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Sermon: "You are Witnesses, or, On Not Taking Shame from Anyone"
15 April 2018
South Wedge Mission
Text: Psalm 4, Luke 24:36-48
36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence. 44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.
The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it. Unless one's family expresses a desire to live upon spiritual principles we think we ought not to urge them. We should not talk incessantly to them about spiritual matters. They will change in time. Our behavior will convince them more than our words...
There may be some wrongs we can never fully right. We don't worry about them if we can honestly say to ourselves that we would right them if we could. Some people cannot be seen - we send them an honest letter. And there may be a valid reason for postponement in some cases. But we don't delay if it can be avoided. We should be sensible, tactful, considerate and humble without being servile or scraping. As God's people we stand on our feet; we don't crawl before anyone.
-from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
The following was written, then adapted post-preaching, based on its extemporaneous performance on 4.15.18.
Grace, mercy and peace are yours from the Triune God.
We are witnesses. Jesus said so. In many ways, that’s the perfect place for us to begin our short series exploring our SWM values. The whole point of having values is to guide and equip us for this primal task, assigned to us by Jesus, to serve as witnesses.
It’s a hell of a calling.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite schticks from stand-up comic Jim Gaffigan:
(Click for AUDIO) - “I do want everyone to feel comfortable, that's why I'd like to talk to you about Jesus... It doesn't matter if you're religious or not, does anything make you more uncomfortable than some stranger going, 'I'd like to talk to you about Jesus.’”
It’s funny because it’s true. And while I do agree with GK Chesterton that “the test of a good religion is whether you can joke about it,” the truth behind the humor can also be pretty heart-breaking.
Because our spirituality and faith practice are a part of us. I assume that you keep coming back here each week, keep on pursuing it, because its not just a hobby. It’s an aspect of your heart and your truest self.
And in any relationship worth having, we want to be known deeply for who we are. Which means that we’ll want to share our truest selves. Which means, we’ll eventually come to a place where we need - maybe even want - to share the part of us that is a disciple of Jesus.
Which is where the heart-break can often begin. Because we can’t really talk about Jesus without talking about Jesus’ followers. And trying to do so can feel like being called as a witness by the public defender of a mass murderer. We know deep down that everyone deserves a fair chance. But it’s hard to muster up the effort, let alone passion, when the accused is someone as troubled and as traumatizing as the church.
Jesus calls us to be apologists; but more often, it feels like we’re forced to be apologizers. We can start to feel shame for who we are, and who we follow.
How many of you have ever felt that courtroom tension when topics of faith and religion arise? Like in the court of opinion the church has already been tried, judged and convicted of all manner of bigotry, hatred, close-mindedness, greed, violence, hypocrisy, electing Donald Trump, causing global warming, secretly financing Justin Bieber, and bashing small kittens over the head with rocks?
It can suck to talk to people about Jesus. Because it can cost us a lot. It can challenge relationships, risk our acceptance, and place us under judgement. There’s a reason that the word for “martyr” derives from the Greek word for “witness.”
We are witnesses. And it can feel like a kangaroo court, a show trial, where our only hope is to try to put as much distance between us and our fellow Christians.
And if I’m honest: I’m not immune either. I am a missionary, a called and ordained minister of the Gospel and a priest in God’s service, a church planter and a community organizer passionate about social justice and the arts. And yet, I struggle. I fear to wear my collar into places, partly because I don’t want to harm people. but if I’m honest, also because I don’t want people to harm me.
As I was unearthing my office from the winter’s clutter this past week, I realized how much I’d internalized the shame I feel about my ordained office. It is indisputable that I will never win an organization award. But I also think that the literal mess was a subconscious acceptance of the shame I often feel about being a priest in a world that hates a failing church. Like Gaffigan’s pope: I keep work at work.
It can be very easy to talk about Mission Hall, Refuge Recovery, Midweek Mindfulness, the Free Store, and all the awesome stuff we do. And then comes that moment; will I tell them we are a church? That we have worship on Sunday evening? That I’d love for them to come and join us?
If you’re like me, maybe you too start to internalize both the trauma and the hatred others experience around the Church. Start to believe the lies that the Church has lived and the world has believed, that somehow the church’s failures invalidate the Gospel. That somehow others’ abandonment of their baptismal identity is permission, even a mandate, for us to do the same. Start to believe that others don’t need to know their identity as beloved children of God, and that maybe, just maybe, we don’t need to know it either.
To become ashamed.
While I do not wish to equate the struggles of GLBTQ+ persons in coming out with our faith struggle, I do think we can learn much from these fellow pilgrims on the journey. A part of us that should be celebrated, engaged, accepted, can just as easily get locked in the closet and kept secret from those we love, let alone those who hate us.
Now, I should note, some of us have struggled to be witnesses for a different reason. Those of you who grew up evangelical in the 90s undoubtedly remember a DC Talk song entitled “What If I Stumble?” (click for video):
What if I lose my step and I make fools of us all?
Will the love continue if my walk becomes a crawl?
Will the love continue if my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble? What if I fall?
The song begins with a quote:
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today
Is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips
Then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.
That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
Say what you will about commercial Christian music (or the ‘90s), but there’s definitely some prophetic foresight in this song. It led some of us, back in the day, to actually be nervous about witnessing about Jesus, not because we were ashamed of Jesus, but because we were worried our walks didn’t measure up. That our lives were not good enough. That we’d let Jesus down.
That we, or God, are somehow measured by what we accomplish, by our successes, or by our failures. That God’s love, grace and peace somehow wax and wane with our ability to embody them. Certainly, the sad history of the Church does little to assuage such fears.
Knowing this full well. Knowing how much we’d screw this up. Knowing that pain is as inevitable as the scars on his hands and the hole in his side, Jesus appears in our midst, shares a meal of cooked fish with us, and calls us to the stand to be his witnesses.
Jesus has burst out of the tomb, and Jesus urges us to come out of the closet or our shame and our guilt and our fear and our pain around being Christians, and to proudly be who we most truly are. Sinners saved by grace. Broken people healed by hope. Beloved children of an infinitely loving God who would not abandon us even when we betrayed and murdered Him.
We may feel ashamed of the church’s failures. Jesus is not ashamed of us. God is not ashamed of us.
Can you hear that spoken, not just from me, but through me by God’s spirit? God is not ashamed of you. Christ is not ashamed of you. I am not ashamed of you.
Grace means that it’s precisely us failures and closet-dwellers and betrayers and abandoners that God is proud to call to the witness stand to tell the story of grace.
Because here’s the thing: with or without the church and its failures, the world is going to be violent and messed up and oppressive and destructive. Without at all excusing the sordid history of the Church, humans of every belief system and lack thereof are equally accountable for the sadness of our existence. It’s why we talk about the fallenness of the world. It’s not a theory, but the most observable fact of our existence.
That Christians have been participants along side the others is not excusable, and ought to humble us. That Christians continue to allow it to happen, using the failures of our fellows and of ourselves as excuses to disengage, ought to challenge us.
That in God’s grace and love, and seeking God’s peace, God is pleased to call sinners to proclaim the Gospel should amaze us. Empower us. Heal us.
We were supposed to begin a discussion of our nine SWM Values today, and I had mentioned that today’s homily would introduce the reason for, the “why” of holding such things.
This is the reason. We are called to be witnesses in a beautiful, broken world. And witnessing, in word and in deed, is one of the most difficult things we can be asked to do in the age we live in. Not just because the church has failed. But because it has already died. It’s a relic whose corpse people spit on as they pass.
And we are called to be part of the resurrection of the Gospel. Our values are sign posts, seeds, chemical elements, out of which I hope we can start to create medicine for the healing of the world, for the practice of resurrection.
Because the scarred, hungry Jesus still walks in our midst. The pain of the world has not gone away. The beauty of the world has not faded. God is not dead. The Gospel is not scarred by those who have failed to understand it or practice it.
And even if it has been, that’s not our problem. Our problem, as a community of people whose lives have been touched, transformed and restored by our encounter with Jesus, is how we’re going to tell the story. Our story. Jesus’ story.
We are not responsible for the failures or the faithfulness of other Christians. You are not responsible of the failures or the faithfulness of other Christians. We are not responsible.
That is really good news. Yes, we are connected to them. Yes, we share communion with them. Yes, their and our failures should teach us humility and make us careful and compassionate in our witness.
But hear that again: we are not responsible for them. And we are not responsible for owning others’ pain for what has been done to them. We are responsible, we are called to heal, and to listen, and to care. But not to feel shame.
I’ve hesitated to use this line of thought for a long time because I don’t want to seem arrogant. I realize now that I didn’t want to put myself on the stand. While we will fail in our own ways, and disappoint each other, and commit our own regrettable acts of faithlessness, we are here because we have decided we want to be a different kind of Christian. We’re not going to let the lies define our pursuit of the truth.
We dare to hope that love makes all things new.
And I for one, this day, want to hear Jesus’ words addressed to us: you are witnesses. Not apologizers for the evils of Chrisitanity. But apologists, and proclaimers, and agents, of healing and restoration and practitioners of resurrection.
And our values tell a different story. They help us remember the truths of the story of Jesus.
These don’t exhaust the entirety of Christianity. But I believe they help us to unfold the Gospel that Jesus Christ reveals a God madly in love with sinners, who wants to give life and see God’s children fully alive, and that God has not given up on this good good world. That the church can be a space where questions are deeply lived, faith can be more than blind emotion or stale intellect, but a way of life practiced and experimented with together, and that our of this, we ourselves can nurture and cultivate life in the world around us. That in radically proclaiming God’s all-inclusive love and praciticng it in our welcome, we discover new members and resources for the priesthood of all, and go out to minister, celebrate, mourn, agitate, accompany, and advocate for others.
Elsewhere in the Gospels, when Jesus is taking to his disciples about going forth to preach, he exhorts them “don’t worry about what you’re going to say, for the Holy Spirit will give you words.” The Spirit. The Advocate. The Defense Attorney.
Not, “your perfect theology will sway them,” or “your progressive church’s pursuit of justice will win them,” or “your personal purity will woo them.” No. Our dependence on the Spirit. The help of the Creator. The grace of the Savior.
See, I think so often, we are led to shame because we’re not answering the right questions. The Spirit is the Advocate, the Public Defender. The Accuser, the Satan, is the Prosecutor. And we must remember whose side we are really on.
Perhaps our witness is so confused because we’re letting the Accuser set the terms of the conversation. The Prosecutor, who asks, “how have you failed?” “What do you lack?” “Does God really love you?” Against these ropes, we face a certain death of soul and self.
The Accuser’s questions are lies designed to bring about a guilty verdict. But the Advocate is there to defend us, to allow us to speak our truth, to believe in our original innocence, and to make sure that life is allowed to win.
The Advocate asks, “what dreams has God placed in your heart?” “How has God’s grace transformed your life?” “Where is God calling us to share our gifts in order to make the world new?”
Our values are one way we try to answer the Advocate’s challenge. They’re like jazz riffs and chord changes, musical scales or martial arts katas, that we can practice so that, when the moment to witness arises, they will speak through us, not only in words, but in lives that are fully lived.
Because in the end, that’s how Jesus witnesses. Not only with words, but by sharing his vulnerable, scar-pocked hands. By healing touch and ministering presence. By coming into the midst of friends-turned-enemies, and sharing a physical meal of fish in fellowship and forgiveness. With his flesh and blood, as well as his spirit and truth.
I am proud of the witness of this church. Too often, people accuse me of the Church’s many sins. They like to point to Donald Trump or Mike Pence or Jerry Falwell or Westboro Baptist or the priest who hurt them as a kid and act like they speak for all Christians. And while I try to listen with patience and compassion to the very real pain in an individual’s life, I also believe that the church right in front of them tells a different story.
I’d wager to say that anyone from the South Wedge who thinks the church, and by extension, the Gospel, is invalid because of “bad Christians” is simply ignoring the amazing body of evidence God has amassed right here between South Clinton and Mt Hope.
There is Artisan Church, which has defied it’s denominational restrictions by proclaiming and living LGBTQ equality. There’s Baber AME, who prophetically and radically refuses to accept the heresy of racism and white supremacy, and lives fully with the dignity and delight of children of God. There is St Joseph’s House of Hospitality, whose workers spend many sleepless nights sheltering the homeless and praying in the rain to make visible a tent village that the city and corporations would rather see disappear. And even the Pillar, with whom we have many disagreements, reaches out across borders and divisions to care for the needy and create a community whose diversity reflects the kingdom.
And I haven’t even started talking about the Mission yet! And I could go on and on about everything I love and am proud of in this community. But honestly, in addition to all our great collaborations with musicians and artists and political groups and activists, our amazing liturgy and beautiful music, our commitment to ecumenism and reconciliation, that’s not what I point to as evidence here.
I tell people about you. The people. Not some theoretical Christians elsewhere. Real flesh and blood. People who have shared their wounds with others in ministry. People who are generous with their gifts, and go with their bodies to be with those who suffer and those who celebrate. People who, without fanfare, serve as a priesthood of all believers in all the places they work, live, love and play.
I tell people about your stories. When people try to make me feel shame about the failures of the church, I remember that I am not responsible for other churches. I have to remember that I am also not responsible for this church. God’s grace is. God’s Spirit is.
God’s love and grace and peace is here, because God is not ashamed of you. God does not hold you responsible for the failures or faith of others. God has called you - each of you, and all of us together - to be living testimonies of the unfailing, world renewing love of God in Jesus Christ.
That’s something I hope you can proclaim proudly. Share one another’s burdens. Tell one another’s stories.
When someone else tries to force a conversation around Jesus that is weighted by the Accuser’s questions, refuse the terms. Have a conversation about Jesus that is shaped by the Advocate’s desire to see life abound, love increase, and peace reign.
Because God is not ashamed of you. I am not ashamed of you. And it is my prayer that, in owning and telling our stories, and the story of the God who loves sinners and is proud to share them with the world God loves, you will come to look forward to your next conversation about Jesus. And will share the amazing gift that you are to the world without shame. Without fear. With hope. And with joy.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
OPEN SPACE BLESSING
The following was passed from person to person during our 10 minute time of reflection following the sermon; the one who previously received the blessing became the anointer and thus took their place as part of the priesthood of all believers.
ANOINTER: ___________, beloved child of God,
God is not ashamed of you.
I am not ashamed of you.
Christ is not ashamed to call you as his witness,
scars and gifts and all.
You are not responsible for the failures of the Church.
You are not responsible for the experiences of others.
You are only responsible
to tell your own story, to share your own experience,
to own your own failures,
and to live as fully as possible,
so that through you,
others might also find freedom from shame,
and fullness of life
in the name of the Father, son and Holy Spirit.