Rev. Teri Peterson
Deuteronomy 6.4-9, Matthew 28.16-20
9 June 2013, Singing Faith 2 (Ordinary 10C, Psalm 146)
I Love to Tell the Story
What A Friend We Have In Jesus
I Will Sing A Song of Love
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, are known as “People of the Book” because we believe we can encounter God over and over again through the stories God has given us in scripture. God created us to be a people of stories, plugged in to the big story God has been telling since before time began.
In Deuteronomy we hear that we are to “keep these words in your heart”—which is immediately followed by “recite them to your children, talk about them at home and away, at night and in the morning.” God asks us to know the word, but to keep does not mean to hide it away for ourselves. We cherish God’s story enough to give it away. Or, as Jesus put it, we go and make disciples, teaching them what Jesus taught us, because once we’ve heard the good news, we can’t help but share.
We have been cast in an epic play of grace, redemption, hope, and justice. Is this the story we love to tell?
In the beginning, God spoke, created, sculpted, breathed, loved. God called the world very good. God called all creation to live in harmony. God gave us stories, commandments, and experiences to help us live that harmony. When speaking wasn’t enough, God came to be even closer to us, living and working, laughing and crying, being a friend who comforts and a friend who challenges, loving up close and personal. He said, “leave everything and follow me.” The stories Jesus told, the things Jesus did, the people Jesus hung out with, were hard to understand. He said things that go against the grain, like love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, give away all you have, turn the other cheek. Every word was a challenge for love. Then he also said “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” He taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And he showed us how to live in that kingdom by doing God’s will here on earth, even if it meant losing the world’s popularity contest. He told us to love as God loves, to be the light of God in the world. He sent the Holy Spirit to be our breath, our life, the fire of passion and hope and change.
A little while ago we sang that we love to tell the story of Jesus and his love. Though the song doesn’t tell the story itself, it prods us to remember just what that story is and whether our lives and our words are actually a witness to the God who loves, creates, calls, dreams, hopes, and commands. Katherine Hankey, who wrote the poem that became the hymn I Love to Tell the Story, was one who knew firsthand the transformative power of God’s story. As a teenager in the mid 1800s, she organized Sunday Schools for both rich and poor children. She brought kids together and arranged for them to hear about God’s love, Jesus’ life, and the Spirit’s call to new life. Katherine wasn’t kidding when she said she loved to tell the story. She knew it by heart, and couldn’t help but share the good news.
Her song is about telling the story in the here and now, because it can change the life of the teller and the hearer. “Tis pleasant to repeat what seems each time I tell it more wonderfully sweet” and "those who know it best are hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest." But then in the refrain, which was added by the tune composer about 10 years after the hymn was written, we sing about our theme “in glory”—which we take to mean the afterlife, implying that we can relax now, because telling god’s story is for heaven.
But remember: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus said “go and teach.” Deuteronomy says “recite these words to your children.” God tells us to fill our lives with the word…and to teach it to others, so they too can follow God’s call. Remember a few weeks ago I mentioned that the Hebrew word for “hear” also means “obey”? It’s at the beginning of this text—Shema Israel—hear and obey, O Israel. Love God with all you are and all you have, and share the story in every moment of your life, night and day—and in so doing, we can and will live in the kingdom of God now. So when we sing “it’ll be my theme in glory” and mean “when I live in God’s kingdom”—that means it’ll be my theme right now, day and night. When we live a with-God life, aware to God’s presence all the time, we are bold to tell the story with our lives and our words. Presbyterians say that one of the purposes of the church is to “exhibit the kingdom of heaven to the world”—to be a living story about another way of life, possible now because of God’s grace.
And yet the story the world hears from Christians is more about judgment and hypocrisy, about a narrow worldview that abandons this world and most of the people in it in favor of getting to heaven. They get that message because we tell any number of stories, about one another, about other religions, about people who disagree with us politically or economically or socially. We hurt each other, we forget to be gracious, we withhold love. When we do tell something resembling the biblical story, often it’s a watered down version that leaves God off in the distance until we need something, then paints Jesus as the kind of friend who approves everything we’ve already decided. It’s a story that says “if you’re a nice person, don’t rock the boat, God will help you succeed in life, and you’ll go to heaven.”
That story bears little resemblance to the story of the God whose voice thunders through the prophets, who commands us to do justice, love mercy, and be humble. That story has almost nothing to do with Jesus who was a poor refugee who gathered the losers as his disciples, had dinner with the outcasts, accepted sinners, and told stories that crossed every boundary imaginable, only to end up tortured and killed because he was so obedient to God’s call and shared God’s grace so widely. The story that tells us to be nice to get to heaven ignores the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit that sets people on fire and changes hearts and even changes whole societies. In other words, that other story waters down love to just a pink fluffy heart, and in the process loses the good news.
The story of the living God has changed the lives of many. A man whose hymn we’ll sing next spent his whole life trying to live the sermon on the mount literally. He shared with anyone in need, giving away even the clothes he was wearing. He worked only for those who could not pay. He spoke and lived peace. His friendship with Jesus, the living word of God, was true and deep, not the kind of friend who rubber stamps our every desire, but the kind of friend who changes us from the inside out. And he was an eccentric outcast in his community and even in the church.
So when we tell the story, I hope we’re singing of a Jesus who is the kind of friend we all really need. A true friend is compassionate and loving, and also challenges our assumptions, encourages us to widen our perspective, and helps us be the best version of ourselves, to seek who we are called to be. When we sing about the friend we have in Jesus, I hope we’re singing about a friend who will bear our burdens and also remind us how we picked them up in the first place. I hope we’re singing about a friend who walks with us through trials and temptations, in order to help us resist those temptations. I hope we’re singing about a friend who knows us so fully that he can push us to overcome our egos and to grow through our weaknesses, a friend who sees that we doubt even as we worship, just like the disciples did on the mountaintop—but who sends us out to do his will anyway, knowing that faith is a journey. I need a friend who will help me go out and make disciples, not a friend who’ll walk meekly behind while I try to figure out how to be successful by the world’s standards. I need a friend who can handle it when I say “you know, Jesus, you’re being a little harsh” but who won’t just agree to back down and get by. I need a friend who wants me to be transformed into the image of God more and more every day, a friend who will remind me over and over again that it’s not all about me.
What story we tell matters. If the God of our stories is just like we are, why bother following? That story is so boring that no one will want to sing it. But we have a story of love, of power, of creativity, of hope, of grace—and it comes with a call to new life, to leave behind the way we think we know and set out on a new adventure, every day. That’s a story worth singing about, a story worth being known for, I love to tell. I hope you love to tell it too.
May it be so. Amen.