asked God to write in more of what I wanted into my story.  Things meant merely to bring entertainment, or personal gain, or to stroke my ego or to make me feel better about myself at the expense of others.

But if I keep doing that, if I keep pursuing that storyline, I may end up at the end saying to Jesus, “What a sec.  When were you hungry or sick or destitute or alone?  I don’t remember seeing you, Jesus, ’cause if I did, I would’ve stopped.  I would’ve done something.  I would have gotten you some warm clothes or tried to offer you some comfort.  Are you sure it was you, because I’m pretty sure I would have recognized you.”

The vestry, staff and I believe the purpose of St. Mark’s is to be a community that lives fully into Christ’s mission for our world.  To be those wanting to live a better story.  To be disciples who notice the least among us and who reach out to them and create a place for them to be with us.  We desire to teach our young people—and our adults too­—about the faith, and we want to have our buildings used to deepen community both among ourselves and our neighbors.  We know that there are many hurting people in this world—both in our parish and beyond our walls—and we want to be those who do something about that, who offer support and care and the chance for life-change through Jesus Christ.

And that’s why Melissa and I will be giving 10% of my salary to St. Mark’s.   Because we want to be a part of congregation that longs to make a difference in this world.   We’ve decided that there is a greater meaning to be found in life, and we want to help create a more just and humane world.  And we believe that we can fully participate in God’s dynamic mission at St. Mark’s by committing our financial resources and offering our time and talents for a common goal.

We’ve seen that when people hold out with open hands the finances and treasure that God has entrusted them with, God’s work gets done.  I know personally that when I give generously and joyfully, I live fully into the story that God is writing for me.  And I want to invite you to join with me in creating that story.  I encourage those who have found a church home here to strive toward giving 5-10% of your income to God’s work in this place.  If that is out of reach for you, or if you have never pledged before, I’d suggest that you make a commitment of 3% of your income this year—3 pennies on each dollar you make—with the hope of moving toward a larger percentage next year.  If we all made these types of commitment, we would have resources both to meet our financial obligations for the work we are already doing here, and we could expand our ministries at St. Mark’s to reach out to the ones often overlooked.

In 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the rector at Saint Luke’s Parish in Darien, CT, together with lay people there, decided to respond in a faithful way by working for those who were poor in their area and to help educate others about poverty and injustice.  They began a ministry called Person-to-Person, and began collecting food and clothing for the working poor who lived and worked among them.  P2P started in a cleared out closet in the church admin building to hold the donations they received.  This past year P2P, going strong over 40 years, helped more than 22,000 people, had 2,900 volunteers, sent 600 low income kids to summer camp, and has taken over the entire administration building on the church grounds, including the apartment Melissa and I and our kids lived in when we served there.  It was a small idea that grew into a significant blessing.

What would happen if we at St. Mark’s took action on some small ideas that we shared together?  Maybe expanding our connection with Straight Ahead ministries and providing start up capital and business advice for young men like we did for a man named Kon.  He’s turned his life around and began a small t-shirt business called “Creating Hope Apparel” in Lowell this year.  Or maybe we could offer annual mission trips for our youth and adults. We could strengthen connections we already have with Our Father’s Table or Cradles to Crayons or build on the success of our own Bargain Box.  The beauty of being a part of a faith community is that we can see a seed of an idea grow into a life-changing endeavor.  And I’d love for this sort of dialogue to be a part of our work together this next year as we prepare to celebrate our parish’s 150th anniversary.

I am so very hopeful for the future of St. Mark’s and I am so proud and humbled to serve as your rector.  As we enter into 2012, I know that we can make a significant impact in our world.  It begins with a strong commitment to Christ and to the call he has given us to serve him and see his presence in all of our sisters and brothers and especially those who are least among us.  As we make our commitments this morning for the work of this parish, may we do so trusting that God will use whatever we can give for the continued growth of Christ’s kingdom.  Amen.


[1] Miller, 85.

[2] Miller, 85-86.

[3] Miller, 88.

[4] Miller, 88.