Let’s talk story, and I’d like to start with Stephen’s story told in Acts 6 to the assembled temple leaders. It seems terribly out of place. Why rehearse the history of Israel from Abraham through Moses before a crowd of people who knew it by heart? It doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, given Luke’s audience, whom we presume to be Greeks and Romans new to Christianity and strangers to Judaism, it’s the perfect story to explain the Judaic roots of the new faith. “Let me tell you where we came from, and why that is important to who we are and where we are going.” It’s a story of origins.
Stories of origin exist in every culture. I don’t mean stories about universal creation. I mean stories about where “our people” came from. Ask any sixth grader to tell the story of America, and they will probably begin with Plymouth Rock, or maybe Jamestown. It’s an origin story. If they are American Indian they will have an even better story to tell. Stories of origin exist for clans, towns, and families because they help explain who they are and why they’re here. Sitting on a bench with a stranger in Istanbul a few years ago, his first question was “tell me about your people.” I said I was American. He said, “No,no, tell me about your people, where are they from?” Among our friends we entertain each other with stories about our families in the places we grew up, and the childhood adventures we had that help explain who we are as adults. Most of it is true. In counseling couples preparing for marriage, I always ask them to tell me the story of their family of origin, and their life through high school or college. How can you truly get to know another if they haven’t shared their stories of origin. How can you be known by others if you have not shared your story with them.
Stephen’s speech tells a story about the origins of this new faith in a simple, concise way that ends at the very point where Luke’s audience (not Stephen’s) will be enticed to ask, “and then what; what happened next?” When the story is finished, they will have adopted it for themselves as their story about what it means to be Christian. Is it important to keep telling that story, but I fear we haven’t. The old hymn says “Twill be my theme in glory to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” Telling the story in glory might be redundant don’t you think? What about telling it now to people who have never heard it?
For a long time, generic American Christians did not feel the need to tell the story of who they were, where they came from, and where they were going. Everyone was assumed to know it, and most did, at least superficially. That’s no longer true. The nation is filled with several generations who have no idea what our origins story might be. The only thing they know about Christianity is what they hear or see reported in the media, and it’s not attractive. Pastors and teachers are supposed to know the story, but how well do they tell it to anyone outside the church walls? The loudest outside voices I hear are not ones I trust. Their stories of who we are terribly distorted, distant from what it means to follow Jesus, or to be agents of his love. Protest all you want, the data are clear: no religion is preferable to one that is suspicious of science, narrow minded, judgmental, and unforgiving. And that is the image Christianity has among an enormous portion of the population.
It’s a problem, but it’s not the biggest one. The biggest one is that regular, faithful worshipers don’t know the story well enough, or in a way simple enough, to tell it to others who may ask, “Tell me about your people.” The complaint is familiar, “I just wouldn’t know what to say.” They are right. They don’t. Whose fault is that? At least among those for whom I have provided pastoral leadership, it’s mine. Adult Christian education has been my passion. I’ve always been a teaching preacher. I’ve always led regular midweek and Sunday classes that have been well attended. I have no doubt that those who participated have a deeper, more profound understanding of the bible and their faith than they otherwise would. Good for me. But I never just told the story of Jesus and his love in a way that could become their story, a story they could share with ease, without embarrassment. Shame on me. I wonder how many of my colleagues would have to confess the same if forced to do so.
Well, what’s done is done. It’s time to get on with things, and the thing to get on with is learning to tell the story of our people: who we are, where we came from, what we believe to be true about God, and what we believe to be true about the way God desires us to live with one another. You know who told the story to me? It wasn’t my Sunday school teachers or pastors. It was Bp. Fulton J. Sheen and his blackboard whom I, a Protestant kid, watched on a small black and white t.v. in the 1950s. His show, “Life is worth living,” told the story in a way that made it my story too.
It’s time to talk story again.