What’s Your Story?

A sermon, based on Deuteronomy 26.1-11 and Luke 4.1-13, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church. Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2019


The waiter returned, our credit card receipt in hand. “Your name’s Abernathy.”

“Yes,” I replied.

She looked at me for a long moment, then asked a question I’ve heard before. “You related to Ralph?”

O’er many years, many times, many people have asked me whether I am related to the Reverend Dr. Ralph Abernathy, civil rights activist, chief colleague and friend of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Many times, in reply, I’ve told a story…

Spring 1974. My senior year at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri. Dr. Abernathy had delivered a lecture, really, a sermon on race relations. A reception followed. Because of my surname, the dean of students invited me to attend. During the course of the evening, Dr. Abernathy asked about my family and wanted to speak to my father. It was after 10 o’clock; long past my parents’ bedtime. My father, awakened from sleep, was not amused that a joker had called professing to be the Ralph Abernathy. Dr. Abernathy began to recount his family history. Some of the names were familiar to my father, which convinced him that it wasn’t a prank and led to their recognition that they might be related distantly.

Oft asked about my name, I have told this story about Ralph Abernathy, who, “to prove” his identity to my father, told his story.

We humans are creatures of story. Telling our stories is a fundamental act of remembrance through which we reflect on the past from whence we have come, realize in the present where we stand, and reach for the future where we hope to be. Sometimes individual stories combine forming a larger tale; a parable of a people, providing communal definition and direction.

The people Israel, liberated form Egyptian slavery, followed Moses for forty years in the wilderness. At journey’s end, Moses commanded them, in thanksgiving, to offer first fruits of the harvest and to remember: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor who went down to Egypt.” In reciting the Jacob-story, their story, they, as a people, defined anew from whence they had come and where they were going, who they were and to whom they belonged.
Moses speaks to the people, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesus remembered. As his people, centuries before, trekked through the desert, before embarking on his ministry, he entered the wilderness for forty days of testing. Jesus confronted diabolos, the devil; the personification of all that would hinder his obedience to God; whether envious tempters or skeptical naysayers or even his own self-doubt. To each and to all, Jesus said, “No,” reciting the words of scripture; the sacred story of his people, his story of himself, through which he renewed his awareness of who he was and to whom he belonged, who he was and whose he was.
The Temptation of Christ (1872), Vasily Ivanovich Surikov (1848-1916)

We have entered the wilderness of Lent. This forty-day season of soulful self-examination when we, led by God’s Spirit, confront all that hinders us from following Jesus. This season when we, in that challenge, are called to remember and retell our sacred Christian story. So, at journey’s end, at Easter, we, metaphorically and literally, may rise renewed, remembering, re-membering – that is, consciously re-joining our constituent parts of – from whence we have come and where we are going, who we are and whose we are.

My father, given his hunger to assimilate in America (and his fear, already difficult as a black man, that he might not), chose not to remember and retell his story. Thus, only after a long time, well into my adulthood, did I learn that Abernathy was the name of my father’s maternal grandfather. The name of my father’s father, my paternal grandfather, a native of Santiago de Cuba, was Pedro Silva.

I don’t know, I cannot know who I’d be or what I’d be doing had I, at my beginning, known that. (At the least, I might have taken Spanish in high school, not French!)

Yet, knowing this now, I understand why I’ve had a lifelong longing for acceptance and acknowledgement. Why I’ve always yearned to find a place to belong. Why, from time to time, I feel so out of place. And why reunions and reconciliations of any kind bring tears to my eyes.

Knowing this particularity of my God-given, birth-borne heritage, I see more clearly who I am and how I am and can be re-membered.

This is my story. What’s yours?


Moses speaks to the people (c. 1896), James Tissot (1836-1902)
The Temptation of Christ (1872), Vasily Ivanovich Surikov (1848-1916)

3 thoughts on “What’s Your Story?

  1. Dear Paul,

    I LOVE this sermon. I love its message, but even more than that, I love its form. I love that you start with your story of meeting Dr. Abernathy and connecting with him and that your story then moves into Dr. Abernathy’s story of wanting so much to connect with your family and your father, and then your story leads into the story of Israelites’ needing a place to belong, an identity connected to others and to something significant and meaningful, of Jesus’ struggle to become who he was and is, and of his followers’ need to do the same vis a vis their connection with him. And suddenly we are back with your father and his need to belong, to fit in, to have a name that suggested to him clear connection with his own country, and then we hear of your own deep desire to belong, to be recognized, to be accepted for who you are, and we breathe a sigh of recognition of that deep desire as something we too hold fast.

    What a lovely full circle description, indeed creating a picture of the eternal human need to belong, to connect, to be accepted as a vital, indispensable part of our family, our society, our world. Thank you for being willing to make yourself, your family, and your experience the sermon. While scripture is important, I find there is nothing more compelling than our own lived stories, which I have come to regard as every bit as sacred as scripture’s stories.

    I can feel and touch your story, because I know you, I know your face, I know your voice. I can take what you are willing to share with me to my heart and learn from it, can compare your need to belong and be recognized to my own and feel a deep connection with you and feel deeply whatever factors may make it more difficult for you to feel a vital part of the whole.

    This is a beautiful sermon, because it is from your life and reveals you, my brother, to me in ways I had not known you before, reveals myself to me in ways I had not known myself before, and also reveals how you and I and our experiences are connected in holy and inseverable ways.

    With much gratitude and love,


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul,
    Lord, Lord, Lord..quite the sermon this is. I knew a lot of the story you shared…but reading it in this context is different…I can feel the pain of not knowing everything about your story, and whether or not your story or life would be different had you known earlier.
    I’d give anything to know my Dad’s story. I remember a little about the two women who raised him, but he was adopted, so who is he really and what was his story other than he was a black gay man in the 1950s??
    Sometimes I wonder where the story of my life begins ….. many of my present friends only know my “post dementia diagnosis” story but there’s much more to me than that. I wish I knew it all so I could know it and share it. I thought I was the only one who cried over not attending family reunions…. especially now… am I a Perritt (Mom’s maiden name) a Woodward or a Veney????

    Much love and thanks for writing this sermon. I’m glad you’re an Abernathy and that I know your story.


  3. Karen and Loretta, always and in all ways I thank you, each and both, for reading, reflecting, and commenting on my sermons.

    Karen, your description of the circularity of this arc and movement of this sermon I love as much as you love the form of this sermon. For, in your imagery, you, as you write, capture that essential eternality of our human hunger to belong. Belonging is a longing, a hunger ne’er satiated, a thirst ne’er quenched. E’en amid our most intimate relationships, it seems, feels to me, though we can rejoice in that bond, there is, in its earthly form, an inherent mortality; meaning that in the life of the flesh, it will not…it cannot last. That said, within this innate perishability, I behold, by faith, the seed, the reality of life everlasting. (I must think more about this and thank you, Karen, for spurring the thought.)

    Loretta, there is much…so much of your story I know by heart. Yet I cannot know the fullness of your experience of your story. I cannot be inside your head and heart to share with you all the moments – doubtlessly – thoughts and feelings of and about your father arise. I only can imagine your wonderments about him and about yourself, your hopes, your pain, your longing that, in this world will not…cannot be realized. In this, we share much of the same longing…the longing of unknowing. And, for me, in this instant moment, I suppose…I suspect where I have come is that as I cannot know what I cannot know (though wonder about it, I do!), I must be who I am and continue to become whoever it is I will become from where I stand. I know you’re doing the same thing. And I rejoice in having such grand company!

    Love you, each and both, always and in all ways,


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