Many years ago, when we lived in Indianapolis, we had a stove with a built-in griddle on the top. It was great for making things like English muffins (from scratch!), which are baked on a griddle rather than in an oven - which is why they come out flat. Anyway, I was busy working a batch on the griddle one evening as Deanne came into the kitchen.
"I feel just like Alfred and the cakes," I said. She looked at me blankly.
"You know – King Alfred and the cakes?"
"Nope; never heard of him."
"Oh, come on – everybody's heard of Alfred the Great, and how, when he was driven by the Danes into hiding in the swamps of Athelney, an old peasant woman gave him shelter and set him to watch the bannocks baking on the hearth. And either he was too despondent or too royal, but he forgot and let them burn, so the old crone chewed him out for wasting food. You know."
"No, I never heard that story before," she said. "Good night." And she headed for the stairs.
Well, I was flabbergasted that anybody had gone all her life and never heard of Alfred and the cakes, but then another awful thought crossed my mind, and I rushed to the foot of the stairs. "You have heard of Bruce and the spider, haven't you?" I said.
"No. Good night." And she was gone – leaving me stunned that anybody could not have heard of Scotland's Robert the Bruce, driven into hiding from the English in a cowshed. And there, as he contemplated all the many times he had tried to drive the English out – and failed – he saw a spider, patiently spinning her web. As often as she failed to secure her silk, she would try again to cast it over the beam in the corner, until at the seventh try, she succeeded. And so, following her example, the Bruce tried one more time, and at the Battle of Bannockburn, he drove the English out of Scotland and secured his throne.
Now, come on: Everybody's heard that one, haven't they?
Well, I began to take a survey of each of my friends, one after another, and to my surprise, almost none of them knew these stories. Though once upon a time, I would think that nearly everyone learned them in school, along with stories about George Washington and Honest Abe Lincoln and Nathan Hale, who had but one life to give for his country. Then there were Sir Walter Raleigh throwing his plush cape down in the mud so Good Queen Bess wouldn't get her shoes dirty, and William Tell shooting the apple off his son's head.
Tell me what stories you know, and I'll tell you who you are and where you belong.
But times change, and the old stories no longer please new teachers and new times – though I think we could do worse than learn of the trials and character of Alfred the Great and Robert the Bruce. In any case, this is not a sermon about those stories. This is a sermon about other stories, which also once were widely known, but now have fallen out of currency. I mean, of course, the stories in the Bible and the stories of the heroes of the Christian faith, and along with the stories, the little sayings and examples which were used for centuries to teach the meaning of the Bible and the right way to live.
People don't know their Bibles any more. They don't learn anything of it at school nowadays, nor is it read out at home. And even in church (if they bother to go to church) there is less and less content taught, and more - well, all too often all you got is a choice between the touchy-feely stuff and the unvarnished political rally.
George Hunter says that there is now a huge mission field in America, made up of people he calls "ignostics"; that is, they're not AG-nostics – they're not hostile to religion, or dubious about its worth – they just don't know enough to have an opinion one way or another. They are, strictly speaking, ignorant of the whole business. And when we are confronted with their blank looks and say, "Come on, everybody knows that," they just shrug. They've missed out, somehow. And though they are quite interested in religion – Christianity as much as any other – they don't know how to go about really learning more about it.
Well, let me point out that we start to learn by acquiring stories: Noah and the ark; Daniel in the lions' den; David and Goliath; Jesus calling the fishermen; the feeding of the five thousand; Paul on the road to Damascus, and so on. We learn them first as disconnected little bits of interesting stuff, and each of them tells us a little bit about God and what following him means.
And then, at some point, we begin to try to coordinate all the separate little bits we know - you know, to make sense of the whole – and if we are assisted at this point by someone to go over it with us, like in a confirmation class or a discipleship group, then out of the mass of stories, we begin to assemble an understanding of The Story: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And at that point, someone may invite us – I certainly hope so, anyway – to consider our own stories, and what they mean, and how by asking Jesus to be our Lord and Savior, we can join our story to The Story. And then we find that everything we have ever learned before begins to show us the love of God prepared for us from the foundation of the world.
As the old song puts it,
I will celebrate Nativity,
for it has a place in history.
Sure, he came to set his people free:
what is that to me?
Till by faith I met him face to face,
and I felt the wonder of his grace,
then I knew that he was more than just a
God who didn't care,
who lived away up there.
That's how it works, folks. It's hard to understand The Story without having at least some of the stories to stretch it on, like a frame. And if we never come to an understanding of The Story, then we will likely never find how Jesus can join our story to The Story and make us children of God.
Isaiah puts it this way:
"Whom will he teach knowledge,
and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
those taken from the breast?
For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little" (Isaiah 28:9-10).
And those who live in darkness, who do not understand the Light we love, be sure that they are learning something. But the stories that they learn and the meanings they construct may turn out to have terrible import – for their stories, and for ours. Will you abandon them to the meanings offered in the half price market run by The World, the Flesh and the Devil?
It is encouraging to note, though, that sometimes, those of us who wander in darkness, who learn other stories, and other slogans – sometimes we are fortunate and those stories and slogans and symbols prepare us for The Story that we have not yet understood. They are proto-evangelium for us, a preparation for the Gospel, like the false dawn that precedes the coming of the true light, but points to it.
Scouting was like that for me in the days when the Church had forgotten that I existed. It prepared me for a greater belonging and a greater service than it had to offer. And as long as I live, I will give thanks to God for the beauty that smote my heart in books, which made me think big thoughts, and not settle for the cheap and the easy: books like The Lord of the Rings, which I started reading a few weeks before my fourteenth birthday, and which – in C.S. Lewis's words – "baptized my imagination."
I remember: Struggling up the steep pass into the Land of Shadow, beset by danger on every hand, Frodo and Sam talk about old stories of danger and heroism. Sam says,
"Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that's a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into the grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We've got – you've got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we're in the same tale still! It's going on. Don't the great tales never end?"
No, they don't. The story of Adam and Eve is still the story of our shame and our hope. The story of Abraham is still the story of the faith that is counted as righteousness. The story of Peter, alternately weak and heroic in his following of Christ, is our story, too. And so is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian:
But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." This is a desert road. And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot." So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?' And he said, "How can I, unless some one guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
The stories – all the stories – and the sayings, and the symbols: All the little pieces go together to help us construct the larger meaning and grasp the offer of salvation. And the higher does not stand without the lower. You can't start at the top: you have to build the tower from the bottom, in order to climb it.
This is why Vacation Bible School is so important – and why Sunday School is utterly vital – and why I spend so much time and effort on things like the God and Me and God and Family programs. For it will profit us nothing if we sit around and gas about higher truth, and mystical whatnot, and "values" and social justice and all the rest of it, if we don't know Who God is and What we are, because we are missing the most important pieces of the puzzle.
Which is also why it is so important that our very best people teach the children.
Years ago, I was supposed to give a commercial about Scouting at Annual Conference, and my District Superintendent surprised me on-stage with the God & Service medal. In response, all I could say was to hark back to the time when I stood before the Annual Conference to take my ordination vows. One of those vows was a promise "to instruct the children in every place." And we all said "yes," 'cause you're supposed to. But on that day I renewed my vow before them all. There is no more important work for us to be doing; indeed, almost everything else we could be doing pales to insignificance next to the value of giving our children the tools to build their own ladder to heaven.
Nor is it only ministries to children and youth that matter here. There are just as many adults who are trying to sustain their faith on a few slogans and the leavings of a retreat or a church camp "once upon a time." They, too, need opportunities to learn, and people to lead them where they are longing to go. But guides are few, and very busy – at least, the good ones are. We need clergy – and more than clergy, we need spiritually mature laypersons – to guide the beginners, old and young, so that they acquire the background, understand something of the whole of the gospel, and are able to relate their story to The Story. That way, they can go on to walk forward as part of the ongoing story of the Church of Jesus Christ.
For this, the greatest of the Great Tales, will never end, and if you become part of the story, your part will never end, either. That is the hope of salvation and the promised fulfillment, when they will all live "happily ever after," unto the ages of ages. So, like the Ethiopian baptized by Philip, let us go on our way, rejoicing. And like Philip, let us be ready to tell the tale in every town and to every listening ear.
God speed the work! Amen.