Gospel Storytelling

tim_lowry_1_mariposa_2015We’ve got a big storytelling festival coming up at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on the weekend of January 27-29.  It’s called the “Hearts Afire” Festival, and it’s going to be amazing, featuring some of the best storytellers in America (like Tim Lowry, above).  But it’s also a good analogy for what happens when you pick up the Bible and begin to read.

For example:

There’s a kind of storytelling festival going on in the first four books of the New Testament.  One at a time Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, step out on the stage to tell us their stories of Jesus. All of them are stories about the same person, but all of them are different, and that can be a little confusing. For example, we’ve just come through the season of Christmas, where we’ve heard two different versions of the Christmas story—Matthew’s and Luke’s. Sometimes we get the details mixed up, and think the shepherds and the wise men ended up in the same nativity scene (nope!). But maybe we could do better than that in this new year. Maybe we could let each of these Gospel storytellers tell the story of Jesus in just the way he wants, and maybe we could be grateful for the differences.

I sometimes say that if there has been an accident at a busy intersection, the investigating officer will be grateful if there were four witnesses, one standing at each corner.  That gives him four different perspectives on the same event.  And even though there was only one accident, and his final report will tell only one story, it will be informed by four different stories, and because of that he will have a better, clearer picture of “what really happened” than if there had been only one witness.  In the same way we should be grateful for the four different perspectives we have on Jesus, and the four different witnesses who provide them.

Matthew, for example.

This is Year A in the three-year lectionary cycle, which is Matthew’s year.  From now until Advent we will spend more time in the Gospel of Matthew than any other Gospel.  For that reason today might be a good day to let him step out on the stage all by himself, and tell his version of the Jesus story, or at least the beginning of it.

  • It begins in an interesting way, with the genealogy of Jesus. If you’ve ever been asked to read it aloud you know how hard it is to pronounce some of those names.  You may wonder why Matthew started his Gospel like that.  But I think he wants us to know that this is not a new story, but the continuation of a story God has been writing from the very beginning, from the time he called Abraham and promised that through him the nations of the world would be blessed.  I think Matthew wants us to see Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise.   And so he tells us that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, and fourteen generations from David to the time of the Exile, and fourteen generations from the Exile to Jesus, the Messiah.
  • And then he tells us how the birth of the Messiah took place, and his version is very different from the Christmas story we usually hear. According to Matthew Joseph and Mary didn’t travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem: they already lived there, though not in the same house.  But after Joseph had a dream telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife he did take her—he married her—and brought her into his own home, but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.  So, no stable, no angels, no shepherds in Matthew’s Christmas story: just a newlywed couple having a baby at home.
  • And then, after a year or so, they got a visit from some magi from the east. Jesus would have been a toddler by then, a beautiful brown-eyed boy clinging to his mother’s skirts, staring at those wise men. We don’t know how many of them there were; there might have been two, there might have been twenty.  But they came bringing gifts for the new king of the Jews after learning from Herod’s wise men where that new king might have been born, and following a strange star that came to rest over his house.
  • And can I pause long enough to tell you how much I love the image of that star shining over that house? Because this is the story we tell on the Day of Epiphany, January 6:  we tell the story of the wise men coming to visit Jesus.  All they had was the light of that star to guide them to his house, and I can almost see the starlight shining on his beautiful face, reflecting in those big brown eyes.  But in the same way the days get longer and longer at this time of year, the light that shines on Jesus gets brighter and brighter on these Sundays after Epiphany; we see him more clearly for who he really is, so that by the time we reach the end of this season—Transfiguration Sunday—his face will be shining like the sun!  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The wise men were warned in a dream not to go back to King Herod, and not to tell him that they had found the child, but to go home another way.  And when Herod found he had been tricked he was furious.  He rounded up his troops and sent them to Bethlehem, to kill every baby boy under two years old.  But Joseph was warned in a dream to get up that very night, to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and that’s what he did.  Good old Joseph.  Good old faithful, obedient Joseph.  When Herod died he brought his family back to Israel, but when he heard that Herod’s son was on the throne he kept moving, and settled his family in Nazareth.  That’s where Jesus grew up.  That’s where he learned his father’s trade.  And that’s where he was when he got the news about John baptizing in the Jordan…

(for the full sermon from January 8, 2017, click HERE)

Preacher Camp

For six years now I’ve been getting together with a group of colleagues so we can plan our preaching for the year.  It was Amy Butler’s idea.  When I was at First Baptist, DC, she was at Calvary Baptist, just a few blocks away.  We would get together at Starbucks on Monday mornings with a few other preachers to talk about what we were going to do the following Sunday and one day she said, “You know what we ought to do?  We ought to do this for the whole year!”

And so we sent out some invitations, and a few months later six of us spent several days at a big house in the mountains of West Virginia, looking over the lectionary texts for the following year.

Each of us had an assignment.  I was supposed to bring some good ideas for preaching through those Sundays after Christmas and before Ash Wednesday.  Others in our group had the seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent, and that long stretch of Sundays after Pentecost, often called “Ordinary Time,” which we divided into two parts.

We talked about a lot of things in those days.  We talked about our lives and churches and ministry, but we also ended the week with a pretty good sense of what we would be preaching in the year ahead, and that felt good.

We’ve been doing it ever since.

Last year we had the idea to do it in the summer instead of the fall, and to bring our families along.  We got the use of a big house on Lake James in North Carolina, and Russ Dean brought his ski boat.  So, we planned our preaching each morning and then, each afternoon (sometimes after naps), we went down to the dock for swimming and sunbathing, skiing and tubing.   In the evenings we would sometimes share our favorite sermons with each other.  One night we sat on the front porch telling the stories of how we met our spouses.  Another night we ended up in a free-spirited dance party in the living room.  The kids loved that.  And so did the grownups.

On the last night we gathered around the campfire to sing songs and make S’mores and it really did feel like we had been at camp for a week.  We all felt a little closer to God and a little closer to each other.  Plus, I had some idea of what I will be preaching each Sunday from now through Advent 2012.

You don’t have many weeks like that in a year, and when you have one you just want to thank somebody for it.  So, thanks to the family who loaned us their lake house, and thanks to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which gave us some funding for the event, and thanks be to God for colleagues who have become such close friends: for Russ Dean, and Amy Butler, and Don Flowers, and Dorisanne Cooper, and John Ballenger, and for our time together at…

…Preacher Camp.

Church on the Porch

 

On Sunday, August 24, the last day of my vacation, I attended worship at the “Church-on-the-Porch.” 

 

You may not have heard of it.

 

The porch belongs to my brother Gray, who lives in Summerville, South Carolina, not far from Charleston.  I had stayed overnight at his house on the way back from the beach and since I was still on vacation and not really in the mood to get up early, shake the sand out of my shoes, and go to someone else’s church I asked if we could have a family worship service instead.  That seemed like a good idea to almost everybody.

 

We gathered around the table on the screened back porch rather late on Sunday morning.  Some of us were still in our pajamas, several of us were having a second cup of coffee, all of us seemed to be enjoying the novelty of the experience.  I had located the lectionary readings earlier and my sister-in-law, Debby, volunteered to read Psalm 124.  When she finished, I asked the congregation to offer up silent prayers of adoration, which we did, distracted only slightly by a neighbor cranking up his lawnmower.

 

That’s how the service progressed: a reading from one of the four lectionary passages, followed by some time for reflection and discussion, and then a prayer.  I used the old acronym “ACTS” to guide us through prayers of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.  The prayers of adoration and confession we did silently; the prayers of thanksgiving and supplication we offered aloud.  It was moving to hear what each member of our little congregation was thankful for, and tender to hear their requests for prayer. 

 

The time went by quickly and I was surprised to see, when I looked at my watch later, that we had been at it for more than an hour.  As we talked about it over lunch we agreed that although we wouldn’t want to do it that way every week the service had been perfect for the occasion.  The insights shared in our discussion of the Scriptures were as relevant and helpful as any we might have heard elsewhere.  The prayers made it a real worship experience and not just a Bible study.  Perhaps the only thing missing was a rousing hymn or a soaring soprano solo which my brother’s dog tried to make up for by barking at a passing motorcycle near the end of the service.  It wasn’t all that musical, but it came from the heart, and when it comes to worship…

 

…that’s what matters most.