Monday, May 14, 2012


John 15:9-17
 Preached at Holy Trinity United Church of Christ 
Memphis, TN
May 13, 2012 (Mother’s Day)

We are here together today because of a great story. We call ourselves “Christians” because of a story that began with an angel’s announcement to a young girl that she would have a child. That baby was born in Bethlehem and we have been given birth into the story. Our life stories belong to the story of Jesus because we have been chosen by Love to play a part in Love’s  eternal story. 

You may have read the story in the Commercial Appeal two weeks ago. It was in the Viewpoint section on April 29 and written by journalist, Kevin McKenzie. 

James Stokes was 37 when he died, shot to death in South Memphis on November 9, 2011, just six months ago. He was shot in the upper back by a gun held so close that it left the imprint of a gun barrel on his skin. Another bullet pierced his right thigh and continued on through his left thigh. His left ankle was dislocated and his right elbow was fractured. How all of these injuries occurred is in question but the fact remains … James Stokes is dead. And his mother, Priscilla Taylor, is left to grieve and ask hard questions. 

Margaret Monger also grieves. She is the mother of 34 year old Devan Monger who was also shot to death that same night inside his Nissan Maxima. The story is being told that James Stokes shot and killed Devan Monger. Apparently there had been some disagreement about marijuana and money. Friends of Devan Monger report that James Stokes was shot as an act of self-defense. 

Devan’s mother, Mrs. Monger says, “I know nothing will bring my child back and nothing will bring back the life of James Stokes. I just wish we could all get along and the killing stop because I don’t even know why my child died.”
And that’s where the two mothers’ stories merge. Both of them lost a son that night, November 9th, and both of them are left to wonder what happened and why? What is the real story for the life and death of their sons? 

All of us have made mistakes. Many of us have been in trouble, big trouble. By the grace of God many of us have survived the mistakes and troubles. But all of us are more than the mistakes we have made. All of our stories are richer and fuller than the trouble would express. The mothers of James and Devan want a chance to tell the whole story about their sons.

The district attorney, Amy Weirich, is calling the death of James Stokes a justifiable homicide. But Priscilla Taylor points out that her son was shot in the back. She has been told by the medical examiner that there was no gun residue on her son’s hand. She wonders about the story that is being told. Due to a lack of evidence there will be no court case and very little in the way of an investigation into the shooting death of James Stokes. Too expensive with very little guarantee for a satisfying or conclusive case.

Priscilla Taylor grieves. She doesn’t claim that her son was an angel. He had already served a prison sentence for voluntary manslaughter after shooting another man outside a Nashville nightclub in 2002. Mrs. Taylor recognizes that it is hard to gain public sympathy for the life of her son. But she wonders if the story might be different if her son had not been black, poor, involved with drugs and living with a criminal record. Is it possible that the lack of interest in James’ story has to do with who he was as much as what he is accused of doing?

When the courts and the criminal justice system are not able to hear the whole story, who is there to listen and to pay adequate respect for a life lost, a son gone? I think this is what the church is called to do. Every son and daughter is chosen to be a significant character in God’s love story of life. The church is called to be there, to listen, to give more than sympathy. The church exists to include every chosen child of God in the story of life and love.

Mrs. Taylor has repeatedly contacted homicide detectives, city officials and members of congress. She wants her son’s story to be heard. She wants her son’s life to be dignified. She cannot believe that in the end his death is merely justified. 

James Stokes was chosen as all of us have been chosen to live in God’s love, to be included in God’s story of life. It is up to the people of faith to reassure James’ mother, to embrace her questions and fears. To love her into the story until she can claim the peace that passes understanding.

Donald Miller (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2009) describes God as the ultimate storyteller. Miller imagines God sitting over the planets placing tiny people in tiny wombs. God sat over the darkness and nothingness and felt bored. God needed a story and stories call for characters. Heroes. Sheroes.  God wrote you and me specifically into the ongoing story of human life. Put us in Memphis. Put us in church today. God says, “Enjoy your place in my story.” 

The Bible tells us that God spoke all creation into existence. God used words, sentences, paragraphs to provide the narrative arc for our life stories. It is this divine storyteller who lives with and in us, that eternal creative voice, who urges us to imagine more and make the most of our life stories. 

It’s your story. Do something with it. You are life of my life; make me proud of my part in your story. Kinda sounds like a mother’s voice, huh? God. Mother. Both creators. Both longing to see that the life and the love they have invested in us has made a difference in our story, in the world’s story. 

If you’re like me you feel afraid sometimes. The urging to do something significant with my life story can scare me half to death. What about those risks? The comfort of routine and the security of the well-worn path cradles us and keeps us feeling safe—yet somehow dissatisfied.  With a little courage and growing faith we could improve on the entire city's story.

I mean what might the stories have been had James Stokes’ story intersected with Holy Trinity’s story years ago? How might that have changed his story? What if his story included a Little League coach, who listened James into a better story? What if a school librarian had offered him books that directed him toward a better path? All of our stories are connected and the original storyteller whispers in our ear: Imagine more, connect with others and trust in the love that brought you here. Connect. Care. Share. Be there for the others in your community. Help each other imagine yourself into the greatest story ever told. 

We are not helpless. We can choose to write love into our story any minute of the day. We can choose to connect our story to the stories of our neighbors any day. We can choose to dignify the death of James Stokes by listening with compassion to the grief of his mother. We can honor the life and the loss of James Stokes by paying more attention to the young black men in our neighborhoods and schools. We can imagine our city into a safer and more hospitable place for all God’s children to live.

Marianne Williamson says, “Our imagination is the womb out of which a new world will be born. Think of every situation in your life as being ripe for new birth.” 

The poet, Mary Oliver, gives instructions for living a meaningful life story:
Show up.
Pay attention.
Go tell somebody about it. 

We read in John’s Gospel: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…” James Stokes was chosen. You are chosen. People who are currently living in our county’s jail are chosen. People who have broken the law and not been caught are chosen. People addicted to drugs are chosen. People who abuse other people are chosen. People who believe they have never made a mistake are chosen. We are all created and chosen to play a part in God’s love story. We can all choose to make the story better for ourselves and for one another. 

We all belong to the story.  Go tell it. Tell the world that we all have been chosen. Every mother’s child belongs to the eternal story of love. 


Thursday, May 10, 2012

We Are All Equal in Love

 I am a woman. I am a minister in the Progressive Christian Alliance, a registered nurse and a storyteller. My partner, Anna, is an academic librarian and a pianist. We contribute to our community in a number of ways. We work hard. We pay taxes on our home. We are decent people in the minds of most of our neighbors. We are a family. And we are people of faith.

 I created a program that allows women in the county jail to write their life stories and make theater out of their own narratives. I do this work because I want the women in the project to know that their lives matter; their stories make a difference in the world and they have the power to create improved stories for their futures.

 Everybody has a story to tell that can shed light on the world's fears, stories that will make some of the darkness disappear. I have faith in the power of story. Each of us is assigned a role in the story of our community. We can accept our assignment or develop a better role to play in the community's narrative. Any of us can be a healer, a villain, a hero or a victim. We don't have to be limp and lifeless on the sideline. We can choose to be courageous characters. My hope is that the work I do in the county jail helps to liberate women who have made mistakes in their lives, women who have been victims and then turned around to victimize others. Their stories can take a more constructive turn with a guide. I try to light the way along with a host of creative volunteers who make the Prison Stories Project happen. The art of storytelling builds a bridge we can all walk across to connect and better understand our neighbors. It's about stereotypes and dismantling them. It's about breaking down walls.

 Anna and I have many stories to tell. One of our stories is about our love for each other. Being lesbians is one part of our combined identity. Our love for each other is not a problem to anyone. But I think the idea of our relationship receiving society's approval robs some of our neighbors of their sense of security. Their loss is related to trust. They were told that intimacy and love can only be legitimate between a man and a woman. This has been expressed as Truth by those who are trusted to share the truth. If it is possible that the trusted voices are wrong about love and intimacy then what else might be open for discussion? This is what inspires such outrage over the issue of gay marriage. People are afraid to consider that their parents and preachers might not know the absolute truth. If we are considering gay marriage then that would leave each one of us responsible to do the hard work of discovering truth for ourselves. That would require change. And change is what inspires fear in all of us.

 I am sympathetic with those who resist gay marriage. My story involves a long and painful struggle to accept my attraction to women. It took courage for me to claim my identity as a lesbian. I was a United Methodist minister when I came out of the closet. I lost my job but I found the power in my life story. I know how terrifying change can be. And I also know that face to face story sharing and truth telling can provide the guideposts we need to respect each other as we go through the challenges and obstacles that come with major shifts and changes.

 My love for Anna does not rob any of our neighbors of what they need in order to have a satisfying story. Anna and I do not see the love of our heterosexual neighbors and friends as a problem for us. We all go to the store, read books, mow the lawn, walk our dogs and swat at mosquitoes. It has never been clear to me what part of getting the oil changed in our car is the "gay lifestyle." We are people with a need for respect and equal treatment under the law. Our story is so ordinary as to be uninteresting. And yet it is an important story to share. It can shed light on the darkness that threatens to keep some stories silenced and too many of us polarized by fear. It's about stereotypes and dismantling them. It's about breaking down walls.

 We are all equal in love. We are created and set free to live our love stories in communities. Sharing our love stories can connect us and make it possible to build a safe place where all people can fulfill our destinies. Or, sadly, love stories can be perverted by fear and turned into the dark force that destroys us along with any hope for a happy ending.