A friend of mine noted that this passage from Luke is a story about stories. The women tell a story to the men, which is deemed an idle tale, but compelling enough for a couple of the men to go check it out for themselves. Apparently Simon Peter has told a story to the eleven about Jesus appearing to him, a story we are not told. Cleopas and his companion tell their story to Jesus, who is playing the trickster by hiding himself from them. Jesus tells stories from Moses and the prophets to the two on the road. The eleven and their companions repeat Simon’s story to Cleopas and his friend, who in turn tell their story about the Messiah being made known to them in the breaking of the bread. This passage is a popcorn bucket of stories!
I’ve always been drawn more to the stories in the bible than other writings. When I was a child, if my family were staying in a hotel on a trip, I would flip through the Gideon bible in the nightstand drawer until I found a story. I love the way that the best stories are supple; there is no one “moral to the story” in the very best ones. I think preachers spend a lot of time trying to be clever and unearth something new and undiscovered in biblical stories; we look to the original languages and cultures for the key. But another way is to set these ancient stories, from a foreign culture, alongside our own stories in our own culture to see how the two will speak to one another. I have no doubt that they will, it is the nature of story and of God’s Holy Spirit to seek relationship.
My life, like yours, is also a story about stories. One of my stories is that I serve as a chaplain in the Army reserve. I’ve been in for seven years and have had two deployments. I came home from a short five-month tour to Iraq in February. I’m still sorting those stories. One of my greatest joys as a chaplain is helping Soldiers who are in pain come home to themselves. Because within themselves is where they will find God who is waiting to embrace them. I think I’m a pretty good chaplain. I’ve (mostly) accepted that other chaplains have different gifts, and for me to be jealous—or insecure—that I’m not good at All-things-chaplain is to forget that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of thee.” Each of us brings something good and essential to the spiritual care of Soldiers.
But one thing I am not good at, and would like to grow in, is my ability to witness to someone who does not believe in God or follow Christ, who seems lost and without a path. Even though I am a pastor by call and profession, I am a timid one-on-one evangelist. And I worry that I’ve missed opportunities to open a door for someone I care about to experience what I have experienced through faith in Christ. For someone to be relieved of burdens, to know hope, to trust in the goodness of God, and to be in communities like this one, that will share both burden and joy. I fear that I have been too timid to share my story in ways that explicitly names my faith in God through Christ as my true north.
I have the usual hesitations: I don’t want to be pushy or make anyone uncomfortable and I’m not sure what to say. But in this season of being confronted by the risen Christ, I wonder what might open the door for me to be more bold in my conversations about belief. I find that this story of stories makes a way for me.
I had first wanted to say that I did not become a Christian because someone shared their story with me. But that is not entirely true. I don’t recall a testimony-sharing conversation with anyone about their faith. But I do recall teachers, pastors, and youth group leaders who talked about making choices through the lens of faith, and maintaining spiritual practices like daily prayer, reading scripture, going to church, and serving others. It is more true to say I became a Christian, and have persisted as a Christian, because many people shared their stories with me.
My belief began with a certainty of the presence of God from when I was a small child. I don’t recall going to church that often. But we played a lot outdoors, and I think that time with my friends enjoying the sun, running in the grass, swimming in the water, climbing trees, and playing in the snow nurtured my sense of the presence of God. I think Jesus was planted in my oyster shell of belief, and a pearl of Christian faith grew there.
Reading the stories of Jesus’
healing others and standing up for what he believed,
someone who could look through the crowd and find Zaccheus,
who knew that the woman had touched his robe,
who got tired and frustrated,
who saw things others could not see,
who saved the woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death,
who commanded the little girl: Talitha kum! Get up!
who taught that the greatest gift is love.
This Jesus, and the God he was so fully devoted to, became my path.
I don’t think I can explain it any better than that, and I don’t know what it all means. No dramatic turning point; God was just always there. And when I was about 13 years old, I told God that I wanted to give myself over and invite Christ into my life. I felt happy and relieved. I was on a retreat and walking along a quiet forest path. I don’t remember if I even told anybody else. Maybe like Jesus revealing himself to Simon, it seemed private; I might not have wanted to share it yet.
I think the biggest change God has made in my life was by showing me how often I was wrong about people, am wrong. I was so quick to decide, so sure of my judgments. And often my judgments were subconscious, dangerously subtle. One summer I worked as the nature director at a YMCA day camp. The kids were a great mix of races, more mixed than I was used to being around. One day I realized when I asked them questions, I was only calling on the white kids. How does that happen? In college, I was working as a waitress at a small restaurant. One of the waiters who was gay told me that our manager had made a joke about the waiter being willing to do something perverse. I can still hear the hurt in his voice when he said, “I’ve never done anything like that.” And I realized, I would have thought the same thing too.
Not only was I wrong about people, I was sinful toward them. Perhaps in my own way I had stoned the prophets God had sent to me by misjudging them, by not giving them a chance, by closing my eyes to them. And I would feel ashamed of the prejudices I held about others, without even being aware of them. Prejudices absorbed from my culture, that I still stumble across, and I can’t believe that I think these things. But I believe that when I opened my heart to God, even a little bit, God began to raise me from the dead. God began to pull me out of the grave where my soul was in decay and I didn’t even know it. Salvation is a process that begins with God, and beckons me to say, Yes. And then the work begins.
Once I learned to give people a chance, I was surrounded by angels revealing God to me. A layer of my prejudice and ego would fall away, and I would no longer dismiss the stories of others as an idle tale. And then I would begin to be proud of myself, and God would have to start all over again. God is persistent that way. But it has always been hearing people’s stories that drew me near to God, that exposes myself to me, somehow gets me out of my own way. And when wise others have helped me tell my own story, and see the truth there, I have also drawn more near to God.
In the gospel of Luke, some of the disciples told their stories even when they didn’t know what they meant. “I don’t know! All I can tell you is we went to the tomb, his body was gone, and we saw angels who told us he was alive! I can’t explain it, I’m just telling you what happened.” They didn’t know what it meant! But they told their story anyway. And Cleopas and his companion, like me, had to admit they were wrong about the stranger on the road. Really very wrong! But when they listened to him, their hearts were stirred so that when it looked like he was going on, they urged him to stay; and when they sat down to dinner with him and he moved in that way that was so familiar, they knew. They couldn’t explain what happened, they could only tell about it. And in the telling, they gave each other hope. And without fear, they ran for miles through the night to tell what had happened to them on the road. Telling our stories to one another, within the community of faith, is where it starts. In a few weeks, the disciples will be moved by God’s Holy Spirit to preach to the crowds coming to town for Pentecost, but right now it is enough to tell their stories to one another.
If this congregation is anything like mine at home, fellowship hour will be filled with important conversations about how things are going: what did the doctor say, how was the job interview, how was vacation? We will share personal stories that we might not anywhere else because people care enough to ask. But what would it be like if we also asked, Have you seen Christ anywhere lately? How is God moving in your life these days? What did you think of the sermon this morning? Have you been raised from the dead? If we can get used to telling our faith stories here, maybe we will be more confident sharing our faith stories out there. And someone can come in from the cold, and begin to know the hope in Christ that we proclaim. Amen.