The Rev. Neale L. Miller
Sermon for September 2, 2018
Texts: Psalm 98/Acts 26:1-23
Title: “Love to Tell the Story”
Scene setter: Paul is on trial for charges brought by the Jews. Deemed a Jewish renegade and turncoat who no longer respected the tradition in which he was raised, Paul makes his defense before King Agrippa. And so we read in Acts 26 verse one and following:
On what pegs would you hang the storyline of your life? For most of us who have accumulated a substantial number of years the sorting process might require a bit of effort. If we made the effort, however, I would expect we might need some time to sort through the key events that shaped our lives. There are others who would require very little time to complete such an exercise. In one or two minutes they could point to an event, or events, that set the course for their lives. The apostle Paul was one such person.
Paul was a man with a story to tell. The story was his profound joy, it was also an undeniable burden, joy because nothing gave him greater pleasure than telling it, burden because the story was offensive to a group of people, his Jewish critics, who deemed his story subversive and threatening to the religion to which they adhered, a burden because it made him a marked man with the Romans who were on guard kept a tight rein on anyone who threatened the empire.
Paul loved to tell the story of Jesus and his love. It was a vocation he embraced with gusto despite the fact that it got him beat up and imprisoned, not just once, but many times.
The final eight chapters of the book of Acts treat the consequences of the insubordination of which Paul was accused. The unravelling of Paul’s life begins in the Jerusalem temple, the Jew’s supreme holy place, where our morning’s lesson was set. Paul’s appearance there caused an uproar.
It was not Paul’s ambition to inflame a mob, but that was the result when he was spotted in the temple. He became a marked man when someone in the crowd shouted, “fellow Israelites, this is the man who is subverting our law and customs, he even has defiled the temple by bringing a gentile into his holy place.”
The fury of a mob easily becomes uncontrollable. The anonymity the mob provides releases inhabitation that might otherwise keep passions in check. Paul was in deep trouble.
The agitated mob might have killed him were it not for the intervention of some soldiers who, were stationed near the temple to keep the peace.
Safely delivered to the soldiers’ barracks, he asked for permission to address the crowds that had followed him to that place. Though his words were nearly drown out by catcalls and jeers, his audience gave him a hearing, until, that is, he arrived at the part where he spoke about the commission Jesus gave him to take God’s word to the Gentiles. This mission to the Gentiles was a non-starter for the Jews.
For the second time in a single afternoon the crowd turned on Paul. The soldiers, their own lives placed in jeopardy by Paul’s actions, might well have let the chips fall where they may. One important consideration, however, prevented them from doing that. Paul was a Roman citizen.
As a Roman citizen Paul was owed his day in court. The Roman authority, though bound to recognize Paul’s citizenship, wanted nothing to do with matters affecting his relationship with the Jews. We remember how Roman governor Pontius Pilate strove to steer clear of entanglements with the Jewish leadership when Jesus was arrested and brought before him. The Romans who dealt with Paul sought to avoid entanglement as well.
Paul’s appearance before the Sanhedrin, a body composed of Jewish lay and religious leaders, incited yet more commotion while resolving nothing. Let the Romans deal with him. Paul had become the Romans’ tar baby, creating problems they could not be rid of. Yet like it or not Paul was owed his day in court.
Credit the Romans for adhering to their laws, even when the protracted proceedings involving Paul could have caved in on their heads. So long as he lived they were just one riot away from a political disaster that could destabilize not only Jerusalem, but the entire region. The Romans knew the risks were great, but they were determined to give Paul his hearing.
Paul’s journey through the Roman courts was deliberate if not labored. But first there was a change of venue. The Romans moved the proceedings from Jerusalem, where riots threatened, to another jurisdiction, Caesarea. Only after that did Paul appear not before one, but three, separate high-ranking Roman officials in succession, the last being King Agrippa, a Jew who served at the discretion of Caesar in Rome.
Paul may well have resented the lengthy delays and inconveniences involved in gaining his day in court, but he had a story to tell. There was no inconvenience or discomfort he was unwilling to suffer so long as he could tell the world about Jesus through one means or another.
I love to tell the story. Road to Damascus, bright light, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me”—a commission from Jesus to take his name to the Gentiles. Paul’s zeal in telling that story never abated, so thoroughly did Jesus dominate his life.
So, is there a story you would risk life and limb to tell? Are there values, principles or beliefs that you would sacrifice your life to uphold? Men and women of faith have been forced to face that issue from the day Jesus began his public ministry. Disciples of Jesus have often found themselves at odds with the world.
Our stories are the way you and I make sense of our ourselves and our world. While the story of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus completely eclipsed all other concerns that occupied Paul’s mind and heart, his experience on the road was unique to him. Paul had his story, and each of us attempt to make sense of ourselves and our world through our stories.
We do not create our stories ourselves. We were each born into our stories, appropriating as we matured bits and pieces of other peoples’ stories—our parents, other family members, our teachers, our friends, and our coaches. Our birthright as Americans comes with a grander story into which our lives are enfolded.
Though we have never been subjected to the trials and hardships those forbears experienced in settling this continent, their story has become our own.
A nation of immigrants, of the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock, but also Ellis Island and the ports of California, our forbears brought their stories with them. They brought their stories from the sparsely inhabited artic reaches of Norway, the sunny shores of Sicily, and the great and ancient cities of China and India, stories from villages in the depths of Russia, and, of course, stories brought to this land from Africa by slaves who were kidnapped and herded on to slave ships bound for our ports.
So many stories, so many ingredients have contributed to making this “melting pot” nation of ours what it has become. Though distinguished by race, ethnicity, religious affiliation and social class, we, by virtue of our citizenship in this land, view ourselves and our world through the lens of our national identity. Symbols such as the flag, the Constitution, and our national anthem effectively solidify that identity.
The great variety of experiences to which we are exposed year in and year out, of course, add new lines to our stories. A birth or wedding in the family, a graduation, a move, or a serious illness diagnosed—line by line our stories are written.
Paul had his story and we each have ours. Our stories are mediated through memory and experience. My story explains how I got to where I am. The experiences I add to that number today and tomorrow will lend their particular weight and texture to the chapters I will yet write.
The several events and experiences of which our stories are constituted do not, of course, possess equal mass. Particular events and experiences dominate. Don’t they? Her classroom success becomes the dominant theme in the story the valedictorian is composing, using that success as a stepping stone to a satisfying and lucrative career. The wounds the soldier suffered in war become the dominant theme in his story. A miscarriage that prevents the expectant mother from ever giving birth becomes the dominant line in her story.
Paul had his story and we each have ours, those stories the product of particular experiences we lived and the particular environments we inhabited, yet there is a least one reality that links Paul’s story and our stories. We were baptized into the same community, into a living body over which reigns the very Jesus who appeared to the apostle on the road to Damascus.
Paul had a great story to tell, one so great that he refused to shut up. The story took over his life. But why? It took over for one very good reason. It took over his life because that story made more sense of his life than any other story he knew.
The story hasn’t changed in lo these many centuries. People are still inspired to tell it, and in many instances have sacrificed their lives in the telling. People are still inspired to sing their love for Jesus.
The story hasn’t changed. What we read in this book is as vitally alive to millions today as when Paul took it on the road throughout the Mediterranean Basin, Jerusalem, and ultimately Rome, the uncontested capital of the civilized world
The mission of the church is to cultivate a love for the story, and it is a mission to be undertaken by us very intentionally. So practically speaking what does that mean? The task may be summarized in a three- step formula: teaching, living, and telling. It is impossible for anyone to love what he or she doesn’t know. The church teaches the faith. The church fulfills its mission by living the faith. The church draws the world to Christ by telling what it knows. Teaching, living, telling.
By the mysterious providence of God we were baptized into the greatest story the world has ever know. The prominence that story will have in our lives, however, is something over which we exert control. While the church is the primary agent in bringing the story to life, each of us individually, and in community, will decide how much vitality the story will possess.
God, through Jesus, has given us a story to tell that makes sense of our lives and the world in a way that no other religion or philosophy can duplicate. Our telling of the story may not occur in words, it need not occur in words, so long as we allow the Holy Spirit room to work. And we can help with that by constantly asking ourselves how Jesus might have acted in the circumstance in which we find ourselves. That worked for Paul. It will work for us.
Eternal God, eternally committed to your creation, we marvel at the constancy of your love for us, even as we repeatedly struggle to model that same love in return. Failing to make time for you in our busy schedules, busyness we have elevated to the status of virtue, we complain when we feel you have ignored our petitions. Like spoiled children who want what we want when we want it, we lack the patience to cultivate a relationship with you, O God, deferring those efforts to another day when we have more time. How our act must strain your patience, O Lord, you who give so much and receive so little in return.
We praise you, O Christ, for the apostle Paul and all those brothers and sisters who out of their love for the story were willing to endure trial and tribulation. Tirelessly reciting the life-changing encounter that made him your disciple onto death, O Christ, Paul made his personal experiences the basis for letters that forever shaped the faith to which we subscribe today. Even as we laud his courage and fortitude, we praise you for the gifts of the Spirit you conferred on him that converted that persecutor of the faith into your courageous disciple.
O Spirit, we give thee thanks for the fellowship of the church, the family of faith in which the faith is nurtured. We praise you for all who lend their time, energy, and financial resources to the equipping of the saints, and for the spreading of the gospel.
Ever vigilant and faithful God, we pray for those who upon whom burdens rest this day. We pray for those who face stress in the home, or in the workplace. We pray for the unemployed who cannot find work, and the discouraged who have ceased looking for work. We pray for the widow and the widower who live with persistent emptiness. We pray for children who feel misunderstood, and the parents of those children who experience their children’s pain but don’t know how to respond. We pray for those who live in suspense awaiting the results of a medical procedure, the final decision on a job application, or the outcome of a pregnancy test.
Grateful for the constancy of your love, O God, we pray for those near and dear to our hearts this hour. We know that you have heard our prayers and petitions this morning, and we entrust those prayers to your keeping knowing that you will will be done on earth as in heaven as our Lord Jesus taught us when he prayed…