Dr. Anthony Campolo, a teacher and preacher, was in the waiting room in a small airport in Haiti preparing to go back to the United States when a Haitian woman came up to him and said, “Take my baby!” He ignored the woman, who then sat down next to him and thrust the blanket bundle toward him and again pleaded, “Take my baby!” Stunned and somewhat annoyed, he was relieved to hear his plane called over the loudspeaker. As he walked out onto the tarmac, the woman followed him, shouting, “Take my baby! Take my baby!” He hurried up the ramp and fell into his seat, shaken, and closed his eyes. “As the plane took off,” he said, “it was then that I realized who the baby was—it was Christ.”
It has been 20 years since I heard Dr. Campolo tell this story at a youth conference and yet the picture it painted and its message are still as vivid and powerful now as on the day he told it.
Tell me a fact and I will learn;
tell me a truth and I will believe;
tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever!
I do not know where the above quote came from, but I have had it pinned to the pencil container in my study for years. It reminds me of the power of stories in preaching. Many ministers are now using video in preaching, citing the adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But a story well told is a picture that will be remembered forever.
We can’t overestimate the power of story! As Thomas Boomershine writes in Story Journey, “Our lives are story journeys. The events of our lives connect with many other stories. But at the deepest and most profound level, the stories of our lives are empowered and given meaning by being connected with God’s story.”1 Biblical stories are transformative, and when connected with our own or another’s story we are transformed!
Dr. Campolo’s story connected with the scripture from Matthew 25, the parable of the last judgment: “And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” When the biblical story is connected to a personal story, the work of the Holy Spirit takes over and something transformative and empowering happens!
Each week as I study scripture and read commentaries in preparation for preaching, I listen to my own life. I pay attention to how the scripture addresses me. Yes, I admit, I often go looking for a story that “fits.” But my prayer is that I will be open to the surprises of God’s grace. More often than not, I do not choose a story but a story chooses me. It presents itself in the daily newspaper or in conversation with others, in a lectionary Bible study, or in the daily routine of ministry.
Let me illustrate a convergence of stories that happened for a sermon that called my people to discipleship in a particular way at Burke Presbyterian Church in Burke, Virginia. The scripture passage was the transfiguration in Matthew 17, which was selected for its “mountaintop experience” to begin our new Christian education year. The church’s education team had chosen “Nourished to Feed” as their theme for the year, and gently encouraged me to use the theme as my sermon title on that Sunday.
The historic context for the sermon in August of 2003 was the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” Here is part of my sermon:
Martin Luther King was one of the most inspired Christian leaders of the 20th century. He often talked about moments early in his life when he experienced God’s presence, as one who made for him “a way out of no way!” When he was alone and scared he said he trusted in the One his father taught him about—Jesus the Christ. Again and again he had seen the power of Christ’s love transform lives and situations. When he was in the valleys of hard work, suffering with his people, he was sustained with the mountaintop experiences of revelations of God.
In today’s scripture we have a mountaintop experience in the transfiguration. It creates wonder, awe, and amazement! There is dazzling light, a cloud of unknowing, mystery. It is one of those special moments when God’s presence is felt; three disciples see that Jesus is aglow with the gift of God! They see in this theophany that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, as he stands with Moses and Elijah. Indeed, the story is understood in a postresurrection way that, as Peter confessed earlier in chapter 16 of Matthew, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
Isn’t this story here a good deal like Matthew’s other dream stories regarding the nativity? Is it fair to say that this is simply another way God talks with us—through dreams and visions and messengers?
I had such an experience recently and want to share it with you. It was August 20th and I was reading the front-page article in The Washington Post. It was about AIDS orphans in Kenya, and especially about one family where the father had died of AIDS, the older son was sent to work in the fields of a relative for food, and the mother taught the nine-year-old how to care for the baby in the family. The last thing the mother taught her child was how to bury her when she died, which she did within months! When the mother was gone, this nine-year-old cared for the baby, but it, too, had AIDS and died shortly after the mother. It was a heart-wrenching story.
It was as if God was speaking out of those pages to me: you need to start an orphanage in Kibwezi (our church has a partnership mission in Kibwezi, Kenya). A childhood dream flooded back into my memory. When I was a teenager I always said I wanted to run an orphanage. (I guess being pastor of a church is a bit like that—we are all orphaned in some way!)…
I got to work and opened my e-mail and there was an e-mail from a church member who said, “Did you read the front page article today about the AIDS orphans; you have spoken about AIDS orphans from the pulpit and I remembered that scary statistic you quoted that in 10 years there will be 40 million AIDS orphans in Africa and what a recruiting ground that would be for terrorists or for the Christian gospel!
That same day, our recently returned “global intern” came into my office to tell me about his experience of starting a library in Kibwezi this summer. But one thing that was incidental in what he said was that at the director’s house where he was staying, there were two orphans also living there. The director and his wife had taken them in.
And his conversation brought back the memory from our last mission trip the year before, when one of the women of the Kibwezi village church asked me, “What are we going to do with the children coming to the church?” She was talking about children whose parents had died of AIDS just showing up.
The biblical story of the disciples’ vision experience with Jesus on the mountaintop, the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the AIDS orphan story on the front page of The Washington Post, and my dream of starting an orphanage all converged in that September sermon. Today, four years later, because of these stories, 25 orphans in Kibwezi, Kenya are being cared for, some living with grandparents in their home villages and some in an orphan home that Burke Presbyterian Church helped to build.
My personal mission statement is to help connect people’s stories to God’s story so they can be the gospel story to the world!
In a recent issue of Presbyterian Outlook, Roger Nishioka, the denomination’s guru on youth and young adult ministry, was quoted as saying that “this is the most image-conscious and image-driven generation in history. If they don’t see it, they don’t know it… and stories can be a kind of verbal images. Telling the story is so, so compelling,” he said. “The story in post-modernity has picked up great power, the narrative has. So be less didactic, less point one, point two, point three, and just tell the story… Tell the story of the gospel.”2 I say, “Amen!”
1. Thomas E. Boomershine, Story Journey: An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 16.
2. Leslie Scanlong, “Nishioka Points Denomination toward Needs of Post-Denominational Adults,” The Presbyterian Outlook (September 3, 2007), 8.
Elizabeth P. Braxton has been the pastor of Burke Presbyterian Church in Burke, Virginia for 23 years and recently served as moderator of the National Capital Presbytery. Beth has a passion for mission and, under her leadership, Burke Presbyterian partnered with a church in Kibwezi, Kenya. That partnership, which has spanned 20 years, has led to the building of a church, a vocational school, and an orphan care program in Kibwezi. Beth has also led seven mission work camps to Kenya.