Saturday, August 06, 2011

Salvation according to Charlie Stoltzfus

Tony Campolo, the American evangelist was invited to preach at a Pentecostal Church and before the service the leaders prayed for him. He wanted to get on with preaching but soon they started praying for things in their own lives.

One man said, “Oh, Lord, be with Charlie Stoltzfus, my neighbor. You know Charlie, Lord. He’s leaving his wife and three kids today and he’s going off. Lord, we don’t know where he’s going. Find a miracle to bring him back. He lives at Exit 14A off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. You know, Lord, in that little trailer park. His is the first one on the right hand side.” And Tony’s thinking, oh brother, why is he giving God directions. God knows this guy and knows where he is. God created this him. Tony just wants to start preaching.

Finally, he preaches the sermon. The service is over. He gets in his car and starts driving home. He’s on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and he sees hitch- hikers holding up signs – California, New York, Philadelphia. He passes by them but one guy has a sign that said “Anywhere.” Tony said to himself I’m going to pull over. He pulled over, backed up, and the guy got in. Tony said, “I’m intrigued by your sign.” The guy said, “Yeah, I don’t care where I go, I’ll go anywhere, I just have to get away from where I am.” Tony introduces himself and asks the guy his name. He replies, “Hi, I’m Charlie Stoltzfus.”

So Tony drives on. When they get to Exit 14A Tony exits the Turnpike and starts driving back. The guy said, “Where are you going?” Tony said, “I’m taking you home.” The guy said, “Now wait a minute. What do you mean you’re taking me home.” Tony said, “You left your wife and your three kids and I’m taking you home right now.” The guy said, “You don’t know where I live.” Tony said, “Yes I do, in the trailer park up here, in the first silver trailer on the right.” And the guy said, “How do you know that? Who told you that?” Tony said, “God told me!” He pulls over, gets Charlie out of the car and goes into the trailer with him. Charlie and his wife and Tony spend time talking together. A year later Tony learned that Charlie and his wife had decided to stay together – their marriage is restored. Friends, there are no lengths that God will not go to, to bring us back into relationship with Him. He reaches out His hand, we just have to take it.

At the heart of this morning’s Gospel reading, lies unseen, the heart of God, beating with love for His world.  It is the love which God has for His world that calls His Son to complete His work of creation by coming amongst us in the first place. It is this same love that Jesus demonstrates by feeding the crowd with bread and fish. It is the same love that sends the crowd away, allowing Jesus to cross the lake and climb a mountain to pray; to renew and be renewed in His Father’s love himself.

It is the same love of God, that compels Jesus to reveal to the disciples who He really is. Early in the morning He comes walking across the water to the to them in the boat. Only the Creator of the universe can defy the laws of physics - God in Jesus Christ draws near to those He specially loves. The disciples are rightly terrified at what they are seeing. Is this a ghost?  Jesus speaks to them and His words sound like reassurance - ‘it is I’ and yet they echo God’s revealing of Himself to Moses in the burning bush ‘I am who I am.’ None other that the Creator God is with the disciples on the lake.

This is all just classic Peter, unsure of himself and unsure of who Jesus is. ‘Lord, if it you, if you really are God, I’m going to come out of the boat and out onto the water & walk with you.’  So he does. Just as Peter begins to experience the reality of God’s love for Himself, he doubts and starts to sink ‘Lord save me!’ And Jesus reaches out His hand in love and saves him.

All too often friends, we think we have faith sown up. We think we know God. He is safely contained in the pages of the scriptures or in the guise of bread and wine, and yet we forget all too easy that He has the capacity to surprise us. To think and act outside the box. It is this God of surprises that limits Himself and meets us invitingly contained in the pages of the scriptures or in the guise of bread and wine. And yet it is this God in Jesus Christ who out of love for us encourages us to step out of the safety of those comfort zones, of what we think or believe God to be, and to walk with him.

The boat is a safe place to be whether that boat is our lifestyles, our jobs, our houses, our choices, our humanity even. We believe that we can only ever be like ‘this’ - sad, tired, broken, unforgiving, unforgiven, guilty, shamed. Jesus comes alongside us in love and encourages us to step out with Him, to trust Him, to leave the boat - our old lives - completely behind. Jesus doesn’t meet us someway off on the lakeshore, He meets us where we are, by the boat. He comes alongside us. He doesn’t deny where we have sailed, where our lives have taken us whether filled with goodness or sadness. It doesn’t matter to Him how we feel about ourselves.  He loves us for who we are and encourages us to be where He is - in the presence, in the love of God - where we were created to be.

That encounter, with the love of God in Christ whether in Scripture, Sacrament or wherever is all transforming - for through it we can walk with Him. And we know we can trust Him too, when he stumbled, when he doubted, when he struggled to believe in Jesus - to let go and to let God, Jesus came alongside Peter and Thomas and countless others in love reassuring, restoring, renewing and resurrecting their lives.

Friends, in life, whenever and wherever we fail, no matter how far we feel we have fallen even when we feel He can’t, Jesus reaches out His hand to save us, restoring and renewing and resurrecting our relationship with each other, with Him and with his Heavenly Father in love. All we need to do is take His hand. When we do, wherever we are, He walks with us to where He is - helping us to become in each step we take, more and more like the Son of God - whole and holy people transformed by His love. Amen.


Anonymous said...

I was curious to know if this story was actually true. In other words, is there an account of this from Charlie Stultzfus himself? Or is this an urban legend of sorts? I've heard it quoted with different variations, the most popular being that Charlie went on to be a preacher, but I have been unable to find any reference to a real Charlie Stultzfus.

Anonymous said...

It is a true account told by Tony Campolo