Being Witnesses: A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 2017

In these dark days of Advent, as the days grow shorter and the sun’s light grows dim, the mood of our nation and our world seem very much in synch with the season. It’s difficult for us to ignore all that is occurring around us and focus on the season of Advent, and the coming of Christ at Christmas. Sometimes I feel as though the festivities and hoopla, whether it’s the parties we throw or attend, or the glitz of stores and the blitz of marketing are all intended to distract us from what’s happening—global warming, the threat of nuclear catastrophe, the continuing assault on our constitutional liberties, on democracy itself.

It’s hard to find our way through it all, it’s hard for us to find perspective, to keep our faith when there is so much profoundly wrong and unjust, and the forces of good seem impotent in the face of the evil that surrounds us.

On top of it all, many of us struggle to make sense of, let alone, proclaim, the message of Jesus Christ in this context. When Christianity has been coopted by extreme nationalists and white supremacists, when there seems no connection between the message of love, peace, and reconciliation proclaimed by Jesus Christ, and the dominant voices of Christianity in America, we may want to hide our faith, to keep quiet. We fear being associated with the Franklin Grahams and Roy Moores and silence our voices, out of fear that we might be accused of supporting them. Let me just add, if you are not deeply troubled by the cooptation of Christianity by a certain political agenda in this country, you should examine your beliefs and commitments, for the very soul and future of Christianity is at stake, the gospel is at stake.

Our lessons today remind us of where our focus should be, where and how we should proclaim Christ, where and how we should work for justice.

The reading from Isaiah, the first verses of which provide the text for Jesus first public proclamation in the Gospel of Luke, offer both reassurance and command. As Christians, we read these words as promise of Christ’s coming, of the future reign of God that he proclaimed and for which we hope. We see ourselves as recipients of that good news, and of the promised healing and release.

At the same time, we must see ourselves in this story, not just as recipients of God’s grace and justice but as participants in the coming of that justice. We are called to rebuild the ruined cities—and here we might think not only of literal cities, but of all the ways that human community, the common good, have been undermined and attacked in recent years.

Even stronger are the words from the Song of Mary. It’s always helpful to remember just who she was—a young woman, likely a teenager, mysteriously, shamefully pregnant, as vulnerable in her historical context as a similar young woman would be in our day. Yet from that small, unlikely, reviled person, comes this powerful hymn that witnesses to God’s redemptive power:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

 

This familiar hymn has suffered for its popularity and familiarity. Its use in worship over the millennia has numbed us to its revolutionary power. We need to reclaim it today, sing it with meaning. We need to do more than sing it, we need to work so that it comes into being. We need to imagine the possibility that God is working in this way, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of all our fears, doubts, and despair. We need to believe that the words of a first-century teenaged single mom can inspire to see God at work in the world around us. For remember, the world in which she lived was unjust and violent as well, and for many people hopelessness and terror were ways of life.

And finally, the gospel…

We heard the story of John the Baptizer from the Gospel of John. It’s a brief excerpt of a larger narrative, and on the surface it’s rather strange, although you might not have thought anything odd about this when hearing it. In the Gospel of Mark’s description of John that we heard last week, the focus seemed to be on his lifestyle, his clothing and diet choices (camel’s hair, locusts and wild honey). According to Mark, he preached a message, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Now in John’s gospel none of that is present. While some of his preaching message is consistent, at the heart of John’s portrayal of John is something else, the fact that John was a witness to Jesus Christ. In a rather odd formulation, John writes that “

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”

For that is John’s purpose and role in the fourth gospel—to point toward Christ. John is a witness, the witness. And more than witness, for the Greek word behind the English “witness” and “testify” in the first few verses of the reading is word from which we get our English word “martyr.” John came to bear witness to the light, to testify about Jesus Christ. Later in the first chapter, John sees Jesus passing by, points to him, and tells several of his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The disciples then leave John and follow Jesus.

These are questions of identity and purpose. The priests and Levites asked John who he was, in a scene that is reminiscent of the scene in the synoptic gospels where Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is. John directs their attention away from him toward Christ.

John offers us an important lesson, not just about who he was and who Jesus Christ is. He also reminds us that one of the most important things we do, in our words and in our lives, is point to Jesus Christ. It is in and through us that others learn what it means to follow Jesus and also learn Jesus’ message of love, peace, mercy, and justice. In this time, when so many others proclaim a different gospel, and very different message of Jesus, our witness to him is more needed than ever. May we witness, testify, and point, clearly, unequivocally, and boldly, to the Jesus Christ who stands with the poor, the oppressed, the captive, and the God who casts down the mighty from their seats and fills the hungry with good things.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

My Lord and My God: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, 2017

 

Today, Grace Church is participating again in the second annual Doors Open Madison, a city-wide open house that offers the community the opportunity to explore some of Madison’s signature buildings. It’s a great opportunity for us at Grace—free publicity. It’s likely that including today, last Sunday, which was Easter, and services this week that included a funeral and a wedding, we could expect to have 1500 people enter our space in that time. Continue reading

Raised with Lazarus: A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, 2017

 

I hope that you’ve come to appreciate something of the complexity, depth, and riches in the gospel of John as we’ve worked through these readings over the last several weeks. Today, we have come to the end of this series of stories from John’s gospel, and with this reading, we have come to something of an early climax in the gospel as well. This story of the raising of Lazarus is the last of the seven “signs” recorded by John. It’s a clear demonstration of Jesus’ power but also, in its focus on his emotions it describes Jesus’ humanity in ways that we don’t see elsewhere in the gospel. Continue reading

The Seeing, Believing Man: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2017

 

Today we hear the third of four stories from the gospel of John in this season of Lent. So far we have encountered Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. Next week we will meet Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Each of the stories explores in detail the relationship between Jesus and these other people; each also offers a wealth of material for our reflection on who Jesus Christ is and how we might enter into deeper relationship with him. These texts are long and complex and it’s impossible to examine in detail the many themes on which they touch. Continue reading

The Jew at the well: A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 2017

 

Part of my job as a pastor of a downtown church is dealing with the never-ending stream of people who come by looking for help. Often, their stories are heartbreaking. They’ve lost their jobs and are about to be evicted; they need money for a bus ticket or gas. Sometimes, it’s an elderly grandmother having to take care of her grandchildren because of their mother’s illness or incarceration. Or there’s the 19-year old Nigerian boy whose family was evicted for nonpayment of rent after his father abandoned him and his mother and sisters. I’ve had to develop a thick skin, and an ear for falsehoods, because often the stories aren’t true or are only partly true. Continue reading

Encountering Jesus in the Gospel of John: A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A

I wonder how many of you heard today’s gospel and began to cringe. Two verses from this passage have been enormously important in Christianity, especially among American evangelicals. Though our version, the New Revised Standard Version, translates it differently, the paraphrase of the old translation of John 3:3 “You must be born again” has shaped our understanding of the Christian life and experience at its most basic level, and John 3:16, even without the text of the verse itself, is a key marker for evangelical identity and a symbol of American Christianity. Continue reading

Being disciples, staying with Jesus: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

We are in the season after the Epiphany. It varies in length depending on when the date of Easter, (and hence Ash Wednesday) falls. This year is relatively lengthy as Easter falls on April 16. The word epiphany comes from the Greek and roughly means manifestation, revealing, or showing. Usually it is connected with an appearance or manifestation, presence if you will, of the divine. In the Christian context, the feast of the Epiphany is the celebration of the magi coming to worship the newborn Christ at Bethlehem, although in ancient and Eastern Christianity, the Epiphany also connects with Jesus’ baptism, which is in part why we commemorated his baptism last Sunday, and with other miracles, like the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine, and as the gospel of John says, “revealed his glory.”

This season is a time when we celebrate and reflect all of the ways God is present in the world, in the glory and goodness of creation, but especially in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And although this is the year in the lectionary cycle when we read the Gospel of Matthew, on this Sunday, as in every year on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, we read from the Gospel of John. That makes sense in a way, because the themes of John connect very well with the themes of Epiphany, and nowhere is that more true than in this first chapter—the first 18 verses of which we heard on Christmas Day.

In today’s reading, we get John’s interpretation of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, as well as the story of the call of the first disciples. Coincidentally, this past week I was reading two books that I purchased as possible subjects for Lenten study this year. Both of them began with a discussion of this encounter between Jesus, Andrew, and the other disciple as a way of getting at the meaning of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

You may recall the story of Jesus calling the first disciples from the synoptic gospels, especially Mark. Jesus is walking along the shore of the sea of Galilee. He sees Peter and Andrew, James and John repairing the nets on their fathers’ fishing boats. Jesus says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” The four get up, leave the nets, the boats, and their fathers behind, and follow Jesus.

There’s a completely different dynamic here in John’s gospel. In the first place, Andrew and the other disciple (We never learn his name, by the way) are already disciples, but of John the Baptist. John and his followers come across Jesus in their wanderings, and John points Jesus out to them, saying, “Look, there’s the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world!” The next day, the same thing happens, and two of his disciples, follow Jesus. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” And they respond oddly, by asking “Where are you staying?” To that question, Jesus answers, “Come and see.”

“Where are you staying?” What kind of question is that? What might the disciples learn about Jesus by staying with him for the day? To understand what’s going on we need to put this question, and the event itself, in the context of John’s gospel. Staying… to use the traditional language of the Authorized Version, to abide… is one of those themes that is repeated throughout the gospel. In fact, we heard the theme sounded already in John’s testimony about Jesus. When he reports that he saw the Holy Spirit come down like a dove, he says that “it remained on him.” In today’s gospel the words is used at least four times in quick succession. Much later in the gospel, in the lengthy farewell discourse that John puts in Jesus’ mouth at the Last Supper, he says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

These two questions, “What are you looking for?” and “Where are you staying?” get at the heart of what the Gospel of John understands by discipleship and the nature of faith. More than that, these two questions, and the understanding of discipleship they open up, invite us to a new understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in our present day.

Discipleship is a word we use a great deal in the church but is easily misunderstood or distorted. Indeed, to the extent that it is a grounding metaphor for the Christian life, it can be as misleading as it is helpful. For one thing, we often think that faith, our Christian life, is primarily concerned with knowing a certain set of ideas, or holding a certain set of beliefs. But note that Jesus did not ask Andrew and the other disciple, “What do you know or want to know?”, or “What do you believe? He asked them, “What are you looking for?” Or perhaps, “What do you want?”

Posed in those terms, Jesus’ question gets at the very core of our being, our deepest desires and hopes, who we are and what we want to be. It’s a question of identity

And the question Andrew poses to Jesus in response, while seemingly unrelated to Jesus’ question, is very much of the same nature. “Where are you staying?”

Andrew’s question is an expression not of a desire to receive a set of instructions, or learn a set of doctrines. Andrew wants to be with Jesus. He wants to stay with Jesus so that he can experience the relationship that Jesus offers him. By abiding with Jesus, by staying with Jesus, Andrew will begin to experience the abundant life that Jesus talks about throughout the gospel.

Thus for John, discipleship is about relationship, not right doctrine or the transmission of a body of knowledge. Discipleship is about being in community with Jesus, and with others who seek to follow Jesus. And there can be nothing more important than that, being in community in these uncertain and frightening times.

We have been experiencing a great number of shocks to our worldview over the last months. Many of us are confronting the fact that we are living in a very different nation than the one we thought we were living in. Institutions that used to function and create stability seem to be out of whack—like the news media. Old alliances are collapsing and being reshaped. We are afraid of what might happen to our healthcare and our planet. Many of us wonder whether we will lose basic rights that we hold dear or for which we or our parents or grandparents struggled mightily. Christianity itself seems to be on the brink of collapse in the US, and with so many conservative Christian leaders preaching a message of hate, we may not even want to be called Christian anymore.

In all of this disruption and disorientation, negotiating a path forward is perilous. We’re not quite sure what to do, how to act, how to be in the world. Here’s where this gospel reading offers a model. Relationship—abiding with Jesus. In the first place, we are called to open our hearts and our lives to deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, and through that relationship begin to experience and to live in the presence of God’s love for us. To open our hearts to Christ’s love is to begin to know the love of the God who became one of us and loved us and the world so much that he gave his life for the world.

And as we open ourselves to Christ’s love, experience Christ’s love, abide in Christ’s love, we also will begin to open ourselves to those around us, to others who experience that love of Christ and abide in that love.

All of this is quite abstract and you may think it has little to do with our daily lives. But I wonder. In the midst of all that we have to do, do we take time to be with Jesus? Do we take time to be fully present to our loved ones? Do we really know our fellow members of the Body of Christ in this place? What might it be like for us to nurture deeper relationships with each other and with Jesus Christ in the coming months? What might it be like for us to take the time to get to know one another better, to listen to each others’ stories, to their hopes and fears? By nurturing those relationships, with Christ and with each other, not only would we be strengthened for the journey but the world around would catch a glimpse of the possibilities of new life in Christ’s love.