You can learn a lot about a person by the stories they tell about themselves. I grew up listening to the stories my mother told me about life during the Great Depression. Her father, my grandfather died in 1929, leaving my grandmother a widow with seven young children. My mom was the second youngest, a Catholic girl who attended Saint Gabriel’s School in South Philly. My mom was a Catholic girl, but she did not like to kneel in church. The nuns thought she didn’t like to kneel because she was too proud. But the truth was, she didn’t like to kneel because she didn’t want the people behind her to see that she had holes in the bottoms of her shoes. My mom also told me that she was a teenager before she finally noticed that her mother never ate the meat she prepared for her family, but only the drippings with bread. The meat was for the children.
I was privileged to grow up in a home in which children did not have to go without new shoes for too long, and parents did not have to be undernourished so that the children could eat. My mom’s stories were the stories of a woman who saw herself as someone who overcame adversity, worked her way out of poverty, but who was still haunted by it. The stories my mom told went a long way towards explaining why she saw herself as a kind of modern day Scarlett O’Hara, she who proclaimed, “As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again.”
In addition to reflecting our self-understanding, the stories we tell about ourselves can actually help to shape it. If the story I tell about myself is that I am a person who works hard to overcome any obstacles which life might throw in my way—well, I will tend to be the kind of person who lives up to that narrative. And, if the story I tell about myself is that I just can’t get a break, that I will never overcome these unfair circumstances… well, I will probably live up—or down—to that narrative, as well.
What stories do we tell about ourselves? I’ll tell you two stories I heard about St. Sociable Church before I ever came here to be your pastor. Both these stories told me something important about our church. Both these stories made me want to be a part of your life here. One story tells of something that happened not too long ago—well within the memories of many of our members. One story tells of something that happened before any of us were born.
The first story I heard was the story of the terrible, devastating fire of ’06. In 1906, the church that first stood on this spot was struck by lightning, and burned to the ground. But within a year—just under ten months, in fact—the building in which we worship this morning had been completely constructed, and dedicated, and the people of this congregation were once again worshiping God on this site. So here’s one story we could tell about ourselves: St. Sociable is a kind of phoenix, that rises from the ashes; we are the kind of church that comes back from terrible devastation to rebuild and to go forward. The second story I heard was the story of our church’s response to Hurricane Katrina. The short version is, you raised a bunch of money, you bought a lot of supplies and put them in a big trailer, you got a group of people together, and you—the people and the supplies—drove south to Mississippi to help, in person. So, here’s another story we could tell about ourselves: St. Sociable is the compassionate hands of God, hard at work mending a broken world filled with broken hearts.
As Christians, of course, we look to the bible as the great reference library for the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves. In one sense, there are thousands and thousands of stories within its pages. In another sense, there are just a handful of stories, two, maybe three. Among these few stories is the one our passage tells us, simply, directly. This is the story of a God who never leaves us, who always stands by us, who is always with us.
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you… he who formed you… Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…Do not fear, for I am with you…
~ Isaiah 43:1-2, 5a
It’s important to understand the background for these words Isaiah reports from the mouth of God. The background is the Babylonian exile… when God’s people were carried away from their homeland, and their Temple was destroyed, and they languished for more than a full generation as strangers in a strange land. We can’t understand the importance, the depth, the passion of the commitment God is proclaiming here without understanding the devastation that precedes it. I am with you, God says. I was with you, I am with you, I will be with you.
Your church has burnt to the ground. But I am with you: when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned. Your community has been devastated by a flood. But I am with you: when you pass through the waters, they shall not overwhelm you. Your losses may be great, unfathomable, unendurable. And still I am with you.
In a few minutes we will be calling those who will be ordained and /or installed as deacons and elders to stand in our midst. We will call them forward so that we can pray over them and for them, and lay hands upon them. We will call them forward so that we can commission them to work on our behalf for this church—this church which, when faced with smoldering piles of ashes, builds something even more beautiful in its place; this church that sees people in pain and reaches out to extend loving and healing hands to them. We will call them forward and entrust them with the story; we will call them forward to convey to them our deepest hopes and dreams for our future together. And all the time, through all the work they will be doing, we call them forward, in the sure conviction that God will be with them, and with us, through it all.
This is the story of God’s love for us: “I am with you. When you wake in the morning and greet the day, brand new, a day you’ve never seen before, I am with you. When you set about your daily routine—at home, in the office, in the classroom, in the laboratory, in the gym—I am with you. When you sit to eat your meal—at a table for one, in the midst of a large family, in the din of a cafeteria, listening to the clinking of water glasses in a restaurant—I am with you. When you get a phone call, or an email, or a text message, or a letter that tells you terrible news, or wonderful news, I am with you. When you are sure your heart is breaking and can never, ever be mended again, I am with you,” says the Lord your God.
“When sitting in a committee meeting, or a session meeting, or a staff meeting, or a parent-teacher conference, or a town council meeting, I am with you. In passion’s embrace, in the heat of an argument, in asking forgiveness, in telling the truth, I am with you. When writing a letter to the editor, when laying down your pencil after taking the SAT’s, when talking to the nice officer, when talking to the emergency room doctor, I am with you. When you lay your weary head down on the pillow at night, whether your heart is filled with anxiety or gratitude, fear or love, I am with you.” This is what God promises, to each of us. This is what we take with us into every room, every situation, every relationship of our lives. This is our story, this is God’s promise: “I am with you.” Thanks be to God. Amen.