Paul is evoking, for his listeners, the press of the crowds and the smell of green grass; he is alluding to Jesus’ statements about loving your enemies, and being reconciled to those with whom you have a dispute, and the blessing of comfort for those who mourn.
September 3, 2023
Dr. Todd R. Wright
I love a good story!
Bible stories like Noah’s Ark or the parting of the Red Sea; Jonah and the Whale or Ruth’s faithfulness, David and Goliath or the whole Joseph saga – and that’s just from the Old Testament.
I also love the story of the angels singing to the shepherds, Jesus sleeping through the storm, the woman at the well who give as good as she gets, people lowering their friend through the roof to be healed, the feeding of the 5,000, the last supper, and the foot washing. I could go on forever!
And I love stories even when they don’t come from the Bible.
Just the other day I heard a story about a mother reading Goodnight Moon to her little one. The child loved to chime as the items found in the bunny’s bedroom were listed, like a red balloon and a cow jumping over the moon, three little bears sitting in chairs, two little kittens and a pair of mittens … a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush, and a quiet old lady whispering hush …
The thing that was surprising about this version of the story was that, after 6 repetitions, the child asked for the book to be placed on the ground. The child placed one tiny foot on the book and began to whimper. They put their other foot on the book, and when nothing happened, they began to wail. The mother was confused until she realized that the world Margret Wise Brown had created was so real that the child wanted to be a part of it and was disappointed that they could not step right into it! Isn’t that great?
The problem I have with Paul … is that he doesn’t tell stories.
Instead, we are given what feels like a collection of bumper-sticker slogans:
Let love be genuine!
Hate what is evil!
Hold fast to what is good!
Love one another!
Do not lag is zeal!
Rejoice in hope!
Be patient in suffering!
Persevere in prayer!
On and on it goes – something like 30 imperatives piling on top of one another until the listener is weighted down with all those commands.
And not a single story in sight! Unless you dig a little deeper.
One commentator is convinced that this whole section is Paul’s rewriting of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. If he’s right, then this is not just a list. Paul is evoking, for his listeners, the press of the crowds and the smell of green grass; he is alluding to Jesus’ statements about loving your enemies, and being reconciled to those with whom you have a dispute, and the blessing of comfort for those who mourn.
His list, like the list in Goodnight Moon, is intended to make real what it felt like to be bathed in the compassion of the Good Teacher and the healing power of Christ’s words of hope.
Or maybe his list is meant to spark the listener’s own stories.
Peter Marty was recording a podcast from Atlanta, from a studio 4 miles from Centennial Park. The nearness got him thinking about the tragic moment when Eric Rudolph killed one and injured 100 others with a pipe bomb during the 1996 Olympics. But the story he really wanted to tell was that at Rudolph’s sentencing hearing, Fallon Stubbs, the daughter of the lone fatality, who was also wounded by shrapnel, offered Rudolph forgiveness: "Because of you," she said, “I have become a tolerant person. Not for you, but for me, I forgive you. I look at you. I love you ... and if I cry," she added, "it's not for me. It's not for my mother. It's not for my father. It's [tears] for you."
Marty reflected, “Now I don't know where [she] came up with the courage to speak these thoughts, or with the faith to embody these convictions. Maybe [her] courage and faith came to [her] as gifts of God, which is often how courage and faith seem to show up. Or maybe [she owns a] well-worn Bible, and [has] read [it] thoroughly enough to be well acquainted with the 12th chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans. Either way, [her] words are powerful for one simple reason: They fly in the face of the human temptation to retaliate.”
Now that’s a story!
We’ve heard versions of it after Amish parents forgave the man who had killed their children and prayed with the killer’s mother. Or when US GIs and Vietnamese soldiers were able to forgive each other over shared stories and a meal. Or when children abused by their father granted him forgiveness as he lay dying of cancer.
Paul’s list isn’t a story, but it can serve as a catalyst for the sharing of our stories.
Or maybe Paul doesn’t tell stories because his story lingers behind everything he says.
You cannot listen to this list without remembering that Paul was once persecuted believers and tried to stamp out the early church.
So when he says, “Do not lag in zeal,” it is with a certain irony.
When he says, “Bless those who persecute you,” he knows both the need and the difficulty.
When he says, “Contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers,” he does so as one who has collected offerings for others and relied on hospitality as he traveled.
And when he says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer,” he is speaking from his own life experience, hard won, but holy!
I began this sermon by complaining that Paul doesn’t tell stories.
I wish he would. He has great material to draw from (as evidenced by the stories others tell about him). He has all the necessary oratorical skill to spin tales that will captivate an audience. And he has a deep desire to convey the gospel by any means available.
But he doesn’t use story as a form. Not here. Not elsewhere.
Maybe that’s because there is already a wealth of faith stories for him to draw on.
Or maybe it’s because he recognizes that his listeners have their own stories.
Or because his own life illustrates everything he wants to say about living the Christian life.
I realize that story is not the best form for every occasion.
If you’re sending me to the store, I’d rather have a list.
If I’m cooking a meal, a recipe would be more efficient.
If I see a little one wandering toward traffic, a quick imperative –like Stop! – would be better.
But if you’ve got the time; if you want to capture someone’s attention as well as give them something to think about when you’ve left the room, tell a story!
Maybe that’s why long after Paul wrote his letters, people felt the need to write the gospels and pack them with stories about Jesus and ordinary people in the dance of faith!
May you join that effort! Amen
 “Talk, say No the violence” by Teddy Cobeña
 See https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/goodnight-nobody-2/
 From Israel Kamudzandu’s reflections on the text for workingpreacher.org, 8/30/20
 From “Trusting God to Settle Scores” by Peter Marty, 8/28/11