Psalm 78; Acts 8:26-40 - (First Sunday of our Sacred Stories theme)
Maya Angelou, the poet and author, once wrote, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you." Switch that around, and you could also say that there is no greater joy, relief, meaningful connection, than sharing a story that is important to you. I have been hearing countless stories this past month. So many of you have shared stories of joy-- finding a new job, celebrating a birth, time spent with family on vacation; some of the stories have been painful-- how hard it is to live in the sandwich generation of taking care of both kids and parents; how painful it is to break off a life long relationship; how deeply you are grieving the death of important people in your lives. And, because we have had many people in this community die in the past six weeks, I have been hearing great stories of lives well lived-- the humor that was shared; the love that was expressed in unique ways; the faithfulness of people in this congregation to be hospitable to strangers; to care for women and children; to reach out to new people; to express their love to God by serving the St. Cloud region through this church community. Story upon story upon story!
As people, as human beings, we are made to share in our stories. Stories make meaning, stories convey messages and truth that are much deeper than just facts. One story can have a thousand different messages, and it's always a bit disappointing when someone tells you the point of a story, isn't it? I find that those are the children's books I don't like to read-- the ones that take time to explain the lesson I'm supposed to learn from the story. A good story knows better than to explain itself because it speaks to each person differently. A good story draws us in and helps us to make connections we wouldn't have made otherwise.
When you were taking notes in your Venn diagram of how Adam's story overlapped with yours and how God's story overlapped with both of yours, were you amazed at the connections? Or did it seem normal? Anytime some tells us a story, we naturally begin to reflect on how it fits in with what we already know. In fact, in the book Crucial Conversations, a book on communication and conflict resolution, the authors state that anytime someone says anything to us, we make a story out of it. It's why we can say something and mean one thing and someone hears something totally different. It's why we are careful with language-- because our words can convey whole stories that we may not even be aware of. We often do not even realize we are making the stories that we are making, and yet those stories or the broader story that they fit into, affects everything we do. We are people formed and created by the stories we tell ourselves. Advertisers know this very well by creating products to fill needs that we never even knew we had. Politicians know this very well by being very savvy about the story they are telling and how people are absorbing that story. Our ancestors knew this very well-- which is why they bothered to share stories around a fire, memorizing those stories and passing them on from generation to generation until they could write them down-- stories we still tell today in what we now call the Bible.
Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, authors of a book called Resident Aliens, wrote that "being baptized is kind of like jumping on to a moving train" (p. 52) because this peculiar story of God's way of working in the world began long before us, and this same story will go on long after us. It is why, as people who follow Jesus, when we are being faithful we often find ourselves in peculiar situations. Our journey of following Jesus causes us to ask ourselves what it means to live in this world today and instead of the listening to the constant message of shame that is so prevalent, to learn instead to trust in God's love. We have to ask ourselves in this world where we are told that people we don't know are to be feared, what does it mean to welcome our neighbor and be hospitable to the stranger? We have to ask ourselves in this world where people have a definite idea of what it means to be religious, why was Jesus constantly questioning the way the religious people of his day were using their power? We have to ask ourselves, in this culture that tells us to separate ourselves from anyone who seems weak or vulnerable or down on their luck, what does it mean for us to do as Jesus did, and bring good news to the poor, the blind, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the lame. We have to ask ourselves when our society tells us that we don't have enough, we aren't enough, we will never be enough and we should just play it safe, how do we truly live as people of the resurrection?
Do you see how counter cultural the story of Jesus is? Those early disciples knew this. They knew that their lives were completely changed by following Christ. They knew they were jumping on to a moving train. And they also knew it was the only way they wanted to live, because for the first time in their lives, they were truly alive. Free.
The story that we read from the book of Acts this morning, is a great story of faith. On the one hand, it has everything that many of our faith stories probably have. It's about an Ethiopian man who has traveled far from home and in his immense curiosity, is able, with the help of Phillip, to come to a new understanding of his own faith. How many of our stories, if you were to chart out a Venn diagram of this story and your own, would have some of these same deep connections. I know mine would. I remember being on a wilderness road in Israel several years ago. I remember being open and curious about all I could learn in that foreign land about places I had been reading about all my life. And I know that it was the people who were with me-- both scholars that could point out things like Phillip did for the Ethiopian man, but also fellow pilgrims that led me to some deep heart moments of knowing God in ways I hadn't before-- of understanding Jesus' journey that still takes my breath away. So this story in particular, is wonderful because practically speaking it points out some very common ways that we come to know Christ.
But then there's the fantastical parts of this story that are fun to explore too. There are so many of them-- so many impossible things about this story-- that it's almost like the Luke, the author of this book, is just having fun. First, an angel tells Philip to go to the wilderness road at noon-- the hottest part of the day-- the part of the day when no one in their right mind would travel on a desert road, especially alone. But then, for Philip to be sent there in order to interact with an Ethiopian eunuch-- a man that physically cannot be a Jew because he cannot be circumcised, is one of the most shocking things that could happen. There's a whole list of reasons why Philip, a Jew, cannot talk to this man, interact with this man, etc. etc. Then to top it all off, he is part of the court of Queen Candace-- a stranger in a strange land from a strange land that is not a Jewish nation. The red flags are popping out all over the place. But then add to this that the man is reading from the book of Isaiah-- reading a Jewish text-- most likely Luke's original audience to this story would've been laughing at this point at the absurdity of it all. But then, then Phillip begins to talk with this man and he gets into the carriage and they begin reading Scripture together and discussing it and praying through it and Philip shares all he knows about Jesus and the Ethiopian man looks up from the text; looks up from their conversation, and what does he see in the middle of the desert along this wilderness road? He sees water. He sees water! And his immediate response is, "Why can't I be baptized?"
"Why can't I be baptized?" We have already been given a list of reasons the length of my arm why the Ethiopian man can’t be baptized! But Phillip doesn’t name any of those things. Instead, the two get out of the carriage and walk into the water and Phillip baptizes a man he has just met a few minutes ago. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, the Holy Spirit whisks Phillip away and the Ethiopian man keeps going on the road, praising God.
Do you see how much fun Luke is having while telling us this story? Nothing, Luke says, NOTHING is going to be predictable with the Holy Spirit on the loose! Watch out because everything you've ever thought you've known about the rules of religion and who's in and who's out and what's going to happen next and what you have to do in order to be loved-- all of that is thrown out the window. The Holy Spirit is in charge now! Do you understand how important this story is to that early church-- to us today?
We are on a moving train-- and it started LONG before us-- the Spirit has been moving since the waters of creation. And it will go on long after us-- as God's work continues in this world. But today, while we are a part of this story, today while we are on this train, God is inviting us to be part of all that God is doing. God is inviting us to be part of God's story. That doesn't mean we throw out our story, as so many of our ancestors did in order to melt in to this country’s story. No, God’s story works in a different way. God invites us to bring our stories— all of our stories— the good, the bad, and the ugly— and see how our stories fit into God’s story. We are invited to see our stories in light of the God who is love.
So this fall we are going to be hearing one another's stories. We are going to be connecting our stories with the stories of our faith and seeing how the Holy Spirit is working through those stories. We are going to be sharing our truth, listening well to one another, and preparing ourselves to be open and curious of what God has in store for us this year.
Listening to our stories of faith will help us to get to know one another better and to see how God is connecting us for more meaningful community, calling us into the future with a clearer vision. It is only by truly listening that we will understand how God is calling us. It will also be important for us to learn what our stories are so that we will not step on each other’s stories. We have to know our own story in this multicultural world so that we will not be afraid of people who have different stories than we do. This is a very important skill for us to practice as people of faith in this community. We want to be able to celebrate the multicultural community that St. Cloud has become, and in order to do that well we need to know our own story. And last but not least, we will be sharing our stories to give ourselves practice telling our stories. Telling our stories not only strengthens and deepens our own faith, but it will make it possible to share our faith with people in our lives who need to hear it. There are many people in the St. Cloud region who do not know God’s story of love— who are living each day with the depressing, depleting story that our world is telling us. We have a different story to share. A story about life and love and wholeness. And the best way to for us to share Christ's love is to share a part of our own story authentically.
We are, after all, all part of the One story that forms and shapes us each and everyday. God isn't finished with us yet-- in fact, God is just getting started!