January 15, 2017
Anthem: In the Bleak MidwinterSenior Choir
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
I want us to think an old, old church word: “witness.”
One of my great-grandfathers knew the Bible backwards and forwards. Breathing problems got him to move his family from North Carolina to Texas for drier air. He was an evangelist, founding Presbyterian churches on horseback around 1900. One of my grandfathers, my mother’s father, knew the Bible backwards and forwards. He served Methodist churches as a minister and later as a District Superintendent. My parents have their favorite Bible verses. And had I not gone to seminary, I too would probably simply have my favorite verses, and know the ones I hear at funerals and weddings.
I can remember trying to memorize the 23rd psalm as a child. I kept getting it mixed up with parts of the Lord’s Prayer. I was being strongly encouraged by my cousin, whose Methodist church placed a much higher premium on learning the Bible than my church did.
I am guessing that I am not alone in tracing the loss of Biblical literacy in my family from generation to generation. It is something that we have seen across the country, and to be honest regardless of church. Even today’s Bible thumpers tend to know only the passages that are necessary for the task at hand rather than have a deeper and wider understanding.
Some of this loss seems to parallel the loss of trust we have in traditional institutions. As banks and government and the church itself have lost public trust, Biblical literacy has dropped. As the church has lost its place as a center of society, like it had back in the 1950s, so too the Bible has lost much of its weight.
Some of it may stem from the amount of knowledge we are expected to ingest from a very early age. Since the Bible does not help with school test scores, it is relegated to a lesser place that it used to hold.
And of course, the Bible’s use as a weapon of exclusion and judgment by some have turned people of reason and compassion away from it as well.
Reviewing the scripture used this morning with some church members, one of them said with sincere frustration, “Can’t we just get the sermon without the scripture?” And I get it. The Bible can be difficult, for all sorts of reasons.
But the Bible has always been difficult. John can be particularly difficult. Many of us are used to hearing the words of Mark, Matthew, or Luke. These three describe what is happening around Jesus. John takes these Jewish forms of storytelling and shapes them for a Greek audience. John does not describe what happens, but explains why.
We can tell John is taking Hebrew stories and making them Greek. He has to translate Aramaic words like Rabbi, Messiah, and Cephas into Greek words: teacher, Christ, and Peter. Not unlike today, when we need to translate and explain and try to illuminate who Jesus is and what Jesus means and what God is up to.
This is not all bad. It can be a stumbling block, to be sure. But it can also be an opportunity to be reminded that the Bible is not the same as a pop-psychology book, or a cook book, or a paperback novel. The Bible requires a different way of reading than other texts.
It is also a reminder that God is not playing the same game the world is. When we think of God’s holiness, we can use words like goodness, faithfulness, majesty, loving-kindness. But holiness is also “otherness.” God is not simply us, just more. God is God.
Maybe we are more familiar with John the Baptizer being described as wearing a coat of hair, eating locusts and honey, out in the wilderness. John was not in a nice toga in the marketplace. He was not in the Temple, the center of religious life. He was out away from the usual, the settled, the complacent. To get to God, John had to get out of town, leave the normal, abandon the established.
And there, he saw Jesus. And there he saw the Holy Spirit come upon Jesus and remain upon Jesus. (We’ll get back to this “remaining” in a moment.)
For the past few months we have not asked you to say an extra prayer each day. We have not asked you to simply add a little religion to your usual routine.
Instead, we have asked you to journey into something different, something unsettled, something new. Daily readings of Christianity for the Rest of Us, journaling, going on prayer walks through neighborhoods, figuring out some of each other’s gifts and passions, getting to know one another prayerfully and personally.
And this morning after worship all of you, whether you joined us for all, some, a little bit, or none of this reVision journey, are invited to join us downstairs for soup, and for a time of naming our gifts, identifying about our passions, and discerning where we go from here.
Why go through all this? Why not just have a strategic planning session, some community feedback, and get on with it?
Because what we are praying will happen is what John witnessed in Jesus. We pray that the Holy Spirit would descend upon this church and remain. We are praying that we will not just attend to the Spirit and be on our way, but to seek how we can, as a community of faith, abide in the Spirit of God.
All of this gets us back to this old church word: witness. How will we be a witness to Jesus in a world that thinks either he is unnecessary or he is the source of those mean spirited and hateful ways that scripture gets used as a weapon? How will we be a witness to the faithfulness of God? How will we be witnesses to the loving-kindness of Jesus? How will we make known the power of love that heals and births wholeness and makes all things new?
Well, our banner is not a bad start.
- Be The Church.
- Protect the environment.
- Care for the poor.
- Embrace diversity.
- Reject racism.
- Forgive often.
- Love God.
- Fight for the powerless.
- Share earthly and spiritual resources.
- Enjoy this life.
But a banner does not do anything. T-shirts don’t do anything. Bumper stickers just stick there. People can read them, but then what? How do signs and shirts stand against what people see and hear so often about the hypocritical and judgmental nature of the church? How do bumper stickers impact a world where the church is seen as irrelevant by so many?
Banners, t-shirts, bumper stickers work if people discover that the people holding the banner, wearing the t-shirt, driving with that bumper sticker, mean it.
So part of this whole reVision work has meant prayerfully discerning how to live into being such witnesses of the love of Jesus that people see the banner and know that it is true.
Being a witness to love. To the love of God we know in Jesus Christ. To the love of God we know in this church. To the love of God we know in one another. To love our neighbor, to love our self, to love one another, to love even our enemy.
It is an old, old concept: witness. Translated for today and our jaded and difficult world, it means “to love.”
And we can love, because we are so truly and fully loved.
Thanks be to God. Amen.