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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Fuzzball’s Run

This is a true story from my own life that I’ve used a couple of times for Sermon illustrations.  Here it is presented as a longish “Message for All Ages”, but would also be suitable for a  youth group session, or a Bible Study.  The scripture reading is 1 Kings 19:1-15a, which is about Elijah’s fleeing Jezebel’s wrath and then being confronted by God while hiding in the cave on Mt. Horeb.

A helpful prop for this story would be a 6 foot tall aluminum stepladder, or perhaps a good sized photo of one.


I once had a home with a huge backyard.  Since I didn’t want to spend all my time mowing the fenced back yard (and couldn’t afford a bigger mower), I bought some sheep to eat the grass.  The male of the three was named Fuzzball by my daughter.

One Sunday, I decided to trim the some dead branches on trees near the house; but quickly realized that my ladder [just like this one] was far too short for the job. It was getting late, so I left the ladder leaning against a tree and went in for the night.

The next morning I opened my bedroom window a bit as I got ready for work, I liked hearing the sheep bleating to each other as they grazed on the grass.

Suddenly, a rather surprised bleat sounded through the window.  No big deal – I figured one of them had gotten themselves in trouble again, which they always seemed to be doing. I figured I’d check into it when I fed them before leaving for work, and so kept tying my tie.

Then came a tremendous clatter.  Running to the window, I looked out just in time to see Fuzzball running at top speed from the near corner of the yard, where the trees were, to the far corner, where his shed was.

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Lord of the Unseen

Sermon presented at First Congregational Church of West Boyleston, MA; November 20, 2011…

Readings:

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

I’ve found that the best place to work on my Christian witness is while I’m driving in my car, alone.  Like, when someone cuts me off, I’ll spontaneously give them the fist of fellowship; and I’ve been known to utter a few very warm and heartfelt words when someone steals my parking spot. I also find that when I drive during rush hour, or when going to the mall during the Christmas season, that I pray every chance I get.

It’s so easy to let go, just a little bit, when we are wrapped in a steel and glass cocoon, when no one sees what we’re doing, or saying.  We are safe from interference, from having to judge whether the inconsiderate actions of others are due to their merely having a bad day, or if their IQ really is less than the speed they’re driving.  Since we’re invisible to those around us, why not let fly with a little emotion?  Why not blow off a bit of steam?

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The Fabulous Flying Fuzzball

A sermon I presented in 2008 at Payson Park Church in Belmont, MA…

Back in the mid 90’s I bought a home in rural Virginia.  The house had a huge backyard.  I had to keep the grass there under control, but could not afford a rider mower, so I bought three lambs instead.  (I figured I’d eventually get a meal or two out of the deal, but did not tell this to the lambs.)

The Bible often compares us to sheep.  Frankly, now that I’ve owned a few, that’s a scary thought.

I am not sure that sheep are as dumb as many have said they are, but they sure have a talent for getting themselves into trouble (mostly – I think – out of curiosity).  When sheep are frightened, they run.  However, if it is their curiosity that gets them into trouble, they often just sit there until someone comes and rescues them, rather then figuring out how to rescue themselves.  I think of this behavior as a sort of silent whining.

Sheep love to climb.  I remember more than one occasion where they tried to climb onto the two swings hanging from my daughter’s playset in the near corner of the backyard, in the opposite corner from where the sheep’s shed was: I’d come out in the morning and see them standing there, front hooves on the ground, back ends up in the air hanging from the slings, patiently waiting to be rescued.  Every so often they’d somehow climb up on the slide – never did figure out how they did that, but I’d find them standing up there in the morning: surveying the back yard, waiting for me to show up and make it all better.

The two ewes, Heidi and Sally were fairly docile, but we were wary of the ram, Fuzzball, because he became more and more aggressive as he approached his first birthday.

One morning, Fuzzball’s curiosity collided with my own carelessness, and so earned his place in history…

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