Gratitude Lists: Sermon for Thanksgiving Week, 2014

Luke 17:11-19
17:11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.

17:12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance,

17:13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

17:14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.

17:15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.

17:16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

17:17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?

17:18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

17:19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Last Sunday a group of our third through fifth graders gathered at the church in the afternoon for our own Charlie Brown Thanksgiving dinner. If you’ve never seen “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”, or if it’s been a while, let me remind you what was on that menu: jelly beans, toast, popcorn, and pretzels. Not exactly turkey and mashed potatoes, but our kids seemed happy. Their parents, who we sent them home to after giving them lots of sugar? I’m not so sure.

Regardless, spending the afternoon with them helped put me in the Thanksgiving mood. That’s in part because as long as I can remember, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” has been a part of my Thanksgiving tradition. We always watched it in my house growing up. And I love it, except for one thing.

The story revolves around Charlie Brown, and Thanksgiving dinner. Charlie Brown is supposed to go to his grandmother’s for Thanksgiving. But before he can, his friend Peppermint Patty calls him and invites herself, and a group of other friends, over to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. And then, when she comes to dinner and gets served the improvised menu of popcorn and jelly beans, she criticizes her host and tells him that she is having a terrible Thanksgiving because of him.

That’s the part of the story that has always upset me, even as a small child. Because I always felt so bad for Charlie Brown who didn’t ask for guests on Thanksgiving, and who had done his best. And in the end he doesn’t even get a “thank you”.

ABC#00841I think, in an odd way, that Jesus would understand Charlie Brown. He knew what it was like to not even get a “thank you”. In today’s Scripture ten lepers, ten people who have been completely outcast from society, are following behind him. And they are calling out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Jesus tells them to go and see the priests, and as they leave he heals them. All ten of them suddenly are clean. No more leprosy. No more being outcast. No more pain.

They are only a little ways down the road from Jesus when this happens, and they suddenly realize they have been healed. And as soon as it happens one of them, a Samaritan, turns around and runs back to him. And he begins praising God, and falls at Jesus’ feet thanking him.

But Jesus realizes that he’s the only one. And he asks, “Wait a minute…didn’t I heal ten of you? And only you, a Samaritan who doesn’t even share our faith, came back to praise God?”

When we read this story, we all know what the other nine should have done. They should have come back, right? They should have praised God. They should have said “thank you”. It’s as obvious as the fact that Peppermint Patty shouldn’t have invited herself over for Thanksgiving dinner. And any of us who grew up being told to write thank you notes, and have good manners know that.

But is this really just about good etiquette? Or is it something more?

I believe good manners and thank you notes are important, but I also believe that the Gospel is rarely just about social niceties. Jesus wasn’t upset that he was missing nine thank you notes. It went much deeper than that.

And that’s because this is about gratitude. And gratitude always goes deep. Because gratitude is about more than just saying “thanks”, though that’s important. It’s about living a life of thanksgiving.

That’s an important distinction to make this week as we approach Thanksgiving Day. Because come Thursday we will be sitting at our tables, enjoying dinner, celebrating with friends and family. And there may even be that moment when everyone goes around the table and names something for which they are grateful. And that’s all wonderful.

But, if that moment of gratitude ends as soon as the pumpkin pie is put away on Thursday night, then we are doing it all wrong. Because giving thanks is not something that should happen once a year. Hopefully we know that, but sometimes our actions don’t always show it.

Many others have pointed it out, but have you ever considered the irony of how on Thanksgiving we talk about how grateful we are for all we have. And then the next day (or even that same night) we start the annual run-up to Christmas where we try to get even more? I think it goes to show that gratitude is an incredibly fleeting feeling. It doesn’t take long to lose.

I think that’s because gratitude takes work. Because the thing about gratitude is that it’s more than just counting our blessings. Like I said last week, we aren’t blessed just to be blessed. We are blessed for a reason. And likewise, when we receive grace of any kind, it’s not enough just to receive it. We are called to do more. We are called to respond to it.

And that’s what gratitude is all about. It’s about responding to the grace we have received. And when Jesus healed the ten, and only one showed any kind of response, any kind of gratitude, I think that’s what bothered Jesus the most. It wasn’t just Peppermint Patty inviting herself to dinner. It was Jesus offering something life changing, and only one out of ten recognizing it.

Because in the end, that’s what it means to be grateful. It’s to see the way your life has been changed by the blessings you have received. And it’s about more than just saying “thank you”. It’s about deciding to live your life as a “thank you”.

I sometimes wonder if Jesus didn’t care much about being thanked. He wasn’t someone who did things for accolades after all. But maybe why he really wanted to know whether or not those nine other people were grateful is because he wanted to know if the lives of those other nine people had been changed. Maybe he wanted to know if their whole lives would now become “thank yous.”

And maybe he wanted to know that they had been healed for something, and not just from something.

We can read this story and think, “How could their lives not be changed?” And we reassure ourselves that we would do things differently if we were one of the nine. But sometimes I wonder, “Would I?” I sure hope so, but I’ll bet those nine people who kept on going thought they would too.

And I wonder, did they keep going because they somehow justified it? Did they think maybe they had deserved the healing? Did they think they had done it themselves? Were they so excited they forgot to turn around? Or, when the healing happened, did everything change so radically that all they could think about was “what next”? And all of a sudden they had a whole other set of things to worry about.

I think we’ve all had those experiences. We have wanted something so badly that when we got it we forgot to be grateful. We just moved on to the next step, the next want. I think that’s why all too often Thanksgiving becomes a once a year holiday, and not a daily practice.

But what if it doesn’t have to be that way?

People in the recovery community have long used a tool called a “gratitude list”. The idea is that when things feel hard, or when it feels like nothing is good in your life, that’s when you make a list of all that you have to be thankful for. The first time someone told me to make a gratitude list I immediately felt less-than-grateful for them. But I tried it.

And what I found is this. There is no way, for me at least, to make that list and not feel grateful. You start with the easy things: I have a warm place to live, I have enough food to eat, I am safe. And then you move on to the deeply meaningful things: I have people I love who love me. I have meaning. Until finally you reach this conclusion: I have more than I need. I have plenty to give away. I have a life I can give to God to use.

Gratitude can change everything. Our mood. Our actions. Our lives.

And the best news is this: it’s never too late. I don’t know what happened to those nine who didn’t come back to Jesus that day. But, I wonder if they came back later. I wonder if they were there in the end. Maybe they finally realized what they had been given, and they couldn’t help but to live their lives as “thank yous”.

The same is true for us. We have all been given so much to say “thank you” for in our lives. It’s not too late to use our lives to say that thanks. And this week is as good a time as any to start.

Last Sunday, before their Thanksgiving meal, our third, fourth and fifth graders all worked together on a craft project. They made turkeys out of paper plates and coffee filters and muffin wrappers. And they glued on leaves that said “you are blessed”. Those turkeys will go out today in our Thanksgiving baskets which are going to people who need the meals.

But I think our young people got that those leaves that said “you are blessed” were meant for them too. I think they understood that as afterwards they filled their plates with jellybeans and popcorn and we watched Charlie Brown. Because I think that sometimes the ones among us who still find joy in the smallest of gifts, even an afternoon spent serving others and having a little fun, understand gratitude the most.

I hope it’s something we continue to teach them, this intersection of joy and gratitude. But, equally important, I hope it’s something they continue to teach us. Because this Thanksgiving, I hope we take a page from them, and that we live a life of everyday joy, and everyday giving. And may each day, from this November until next, be a day of living our lives as a Thanksgiving to God. Amen.

The Danger of Building Bigger Barns – Sermon for August 4, 2013

image14Every UCC pastor participates in the pension fund for our denomination. The idea is that years from now when we retire we’ll have enough put away so that we can live. When I came here three years ago I had to get set up in the pension program and we called the UCC offices and had them send me a registration packet.

It arrived and it was, literally, about an inch thick. There were brochures about all sorts of different funds and investment strategies. I was lost. I had no clue whether I was supposed to have an aggressive approach to investing or a semi-aggressive one or balanced or conservative. I panicked. Finally I called family members with a better head for investments than me and took their advice.

I know more about investing now, but the fact remains that for most of us the idea of investing makes us uneasy. We often don’t know if we’re doing it right. Are we putting enough away? Are we putting it in the right places? Will there be enough for us down the line?

These are not new problems. They apparently were very much present even 2000 years ago when a man called out to Jesus from the crowd saying, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Even Jesus seems a little reluctant to talk about it. He tells the man, “Who made me the arbitrator?” But he goes on. He warns, “”Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

And then he tells this story: There was a man who had some land and he was doing very well. He had a lot of crops, a high yield. But he realized he didn’t have enough room to store it all. So he takes down his barns, and he builds even bigger ones in their place. He says to himself, I’ve got it made. I’ve got enough for years now. I’m going to relax and eat, drink and be merry.

Except, Jesus says, the man’s life is demanded of him that night. And now what good does all that stored up grain do? And who does it belong to? He ends by telling us that it’s the same as those who store up things for themselves but are not rich in their relationships with God.

Unlike the man who builds a bigger barn so that he can horde his wealth, Jesus reminds us that we have to take the even longer view. We have to look not just at our lives, but at the life eternal. We have to look past what we can forsee, and look at what we don’t even understand yet. And then we have to fill our barns only as much as we need.

Do we take what we have and do we store it up in barns? Do we cram those barns with far more than we could ever use? Do we sit back and say, “Now I have enough…now I can relax?? Because the reality is, no matter how much we get, we will never have “enough”. We will always think that we need more.

I was reading an article from the New York Times recently. It was about storage units, the kind where you take the stuff you can’t fit anymore in your house and put it into a small room that you rent. And if you’ve ever been to a storage unit place, you know that there are row after row of these little rooms, each renting for a pretty good monthly sum.

The article was talking about how even in a recession, in a time when a lot of other industries are having to downscale, the storage market is growing. There are new ones opening up all the time. The article offered a statistic that blew me away: “by the early ’90’s, American families had, on average, twice as many possessions as they did 25 years earlier.”

When you think about that, it sure does say a lot about who we are, and what we value. It says a lot about what we hold on to, and what we invest in. And it says a lot about where we put our faith. We are building bigger barns, and we are, quite literally, storing up the stuff that won’t save us.

There’s a phrase you may have heard before: you can’t take it with you. We all know it. And we know that the subtext is that we can’t take the money or the things or anything else that we have accumulated in this life on to the next. And that’s true.

Yesterday we had Shirley Meade’s funeral here at the church, and we had a time of sharing where the people who had come could tell stories about what they remembered about her. And the one thing that kept coming up time and again was her generosity. People were saying what she had done for them, and what she had given to them. It struck me that not a one cared how much she may or may not have had stored away…all they cared about was what she did with it. And she was remembered for it.

But this is not a lesson that applies just to life and death. It’s a lesson for ministry as well, as in the ministry that we are all engaged in together. You can’t take it with you if you truly want to follow Christ. You can’t be so tied down to the stuff that you want to hold on to, both literally and figuratively, that you are afraid to follow Christ to the new places you are called.

I think that the Wilmington church knew that. They knew God wasn’t done with them yet, and they knew that there was a lot of ministry left in them. And so, rather than storing up their treasure in a building they loved, but that they didn’t need anymore, and rather than keeping their money tied up in its upkeep, they decided to let go, and to follow Christ.

It’s a powerful lesson, and it can guide us now. What fears are holding us back from doing the work we want to do? How are we building bigger barns, and packing them to the rafters, when we should be sharing our abundance with others? What are we holding onto out of fear that we might not get it again? What are we treating like a limited resource, instead of a gift given by God for us to share?

This isn’t just about money or stuff, though it is about those things too. This is about all that we are given. It’s about our time. It’s about our talents. It’s about our love. And it’s about not being afraid to use it. You may remember that song from when we were kids called, “This Little Light of Mine.” One of the lines is, “Hide it under a bushel? No. I’m going to let it shine.”

It’s the same way with all we are given by God. “Hide it up in a barn? No. I’m going to share it with God.”

I’m talking about using the barn to store what you need, but not making that barn your god. Not making your fear and anxiety over not having enough in the future dictate your whole life. And not making the need to fill that barn to the rafter dictate your happiness. It will never be enough. There will never be a barn that is big enough to hold all the things our fears want us to hold onto…unless you let go, and trust in God’s abundance.

This morning and this afternoon, this parish is going to partake in two meals together. The first is already set for us. It consists only of a loaf of bread, and a cup of grape juice. It’s nearly the simplest meal you can think of, and yet, it is the one Jesus chose for us. When you think about that, it’s pretty amazing. God incarnate got to set out a meal for us to eat for centuries, one in which Christ would be spiritually with us, and it wasn’t a four course dinner from a well-known chef. It was just a humble meal. And it was enough.

Then later, we will share another meal together. Our all church picnic is taking place out on the grounds. Last night I went to the grocery store and bought some stuff for the church just in case we didn’t have enough or people forgot to bring something. And I was worried that I hadn’t gotten enough, and I was going to go back and get some burgers, but then it struck me: when have I ever been to a church potluck where there hasn’t been enough? At this church, we typically have the opposite problem. I can’t remember a time I haven’t been sent home with a plate of extras.

But every time, every single time, we worry….will there be enough?

That’s not atypical. Everyone does it. I’m sure it happens at every church. But, eventually, we can’t ignore the fact that more often than not we are living in abundance. We have far more than we will ever need. And we have been blessed with more than we can use. And so we have two choices…build a bigger barn? Or decide that we will trust in the God who has blessed us so deeply enough to open our doors, release our fears, and bless others with us. Amen.

Prayer and Action: Sermon for July 28, 2013

200px-Super_Bowl_XVII_Logo.svgSome of the first prayers I ever remember saying were during football games. My family is full of Redskins fans, and my dad in particular takes games very seriously. I remember being about six years old and watching the Redskins play the Dolphins in the Super Bowl. We were watching them on TV, and I could see everyone was so intent and so anxious. And so, though I didn’t understand much about God or prayer or how to pray, I kept praying that the pass on third and long would connect, or the field goal would make it through the uprights.

The Redskins won that Super Bowl, and I thought I was on to something good. Joe Theismann did okay that game, but I held myself personally responsible for praying the way to that Lombardi trophy. But the next year, the Skins went to the Super Bowl again. And this time they played the Raiders. And, despite my best attempts at prayer, the Skins were absolutely crushed.

It was probably my first experience of religious disillusionment.

I don’t pray about football much these days. Though I still sometimes catch myself saying, “Oh please, God, let him catch it,” and I feel a little embarrassed. I don’t think it’s ever wrong to talk to God, but I still feel self-conscious and like I’m doing something wrong. I still want to know, “Am I praying the right way?”

Maybe you’ve asked that too. If you have, you’re not alone. Even back in Jesus’ day, people were wondering if they were praying the right way. And one day one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, teach us how to pray.”

Jesus responds by teaching them a prayer that we recite here every week, and that Christians around the world have recited daily since: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

It sounds a little different than the words we say now, but there’s no mistaking that it’s the Lord’s Prayer. And it’s as close as we have ever gotten to a perfect prayer. And that makes sense, because it came right from the source.

When you look at the prayer, just in those few lines, there is so much there that is so rich. Jesus calls God “Father”, which means he is inviting us to enter into a conversation which is personal, and loving. We ask that God’s reign would come. We ask for our daily bread, trusting for God to provide what we need. And ask forgiveness, and we ask for help forgiving others. And, finally, we ask God to keep us safe, and out of harm’s way.

Really, everything you need is in that prayer. If there is such a thing as a “right way to pray”, this is it.

So, that being said, why didn’t Jesus just stop talking then? Why is there the rest of this passage? Jesus tells a story about a man who goes to a friend’s house late at night because he needs somethings and he knocks on the door. The friend shouts, “go away, I’m sleeping”. But the man still knocks, and eventually the man gets up and gives his friend what he needs. Jesus tells us, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.”

He’s talking about prayer. He’s talking about the persistence of prayer. And he’s saying that when we care enough to keep knocking, God will answer. Jesus then tells his disciples, “You wouldn’t give your kids a snake if they asked for a fish, and you wouldn’t give your kids a scorpion when they ask for an egg, right? So why would God, who loves us as a parent, and who is a far better parent than any of us could ever be, withhold what we need from us?”

Now at this point you might be thinking, “that’s all very good and well, but I have prayed before and nothing has changed.” Maybe you prayed for something you really and truly needed, not just a football game, and you didn’t get what you need. Or maybe you prayed for someone you loved dearly who needed healing, and you ended up losing them anyway. Or maybe you have just cried out asking, “God, are you there”, but you haven’t had any response.

I wish I could give you an easy answer at this point, one that explained all that, but the fact is that I can’t, and it would be condescending for me to try. And at this point a lot of people would quote the words of CS Lewis, a well-known Christian writer, who once said, “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

And, he’s right about one part of that. Prayer does change us. If you’ve ever gotten into a regular routing of praying, you know that. Your attention shifts. Your priorities change. You feel your life change in ways that make it better.

Two of my favorite prayers, the Prayer of St. Francis, and the Serenity Prayer, are two good examples of prayer that changes us. They teach us how to order our lives. They remind us of what matters and what we can do. And if we really mean what we pray, they change us.

And that, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. But if prayer were only a one-sided conversation with ourselves, it wouldn’t be all that much better than something written by a motivational speaker. We would feel good, but where is God in all that?

Prayer is not just about us. It’s about God, and it’s about a conversation that we are having with God. And time and again in Scripture, we are provided with examples of a God who does listen to us, and who does respond. That doesn’t always mean that we get what we want, and that doesn’t always mean that we are answered with a “yes”, but it does mean that, somehow, we get what we need. As Jesus said, God would hand us snakes and scorpions, and God’s door won’t go unanswered.

But, on our side, that means that we have to be a part of that conversation too. And sometimes that means that we have to recognize that prayer is more than just words. It’s not just a wish made to God. Sometimes the best kind of prayer can be our own action.

In the aftermath of the recent Oklahoma tornadoes, I saw a lot of people on TV and online saying, “pray for Oklahoma”. A few days later, some atheist groups countered with their own saying: “actually do something for Oklahoma”. Now, you all know that I don’t think atheists should be the punching bag for people of faith. They have their belief, and we have ours, but I remember thinking, “I don’t think you understand what prayer means.” Because praying for Oklahoma and actually doing something for Oklahoma are not mutually exclusive.

I do believe that prayer in and of itself is action. It’s asking for God’s involvement. But prayer doesn’t have to stop with words. In fact. prayer cannot just stop with words if it is real. Prayer can take many forms. And actions can be prayers as well.

When you write out a donation to disaster relief, that is a prayer. When you go and help rebuild houses, that’s a prayer. When you give food to those who are hungry, that’s a prayer. When you work for justice and peace, that’s a prayer. And when you get up in the morning, and get out of bed, and commit yourself to loving the people around you as best as you possibly can, that’s a prayer too.

If you are really intent on this Christian life, if you are really committed to prayer, then there is one way to live, and that is to live your life as a prayer. No matter where you are or what you are doing, use this one life you have to pray without ceasing. Make prayer your way of being in the world, and not something that you fall back on only when you need something. If you do that, everything will change. Because you cannot knock on that door for long before, one way or another, God will answer.

I’ll close with this. Many of you know that this weekend was the 50th anniversary of t he West Dover Fire Department. A few of us from our congregation are currently involved in the department, and many more have been for some time. I learned this weekend that members from our congregation were among those responsible for starting that department. People like Frank Smith, Paul Kammerlen, and Eddie Barber. I really think that what they did was a form of prayer. It was a form of communicating their love for God and neighbor into action.

And now 50 years later new generations go out in the middle of the night to pray themselves. West Dover, East Dover, Deerfield Valley Rescue, Ski Patrol, and our Dover Police. They pray by serving their neighbors. And that is a prayer that is always pleasing and acceptable to God. People like that teach us how to pray by what they do, not what they say. By living their life as a prayer.

There’s a capacity for all of us to do that, whether we wear a uniform or not. It starts when we go to God in prayer, but prayer is never complete until we commit to living that prayer. May God bless our prayers, and show us how to live our life as a prayer. And may all of our prayers glorify God. Amen.

Unlikely Disciples and the Roadmap of Grace: Sermon for June 16, 2013

"Anointing His Feet", by Wayne Forte

“Anointing His Feet”, by Wayne Forte

Soon after I moved to Massachusetts, I met a friend whose Christian life really impressed me. She was involved heavily in her church and she did a lot of outside ministry work too And she carried herself with a humility but also a quiet certainty of who God was and who she belonged to.

I attributed it to the fact that she had grown up with a parent who was in the clergy. I thought surely that was what had shaped her faith and her interests. And one night we were talking and she was telling me about some of the ministries she was involved in. And one of the ones to which she was most devoted was a ministry to people in prison. And so, I asked her what had caused her to get interested in prison ministry.

She replied, simply: prison

What I hadn’t know until that point was that she herself had done time. As a young woman she had battled a serious addiction. And one night she made the choice to get high, and she stole a car. And she ended up going from a well-known New England prep school to serving several years in a Georgia prison

I was thinking about her when I was reading this text because this is the classic text about unlikely disciples. Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s home to eat dinner, and you should always be a little wary of dinner invitations from Pharisees, because it’s probably less about getting to know you, and more about looking for what you’re doing wrong

And on this night, something scandalous happened. A woman, who was apparently known to be a sinner, came into the dinner party. She had a jar of expensive oils with her. And on the ground she wept and washed his feet with her own tears. And then she anointed them with the oil.

The Pharisees were aghast. This was all the evidence they needed that this man was not a prophet. If he were, he would have known who she was, and he would never have let her come near him.

But of course he does. Jesus lets everyone come to him. He allows her to bathe his feet with her own tears. Tears shed for a life ill lived. Tears shed for a redemption that is to come.

And he uses it to teach them.

Jesus asks Simon about a man who forgives two debts. One is small. And the one who is forgiven does love the man who does it. But one is big, and how much more does that person receive in the forgiveness? The one whose life is changed most drastically will become the one who most loves the one who forgives.

For the woman who was washing his feet, who probably was Mary Magdalene, there had been a life of bad choices. And yet she was one of the first to recognize the grace that was in Christ. So much so, that it is she, not the disciples, who anoints Jesus for the first time. Her debt had been large, and now she saw it being forgiven purely out of Christ’s love for her.

Sometimes the people who need grace the most are the first to really understand it when it’s offered. And sometimes they are the people who we never would have expected.

In college our chaplain was a man named Sammy. And he had gone to seminary in New York City during the 1950’s, but afterwards he returned back to south Georgia, where he had grown up. And one of the reasons he came back was that he wanted to work for civil rights.

One Sunday he delivered a sermon about segregation to his entirely white congregation. And afterwards someone came up to him and said, “some people aren’t too happy about your sermon.” And the same guy said, “you see that man over there? He’s the head of the Klan here in south Georgia.”

From that point on Sammy and the head of the Klan butted heads, and it was made clear to Sammy that he was not wanted there. And then, one night, he got a call. It was the Klan leader asking him to meet him out at a bar on the highway. This was the sort of bar where there was a lot of drinking and fighting and sympathy for the Klan, and he was a little worried about why he was being called out there.

But when he got there, the Klan leader was sitting at a table. And he was broken. And he told him how he couldn’t stop drinking, and how his wife was leaving him, and how his whole world was falling apart and now he was questioning everything about how he had lived his life. And he said to Sammy, “Reverend, would you pray for me.”

And Sammy looked around at the bar and said, “Here?”

And the man replied, “Pastor, don’t you believe in Jesus?”

This man whom he had disagreed with in every possible way taught him something about the grace of God that night. First, that no one is beyond it. And second, that Jesus is everywhere waiting for us to accept it. Even in that south GA roadside bar, and even to a Klansman.

Sometimes the best representatives of Jesus’s grace are not people who have led perfect lives. Sometimes they are people who have struggled to make the right choices. Sometimes they have a past. Sometimes there are things that seem shameful. But they are often the best witnesses to the fact that Jesus’s grace can find you, no matter where you are.

For the disciples this was an issue. They were already facing problems. And now the face of the movement, this man they followed, was letting this woman with a past touch him in front of the Pharisees. It didn’t look good. Surely there were “better people” who could attest to who Jesus was.

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar the scene is played out like this, with Judas singing these words:

It seems to me a strange thing, mystifying
That a man like you can waste his time on women of her kind.
Yes, I can understand that she amuses,
But to let her kiss you, stroke your hair, that’s hardly in your line.
It’s not that I object to her profession,
But she doesn’t fit in well with what you teach and say.
It doesn’t help us if you’re inconsistent.
they only need a small excuse to put us all away.

Judas was right. They only needed a small excuse. But he was wrong about the rest. No one could preach to the grace of Christ more than this woman could. And so when he sings about “wasting your time on women of her kind” he couldn’t be farther off the mark. Unfortunately, that’s how society, and often the church, sees some people sometimes. As wastes of time.

But they are not wastes of time, but are often the best witnesses to Christ’s grace. Last week I told you the story of a ministry in Nashville called Magdalene House, and the business the women run called Thistle Farms. I didn’t tell you what some people in Nashville often said about this ministry. Things like, “Why waste your time and the church’s resources on these prostitutes. Use it on “nice” people.”

This church was the sore spot for the diocese. Never got funding, etc. They were sort of ashamed of it.  Yet this program changes lives. Women who had been left for dead are now self-sufficient, healthy, and full of hope.

And they also become witnesses.

I participated in a baptism service for them once in a river. You could almost feel the release of the past, and the river could have been their own tears. And I wondered, why are these women’s stories not plastered in every church in the diocese? This is grace. This is what the Gospel is all about.

We’re the church and this is what we do. We welcome people with a past. Because there are things in all of our lives that we regret. The ones who accept Christ’s grace belong here the most because they are some of Christ’s best witnesses to the Resurrection, because they themselves have been resurrected.

The thing that I’m always struck with about people who have truly been transformed by God’s grace is that they don’t deny where they came from. They may not tell you about it all the time, but they don’t deny where they were. Part of that is because they’ve come to realize no matter where they were, Jesus was already there. They never would have found a way out if he hadn’t been there, offering his grace.

Hhe was there in prison with my friend who served time. he was there in the roadside bar with the klansmen. and he was there on skid row in Nashville with the women who were trying to escape a life of addiction and being treated as commodities. And he’s there in all the dark places of our lives.

Our affiliation with the UCC teaches us that. The United Church of Christ has a slogan: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And that’s the truth of the Gospel. We are welcomed no matter where we have been. And we are welcomed because where we’ve been is not where we are ultimately going.

Our past brought us here today, and it informs our journey. But it does not dictate it. Only Christ does. And grace is our only roadmap on the journey of life.

If it can find the young woman in prison, the alcoholic at the roadhouse, and the women on the streets, then surely it can find us. And it is only when we truly receive that grace, that we can truly follow Jesus. Without it, the words of the Gospel are hollow. But with it, they are everything. May Christ’s grace illumine even the darkest corners of our lives, and bring us all to the table with him. Amen.

“You Are My Witnesses” – Sermon for April 22, 2012

When you hear the word “witness”, what’s the first thing you think about? For most of us it’s about some sort of a trial. The witness for the prosecution. The witness for the defense. Or maybe someone quoted in a newspaper as the witness to some news-worthy event. Witness is generally just a term for us that means, “someone who saw what happened”.

 

I had to be a witness once. It wasn’t for a criminal trial or anything that serious. I had stopped to help someone after I saw a fairly minor car accident. No one was hurt, but the two drivers disagreed about who was at fault and the police asked me exactly what happened. I stood there trying to remember every little detail. I didn’t want to give the wrong information and then let the wrong people be at fault.

 

It’s a hard job. You know that you have the responsibility to tell the truth about what happened, and you want to make sure you’re doing it right.

 

What’s true for minor traffic accidents is even more true when it comes to our faith. Last week we read one account of what happened when Jesus appeared to his disciples. We read about how he appeared to them and showed his wounds, and they all believed. Except for poor Thomas who showed up late.

 

That was John’s account. This morning we read Luke’s, who mercifully let’s Thomas off the hook. Instead he talks about how Jesus came and, far from the instant belief the disciples professed last week, they were terrified. They acted like they had seen a ghost. And Jesus asks them, “Why are you frightened?” He reassures them that he is not a ghost and he even has them give him some fish so that he can eat and prove it.

 

And then, when they’ve started to believe it’s really him, he goes back to doing what he had done the whole time he knew them. He teaches. He tells them why what happened happened, and how his life and death fulfilled the Scriptures. And he tells them that he is the Messiah and is risen, and that now forgiveness should be proclaimed to all.

 

And then he tells them one last thing: “You are witnesses of these things.”

 

Now being a witness the way the disciples were asked to be a witness is a little different than the witness I was. The police officer came and I gave the report of what happened, and she asked how they could call me if the case went to trial. I gave my number, but I never heard from them again. That day I got back in my car and went about my way, and I assume it all worked out. I haven’t really thought about it since.

 

But for the disciples, when Jesus told them that day that they were witnesses, something else happened. They couldn’t walk away. They couldn’t forget. They couldn’t just give their police report and wait for a call to testify that may or may not come. Witnesses couldn’t be passive. They were now a part of the story.

 

The Biblical word for witnesses, the word in the original Greek, is “martureo”. It’s the same word that we know today as “martyr”. Originally to be a “martyr” was to be a “witness”. And through the centuries we’ve come to associate the word with dying for a cause, usually dying for the faith.

 

There’s a reason for that. So many of the early Christians, including many of these disciples, ended up dying for their witness, literally dying for their belief. And so when we hear martyr now we think of someone who paid the ultimate price.

 

But this isn’t about being killed for your belief. Thankfully we live in a country where we have freedom of belief and no one is going to kill us for being Christians. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t still hard. Because this is about you or I dying. Not in the literal sense. But it is about a death of another kind. This is about dying to our own selfishness, our own passiveness, our own pursuit for lives of comfort instead of lives of meaning. This is about dying to the worse parts of ourselves and instead finding life in Christ.

 

This is about choosing to live your life as a witness. Not the kind of witness who can go home and forget about it after the police report is filed, but the kind of witness that the disciples were called to be. The kind that not only sees what happened, not only tells what happened, but who is so transformed by what happened that they can’t help but become a new person because of it. They can’t help but act like a person who has seen this risen Lord. And their lives and actions reflect it.

 

When you think of witnesses to Christ, who do you think of? Are they the early disciples? Are they figures from church history like Martin Luther? Are they Christians from the last hundred years who have done great things like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King?

 

Those are all witnesses to the risen Christ. No doubt. But they aren’t the only ones.

 

You don’t have to get front page headlines to be a good witness to Christ. In fact, in most cases those might work against you. Instead, you just have to do this: you have to live your life in such a way that others look at you and see God’s grace and love at work  in you.

 

You don’t have to do something great in the sense of feeding a nation or winning civil rights or starting the Protestant Reformation. You just need to do the small things with a great love for Christ.

 

Your purpose in life, in everything you do, is to remember Christ’s call to the disciples, and to you: you are witnesses. You are the ones who tell the story of Christ’s grace and love.

 

That’s true in the way you raise your kids, and the way you love your family. That’s true in the way you work, and the way you volunteer. That’s true in how you treat your neighbors. That’s true in the way you decide to use the things God has given you. How you use your talents. How you spend your money. How you share your excess. That’s true in every choice that you make.

 

It’s going to look different for each of us. Growing up I’d hear about classmates of mine in more fundamentalist churches who would go “witnessing for Christ” door to door. They’d knock on doors and try to convert whoever answered, usually by preaching fire and brimstone That wasn’t the kind of witness I wanted to be.

 

Later I come to understand that being a witness to Christ seldom involved words, but always involved actions. I understood that being a witness to Christ meant living into the greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

It means that in this world that so often feels like Good Friday, I’m supposed to witness to Easter with my life. I’m supposed to witness that the destruction and hate and fear of the world do not win, and that God has created new life where there was no hope, and grace where there was none.

 

That’s my calling. And that’s yours too. Because that’s the calling, that’s the job, of every Christian.

 

The other night the deacons met and we talked about how we could be witnesses to Christ’s resurrection in our community. We talked about how we want to be a church that exists not just for ourselves, but for everyone here in the valley, whether they worship with us or not. We talked about mission. Mission is at the heart of every church and those that do it well usually thrive spiritually. No church has ever thrived by focusing only inwardly. And they shouldn’t because those aren’t churches. Those aren’t communities of witnesses to Christ.

 

The good news is we have a heart for mission here. We financially support the food pantry, Habitat for Humanity, and others. We donate books to Kurn Hattin. We open our doors to 12 Step Groups and youth activities. We volunteer our time locally. We do a lot.

 

And we can do more. The other night we talked about what it would look like to offer a free meal here at the church once a month or so. A meal that would feed our community both in body and spirit. One that would fill both those who don’t have quite enough to eat and those who feel isolated. One where we would join our neighbors at the table as well. I think it’s a great idea. And I think there are probably dozens more just like it.

 

We are about to enter this visioning process. One of the core areas we will be looking at is mission, and how to do it well. And really, mission is about telling the story. It’s about Christ appearing to us and telling us to spread the news with our lives.

 

As Christ said, “you are my witnesses”. That’s true for us all. And that is good news, because when we put our hands and voices together, Christ’s love can be heard and felt through this whole valley. I’m ready. Witnesses, are you? Amen.