Telling the Story
Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, September 13, 2020
Series: We Are Anglicans
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
“THE Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come. Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest.”
AUTUMN is coming on harvest time and our local farms will soon bring in almonds, walnuts, rice and other crops. In high summer we saw peaches and stone fruits at their ripest brought to market. If you fail to harvest in time, the crops rot and go back into the ground, and it’s all wasted. Jesus looked out on the many faces of His homeland, people wandering without a true shepherd, without the answers they longed for, and He yearned to bring them all to Himself and to the safety of His kingdom. He told His disciples, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work. Don’t you say, ‘There are four months yet, then the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white already for harvest… I send you to harvest what others have labored for.” John 4:34-38
There is a field of rich, waving heads of grain, fruit heavy with natural sweetness, hanging unharvested, right outside. As Californians, we live in the most fertile place on earth and many of us have no idea how to farm, how to bring in the fruits of the field. We may have awkwardly tried joining the harvest of the field before us—this field of harvesting souls, I mean—or we’ve watched some wild evangelist witnessing for Jesus, pressing his point to people who get embarrassed into listening a minute or two, then backing away. The failure in the technique of some Christians, and the ineptness of others disquiets us about our own abilities to convince anyone that Jesus offers them answers. So we stay quiet, which eventually means we stay aloof. The world is going to blazes, the fruit is rotting on the trees, lying on the ground, and you and I – I accuse myself here – you and I blame the fruit.
Stage fright and ineptness in proclaiming God’s kingdom are named most often for reasons we don’t launch. Our Anglican good taste might also be cited, as we recall the eagerness of some Baptist with salvation tracts, or of JWs pressing us with their Watchtowers, confirming our disdain for fans of silly religion. We are above all that, we say. If that’s so, then how do we add anyone to our church? How can we overcome the status quo and reach a dying generation? They may die forever. The field is ripe for harvest.
Let me tell you a story. Peter, the fisherman, wanted to tell his fellow Israelites about the man who’d once borrowed his boat. But Peter’s mission to the Jews was interrupted one day by a group of Italians wishing to hear his account too. He’d have refused, but their visit was just preceded by a vision on a rooftop warning him not to reject anything God called clean. These Gentiles readily believed in Jesus and were filled with God’s Spirit. So Peter baptized them. Gentiles baptized! A shocker.
Later, a man named Saul, who’d been persecuting Christians, was powerfully converted and became a brilliant evangelist to the Gentiles. Along his path, a doctor who bandaged Saul’s many wounds heard the story of Jesus and joined Saul, now called Paul, and his fellow missionaries right as they crossed the Bosporus and entered Europe with the great news of God’s forgiveness. The doctor’s name was Luke. The doctor ended up writing two books of the Bible.
Now: did you feel relief when I began to tell a story? The heat was off of you, and I wasn’t arguing about what you’re doing wrong and what you ought to do, or why that’s important. I stopped arguing and started telling a story.
We don’t like arguing. Well, some people love to argue: and everybody runs away from them. But everybody loves hearing good stories. Make-believe stories are fun because you can add details that make the story interesting, but we love true stories because the people in them really lived through the harrowing events described.
You want to know a secret? There’s a difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is the fizz on a soda, fun because it tickles your nose. I can be happy with a cookie. But happiness doesn’t last. It’s fine to be happy, but it’s better to have joy. What is joy? Joy comes only when you’ve gone through the dark story, been challenged with a hard thing, met powerful opposition and were nearly crushed by it, then faced discouragement and sorrow, and you were pressured to quit, but you had just enough left in you to cross the threshold, and the gates fell open to you at last. You found the prize, reached up to hold it and received the cheers and praises of all. Joy is won through pain and patience, but the joy is worth it all, because it lasts.
That’s what captures our attention in the story of Jesus “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2 He fought and won by dying. The joy was in His knowing His loss was our gain.
When I say the word “story” I mean a true tale. We can all tell a true story about ourselves. Don’t be modest. Your story is as good as any. You just never thought of telling it in an interesting way, perhaps. Luke, the doctor, found a way. He didn’t focus on himself. He talked about a man he followed around. Luke was Paul’s biographer, and who doesn’t know about St. Paul? You don’t have to brag about yourself, just look around and share what you see.
What makes a good story? I’m talking about truth, but how to tell it? Find a struggle you lived through or saw in another that you alone can describe. If it’s your own struggle, that’s the best, or it can be that of someone you know. There is a dark moment that sets the scene. What is your dark moment and what were the steps of that fearful journey? The dark moment is always fed by lies told and believed, lies that sounded true. Your story will tell how you exposed those lies or they were shown to you for what they were. The dark story holds fear, and your tale says how your fears were vanquished. The dark moment details how you were flawed, how your false values were opposed to your true path and life force. Most of all, your dark story holds a wound that, for long and sorrowful years, could not heal. Tell us how you got healed and who healed you.
Your story captures our attention because we can relate, we empathize. We sorrow as you recount your pains and the failures in your steps. We identify when you do wrong, and turn back from the quest, discouraged and angry that it didn’t just fall into your hand. We may share the lie you once believed and it still causes us pain and fear, as it once did you. And we too have been wounded, living in the shadows, limited in our ability to act, for fear of being wounded again. You can paint the worst parts of your true story in vivid colors, and don’t spare us. We want to hear it all, feel it all. We love stories. We want to hear how you got free, for that’s what you promise when you begin the tale. “Want to know what happened to me?” When we say, “Yes,” you have us on the hook. Play out some line and reel in slowly.
What is your dark moment story? If I were to ask you why you come to church, what makes you believe in Jesus, I’m not looking for a theology lesson, an argument I can’t escape without agreeing that your God is the truth. No. Tell me how you lived without Christ. What brooding evil thing cast a shadow over you and told you never to hope? What did that do to you? What was the lie that you believed about yourself, or about life in general? How far afield did your misguided steps take you? What happened that stopped your wandering away? Why did you listen? What forks in the road presented themselves, and how did you decide which to take?
You have solved a few problems in your lifetime. This church is a place where some of your solutions were found. The people you meet and talk to have similar problems and may need your solution, or something like it. Remember, you take them to Christ, not just to the doors of a church. He is the answer, and when they have Him, the church is your way to thank Him. It may be theirs also, but that comes later.
You may find your story too boring or really embarrassing. I would say that most of you have very interesting stories, but one of the lies you’ve been taught is that your life is not worth hearing about. Look at it again and see where the dark moment is lurking. You’ll find it.
St. Luke didn’t ever tell us about himself, yet he managed to write more words of the New Testament than any other contributor, more in fact that St. John or St. Paul. He gave us a brilliant Gospel account, adding personal stories of Jesus’ family: the Annunciation of the angel to His mother Mary, the shepherds heralded in Bethlehem’s sheepfold, the Presentation in the Temple and the young Jesus impressing the rabbis. Luke was a storyteller. He wove these wonderful scenes into Jesus’ life. Only in Luke’s Gospel are parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, Lazarus and the rich man, and the Pharisee and Publican—great human interest stories of Jesus. Luke also gives us unique moments such as the widow of Nain’s son, the ten lepers, and Christ healing Malchus’ ear during Our Lord’s arrest. Stories make Luke’s account riveting.
Luke also gives the entirely unique account of all that happened after Christ’s Ascension – how the fledgling church struggled through its xenophobia and persecution. Peter in chains, the stoning of Stephen, Paul on the Damascus road, the missionary journeys and each vivid detail until Paul is arrested and detained for extradition to Rome. We can’t stop reading, but must find out how the story ends. It ends with us.
Life is pain and sorrow. Count on it. Everybody shares in its trials. The yellow buttercups fade and night fades to a purple gloom. Only through the long hours, chilled by wind-driven clouds, does the faint hope of dawn arrive. Your story is as interesting as that, and better – because it’s yours.
St. Peter’s story was pretty good. Fisherman-turned-disciple, nicknamed Rocky, who denied Jesus three times at the crucial moment, was restored in tears, and became the head of the Apostolic council. Arrested but set free by angels. Good stuff. What did Peter say? “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and be ready always to give an answer to every man who asks you the reason for the hope that is in you, with humility.” 1 Peter 3:15
How do we tell the story of Anglicanism? Is there a story here? For one thing, it isn’t a separate faith. This is Catholic Christianity, for a start.
Ours is the ancient church, as experienced through the people of the British Isles. It began in the first generation of Christians, traveling with Roman ships to the southern shores of Britain. The primitive church held on against local druids and pagan invaders through the darkness that fell over the Empire in the 5th century. Inspired by St. Patrick in Ireland, and Irish monks thereafter, reconnected to Rome by Augustine of Canterbury around 600 AD, both Roman and Celtic Christianity influenced the independent spirit of the English Church. Fully catholic and orthodox for 1,500 years, then it was challenged by a European Reformation. A political separation from Rome under Henry VIII caused the English Church to examine and find corrections to the errors of Rome. They returned to the faith of their Fathers, and went on. Tensions between Protestant reformers and Catholic elements within the Church of England caused conflict, but creativity. As the religion of the realm the Church was subject to political forces. Once it was lost to a Romish queen. Once lost through a Puritan Revolt and the beheading of Charles I. England found its way, through the darkness, again and again. England launched successful foreign missions throughout a worldwide Empire, winning souls to Christ from every race and continent and planting Anglican churches from Rwanda to Bombay to Singapore to Hong Kong to Buenos Aires to San Francisco. The first Communion service on continental North America was Anglican, not Roman Catholic, at Drake’s Bay on the West, not the East, coast. The Anglican Church rendered the Bible in its brilliant King James English translation, and its worship treasured in The Book of Common Prayer.
You can learn more about that story, and tell it to your family and friends. But most importantly, what does it mean – to you? What is your story? How will you tell it? Why should it be interesting to anyone? I insist on this one true thing: your story is important to us, and we must all tell our stories. It’s not pride. It’s God’s story, and we are only His pen.
When Jesus commissioned the Apostles, He said, “Go, teach all nations to observe all I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Matt 28:19-20 We think He meant theology. You would say, “Bishop Hansen went to seminary. He teaches the theology around here.” But Jesus didn’t say that.
Paul, the first and most famous missionary, told his own story, beginning with his holding the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen, and then on the road to Damascus, going with a posse seeking to arrest all the Christians, he was confronted by a man made of light. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” His dark story was turned around by a blinding light.
And now it’s your job, and I hope it’s your joy, to find that story and tell it. What is your dark moment? We all want to hear your story…