I Love to Tell the Story
A Sermon for the Third Sunday of the Easter Season
Delievered at Grace UCC for the Annual Preacher Exchange
I love to tell the story; and when I am in glory
I'll tell the old, old story of Jesus' endless love.
I am grateful to be with you again today! The two downtown congregations of the United Church of Christ have been gracious hosts to me throughout my five years in Frederick. I am glad to be back with you, the good people of Grace UCC, to try and open our Scriptures for today and share with you some of Jesus' endless love. Today is the third Sunday of the Easter season, and I have a story – a Good News story to tell you today. It's not an old, old story. Nevertheless, it is a story full of great meaning for me. It's a story. . .about a question. I will tell you and ask you that question. But first, a story.
It was the spring of 2006, and I was on retreat in California with clergy and other congregational leaders from all over the United States. We were part of an introductory or “sampler” retreat for a new program called “Courage to Lead,” and I had come from the parish I served in Memphis, Tennessee, to be there. We had assembled for our first session, and David, one of the retreat leaders, who had recently retired from public education, played some meditative music from his iPod as a way to gather us all together. After his introductory remarks, he told us we would be dividing up into groups of two to consider and discuss the answer to a question he was holding for us. But first, he began to teach us about what he called “honest, open questions – the answers to which you couldn't possibly know.” Questions like, “Who was your first teacher?” and “Where did you learn about hope?” And then he gave us an honest, open question to ponder. It was this question: What's your train wreck story?
“What's my train wreck story???” I thought. Is he kidding? And then I thought, Oh, my God. I know exactly what my train wreck story is. It had to do with going through a divorce and leaving parish ministry, both at the same time. It had to do with thinking I would never get to work in a church, ever again. It had to do with shame and loss and fear of the unknown. It had to do with a time in my life when I was just a wreck. No, a train wreck.
Like St. Paul, I had fallen to the ground back then, and I wasn't sure I would ever get up and back on my own two feet. I was ready to go back to selling insurance, or driving a taxi – something, anything but the thing to which I thought I had been called – years before, by God – to give my life, all of my life.
This isn't an old, old story, but my train wreck was thirteen years ago. And here I stand before you, the senior pastor of a grand, old downtown church. Now, I've been called to a new chapter of ministry, in my final years of full-time work, to interim ministry, like your friend Doug Griffin. Two weeks ago I was called to be the interim rector or pastor of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You see, since that time thirteen years ago, I have been loved back into parish ministry and loved by a woman who is now my wife. Since that time, some other train wrecks have also happened in my life. Today I would answer David's question with another question: Which train wreck story would you like to hear first?
I wonder: Do YOU have a train wreck story? Do you have a story of a time when you were brought to your knees, stripped of your persona, forced to face the powerlessness you felt over what had become your crazy, unmanageable life?
St. Paul had a train wreck story of a different kind. The great Flannery O'Connor is reported to be the one who first said, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of (Paul). . .was to knock him off his horse.” Though Paul was not on horseback, Flannery O'Connor does guide us in the right direction. The main character in this and every story, old or new, about someone's conversion experience – the real star of the story is God.
It is God who changes us, God who changes our lives. It is the almighty power of God that turned Saul, persecuting believers in Jerusalem and now on the road to Damascus, from someone who was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1) into someone who would “proclaim Jesus” so that “all who heard him were amazed,” as the next verse after today's final verse from Acts puts it (9:20-21). When terrorist Saul converted into Saint Paul, it was not something he decided to do on his own. On the contrary, he had no earthly idea he even needed to BE converted, let alone what his conversion might look like. Blinded for three days before he was filled with God's Holy Spirit? Are you kidding?
But God needed a witness. God needed someone to carry the Good News of Jesus Christ, resurrected from the dead, to the Gentiles, to the powerful, to the people of Israel. God needed someone who had been a witness against followers of Jesus to become a witness for the risen Christ. And if God can change the lives of the likes of a Saul into a Paul, God can convert and change the likes of you and me into the people God in Christ Jesus wants us to be.
Now I want to take a “time out” for a moment and speak to those of you who might be having a “faith inferiority” moment. Maybe you have been a faithful member of this church and, like me, you have never known a time when you were not a Christian. There is something very comforting about having such an early identity in Christ, claiming the faith of Jesus because mama or grandpa was a disciple of Christ and taught you how to be one, too. Maybe you can't remember a time when you didn't sing “Jesus loves me, this I know. . .” Maybe, unlike Saul, unlike me, you have never had a so-called “Damascus Road experience.” And yet you may still believe, like I believe, that God is at work in your life. So maybe you are feeling a bit inferior, because you have not had the kind of traumatic, knocked-down drama like other Christians. Compared to Acts 9, your story may feel inferior, not quite good enough.
It's important to remember that what happened to Saul or to me or anyone else is noteworthy because it was and still is NOT typical of the way in which most people become converts to the Christian faith. It is more typical to respond the way Ananias does. Ananias was also a disciple of Jesus. He has a vision in which the Lord Jesus tells him to “get up and go to the street called Straight. . .and lay. . .hands on (Saul), so that he might regain his sight” (9:12). Ananias says, in essence, Lord Jesus, are you kidding? This guy is out to get us!
Those of us who have grown up in the faith of Christ crucified and risen can easily become cautious, like Ananias. Sometimes it's hard if not impossible to teach an old dog like me a new thing God wants to do in me and for me. Yet through all of Holy Scripture there is a consistent theme about God: When God is the agent of change, get out of the way, because all bets are off. “With God,” Jesus says in Matthew's Gospel account, “all things are possible” (9:26). And God in Christ Jesus had plans for a terrorist to become a saint. “Go,” Jesus says to Ananias, “for (Saul) is an instrument whom I have chosen. . .” (9:15). Is he kidding?
In today's old, old story of Jesus' endless love in the Gospel of John, we meet another unlikely saint who was not a terrorist but did have his own problems following Jesus. Peter, who had denied Jesus three times before Jesus was crucified, had returned to his original vocation, casting nets with his old fishing buddies. But they were having no luck at all.
Then, “just after daybreak,” the story goes, “Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know it was Jesus” (John 21:4). Just like Saul, they did not know they were about to have a conversion experience. But Jesus, speaking now more like a parent to children, told them to try casting their net again, this time on the right side of the boat, and “they were not able to haul it in, because there were so many fish. . .a hundred fifty-three of them” (21:6,11). Even so, it is the beloved disciple John, not Peter, who says, “It is the Lord!” And Peter, who always seems to need yet one more conversion experience, put his clothes on and jumped into the sea – go figure! – so he can help haul that magnificent catch ashore.
On the shore, after breakfast, Jesus asks Peter a question. Jesus asks him the same question – not one, not two, but three times. “Simon, son of John, do you love me. . .?” (21:15-17). It's not an honest, open question, because Jesus surely knows Peter's answer. “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” I've been with you for a long, long time, Jesus. I can't remember a time when I didn't believe in you! Well, actually, there was that time when the cock crowed, but. . .you KNOW I love you! Jesus just keeps asking Peter, “Do you love me?” And Jesus keeps asking us, “Do you love me?” If we do, Jesus says, we will feed others with that love, the way we have been fed with Jesus' love.
That's the old, old story, the not-so-old story, and the brand new story – today and every day, during the Great Fifty Days of Easter and forever. The story is about Jesus and his “endless love,” as your New Century Hymnal puts it. The love of God is endless, eternal, forever. The love of God in Jesus Christ is endless and endlessly real, up close and very personal – for Paul and Ananias, for John and Peter, for you and for me. For the love of God is broader, another hymn tells us, than the measures of our minds; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. If our love were but more faithful, the hymn continues, we would gladly trust God's word; and our lives would show thanksgiving for the goodness of our God (“There's A Wideness in God's Mercy,” text by Frederick William Faber, altered).
Sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus, we are all God's fish, whether we are old or young, gay or straight, female or male. Whether we are colorful or drab, terrorist or saint, clergy or lay, all of us have been caught in God's large, lovely, luminous web of love. The risen Christ tells his disciples to cast a net and they catch 153 fish, each fish with their own story of how Jesus loves them. Amazing stories. Creation stories. "Train-wreck" stories. "Redemption and release" stories. "Lost and found" stories. But always love stories. Stories of God's love.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, share a part of your story with someone today. Be assured of God's love for you. Then, listen to a part of the story of someone who wants to tell it to you, because they need to share and experience God's love, just like you do. Remember what a wise nun once said: "There isn't anyone you couldn't love – if you knew their story."
I love to tell the story, for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it, like the rest.
And when I sing in glory, I know the new, new song
will be the old, old story / that I have loved so long.
I love to tell the story; and when I am in glory
I'll tell the old, old story of Jesus' endless love.
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
April 14, 2013