“Layers” 6/9/2019 Rev. Stacy Swain

Acts 2:1-21

John 14:8-17, 25-27

         I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, a geographic locations where winters are long and where temperatures are frigid.  Part of what one learns when growing up in such a place, is how to dress so as to not freeze in those long and exceedingly cold and long winter months.  And the key to this lesson of how to dress, shout it out my northern climate friends, is…..?   Layers!  Layers are key to survival. 

         Start with the silk long underwear, then the turtleneck, then the wool sweater, then the down vest, then the parka.  Wool mittens inside of leather choppers.  Cotton socks first then wool ones pulled over.  If one is going to survive between November and May in northern Minnesota, one must learn the lesson of layers.

         But before we see how any of this relates to what may be a word for us today, Let us pray.  “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.”

         Layers are key to survival. 

         But it turns out that layers are key to survival not just in those places where the thermometer can stay well below zero for weeks at a time. Layers it turns out are also key to survival in the emotional climates we may have found ourselves in during our growing up years. 

         I am now, of course, not talking about layers of silk long underwear and wool sweaters, but am instead talking about layers of  stories knit from the narratives that people we relied upon for our care and protection told us about how the world is, and who we are and how we need to be to survive and make it in this world.    As we grew, these stories helped us negotiate the world we found ourselves in.  They gave us a sense of identity and helped us in making meaning out of the bewildering and unpredictable landscape of our growing up years. 

         If we were to take a moment to listen back to those stories we were told about ourselves what would they be?  Take a moment.  Can you remember the messaging of your childhood? What were you told about who you were and how you were to be?  What is the story that may have been defining as you grew?  

         Was it, “You were the easiest baby ever! You never needed anything.  Sometimes I even forgot you were there, what with how demanding your sister was and all.”  And from that messaging maybe we learned that the best way to survive is to – manage and truncate our own needs.  Best to keep small, not take up much room.  And so we layered ourselves with being OK with not being seen and being OK with not feeling like we really matter that much. 

         Or maybe the early messaging was “Why is it so hard for you to get it right? There is so much that is unjust and imperfect in this world we don’t need you to be that way so as well.”  We may have heard from such messaging that making mistakes is not OK and worth only comes in getting it right. And so we layer ourselves with the expectation that our worth comes from perfecting ourselves and others.     

         Or perhaps the messaging was “Life is not a free ride.  We’ve sacrificed so much for you.  The least you could do is to try to make something of yourself. Something we could be proud of.” And so we learned that our value comes from what we accomplish and how sparkly we can be and so we set off striving to success in everything all of the time, no matter the cost.

         Or maybe we heard or it was our lived reality that “It’s a big bad, dog eat dog world out there, so toughen up for you cannot count on anyone but yourself.”  And so we wrapped ourselves up in the armor of invulnerability, hiding our innocence behind our aggression and power.

         Or maybe the dominant narrative our growing up was “Be afraid.  Be very afraid for the world is unsafe and what you count on could be taken from you at any moment.” And so we wrapped ourselves in hypervigilance and a critical analysis of what is in order to be prepared for whatever may come, believing that rest and ease is for others not us. .

         These stories and many others, that we may have taken on may have been necessary at the time, but there comes a time when instead of being what we need to keep us safe, they become instead impediments to our growth and full flourishing.  There comes a time when we realize that these stories we have been told and have come to perhaps claim as our own, say far more about the situations that we found ourselves in as little people than about who we truly are now.  And as such, there can come a time in the spiritual path of awakening, if we are willing, for us to grapple with the reality  — that these stories could actually be false, not true; and that by continuing to abide within them, they can actually be a barrier to our awakening to who God has created us to be.

         To quote Ian Morgan Cron, (psychotherapist, and Episcopal priest) “We cannot be or become our true self if we are living in a false story.”[1]    The stories we are told shape us and it is imperative that we interrogate those stories to really come to know if they are in fact true.  “We cannot be or become our true self if we are living in a false story.”


         Yesterday, I joined with you and thousands other in the Pride Boston celebration.  50 years after Stonewall.  It was profoundly moving for me to walk with the UCC delegation, and to look in the eyes of those lining the streets, who very well may have grown up being told that who they were was an abomination.  But yesterday they spoke and heard a new voice, one of joy and affirmation and blessing and I have to say, I felt the Spirit moving.


         Getting clear about the story we are living within and doing the hard work of digging in to discover whether it is indeed true or if it is in fact false, is the work of spiritual formation and transformation.  It is what the life of faith is all about.  It is at the core of the saving work of Jesus and it is what Jesus invited all he encountered into.  Jesus came to challenge the stories we tell, to shed what is not true about them and to bid us enter instead into the story of God where we will find the truth of who we are created to be.  


         We see evidence of this in our Gospel passage for today.  The setting is the Last Supper and what in the Gospel of John is termed the final discourse. Jesus is taking time to review his core teachings with the disciples, hoping and praying that they will remember all he has said when he no longer is be with them physically.  It is in the midst of this teaching that Philip blurts out “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  

         Philip statement and Jesus’ response is evidence of how he and the other disciples are still living in a story that is completely different than the one that Jesus has been telling them and inviting them into all along. 

         Philip is wrapped up in a narrative that says that God is out there somewhere, a part from where we are, distant and that they cannot know God on our own and hence cannot ever really be satisfied.  Do you feel the anxiety in Philips statement and in this story?  He is lost, scared, alone, living from a place of fear and scarcity. 

         And then, in perhaps some of the most tender words in all of scripture, Jesus bid’s Philip to step out of the story he is living within and to step into the truth of the story of God.  Jesus assures Philip that God is not distant but present, and that Philip is not alone but is part of the family of God, that the Spirit of God will abide with him and will take care of and provide for him.  Jesus asks Philip not to be afraid but to be at peace and to love and let himself be loved. 


         In the church that I grew up in, in Duluth, before you entered the sanctuary, you passed through a large reception/entry room.  This room is where we had coffee hour after the service but it also had an enormous, coat rack and shelving built into the wall that stretched between this room and the sanctuary.   Every Sunday, in those cold, winter months, we would climb the steps of the church, enter into this welcoming room and then pause before entering the sanctuary to shed a few of layers that we had been wrapped in.  We’d hang up parkas and down vests, slip off choppers from our hands and the wool mittens underneath them.  Kick-off boots and peel off wool socks.  In doing so, we entered the sanctuary less encumbered by layers as we entered into the hour that was to come.

         We do not have such a beautiful, built in and generous coat rack and shelves at the back of this sanctuary, but it is my sincerest hope that everyone who enters this space will also feel the invitation to shed some of their layering.  For I have come to understand that a core purpose of this church, the reason why we are a welcoming, loving and safe space for people, is so that those that enter can begin to shed the layers that we may have needed to make our way in the world but that over time have become impediments, distortions that are keeping us from our truest selves.  I have come to see that core to our purpose as the Union Church, is to be a place where people can come to know love, acceptance, security, worthiness, hope, and trust and the God that gives it all , so that we may come home to who we truly are underneath all the layering we carry.  We are to be a place where resting in the abiding love of God, we may come to know the abiding presence of the Spirit that is our guide, teacher and advocate, and that is forever at our side. 

         Week after week, as we settle into these pews it is my greatest hope and prayer that we will start to hear another voice whispering in our ear.  A voice that tells us the truth of who we are, underneath all the self-protective layers we have wrapped ourselves in.  I pray we will hear a voice whispering:

         My beloved: you matter!  We see you and treasure who you are and the gifts you bring.

         My dear one: You are good!  There is no need to strive for perfection.  Simply live the goodness that you are.

         My child: know you are wanted and valued, not for what you give to others but for who you are.

         My heart, know you are loved, not because of your accomplishments but for who simply being who you are.

         My courageous one: You do not have to be afraid.  You are safe.  You can trust yourself and others. 

         My strong one, it is ok to be vulnerable and to dwell in the innocence that is in the center of your being.  You will be taken care of.  You are loved.  


         We are coming to the end of another program year. Last Sunday we held our annual meeting.  We passed a budget for next year, approved new leadership and celebrated the work of those stepping down.  We evaluated the ministries of the church and invited us all into deeper commitment pledging our prayers and dollars to what this church will be in the year ahead. And while it is a joy to do so, and our meeting last week was just that, truly a joy, I sometimes think that in this season of business and busyness we can fall into thinking that being church is about the work we do together.

         But our story of Pentecost reminds us that being church is not about what we do as much as it is about what God is doing in and through us.

         I hope that when you come into this place you will hear the whisper of the spirit telling you the truth of your being but I also hope that you will feel it. That it will become real in your experience here. Faith is not a proclamation or aspiration, it is a flesh and blood lived reality.  It is the experience of finding in the midst of the swirl a peace, a rest, a calm.  It is not striving but being, not worrying but resting, it is coming home to that place that I believe is in us all where the spirit abides and that is our wellbeing and the well of our being that fills us up and over flows as it does in the passage for today. To touch that place within us, to abide even if it is just for a few moments, is to dwell within the true story of our selves.  May it be so for us as it was for our syblings so long ago. Amen

[1] https://soundcloud.com/user-362426338/is-your-story-true-exploring-narrative-through-the-enneagram#t=12:30