WE’VE A STORY TO TELL
A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, October 6, 2013
Text: 2 Timothy 1:1-14
“We’ve a story to tell to the nations.” We used to sing this song with some frequency whenever the missionary enterprise was considered. It has a good marching tune, a positive, up-lifting tone, a sense of confidence that we might, indeed, win the world for Christ. Of course, the text, and even the tune, are heavy with the threat of the colonialism that too often infected the Christian missionary enterprise in the 19th and early 20th centuries. “We’ve a story to tell to the nations that shall turn their hearts to the right.”
We may ask, “Just what is the right?” There have been times and places in which the right has been overly-identified with the values of the West. A Euro-American way of life was closely linked with the gospel that was carried to the “uncivilized pagans” in foreign fields. In the process, rich and ancient cultures were trampled, people exploited, traditions lost, in the name of a particular kind of progress linking Western culture to the Christian message. Of course, there were notable exceptions and, indeed, the truly good news of Jesus Christ and the commonwealth of God was spread to the ends of the earth.
Two of the great figures in the American missionary movement were Ann and Adoniram Judson. In very significant ways the Judsons were the parents of all Baptist missions in the USA today. I mention them because 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of their arrival in Burma to begin their missionary work. The Judsons sailed from Massachusetts in February of 1812 as Congregationalist missionaries headed toward the Far East. The modern missionary movement among Protestants was only 20 years old at the time, begun by a group of Baptists in England who had sent William Carey and John Thomas to serve in India.
On the voyage east, Adoniram made a concentrated study of baptism and became convinced that “believer’s baptism” was what the gospel demanded. He and Ann were Baptists by the time they reached India where they themselves were re-baptized. As a result, the need for Baptist support for these new missionaries led to the formation of the first national Baptist bodies in the USA – the Triennial Convention and the American Baptist Missionary Union. These are the ancestors of the American Baptist Churches–USA and our mission boards, among others.
On arrival in India, the Judsons found no welcome from the controlling British East India Company. So they found themselves sailing to Buddhist Burma where they were warned their efforts would be futile. I won’t go into any great detail here but if you’re interested in more of the Judsons’ story, we have a six part DVD you’re welcome to borrow.
It took the Judsons six years to reach their first convert. After almost ten years, they had 18 converts. It was not until they began to concentrate their work among the animist hill tribes, the Karens and Kachins, who were Burmese minorities, that the mission work took root and grew. Today Burma has the largest number of Baptists in the world only after the USA and India.
Adoniram Judson graduated at age 19 as the valedictorian of the predecessor of Brown University. Judson’s work with the Burmese language, including his translation of the Bible, is still in use today. One source says that “The essence of Judson’s preaching was a combination of conviction of the truth with the rationality of the Christian faith, a firm belief in the authority of the Bible, and a determination to make Christianity relevant to the Burmese mind without violating the integrity of Christian truth, or as he put it, ‘to preach the gospel, not anti-Buddhism.’” (wikipedia, Maung Shwe Wa, Burma Baptist Chronicle, page 9–10
Judson had a deep calling to which he felt compelled to respond. He had a story to tell. But, if this account is correct, he also had a deep respect for the people and culture of those among whom he ministered. His task was not to demonize Buddhism but to tell his own story of how he experienced Christ and the living God. This sounds very much like modern missionary belief and practice.
In much the same way, the Apostle Paul was the progenitor of a mission movement. He had a dramatic encounter with Christ that had changed his life forever. With all the zeal of a convert, he tackled spreading the gospel with the same fervor with which he had persecuted Christians before his conversion. He had a story to tell to the nations and he gave his life to sharing that good word. Today’s text, from the second letter to Timothy was likely not written by Paul himself. Still, it reads very much like what we know Paul wrote. It speaks as a valedictory, the last testament of the great missionary before his death.
The letter is addressed to Paul’s young protégé, Timothy, urging him to continue the Apostle’s work, faithfully and courageously. “We’ve a story to tell, Timothy. Don’t forget it. Don’t lose sight of the need to spread this good news.” It’s not simple to summarize Paul’s story, his witness to the world, but he says a couple of things here to Timothy that I think are worth noting.
First, he reminds Timothy where he came from. Faith is not something we achieve. It is pure gift and most often it is passed to us by people who have walked the way of faith before us. In Timothy’s case it is not only his mentor, Paul, but it is his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice who have given him the gift of faith. I think I am particularly drawn to this because I had my own grandmother named Lois who was a woman of great faith as were my own mother and father.
Second, Paul reminds Timothy to rely “on the power of God,who save[s] us and call[s] us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to [God’s] own purpose and grace.” It is God in whom we live and move and have our being. It is God who made us and loves and desires that we live together in holy communion. Our salvation is in this very relationship.
Third, he affirms for Timothy that “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Christ conquers death on our behalf so that we may see and understand that death has no meaning or consequence in the reign of God. God is about life and abundant living. Through Christ, God freely and generously gives us this gift of life abundant and eternal. It is ours to have and it is ours to share.
Finally Paul utters words that have found their way into another old hymn we don’t sing much anymore. It is, in essence, the story that Paul wants to tell to the world, “For I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.” Or as the NRSV puts it, Paul the intrepid old missionary shares his anchoring faith with his young friend, “But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.
When you get past the potentially overweening, culturally-based righteousness of the opening lines, the first hymn goes on to share helpful insight into what that old and still enlivening story is. It’s a story of “truth and mercy, of peace and light.” It’s a story that “shall conquer evil and shatter the spear and sword.” It’s a story that “shows us that God is love.”
The missionary enterprise that we celebrate and support this month is very much grounded these days in the best of stories of Paul and Timothy, Ann and Adoniram Judson, Lynn and Marilyn Hunwick, Dan and Sarah Chetti, Dan and Sharon Buttry, Nzunga Mabudiga and Kihome Ngwemi, people who are willing to go among others all over the world. They share the good news; they don’t impose it or use it to pick fights or devalue and denigrate others. They share it because it is good news and is very much worth sharing. And they share it, not only in word, but in deed – studying language, teaching farming and other skills, lifting folk from poverty and abuse, educating, healing, bringing new and abundant life in oh so many ways. We, and these good and valiant folk as our representatives, have a story to tell. It’s a good one. In fact, it may just be life-saving and world-transforming. Amen.