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Telling Stories

Today, I got to supply at a local ELCA parish here in Flagstaff, and got my ecumenism on. All the churches I supply for are kind and welcoming, but this group is particularly laid back. The first time I supplied for them, I forgot that the Lutheran liturgy goes as follows:
1. Confession or Reminder of Baptism
2. Absolution
3. Opening hymn
4. Kyrie-esque responsorial prayers, generally sung to one of ten (!) settings.
5. Gloria/ song of praise, and on.
So it’s mostly identical to Episcopal liturgy, with penitential order added,just a teeny bit different. And the first time I supplied, I forgot the opening hymn, just entirely. (They announce hymns, rather than just break into them.). Graciously, no one said anything, or looked aghast. They just proceeded on. Gold star for laid-backness for them. And meanwhile, I have gotten lots more practice at Lutheran liturgy.
Anyway, here is what I said in the sermon.

6 Easter, Year A
Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21

My grandfather liked to tell stories about our relatives. Lots and lots of stories, about his great grandfather who lived on the plantation in Spotsylvania County and was so ornery that he got into a bar fight, got sliced open across the stomach, and held his intestines in by hand as he rode to the courthouse so he could swear out a statement against the guy who stabbed him.
Or the ancestor in Scotland, who was in a boat race to claim some land from the king– whoever laid his hand on the shore first won the land. Seeing that he was losing, my ancestor cut off his hand and threw it to the shore, winning the race….and losing his hand.
My brother and I loved to hear these stories, over and over, and of course they would get taller and taller with each retelling. First it was one mile to the courthouse, then it was five. Then it was ten. And I have no idea if any if this really happened.
But here’s what I do know– I learned a lot of truth by listening to these stories.
The stories my grandfather chose to tell spoke some deep truths about his family, whether or not the facts were accurate.

Clearly, we were a strong group, maybe headstrong is a better word, and maybe prideful. And the sort of person who will chop off their own hand to win a contest is probably prone to the streak of insanity that definitely was present in my Southern Tennessee-Williams inspiring family. But stubborn? Able to persevere? And proud enough of those traits that we tell story after story about them? You bet.

As humans, we are story-telling machines. It’s how we make meaning out of things. It’s how we convey things that we feel are important. We do it as Christians, certainly. We are nothing if not people of a central story that we tell over and over again– the story of Jesus. And in that story, we celebrate and remember everything that we hold dear. What we know about God, how God relates to the world, how god wants us to relate to each other. All of that really is wrapped up in our big main story of Jesus.

The book of Acts is pretty much a description of the disciples trying to live out the central story of Jesus. Acts is a sequel to Luke– sort of Luke 2.0, written by the same guy for the most part. And if Luke is the story of Jesus, Acts is the story of what the disciples decide to do with the story of Jesus. It’s the story of ‘what comes next’.

And what comes next is essentially what you’d expect. The disciples witness the Ascension. They find someone to replace judas. Pentecost happens. But mainly, they travel around, filled with the Holy Spirit, sharing the story of Jesus, bringing new people into their fledgling community.

But each time they share the story of Jesus, they share it in a specific way. Each time the story of Jesus is told in the book of Acts, it changes. It morphs a little bit.

Notice the story we get today. Peter is in Athens, and, having wandered a bit around the city, excitedly makes his pitch to all Athenians within earshot that the God of Jesus is in fact a god that they already know. The god of his story is a god of their own story. How about that!

This is a bit of a left-field assertion for a devout Jew to make. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is usually not to be confused with Zeus, Mercury, or Hera. That’s the sort of talk that got a person exiled to Babylon, generally. So what’s going on with Peter?

But all throughout Acts, the apostles are doing things like this. The whole time. All the way back to Pentecost. Because, if you’ll remember what happened on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and gave them the ability to speak and understand other languages, gave them the ability to listen and speak to people different from themselves.
And that’s pretty much what they’ve been doing ever since.

The first thing Peter does upon getting to Athens, filled with the Holy Spirit as he is, is he listens. He wanders around the city and he listens. He listens to who the people are, what they care about. And then, he starts to speak to them. And that way, he manages to convey to them the story of Jesus in a way that’s meaningful and authentic to them.

Listening, true listening is a gift of the Spirit. When Jesus tells his disciples that he will send them the Advocate, one of the things that the Advocate is supposed to do is allow the disciples to be led into all truth. To hear more truth. At Pentecost, in Acts, it was the Spirit that opened the ears of the disciples to hear God in a fuller way. But how often to we use that gift today? How often do we forget to listen at all, and rely on speaking instead? How often do we rush to speak ourselves, because we are so eager to share our story with the other person, and in our rush we forget that they have a story too?

Each encounter the apostles had in Acts exposed them to a different story. All of the languages they heard on Pentecost, each was a different story. Philip’s encounter with the eunuch– a new story to be heard. Saul– definitely a story, that would be told over and over and over again. And Cornelius, the Roman centurion, a new story. In each case, these weren’t just stories the apostles listened to for the exercise. And to be really cynical– they didn’t just shape their evangelism to fit the market.

The church at the end of Acts is a radically different thing than the church at the beginning of Acts. Each encounter, each story heard has shaped it. And the work of the Spirit has been nowhere more prominent than in the apostles’ willingness to let the stories they hear change them. When Cornelieus the Roman soldier shows up, they don’t just listen politely to Cornelius; they end up welcoming Gentile converts because of what he tells them of his experience of God. The Spirit works through his story, the spirit works the apostles’ listening. And the church is enlivened.

So, we, as we are sent into the world, our job is not so much to talk to people until we are blue in the face, filled with the power of the Spirit, and handing out biblical tracts.
Our job is to listen. To hear where the Spirit is in fact already at work in the lives of the people God created in the first place. And then, as the hands and feet of Christ in the world, to catch up and help.

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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