“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.

“Speak Lord, for Your servant is listening.” – Sermon for January 15, 2012

1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
3:1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

3:2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;

3:3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.

3:4 Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”

3:5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.

3:6 The LORD called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”

3:7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

3:8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.

3:9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

3:10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

On Sunday mornings for decades now the pastor of this church has preached the same sermon, and offered the same service in one church and then driven six miles to the next and done it all again. Today’s the last time the pastor of this church does that. Today’s the last time Alan plays the same hymns at both places. Today’s the last time we make that quick run out of the door of one church and into the door of the other. It’s the last time we worry about making it down the road in time.

 

In many way the two churches are the same, and in worship each Sunday we do the exact same things. But so many times in the past year and a half I have wanted to preach one thing to Wilmington and one to West Dover, because both churches have been in such different places in their lives. And I came to truly believe that God was calling both churches to something new, and that each needed to listen for it. And today, I can tell you that I truly believe that both have.

 

Today’s Scripture reading talks about a young prophet named Samuel. He’s been taken to the temple and his life has been dedicated to serving Eli, one of the priests there. And one night it’s growing dark, and he can’t see well, and he starts to fall asleep. And then there’s a voice: “Samuel, Samuel.” He runs to Eli, but Eli tells him “I didn’t call…go back to bed.” Again, he starts to slip into sleep and hears, “Samuel!” He runs to Eli who tells him, “I didn’t call you this time either.” So he goes back. And then a third time, “Samuel, Samuel.” And this time Eli catches on. And he tells him, if you hear it again, say this, “Speak, God…for your servant is listening.”

 

In the United Church of Christ, the denomination that both of these churches belong to, we have a saying. We say, “God is still speaking.” That means that God didn’t just speak to people like Samuel thousands of years ago. God speaks to us today. And our job, as God’s people, is to learn to say, “speak God…for your servant is listening.” And then, we have to listen.

 

When I came here twenty months ago, I told the members of Wilmington that I knew the idea of closing the church had been around for some time, but that I didn’t have any agenda one way or another. My only agenda was to help us learn to listen for God’s voice, and to listen for what God was calling us to do next.

 

I’m really proud of the way that the members of Wilmington did just that. They listened to what God was saying to them, both in prayer, and by looking around at their community and asking what God would have them do. They looked at towns that were getting smaller, a society where compulsory church attendance is no longer the norm, and the fact that two like minded ministries were just six miles apart. And unlike back before the early 20th century, we don’t have to saddle up the horses on Sunday mornings to make it to church on snowy, unpaved roads. We just have to make a short trip now.

 

The needs of the people of God have changed. And we are being called to do something new. And we have been provided for by generations that came through those church doors and committed what they had to the ministry of the Wilmington Church. And we might be thinking right now that when we close the doors for the last time we might be betraying that legacy. But we’re not. In fact, we are making sure it lives.

 

The people who founded the Wilmington church back in the 1700’s didn’t come from Wilmington. They came mostly from Massachusetts and their families from England before that. They had gotten onto boats, often because they believed their faith compelled them to do it. They believed they had to leave the only home they knew in order to find the place where God was calling them to go. And it must have been terrifying.

 

And yet they went. They were called Puritans and they believed they were building a “city upon a hill” in Massachusetts. They didn’t always get it right, but they tried. And by the time their children and grandchildren pushed forth into Vermont we called their houses of worship Congregational churches. And then over the years we became the United Church of Christ. And we began to proclaim that “God is still speaking” and that we were ready to listen. And so, we did. And we heard what God was calling us to do next.

 

Our founders, and the good church people who came through the doors for years, wouldn’t be disappointed in us. They’d be proud of us. They were people who understood what it meant to say “here I am, Lord” and to listen for what God said next.

 

The people at West Dover have been listening too. So many people in the congregation have asked how they could welcome the members of Wilmington. So many have expressed gratitude for the fact that Wilmington has made the gracious stewardship gesture to give what they had to West Dover. Wilmington could have spent down to their last dollar keeping the doors open, but they chose instead to invest in West Dover’s ministry. And West Dover responded by saying, “We want you to work from us from the get go. We want to help you preserve the legacy, and the vision, of all those generations from Wilmington. We want to own it with you.” And when the West Dover church council made the decision to welcome new members from Wilmington into leadership, I couldn’t have been more proud. Because it showed that we were listening for what God was doing next. It showed we believe that God, just like one of those Puritan ministers said so long ago, “has more truth and light yet to break forth”.

 

Now that’s not to say that all of things are certain. That’s not to say that we are all hope and no sadness. Or that we have all the answers, and none of the questions. That’s not to say that we know what church will look like for us in a year or five or ten. That’s just to say that God is, indeed, still speaking. God still has more truth and light. And God is going to be there with us wherever our journey takes us, just like God was there in those boats that crossed the Atlantic, and with those early Congregational settlers who came up here. Just like God was with Samuel.

 

There’s a temptation in times of change to panic and to want every question to be answered immediately. And you probably have questions, and ideas, and thoughts about what should happen next. We all do. And I want to hear them. From all of you. Because I believe that God is truly speaking to all of us, just like God spoke to Samuel. I truly believe that God is about to tell us what God wants us to do next. And like Eli sending Samuel back to listen to God’s word, I believe we are being called to stop and listen with prayerful hearts to what God is saying to us. We have to all be willing to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” and to really mean it.

 

I’d like for us, as members of both churches, to say that together, and then to listen together. I’d like for us to be Samuels, listening for God’s voice in the night. And I’d like for us to be open to the idea that maybe God is going to have words to speak to us from people we might not expect. Maybe even you. Samuel was just a boy when God spoke through him. Surely, God can speak through any one of us.

 

Seneca, the Roman philosopher, said that if a sailor didn’t know which direction he was headed, no wind would seem good. And there’s a tendency, when you’re not sure where you’re going, to thing that there is nothing good coming your way. It’s easy to be negative in situations like that. But when you start to think about where you are truly being called to go, you finally know where to put up your sail and harness the wind to your advantage.

 

It may sound odd to talk about sailing in terms of church, but there’s a long history of representing the church as a boat. It happens in art work and in hymns and in ecumenical circles. We are people who have been gathered together for a journey that is sometimes on choppy seas, but we are held safely together by God’s love, secure in our belief that Christ can calm the waters.

 

Which means we have a choice in our life together now. We could sit out in our boat, in the middle of the ocean, with our sails down just hoping to drift to the right place. Or we could try to see where God wants us to be going, and put those sails up together.

 

In the coming months, I’d like us all to talk about how to do that. I’d like us to engage in a visioning process, one where we can talk about our hopes, and our dreams, and our beliefs about what God is asking us to do next. I’d like all of us to be a part of that conversation, West Dover, Wilmington, long-time member, newcomer, church officer, and even those who can’t stand committee meetings. I’d like for us to think as a community about what we believe our mission is; what we believe God is asking us to do in the Deerfield Valley. And I want you all to be a part, because I want you all to be able to come to church on Sunday mornings and say, “This is my church, and we are listening to what God is saying.”

 

And when we start to see what our mission is, when we start to understand what God is calling us to next, together we can put up those sails. Because God is about to take us to good places. As much as I believe anything in my life, I believe that. I hope that you do too. And so I leave you with this:

 

God is still speaking. And God always will be. So may we always be listening. Because listening to God’s voice is our legacy to honor. Amen.