“Sanctify them in your truth….” John 17:17
In the summer of 1982 I managed to get a summer job working in a tobacco warehouse in Durham, North Carolina. Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands, and apparently they grew a lot of tobacco there. As soon as they took control over the islands they shipped all the tobacco to the R.J. Reynolds International warehouse in Durham. The influx of foreign tobacco meant they needed an influx of summers workers, and I was one of them.
Over the course of the summer we saw a lot of people come and go. It was hot, dirty work, and not everyone is cut out for work in a tobacco warehouse. One the regulars, Steve, had an interesting tradition. Every time we got a new worker, he would ask them, “So, what’s your story?”
Me? I was a newly married graduate student who needed to make some money and didn’t mind the hot, gritty work in a tobacco warehouse. Jason wanted to be a trucker, but was having a hard time passing the driving test. The Hulk, who got his name from his physique, was a baseball player, and needed a day job. He could throw a line drive from the right field to third base. Steve, the guy who asked the question was a college dropout, who ended up driving a fork lift in the warehouse.
What is your story? What are the events and circumstances that made you who you are today? Because that is what our story is. It is the series of events that made us who we are today. We all have a story, and each and every story is more complicated than James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.
This congregation has a story, a long one that started before any of us got here, and which is on-going and changing. Our country has a story, an even longer one that started long before Columbus ever arrived.
Our stories form who we are. The events of our lives which form our story affect us, and affect how we deal with future events and how we understand past events. When I worked at the warehouse, I met Solomon, who was a DJ for WUNC, the public radio station in Chapel Hill. He was also a Jazz lover, and we ended up talking about music during our breaks. Because of those conversations I started listening to Jazz, and because I started to love Jazz I got the gig as a DJ for a Jazz show on the Public Radio station in Alaska, and because of that, when Robin mentioned doing a Jazz Vespers I was all over that like white on rice.
You see how our stories interact with the stories of other people. Those who who attend Jazz vespers can thank a DJ who was bored at work and started talking to a co-worker, in Durham, North Carolina in the summer of 1982. There are people and events who have affected your story that you are not aware of, things that happened to other people which caused things to happen to you.
By now you should be asking what any of this has to do with either of this morning’s texts. Well, I’m getting to that.
The Gospel Lesson records a prayer, the prayer of Jesus just before he was arrested. There are a lot of interesting things in the prayer, but I want to point out one phrase in particular–19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
That they may be sanctified in truth.
What does that mean to you? Can you imagine what it means for you to be sanctified in truth? It may sound a little scary for you. Or it may be that those words don’t really mean a lot, because they are words that are hard to understand. What does it mean to be sanctified? And…what is truth?
I could try to explain it all to you. I could say, “The word ‘sanctified’ is the same Greek word that is used for the word ‘holy,’ so to be sanctified means to be made holy. And the word ‘holy’ means to be set apart for a special use.” You may find that a little helpful, but probably more in a theoretical sense than in a practical way.
I could say that, but frankly all that makes me think that if I let God sanctify me in truth, I am going to end in a monastery, sleeping on a wooden mattress with a wooden pillow, eating a small amount of gruel once a day, and praying bitterly five times a day, memorizing a long list of rules from the Bible, and complaining about how unsanctified all the other people are.
So let me try it another way. I said earlier how our stories intersect the other people’s stories, and when they do, the trajectory of our stories change. I’m a single guy in Juneau, I meet this gorgeous redhead, and the next thing I know, the arc of my story has completely changed. Of course it is not always that dramatic. I meet someone in a coffee shop and he recommends a new book, I read the book, and I understand some things that I didn’t understand before. I chance upon a review of a new album, I download the album on iTunes and now I have some new music to listen to.
The Bible is a story—a series of stories actually. And when we read the Bible, our stories intersect with the stories of the Bible, and…we are changed by that. As we let the Biblical stories inform our stories, we become better disciples of Jesus. As we let the trajectory of our story to be changed by the biblical story, we are changed—we are made better, we are better able to love God, we are better able to understand God and we are better able to reach out to others with the love of God.
Now here I should say a word about the stories in the Bible. They are true stories. When I say that, I do not mean that every event in the Bible happened exactly like the Bible tells it.
I am not saying they are literally true. Some of them are. If a man named Jesus Christ never lived, or died as a fat, happy carpenter and father of five, then we seriously need to change the name of our Religion. Call it Be Goodism, or Tiny Meal Religion, but not Christianity.
When I say the stories are true, I mean there are deep, serious, life-changing, life-enhancing, meaty truths that are embedded in the stories. The story of how we end up doing exactly what we know we are not supposed to do, and then blaming someone else for it, is a true story whether or not Adam and Eve existed. The story a sense of paradise that exists in our hearts, a place where things are as they should be, where there is no shame, and where we can know God is a true story, whether or not the Garden of Eden ever really existed. The story of someone who suffers the injustices of life for no apparent reason is a very true story, regardless of whether or not a person names Job actually existed.
The way Jesus taught us to live, through parables and through other more conventional means, is a true way, and when we allow the story of Jesus, and the other stories in the Bible, to touch our lives, to mold and shape our lives, then we are being sanctified in the truth. To put it another way, we soak ourselves in the story of the Bible. The better we know that story, the more we are soaked in it, or sanctified by it.
When we read of David dancing as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem, we can dance like David danced as we experience happy events. (I mean that metaphorically of course. They say Dance like no is looking. The ONLY time I dance is when no one is looking!) When we see injustices in our community or in the world, we can pray like Amos, to let justice roll on like a river, right living like a never-failing stream! When we go through suffering, we can sit in ash heap with Job, and rail against God. When we see someone in need, someone hurt, someone laying by the side of the road after life has mugged them, we can be the good Samaritan, who binds the wounds and finds a doctor. And when we have messed up royally, when we have transgressed, when we have sinned, and strayed far from God, we can play the prodigal, and learn what it is like to be welcomed by our Heavenly Father with ever open arms.
Be sanctified in truth, or soaked in the biblical story does not take away from our lives—it adds a whole new flavor to them.
The hard part of this is that you have to commit to the process. Two Christmases ago I decided I was finally going to finish War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It is a massive novel, more than 1300 pages. I had started it about four of five times before, the first time when I was a sophomore in college. (And for some strange reason, I always started it at Christmas time.) I had tried and failed before, but this time I committed myself. I bought a new translation, and I have had a copy on my E-reader so I didn’t always have to carry it around with me. I downloaded the 1812 Overture to put me in the mood. It took a year, and I did take a few months off somewhere around page 800. But I finished this January. I committed to that story.
In a different and more important way we commit ourselves to the biblical story. In the case of War and Peace I committed my time. When it comes to the Bible, we commit our lives. We commit ourselves to hearing the story, and then allowing it inside of us, to inform us, disturb us, delight us, and finally to sanctify us.
Sanctification. It’s not about rules. It’s not about depriving ourselves. It’s not about being any better than anyone else. It’s about letting God and the Word of God into our lives. Its about interacting with one another, so that we can benefit from the process they are going through and they can benefit from the process we are going through.
In the end it is simply this—joining up with Peter, James, John, Thomas, Andrew, Nathaniel, Simon, Paul and the all the countless others who have followed Jesus over the centuries. We join with them, and follow Jesus.