Just A Story – Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

Christianity is inherently a missionary religion. Unlike our forebear, Judaism, Christianity sets out to make converts to the faith. We don’t like to talk about that so much today, in large part because of the historical baggage that comes along with the imperialism of European powers colonizing other parts of the world and importing Christianity by force, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Christians are called, by our Lord and our God, Jesus himself, to go into all nations teaching people everything that he’s taught us and baptizing them in the name of the Triune God. Being a missionary religion means that we have a mission. What’s that mission? To share the love of God in Christ Jesus with everyone and anyone we meet, to embody it in our lives, to give it flesh and blood. Christianity, like our forebear religion Judaism, is a religion grounded in the oral tradition. The beginning of John’s gospel, hearkening to the opening lines of Genesis, reinforces this oral centrality when it tells us “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” At the heart of our living our faith is speaking. God spoke creation into existence. God, the eternal Word of life, became a human being in Jesus and lived among us. God continues to speak to us in the promise of life over death today. Words, and speaking words, is fundamental to living our faith. We must live the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, but part of that living is speaking. It’s not merely enough to be a good person because of Jesus, but we must also tell of the goodness of Jesus that makes us good. Keep that in mind as we go forward today…

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Let me tell you a story.

A teenager enlists—let’s say he’s seventeen—a teenager enlists with the Union Army, with the 304th New York Infantry Regiment, with a vision of glory, perhaps even vainglory. He’ll defend the noble cause of the Union!

Shortly after enlisting, the reality of his decision sets in, though. He waits tediously—no immediate glory for him. The longer he waits to fight, the more doubt and fear possess his thoughts. At times he looked at his wounded comrades with envy. To him, they in their torn bodies appeared peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound—a red badge of courage. But battle finally comes. He, clouded in the fog of war, as it were, blindly fires into the battle haze. He never sees a Confederate force, let alone a Confederate fighter. But the enemy assault is relentless. And the young man’s fear of death takes over him. He cowardly hightails it away from the fray.

Ashamed, he scampers off to a forest nearby. He happens a peaceful clearing, whose peace is besmirched a body, dead and decaying. Overcome, the boy hurriedly stumbles away from the clearing, coming upon a group of injured men returning from battle. One of the group, tattered, asks the boy where he’s wounded. He dodges the question. Among the group is a hometown friend, who’s been shot in the side. He’s delirious from hemorrhaging blood loss. His friend eventually dies of his injury, defiantly resisting aid from the young man.

Enraged and feeling helpless, the young man flees from the wounded soldiers. He next comes upon a retreating column in disarray. In the panic, a man conks him on the head with his rifle, wounding him. Exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and now wounded, the boy decides to return to his regiment regardless of his shame. When he arrives at camp, the other soldiers believe his injury resulted from a grazing bullet during battle. The other men take of him—dressing his wound.

The next morning sees battle, this time for a third time. The young man’s regiment combats a small group of Confederates. And in the ensuing fight, the young man proves himself. He’s comforted by believing that no one noticed he’d been cowardly before. After all, he’d committed his errors in the dark. So he is still, indeed, a man. After the fight, while he and a friend are looking for a stream for drinking, he overhears from the commanding officer that his regiment has a lackluster reputation. The officer flippantly speaks about sacrificing the 304th, his regiment, because they are nothing more than “mule drivers” and “mud diggers.” With no other regiments to spare, the general orders his men forward.

The boy’s fear converts fear into anger. He becomes a leader, fighting boldly at the side of his lieutenant. He becomes confident, assertive, aggressive. So much so that, ironically, he becomes a fighting machine in and unto himself. He absolves his own guilt over abandoning the tattered soldier by using the memory of that uncaring selfishness to humble himself—to quash any conceited feelings because of his now strong fighting ability.

When the 304th regiment pawned off to charge the enemy, the young man leads the charge with the lieutenant. In the midst of combat, the regiment’s color sergeant is killed. Facing withering fire if they stay and disgrace if they retreat, the officers order a charge. Unarmed, the young man takes up the colors, now stand bearer, land leads the men while leaving the field entirely uninjured. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks, an existence of soft and eternal peace. Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.

A fine story, wouldn’t you say?

It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has plot, setting, characters, a point of view. The conflict is clear. The young man needs to overcome his naïve understanding of what it means to be courageous, and by the end of the story, he not only changes in that understanding, but he’s transformed into a different person. A truly satisfying conclusion. And it’s a story that’s true, right? That makes it better.

But what if I told you…it’s just a story? What if I told you that story isn’t something that actually happened? Because it didn’t. It’s a story, to be sure, but it’s just a story. It’s the story of The Red Badge of Courage, written by Steven Crane in 1895. Steven Crane wasn’t even born until 1871—six years after the end of the American Civil War. The young man in Crane’s story, his name is Henry Fleming, but there was no such young man who enlisted in the 304th New York Infantry Regiment. There was no battlefield haze or delirious hometown friend. There was no trip to the stream for water or overheard talk from a commanding officer. It’s just a story.

Or is it?

The Red Badge of Courage is a story, to be sure, but it’s not just a story. It’s a true story insofar as it accurately depicts what happened in the American Civil War. It accurately depicts Henry’s transformation from innocent, vain boy into an experienced, tested man. It accurately depicts universal human themes like maturation, heroism, and cowardice.

Often we’ll talk of the life of Jesus as story, and to be sure, it is a story. Sometimes it’s called the greatest story ever told—and when you see the life of Jesus expansively as one from before the beginning of time stretching endlessly into the future where time doesn’t matter, a story that covers the creation of everything, of God’s love and dogged passion to be in relationship with everything and everyone—then yes, it is without a doubt the greatest story ever told. And what’s more, that story includes us. This amazingly wonderful, transcendent story includes us, includes you, and at its very heart, the story climaxes at the moment where God says, “I love you no matter what—death do us not part!” It’s almost unbelievable. In fact, if it weren’t for the Holy Spirit coming upon us and reminding us over and over again, we couldn’t believe it. We, like so many others, would say, “It’s just a story.” As if that means it’s not true…

But it’s not just a story. It is the truth. All of life is a story. Our own lives are a story. Each and every one of us has a story. When we look at our lives, we think of them in terms like a story. I knew a guy whose father was a pastor. He was a devout guy, faithful. He worked at Temple University in Philadelphia. He had extremely intelligent. A deep thinker. He had a PhD in some kind of literary analysis. He did his work on some minute aspect of a small passage in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And this man loved to talk about The Lord of the Rings. On top of that, he could relate almost anything in his life to something from The Lord of the Rings. Well—some might say The Lord of the Rings is just a story, but for this man, it definitely wasn’t. It was a story, to be sure, but not just a story. It was a story full of truth that helped him make sense of his life. And when he shared that with people, with me, it became part of my life, part of my story.

In the same way, the story of Jesus’ life isn’t just a story for us Christians—or it shouldn’t be. This story, Jesus’ story, the story of God’s love for everything, everyone, for you—this story is one and the same with your own story. For Christians, the story of God’s love for us is the foundational motivation for why we love. We’ve been loved, so we love as we’ve been loved. This story is the foundational motivation for why we serve. We’ve been served, so we love as we’ve been served. When we spend time with someone whose spouse is fighting a terminal illness and listen to them share their struggles, we are participating in God’s story—the story of restorative, compassionate healing. Just one example. We know the power of listening, as much as we know the power of sharing. In our caring relationships with each another, we embody the relationship God has with us, founded on a deep, abiding love that can’t be overcome—even by death.

It’s not just a story. It’s the truth. And we live it. And we share it. By our very lives, we tell the story of Jesus and his love. Do we view our story through Jesus’ story or another, competing story? When we see all that we do as a living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for what God has done for us, when we see all that we do through the love of God in Christ Jesus, when we see all that we do through God’s story, a story that includes us—then we know the power of God in our lives to bring about peace, a peace that surpasses understanding. The world is full of stories that promise to satisfy instead of Jesus, but they leave us restless at best. And if you listed all those unsatisfying stories, it would be endless. You’d be left squinting in a fog, peering through a mist—constantly seeking, clouded in the fog of war between evil and goodness.

But God’s story, a story that isn’t about us, but includes us, includes us for the sake of something far larger than ourselves—that story fills us with all goodness and true peace that not just any story can do. Because it’s not just a story. It’s God’s story. It’s our story. It’s your story…

And you if you don’t tell your story, who else will?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

_____________________

Portions from the beginning of this sermon taken, directly or indirectly, from CliffNotes, Wikipedia, and The Red Badge of Courage.

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