Sermon: Powerful Witness

We are called to witness, not to win. We are called to testify to the Gospel of Christ through our lives: our individual lives; and through our life together as a community of faith…. This is our powerful witness.

The Lectionary theme this week is “Powerful Witness”. And, our readings from both the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John both reflect on this in different ways.

In Acts 2, we see a community united under the guidance of the Apostles. They are enthusiastic about their newfound faith; and they share it in profound and moving ways. The boldness of their faith is a powerful witness that liberates their neighbors.

But in John 10 we see a community (from several decades later, actually). Here, they are metaphorically represented by the sheep huddled together under the care of the Shepherd. With the last of those who actually knew Jesus now gone. The people feel lost, exposed, and don’t know where to turn to find protection from the dangers that are all around them. They are looking inward. They are not looking outward any more. Their call to bear witness to the Gospel has been set aside.

But, at the end of this passage, Jesus says to them, “I am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be liberated, will go in and go out, and will find pastures.   … I came to give life with joy and abundance.” They’re being reminded that because they have entered into the Shepherd’s flock, they are already liberated: They must go out, and they must find new pastures. The pasture is a place where they will find sustenance, and where they can be heard as the Gospel, which flourishes within them, breaks forth.

The community we see in John wants to sit passively under the protection of the Shepherd. But instead, they are told they aren’t going to be allowed to sit there in the sheepfold and be safe. They have to move, they have to leave and go forth. The Apostles may be gone, but the Gospel is still here; and will not allow them to be silent. And yes, the thief is coming to steal and slaughter and destroy (that is their intent). But Jesus is already here, and will instead give life with joy and abundance. The thieves were defeated before they ever got there.

Now, the Acts 2 church is young and open to radical change, to trying new things. But in John, we have a more mature community. The Acts 2 community is clearly a powerful witness to those around them; and we are told that the Johannine Community (the community in the book of John) will be as well. In both cases, the promises are there, and will be fulfilled. They shall both be powerful voices for liberation; perhaps (like in John) in spite of themselves; even with the Apostles now gone.

We see a movement between these two readings, from the enthusiasm of youth to a more mature, more cautious perspective, born of experience and the inevitable losses and disappointments that we all encounter in this life. With more maturity, we can better anticipate the struggles that lie ahead, but that also means we worry more, that those struggles will be too much for us.

A friend and fellow minister recently expressed his feelings about trying to make progress on the many social justice issues that he and all of us here, care about so deeply. I’ll summarize what he said…

“My experience has been that for most people it’s hard to stand up and publicly testify about issues such as gun violence, equal rights, war, poverty, etc. Most people lack the confidence, commitment or conviction it takes to stand up and speak out for justice on a regular basis. They don’t want to offend[. They don’t want to] come off as taking sides on an issue. It’s divisive and risky, even if you have the time. Still, there is always hope, and the struggle continues.”

His perspective is borne of hard experience, like that of the Community in John. They, and he, and we, all know how tough it is to be a witness at all, let alone a powerful one. You feel the resignation in my friend’s words: as he sees it, people just aren’t in it for the long haul, it’s too hard. It is hard.  It is a struggle. But, the hope never leaves.

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Sermon: Scattered and Gathered

The story of the Tower of Babel and of Peter’s Sermon on the First Day of Pentecost are two sides of the same coin: Both stories demonstrate that God values us and speaks to us as individuals. Acts 2 also shows that our relationships with God and each other are both communal and individual in their nature; and that God intends both aspects to be present in our relationships with each other and with the Divine.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited
“The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1453.

This week we celebrate the beginning of the Christian Church, Pentecost.  Among other things, Pentecost is a declaration that Christ’s relationship with his disciples, including us, is a new thing: one that transforms us and our relationship with the Divine in fundamental and lasting ways.

Pentecost reflects a new level of openness, of sharing, of vulnerability. A deeper bond has been created: binding us together and with God through the Holy Spirit that indwells each and every one of us. It is an affirmation of who we are and who we are to become.

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Children’s Message: Holy Spirit Balloons

A fun Children’s Meditation on the importance of the Holy Spirit and why God wishes us to be healed.

The Choir enthusiastically participating in the task of handing out %22Holy Spirit Balloons%22 following the Children's message, 5-19-2013

A fun Children’s Meditation that gets the congregation as a whole involved in presenting the message.  The lesson is on the importance of the Holy Spirit and that God wishes us to be healed so that we can share the Holy Spirit with others.

Scriptures: Acts 2; and possibly either Isaiah 53:5 or 1 Peter 2:24

The suggested quantities of balloons are for a group of 12-15 children, with a generous “margin of safety” so that no one is left out if more than the expected number show up!

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Affirmation

Affirmation requires embracing the other, and loving them, without judgment, for every aspect of who they are, and what they are. … It is an acknowledgement that we don’t have all of the answers, and that the other’s answers therefore deserve just as much respect and care as we expect them to show for ours. This is driven by our firm conviction that the Holy Spirit is available to all and that God is present in all of Creation, a conviction rooted in Peter’s quote from Joel to that crowd of many nations on Pentecost: “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” All Flesh. So, it is our role to discern God in the other, even if the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives manifests itself in ways that we are neither familiar nor comfortable with.

Bugobi-29-960x540My “Farewell Sermon” at Sudbury Memorial Church, UCC
Presented 5/19/2013
Scriptures: John 15:12-17; Acts 2:1-21

My first Sunday here was as a pulpit supply preacher on August 7th, 2011. The Lay Leader that day was John, who was a tremendous help, the very first of many here who have reached out to support, encourage and guide me, every time I’ve been in this Sanctuary or ministered in any capacity on behalf of this congregation.

Just over eight months ago, I began serving as your Ministerial Intern. That day, I was leaping into the unknown. I was nervous about the year long experience we’d both committed ourselves to, worried about saying the wrong thing, doing something stupid, or offending someone inadvertently; hoping our time together would be a positive experience for all of us.

And every day since has been a great blessing, filled with experiences I will always treasure.  This has been a time of growth and of correction, a time of learning and of teaching, a time of deepening and broadening my faith and ministry (and – I hope – yours), a time where we have each given a piece of ourselves to the other, a time when we planted seeds for the future within each other, a time where we have been open to each other and shared in deeply moving, loving ways. We’ve bonded with each other in ways that will last forever.

Those most involved in mentoring and guiding me during my time here, the members of my Teaching Parish Committee, and Tom and Cathy, are all up here this morning, continuing their support through our joint ministry today, doing what you have all been so diligent in doing these past eight months – affirming and guiding me in hundreds of ways, small and large. But most importantly, and most memorably, you’ve all offered me your friendship, and your love, and I have been profoundly grateful and blessed by it.

But now, our journey together draws to a close. Our future has arrived, a future where our paths diverge. A time when, once again, we must leap into the unknown; but this time of ministering together will live on, in our memories. Good memories, mostly – I hope! Certainly that will be the case for me. It’s been a good year, but as we often say when times such as this come to a close, our journey together has been all too short.

But is it the end?

In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father…”

I do not call you “Servants” any longer… but I have called you friends

We are embarking on a new stage in our relationship, which is also the message of Pentecost. The arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a declaration that Christ’s relationship with his disciples, including us, is one that can never die, and one that has changed into something new. There is a new level of openness, of sharing, of affirming, of vulnerability. A deeper bond has been born, binding us together through the Holy Spirit that now indwells each and every one of us.

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