Telling the story by heart
Even with 237 channels, cable TV may not have any stories worth hearing, but we do, says John Wimmer. Just open your mouth and tell it.
January 9, 2009 | Editor’s note: This sermon previously appeared on the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence website and was originally delivered at the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Peer Learning Gatherings, August 7 and 9, 2006.
Some of you know I broke my wrist on December 23rd. I was buying a last minute Christmas gift for my wife and slipped on the ice outside the clothing store. I ended up having surgery and came home with one of those I-V pain blocker pumps. I have to admit my pride was hurt almost as badly as my wrist: I’m too young to be so awkward and too old to be so foolish. But frankly what hurt most was that, after I had sacrificed my body on behalf of the Christmas spirit and my marriage, my wife returned the gift because she didn’t like it. I accused her of taking back my "Gift of the Magi." She, being a composer, responded by writing a Christmas carol in my honor -- "The Holly and the I-V."
The theme of our conference is I Love to Tell the Story: So as my uncle used to say, “I told you that story so I could tell you this one.”
I was forced to stay at home with my broken wrist for most of January, too helpless to go to work and too doped up on Vicodin to entertain myself by reading. So just about all I had to do was watch TV — something I almost never do. Because we have high speed internet access at home, we also have digital cable — so we get something like 237 channels. And as I was trapped there at home with my broken wrist, do you know what amazed me the most? I had 237 TV channels available to me 24 hours a day and there was absolutely nothing to watch!
Stories, stories everywhere -- movies, cartoons, situation comedies, reality shows, soap operas -- “General Hospital” and “Days of Our Lives” were what my grandmother used to call her “stories.” All that, but hardly a story that feeds the soul….
The thesis of Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, became real to me. At home with a TV flickering an endless stream of worthless stories, I couldn’t help thinking that our culture suffers from what I would call "story starvation."
When you take the story starvation of our culture and place it alongside one of the research findings from the Pulpit & Pew Project, an interesting challenge of pastoral work surfaces. Jack Carroll’s marvelous new book, "God’s Potters," is a wealth of information from Pulpit & Pew about the current state of pastoral ministry -- and it contains a finding that has puzzled me. The Pulpit & Pew survey asked clergy what are the most important problems they face. Some of the problems identified were “lack of agreement over the role of a pastor,” the “difficulty of having a private life apart from the ministerial role,” and thinking about leaving the ministry. Many familiar problems were listed. Among all the problems that pastors face, do you know which one had the highest score by far? Conflict in the church? Low pay? Long hours? Lack of a private life? No. The largest percentage of clergy in this section of the survey said the “difficulty of reaching people with the gospel today” was either a “great problem” or “somewhat of a problem.” Overall, 80 percent of clergy responded this way, making it far and away the biggest difficulty in ministry identified in this section of the survey.
Now place these two ideas next to each other: Our culture suffers from story starvation, and one of the greatest challenges ministers perceive is their difficulty in reaching people with the gospel today. I think the Scripture from Acts about the encounter of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch has much to teach us about this situation.
You know this story in Acts chapter 8 -- many of you have preached on it. It was a lectionary text not long ago. Philip is told by an angel to go to a road in the wilderness and there meets the never-named eunuch, minister of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch is reading from Isaiah as Philip joins him and asks if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch says, “How can I unless someone guides me?” They read the scripture together, and then, in verse 35, we read: “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture, he told him the good news of Jesus.”
Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture, and he told the story of Jesus. Let’s linger on these three sentence clauses for a moment as we think about story starvation and Pulpit & Pew’s pastoral problem of reaching people with the gospel today. I want to take each of these clauses from the scripture in reverse order.
1) Philip told him the good news of Jesus. He seems to have done so spontaneously. Philip didn’t have time to prepare a well-crafted sermon, he didn’t have to speak from notes, he just jumped right in despite the fact he was on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere. Another way to say it is that he just told the story of Jesus!
Story starvation. Difficulty in reaching people today with the gospel. And Philip told him the story of Jesus.
Isn’t it odd that we who are stewards of “the greatest story ever told” possess just what a story starved culture needs, yet confess that our greatest difficulty is in relating the gospel to our culture?
In his book "Leading Minds" Howard Gardner offers this thesis about effective leadership. Gardner asserts that the most important skill a leader must possess is the ability to craft stories. Yet “story” has three elements for the leader. The first is one’s own story -- not just one’s personal history, but the values and motivations, the knowledge and experiences that have shaped a person’s way of life, their identity.