Text: Romans 15:4-13
Theme Verse: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)
The Human Library Project sponsors events around the world in which people of wildly different backgrounds and experiences volunteer to be "books" that visitors to the event can "check out" for a short period of time. During this check-out period, the "borrower" and the "book" converse over coffee or tea, perhaps, and the borrower is thereby able to learn firsthand from the experiences of the "book" he or she is "reading." The gift of understanding the human experience is a great step toward peace. God made that step in Bethlehem so long ago.
reader : Debbie Robson
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
When people ‘read you’, what do they learn about life? And I’m not talking only about what they learn about your life but about life in general? Within our very bodies are a wealth of experiences and information that can offer so much to those around us. It’s terribly fascinating to think about. Your very being shares something incredible with those you encounter everyday – it can build up or tear down; it can demonstrate love or hate; it can foster curiosity or shut down further exploration – all in the way you and I are read every day by people around us. What if your very being, and mine, was listed in a global library card catalogue system so that others could check you out for a time and learn from you about your life experiences? Imagine going to a library on a quest for some specific information but instead of checking out a book, you check out a person. We’re closer to this reality than you might think.
This is the very idea behind a project called the Human Library. Real people based on real facts of their lives represent categories such as Muslim, bipolar, single young mother, unemployed, HIV victim, autistic, sexually abused, brain-damaged, deaf and blind, soldier with PTSD, homeless, alcoholic, ADHD and so on. These people are typically available at a scheduled event that might run for several hours or over the course of a few days. Library card carrying folks go to the event and select a category they want to know more about. The human ‘book’ then sits down with them for thirty minutes or so and shares his or her story and the borrower gets to ask them questions about their life as well. Want to know what it’s like to be a refugee? You can talk to someone who can explain that very personal experience. Interested in raising your culinary game in the kitchen, check out a master chef and glean from their insights. Isn’t that fascinating? The first Human Library was held in Denmark sixteen years ago. It ran for four straight days in Copenhagen and offered some seventy-five ‘titles’ chosen to inform and challenge stereotypes. More than 1,000 readers showed up! Organizers were amazed by the potential impact this would have on their community. Human Libraries began popping up across the globe with events happening on every continent but Antarctica. A Human Library held in Rochester, New York, for example, had people representing various titles such as: Vietnam veteran, martial artist, British butler and a person paralyzed in a car accident.
Pretend with me, this morning, that you are a part of the HACC Human Library. When you leave this space and head out into your world this week, every person you encounter is reading your story. What are they learning about you, from you, through you? Paul nailed this idea thousands of years ago when he wrote to the Corinthian Christians saying, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Paul’s all over this Human Library idea. A deeper probing question for us on this second Sunday of Advent – the Sunday of Peace, is this: Does a read of your story give rise to peace? That’s really a layered question.
There’s a surface level concept of peace in regards to that question. Are you a calming presence for others? You know that person? You love them, right? Just being in their presence makes you relax. You lose the edge that was building throughout the day and just feel a calming peace in the moment. If you don’t know that person in your life, find him or her. It will do your soul well. Most of us know someone who is the opposite of ‘calming presence’. That’s the person that immediately brings tension to the room – or panic – or both! This may be Bomb-threat Bobby – a guy who is always on the verge of exploding about some controversial topic or nit-picking you about something. It could be The End is Near Edna who always has a story about the pending Zika virus invasion. “Isn’t it a beautiful day, Edna?” “Perfect conditions for mosquitos to bite you.” It could be Invade Your Personal Space Ivan who inevitably starts a conversation with you when you’re standing against the wall. There is something to be said for being a calming peace-filled presence. In fact, some would say, that’s the only way to create a growing peace in the world.
One day, a father was trying to get some work done in his home office while keeping an eye on his young son. If you’ve ever tried to do both, you know it’s hard to accomplish both of those tasks well. So the dad looked for something that might occupy his son for a while. He tore a picture of the earth out of a magazine on his desk and ripped the picture into a bunch of small pieces. He told his son to hold out his hands and, as a gift, the father dropped all of the little pieces into the boy’s hands. The boy’s eyes were big and his dad said, “Here’s a puzzle for you to put together.” Excited by the challenge, the boy took the handful of shreds into the other room to begin assembling the puzzle. Dad assumed he’d bought himself significant time. He was shocked when the boy eagerly returned in just a couple of minutes with a fully assembled puzzle. Dad was a bit annoyed by this reality but just as astonished at the genius of his boy. “A chip off the old block,” he smirked. Dad asks, “How’d you put it together so fast?” “It was easy,” the son says. “There’s a person on the other side of the page and when you put the person together, you put the world together.” Out of the mouth of babes. Being centered in Christ – at peace with the greater purpose of God at work in you – is one of the great gifts we can offer to a world vastly ripped into pieces. To live in harmony with one another as Paul writes to the church at Rome, involves some self-awareness. 
Having such awareness doesn’t request perfection of course. If someone was to check you out of a Human Library under the title, Christian, the borrower would not be checking out some inerrant story. If we told the whole truth, there would likely be some gaps in our pages, some chapter’s incomplete, and some chapter titles that don’t seem to build a cohesive whole. Some of our incompleteness stems from our isolation from others – whether that be our neighbors or a church family. “For God’s glory,” says Paul, “welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you.” Our interaction with others is what helps bring understanding to a new level… and understanding is what is necessary for peace to flourish. My understanding of your story, your life, your experience of Christ is necessary for God’s glory to be known most fully to me. Hopefully your understanding of my story helps you understand who you are in Christ as well.
Father Richard Rohr says it this way: “I believe that we have no real access to who we fully are except in God. Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, and much more than we think we are. Only when we live and see through God’s eyes can “everything belong.” All other systems exclude, expel, punish, and protect to find identity for their members in some kind of ideological perfection or purity. The contaminating element always has to be searched out, isolated, and often punished. This wasted effort keeps us from the centrally important task of love and union.”
I’m missing a shot at full union and the peace that comes with that when I leave your life, my neighbor’s life, out of my own life. “Most people do not see things as they are because they see things as they are!” When that perspective is our only perspective we begin to fear other perspectives which doesn’t bring peace but great unrest. Paul’s writing to a Jewish and Gentile audience and saying – look, there’s room for everybody. I know this is awkward and some of our backgrounds are different but the love of Christ surpasses those boundaries. It travels across backyard fences, railroad tracks and borders of all kinds. And until I truly read you, not read about you, but engage with you, I miss out on understanding. I miss out on peace.
There was a great concern at the first Human Library event in Denmark that people would miss the point. There was also a thought that people may simply not want to be challenged on their prejudices. The flipside was that there were 75 books available so with that many people together in a relatively small space for a long period of time, people were bound to start reading each other if nobody else came – just like you gaze at the tabloids when you’re standing at the checkout line. And this happened. Before the first reader even checked out a book, the books themselves began connecting with each other. The policeman engaging the graffiti writer. The politician sharing with the youth activist. The football fan in deep conversation with the feminist. The sharing was remarkable.
The stable happenings of the first Christmas influenced this reality that the path of understanding and peace was not a pristine path. If anything, the birth of Christ and the manner in which Jesus entered the world set a tone for a rocky path to faith, and in faith. If the faith life, or life in general, were easily understood and navigated then my guess is that many of us wouldn’t be here in worship today. But we are. And we know something to be true. Peace isn’t free. There’s a cost associated with it. We can’t manufacture peace on our own. It is grounded in God and comes to us through the gifts of the Spirit of Christ. I am personally wired with this tremendous desire for peace in the world – peace in my life – peace in my spirit. Sometimes this is manifested in my desire to be unaffected by the world around me – protected in a bubble with Jesus where we sing top forty hits together; play ping pong and drink Diet Coke. But when Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he implies there is work involved in the creation of peace. He didn’t say, “Blessed are the peace-havers.” This can be completely overwhelming. How many times have you thought, “I can’t help them right now because I can’t even get my own stuff together.” But this is the flipside of peace – it often comes with the friction and discomfort of stretching ourselves outside of our little bubbles that we think will bring peace to our lives. If you live that buttoned down, however, you truly miss out on learning the stories of others, and living the very story you were created to live.
My friend and colleague, Ryan Motter, is a minister of a Disciples church in small town Missouri. On Wednesday this past week, he had one of those days that only comes when you take time to read the life stories of those in our midst. Listen to his account:
Some days in ministry are rich.
Last week, our amazing and dear friend Vicki Belcher died all too soon. Vicki served on both the Search Committee that brought me to Smithville and the Search Committee that brought Lara to Smithville. The people of Smithville FCC admired her for her determination, her grace, and the prayerful way she cared for every person she knew.
Vicki’s wish was to be buried next to her parents in the Oakdale Cemetery just outside of Houston, Missouri, a 4.5-hour drive South from Kansas City.
In the midst of the plans for her funeral, we learned that the family that owns and operates our local funeral home, Hixson-Klein Funeral Home, has been standing vigil at the bedside of their dear brother and son. In the midst of their own grief, they had been hired to help with five funerals. Lara and I both reached out to Jack, the primary owner and director, and shared with him our prayers and our willingness to help him in any way possible.
On Monday morning, Jack called and said that there was one big way we could help: he needed me and Lara to drive Vicki to her final resting place. Liability be damned, we quickly said we’d be glad to help him this way. We talked to Vicki’s daughter, Tessa, about it, and she quickly said that she thought her mom wouldn’t want anyone else to take her on this final ride. Vicki’s two sisters and her brother giggled, knowing that we weren’t exactly experienced Hearse drivers, and regularly commented that Vicki would’ve gotten a kick out of the whole set up.
So today, Lara and I drove a hearse for nine hours, to and from Houston, Missouri, to make sure that Vicki found her final rest next to her Mom and Dad. We laughed about it the whole way, but didn’t for a minute take for granted how honored we were to help our friend in this way.
On our way home, we stopped at Braum’s for some ice cream and we took pictures with the hearse to document this day, which we summed up several times with, “Our job is weird.” That’s not quite right, though: our calling is weird, and it is so so rich. #VickisLastRide
You don’t have to be in ministry to understand that life is weird and amazing, mysterious and rich. Your life is that way too. I wonder if we ever give it much thought, however, or if we simply engage one day to the next as if they are just hours strung together to get us from point A to point B. In truth, we’ve got stories to tell with our lives and we’ve got stories to read. That’s where the peace will come. Blessed are the peacemakers. Get out there and make some peace. The One who brings the greatest peace, Jesus our Christ, is the One who comes again every time we welcome another as he so openly welcomes us. And that is a story that needs to be read over and over and over again…
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 “Human Library: A worldwide movement for social change.” HumanLibrary.org.
“Human Library Organizers World Map.” Google.com. Retrieved May 9, 2016.
“‘Human Library’ project in Rochester turns people into talking books.” New York Daily News, January 28, 2014, nydailynews.com.
The connection of the Human Library Project with this particular passage of scripture was made by Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer for Homiletics’ magazine. His influence is strong in paragraphs two and three.
 Adapted from Ann Spangler’s book “The Peace God Promises.” Zondervan. 2011. Pg. 11.
 Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2003), 26.
 Rohr mentions this in the same devotion adapted from the above citation.
 –From the “About” page on the Human Library Website. humanlibrary.org.