By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann. A Pentcost sermon given on May 15, 2016 in celebration of her dad, Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s 10 years as pastor at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit.
It may be a little known fact around here- but I was once in a mime troop. We did the whole thing- white face, bow tie, suspenders. We were invited to events around the area. Christmas was a particularly busy time for us. We put on shows with short skits and we also were able to just mingle in the crowds. I loved it- particularly the wandering aimlessly with no other job that to be subtly funny and of course not speak with our mouths.
Recently, I was remembering a Christmas event we did at a home that offered support for families of cancer patients. I was winding through the crowd and up the stairs until I stumbled upon the line for Santa Claus. This seemed a nice place to do some waiting. I started asking the kids what they were going to ask for and quickly there was a girl maybe 8 years old who seemed to understand every word of what I was trying to communicate. She started translating to all the other kids. Soon, we found ourselves deep in conversation. Her with words and me with only the use of my body and face. I asked her what she was going to ask Santa for. She told me that her brothers and sisters had all the toys they needed. All she really wanted was her mom to come home from the hospital. Then she asked me what I wanted, I picked the easiest thing I could think to mime- a ball. I then asked her more about her mom. I was amazed how she seemed to understand everything I was thinking. She shared more and more. My heart broke. I tried desperately to communicate back “My mom has cancer too!!” But for the first time, she couldn’t get it. I tried every way I could think of. Nothing. I even thought momentarily about breaking the mime code because this relationship and sharing felt so important. But I didn’t. And in the end, I think my job was to listen and to love and to know that maybe there were no words for her and my silence was the best thing I could give. I waited for her as she went and sat on Santa’s lap and picked out a toy. When she came out of the room, she was in tears empty handed. She looked at me and said “They didn’t have a ball.” My troop leader called us down and we performed a show, but my heart lingered with this girl. At the end of the night, families were drifting out and up runs the girl finding me in the crowd- knowing me amidst the dozen mimes in the exact same dress and handed me this beautiful ginger bread house that she made. That ginger bread house grew stale in my room for a year.
I realize that a story with no speaking is a bit ironic to start a Pentecost sermon on. But both stories are about communication, about when to listen and when to speak, and understanding in our own language.
The Pentecost reading in Acts is about a community who lived alongside Jesus, who watched him die (or rather hid from his death), and have all witnessed his resurrection in one way or another. Now they are gathered here together and get filled with the spirit and begin to speak. They speak in a way that all people can hear and understand in their native language.
The disciples have lived the stories, and now in this moment, they become storytellers.
The disciples studied under a story teller who wove together powerful, subversive parables. They witnessed miracles. They struggled with their own fears, exhaustion, and humanness. They witnessed the risk and price that Jesus’ actions cost him. And they became believers that death does not have the final word. That is a lot of living and listening and witnessing.
And now, on this early morning, I imagine they are filled with a lot of emotions- fear, confusion, awe, and wonder. I would guess a fair amount of speechlessness. Then, with the earthly elements of fire and wind, they are given the courage to speak. To spread the stories. To take their own risks by using their tongues. This story we hold in our hands today is about the power of becoming storytellers.
They have lived the stories, and now they become the storytellers.
Stories are perhaps the most human and powerful tool we have. It is the people’s work, for no one can take them from us. We don’t need money or education or documents or a church building to tell a story. We simply need to remember and imagine.
I love these words from Leslie SIlko’s Ceremony
I will tell you something about stories,
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
All we have to fight off illness and death
You don’t have anything
If you don’t have stories.
Their evil is mighty
But it can’t stand up to our stories.
So they try to destroy the stories
Let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.
Feminist theologians are often encouraging us to look at our own stories to understand our faith. That the stories of our lives become part of the theological texts we examine and summon and trust. Biography as theology. These disciples began to use their own biography as theology. They told their stories in homes and on the street, they mailed letters from jails, they wrote them down. And now we have them.
Each of us is a wealth of stories- both ancient and still unwinding. These stories- tragic or hilarious are part of the theology of this place.
In our moment, there is a clear attack on stories, a constant attempt to control the narrative. We are inundated with so many stories, that we don’t need to remember any more. Our memories are a muscle we don’t exercise that much anymore because any information we need is at our finger tips. Directions. Recipes. Guitar chords. Jokes. Poetry. Stories. Storytelling spaces are disappearing. How often do we have spaces with friends where there are no screens? Spaces with long empty silences for stories to emerge.
The powers that be are just fine with this. If we can forget that there was ever a different way. If our imagination shrivel up so that we cannot imagine that we don’t have to depend on what they are selling. If we don’t remember where we come from. If we can’t vision where we are going. Then the system wins. Status quo goes on.
Telling stories is an act of resistance. It is part of discipleship. It is movement work. Stories are provocative and powerful while at the same time nourishing. They hold us. They remind us who we are. They help us know who we want to become.
I gotta say there are moments when I look at the institutional church and wonder what I am doing here. I think that in a lot of ways the churches these days do more bad than good. In the US, it is so tied up with patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity. It holds up the idea of God blessing us with wealth or blessing our weapons. It forgets about the work done in Christian’s names of slavery and indigenous massacres. It runs election campaigns filled with hate and hegemony.
Sometimes I think, why do I stay? I could find spiritual practices that keep me centered. I could take walks in the woods, meditate, write, love the people around me. And maybe that would be enough.
The truth is, it wouldn’t be for me. I stay because of the stories. I want a spirituality steeped in history. A faith that is filled with stories of the messiness and imagination of community.
I stay because of the stories of the civil rights movement, slave songs, base communities in Latin America, underground seminaries in Germany, the Beguines and Franciscans, Lydia’s house church in Acts, Mary and the women at the tomb, births in barns, communities struggling with hierarchy verse the wilderness, the resistance stories of Mirian and Shiphrah and Puah, and because of the a creation narrative based in nonviolence and a God who delights in people and the world. The stories go on and on. These are stories of people trying to discern the spirit in their lives, trying to create the Beloved Community.
And sometimes it’s messy and sometimes it’s failure. In fact, I stay for those stories too. For the moments we have the courage to tell the stories that aren’t so good. When we did use God’s name for violence and domination. For they are part of my story too.
I stay because of the stories. I am part of that story. That story lives in me. And my life adds new bends and dreams, griefs and joys.
We are here today celebrating a part of St. Peter’s story. The gifts and joys and struggles brought by my dad over the past ten years.
Sometimes when I am putting Isaac to sleep he asks me to make up a story for him. I begin to tell a story “One day Mama, Mommy, Isaac and Cedar were all getting ready to go to the zoo…” “No, no no.” Isaac interrupts. “You drop me off and I go to the zoo with Grandpa and Grandma D all by myself.” He changes the stories. There is power in determining the narrative and he has agency in changing what happens.
We all do. We change one another’s stories. And I think we are all here because my dad has someone influenced our own stories and I know we have all changed his.
My dad is a storyteller. He delights in them. Nothing makes him happier than a circle of people he loves telling jokes and stories. He always has a joke ready. He still works to remember the poetry that has moved his heart. He is a story teller.
Last month when he told the Homrich story for Twisted Storytellers, he explained why he chose to represent himself in court. He explained that a trial is about telling a story to the jury. And by representing himself he had the power over narrating and defining the story.
My dad is someone who lives the stories and then becomes a storyteller. He is a writer and an activist. But his commitment to writing comes out of his commitment to this place and the struggle for justice. He shows up. He stands somewhere. He struggles with all the messiness of community. He lives the stories. And then nothing brings him more joy than writing down those stories as a gift back to movement.
I think of the words in 1 John- “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, and seen with our eyes, and have looked at and touched with our hands: the Word, who is life….we write this to fulfil our joy.”
My dad writes what he has seen and touched and loved and it fulfills his joy. So, our gift to him in this celebration is sending him on a sabbatical this fall where he has more time to clear space for writing down the stories. For that is deep, human, resistance, spirit-filled work for which we give thanks.
I remember how “filled up” my dad was after the St. Peter’s retreat because of the time around the camp fire. There were stories, and jokes with great accents, and long memorized poetry. The stories welled up inside of us. We are story tellers.
So after church, we will gather with our food and take up our job as storytellers again. Let us tell “Bill stories.” For stories are also a form of blessing. We bless one another by the pouring out of stories.
We too have lived the stories. Feel the fire and the wind filling up your body giving you the courage to speak in whatever language you know. To tell stories in a way that we can all hear no matter what language we know. So, go home and learn a new joke. Memorize a sonnet. Gather some kids and tell them a story from long ago. Ask the elders in your lives about their dreams. And the children about their visions. Tell us a story today. Make us laugh. Make us cry. Make us remember. Stretch your imagination. Offer gratitude for the great storytellers in your life. Imagine a different narrative from the ones the powers and principalities are trying to sell us as truth. Think about the narratives you are willing to stake your life on whether they are true or not.
We give thanks this morning for fire and wind in the air,
For your spirit that calls to our courage,
And the lives that bring us the stories.
We give thanks that you live in the stories
That your work and dreams wind their way through
The narratives of history and future.
We trust that “the words we speak, we do not speak on our own.”
We give thanks for this community
For each biography among us
And for a history of St. Peter’s that stretches far beyond us all.
May our lives together here continue to grow the story
May we be honest about the messiness and struggle,
May we speak deep when we stumble upon the truth,
And may we delight in the smallness of most days.
We join with Joel and the disciples,
“Let the spirit pour out on all flesh
May our daughters and sons prophesy
May our young ones have visions
And our elders dream dreams”
For all of this we pray. Amen.