The Story We Tell

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It was such an inspiring story. In the mid-nineties, an American medic hikes down the mountain after failing to summit K2, the second tallest mountain in the world. On his way down, he gets lost, and ultimately finds himself in a small, remote village in Pakistan, where he is welcomed by the villagers and cared for. And when he sees the children holding sharpened sticks in their hands, scratching them into the dirt on a ledge that was their only chance at education, he makes a promise: he will return, and he will build a school there for those children, so that they might have a better chance at an education.

It was such an inspiring story—how this man, Greg Mortenson, returned to the United States and began to fundraise, and then got lucky, because when people heard the story that he had to tell, they could not help but give, millions and millions of dollars. That story was so inspiring that it became a best selling book. You might have heard of it—“Three Cups of Tea”—1# on the NY Times Best Sellers for a year, required reading for many high schools who then turned around and raised funds for the Pennies for Peace program that supports schools for remote villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It was so inspiring. There was only one problem—he made it up! Turns out he probably didn’t summit K2, and he definitely didn’t visit the village he claimed to have seen. There were so many errors that a book was written about it—“Three Cups of Deceit,” by Jon Krakauer.

There is a parable in the Gospels where Jesus tells the disciples that when you build your house on sand, it will fall over when the storms came, while if you build on the rock, it can withstand the darkness. Well, it turned out that Greg Mortenson’s vision was a house built on sand—when people realized that the story just wasn’t true, it didn’t matter anymore that the work that they were doing was good work. Many people simply didn’t trust the organization any longer.

Turns out the church has a similar problem: many people don’t trust us. This week, in fact, I ran a little experiment on our facebook page. I asked people to complete a sentence: “when I say church, you say…” It started out innocently enough: “amen: and then “Church lady” and “Church mouse.” Someone even said “family.” But then it got real. Someone in our neighborhood wrote “I quit.” Another went for the guts and responded with “pedophilia” (which is awful, but we can’t exactly say it isn’t surprising). The last person simply responded by saying “why?”

Why, indeed? For many folks, the only time anyone tells someone about church is on the news when something bad is happening. A pastor admits to sleeping with his flock; another embezzles church funds. A church covers up sexual abuse of children, or worse, condones violence against whole groups of people. For many people, these are the ONLY stories that they hear about church.

No WONDER they don’t trust us. They think that is who we are.

Let me ask you a question: when’s the last time YOU told someone you care about how this community of faith and your relationship with Jesus changed you FOR THE BETTER? Or invited someone you love to church because you wanted to share this new life with them?

Here’s the thing: we have a captivating story to tell. The Gospel, the Good News for the people of God, is a story of hope that has the power to change lives and bring hope to the world. The question I have for you, is this: are we holding ourselves accountable to the integrity of the Kingdom that we proclaim? Is the narrative of our faith just a fairy tale, or is this a story worth sharing, worth being changed by?

It certainly meant something to the widow in the temple. In our Gospel this morning, Jesus is standing in the temple watching the people present their gifts in the Temple treasury. He watches as the rich come and present their gifts. Then Jesus sees a poor widow come to the treasury, and put two copper coins in the treasury. Seeing her, Jesus says, “This woman has put in more than all the others.” According to John Calvin, this woman’s offering is pleasing because, in her giving, she testifies to the fact that all that she has belongs to God. She, who has little, believes that God holds real, living value to her.

I had an opportunity to see some of our own folks respond to the notion that this faith of ours holds living value this week when we traveled to Broad Street Ministry in the city. Four of our youth and some of our adults spent their Saturday setting tables and serving meals to those whom we often think of as the least of these. For three hours they served and engaged with others. At the end of the afternoon, Cyndi DiChiara came to me and told me that one of the other volunteers had come up to her at the end of the day after watching our kids and said, “I’m gonna level with you—I don’t like kids. But your kids—I like them. They are awesome.” You know why? Because our youth here at IPC spent that whole afternoon living as if their faith mattered, and it was a joy to watch.

What did our youth do that communicated joy to others? Why, they simply lived out the principles that we say matter to us:
-hospitality
-generosity of spirit and of gifts
-kingdom-mindedness
-dynamism

Which gets us back to the tragedy of the story that I started our conversation off with today. A former Trustee of Greg Mortenson’s nonprofit said it best: “my transcendant emotional feeling is of grief for the loss of what might have been. Part of me wants to believe that there was/is something sincere in what he was setting about to do to change the world a bit for the better. Another part of me is just downright angry at his irresponsibility to the cause with which he was entrusted…with one hand, Greg has created something potentially beautiful and caring. With the other he has murdered his creation by his duplicity”

We are held accountable for how the world around us views the church, which is our creation and our response to what God is doing in us. We ARE the church, not this building, not the property or the landscaping. It is us. And only we can do something potentially beautiful and caring with it. No one else can save the church but us. We do it with God’s help.

We are the only people who can tell the world what Ivyland Presbyterian church has done for us. It is up to us whether this church withers on the vine or thrives and bears fruit worthy of the kingdom of God.

All Jesus asks of us is to put our money where our mouth is—to put feet to our faith, as they say, and live as though this Kingdom of which he spoke, in which the hungry are fed and the poor are lifted up, is actually worth it. To be those who witness to the kingdom as much by the words of our mouth as by the meditations of our hearts. To cast the nets we have been given out into the world, trusting that God’s harvest is waiting for us. To practice kindness, love, empathy, hospitality, generosity, not out of fear, but out of gratitude to our God. To share the Good News of the Gospel with one another, with our children, our families, our neighbors and all those whom God loves. To live as though this MATTERS, because it does.

To answer the question: what has God put us here on this earth to do?” I hope we can find an answer.

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