The Whole Truth

1 John 5.9-13

If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

We all sat uncomfortably in the sanctuary on a Sunday evening listening to our youth director wax lyrical about the importance of witnessing. I can remember shifting around in the wooden pew while struggling to figure out what in the world she was talking about.

Witnessing? When I heard the word my mind immediately jumped to the “DUM DUM BUM BUM BUM BUM BUM” found at the beginning of every Law & Order episode. Witnessing, to me, sounded like what you did when you saw something terrible happen.

So we listened and listened until she announced that it was time for us to share our testimonies. And testimony was another word that, to me, sounded more relevant in a courtroom than in a sanctuary. But she slowly pulled out a microphone plugged into the sound system, backed away, and waited for one of us to testify.

In many churches, testimony occupies a powerful place in worship. Preachers and lay people will tell others about how God has changed their lives.

But for a privileged group of young high school students, our time of testimony sounded a little more like this:

“A few weeks ago, I was really worried about passing a test that I didn’t study for, so I asked for God to help, and like, I actually passed.”

“I remember really wanting a new baseball bat when I was younger, and I guess God had something to do with it when I opened one on Christmas morning.”

One by one we listened to these rather trite and cliché renditions of all that God had done for us. And after each person finished, the microphone stood there before us waiting for the next witness.

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The last person to go was a girl in my grade who usually remained totally silent during youth group. She participated with the minimal amount of effort, and kept coming back every week even though it looked like she hated it. She slowly made her way forward and then very quietly said into the microphone: “I don’t really know what to say, except that I don’t really have any friends. But being here, with you, talking about God, it makes me feel like maybe I could have friends.”

To this day, I can remember seeing the solitary tear running down her cheek, and I can remember the silence in the sanctuary after having actually experienced a testimony.

Testimonies, at least as they are experienced in church, are those times when we are given the opportunity to name and claim what God has done for us. And, of course, some will always experience God through a good grade, or a wonderful sunny afternoon, or a perfect Christmas present. But real testimonies, the whole truth that points to God’s wonder in the world, are based on the location and experience of marginality. Proclaiming the truth as we see it functions as a catharsis and healing for those sharing, and those receiving. In testimony we share our burdens together.

I knew relatively nothing about that girl in my youth group prior to that night. We had gone to elementary school, and middle school, and even high school together, but it was only on the other side of her three-sentence witness that I actually took the time to get to know her.

I learned about her struggles at school and the bullying she experienced. I learned about medical problems, and high anxiety. I learned all sorts of things because she took the first step in proclaiming the whole truth of her life.

In greek, the word for witness is MARTYRIA, its where we get the word for martyr. Christians bearing witness to their faith have often suffered for doing so. Because they are willing to point toward God as the source of their being, they have been punished and even killed. And so, today, we say things like “There’s a war on Christianity!” In other places in the world this is undoubtedly true, but here in America it is not. So much of what Christianity has become is made to feel normative for the rest of our culture. Few of us, if any of us, will ever be persecuted for our faith.

That’s not the kind of witness, the kind of testimony, that John talks about. The witness John talks about is the kind that could change everything about everything.

It requires a vulnerability that leaves most of us frightened.

Today is Mother’s Day, which to be honest, is one of my least favorite Sundays in the year. Don’t get me wrong though, I love mothers. I love my mom, I love my mother in law, I love my wife who is the mother of our son. But many of us forget that motherhood is not normative for all women. Just as Christianity is not normative for everybody in Woodbridge.

I can’t tell you the number of women who have told me about the pain they’ve experienced in churches on Mother’s Day. Women without husbands or children are implicitly, and even sometimes explicitly, made to feel less than whole because of not being a mother… in church! And, because it can be so uncomfortable, they usually don’t tell anyone about how it makes them feel. Instead, this is just a Sunday they avoid church.

It is difficult for them to bear witness to how they have been made to feel, it is hard to testify to the truth of their experience, because it is often disregarded. In a world and culture ruled by heterosexual white males, anything other than that paradigm is often made to feel less than worthy.

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That is why testimony, true testimony, comes from the margins of life, from those often made to feel less than. That is where the true power of God’s grace is made manifest. It is good and right for us to listen to those from the periphery of life (basically to people unlike me!), because they are connected with God in a way that is closer to the incarnation than we often realize.

The testimony of God is Jesus Christ. In order for God to bear witness, in order for the divine to speak the whole truth about reality, God became flesh in Jesus Christ. It is the incarnation that is the testimony of God.

God bears witness; God tells the whole truth. In the people Israel God spoke toward the wonder of a people banding together for a different way of life. From the covenant with Abraham to the declarations of Moses to the anointing of David – God witnessed to the whole truth of divine power.

And the history of God’s witness culminates in the testimony of and to the Son – Jesus the Christ. All along the way God places the divine witness alongside human witness, it is why we still stand and share our stories of God even today. This is only possible because of God’s willingness to be humbled and made low.

Sometimes we drop the word “incarnation” without confronting its stark and bewildering truth – God is humbled to the point of joining humanity – the Son journeys to us from the far country and becomes one of us. There is nothing quite so profound and disturbing as knowing that God, all mighty and all powerful, saw fit to take on flesh and dwell among us.

The whole truth of the incarnation, the testimony of God, is made manifest in Jesus who drank the same dirty water, and walked the same dusty roads, and slept in the same fragile places as human witnesses. God came to the margins of reality, and lived among the margins in order to draw attention to the truth of the cosmos.

This is no message about being a better person, or tapping yourself on the shoulder for any number of good deeds. No, John beckons us through the sands of time to ponder the difficult truth of Jesus – Our God joined the condition of his creations – God became a creature.

And like all testimonies – all truths that encourage us to reconsider the world around us – it can be accepted or rejected. But God will not hold back, God does not withhold God’s self from dwelling among us, God does not withhold difficult and challenging words about the nature of reality, God does not refuse to speak to us.

God testifies! We know the story of God, we know God, because we know Jesus. Jesus is God’s witness in the flesh. Jesus, in fact, is the greatest witness in the midst of all other witnesses. And yet, in Jesus’ greatness we also discover the lowliness and the humiliation of God. We discover the great divine paradox that strength is found in weakness.

Jesus, the incarnation, the divine testimony, chose to drink our dirty water, and walk our dusty roads, and sleep in the same fragile places as us. Jesus chose to live and minister at the margins of life. The Son of God entered the far country of our existence – faced our greatest fears and experienced our greatest losses.

            Jesus suffered and died.

            And the Son of God brought to us eternal life.

The whole truth of God’s testimony is that God gives us eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is that simple, yet truly profound witness that gives us the power and the courage to speak our whole truth regardless of the consequences. It is what empowers a teenage girl to enter into the truth of her own suffering and express a yearning for friendship. It is what gives voice to too many women who are made to feel voiceless. It is present in all who speak from the margins of life, because in Jesus we discover that this life is not the end!

And it is this, the whole truth, which might be the most important thing you will ever hear; more important than any earthly human testimony. All of scripture, all of John’s words, all of Jesus’ life are offered to us so that we might know we have eternal life.

Because when we know, deep in our bones, that we have eternal life, we can begin to speak the whole truth into this world here and now, and everything can change.

When the young mother met the new preacher, she was skeptical, but she was a good Christian so she kept going to church every week. However, after a couple weeks of pretty terrible sermons, she decided to assemble her children on the porch on Sunday afternoons for their own services. It would begin with the singing of a psalm, and then she would come up with a sermon that connected with the text, and they would conclude with another psalm.

Word about the services began to spread through the local community and people started asking if they could attend. This went on for weeks until over two hundred were regularly gathering in her side yard, while the Sunday morning service at the local church dwindled to nearly nothing.

The woman’s name was Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley, and this happened in the early 1700s.

At the time women we largely forbidden from speaking in churches, or leading services, or even from reading. And nevertheless, she persisted. It was because of her rigorous commitment to education, and theology, that our church exists today.

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Sometimes we forget that Jesus’ disciples made a great deal of trouble when they redefined what it meant to be a community of faith by including women – it upset the tradition of the time and it’s what got them persecuted. In fact, the first churches recorded in the New Testament met in homes, often overseen by women.

And so, it is in the great irony of this world, that women are often treated as less than whole, whether in the 1700s or today, and yet without them none of us, and none of this, would be here.

The whole truth of God’s grace is that power will always be found at the margins of life: God choses the low to bring down the mighty. God chooses the ordinary to make manifest the extraordinary. God came to us in Jesus, and everything about everything changed forever. Amen.

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The Problem With Families Today – Sermon on Mark 3.20-30

Mark 3.20-30

And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom id divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” – for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

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What a strange story. Jesus has been going around healing people and listening to their stories, he has called the twelve disciples together and announced what their ministry will be, and now so many people have gathered together to see this incredible man, that they couldn’t even eat. And what happens? His family catches wind of the crowds gathering and they go out to stop Jesus because they thought he was going out of his mind.

But then the scribes from Jerusalem arrive and accuse him of having a demon. Does this passage sound bizarre to you? Beelzebub? Satan? Demons?

Jesus hears the accusations and then responds in parables, furthering the confusion of the crowds and modern readers: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If someone entered the house of a rich man, they would not be able to steal anything unless the man was first tied up. Truly, people will be forgiven their sins and doubts, but anyone who ignores what the Holy Spirit is doing will be guilty of an eternal sin.”

What? I don’t know about you, but when I come across passages like this I am often left scratching my head about what Jesus is saying. I read words like Beelzebub and Satan and I can’t help myself from questioning the text. I read about Jesus’ family appearing to restrain him and I can’t help but agree with them; maybe Jesus has lost his mind.

Who can blame them for trying to get him under control? If not out of fear for his life, at least to remove their own embarrassment for what he was doing and saying. We all have a need to uphold our reputations amidst the crowds of life and if a family member starts going out and proclaiming strange things, it might reflect poorly on us.

A few summers ago I had the opportunity to attend the Detroit Annual Conference session in Michigan. For a few days, clergy and lay representatives gathered together to worship the Lord, pray for the renewal of the church, and vote on pertinent matters affecting the denomination.

When I arrived the assembly was debating whether or not secretaries should be allowed to keep handguns in the church offices to protect themselves. Later that afternoon they argued about the bishop sending a letter to the President Obama about whether or not unmanned drones should be allowed to fly over the Upper Peninsula.

When the evening rolled around, I was invited by a colleague to attend the “Young Adult” gathering. I thought that sounded splendid after spending what felt like eternity with a bunch of blue-haired Methodists, so I quickly made my way to the basement of a nearby building. I assumed the designation “Young Adult” meant that I would be spending time with people in their mid-twenties to early-thirties, but it was just a bunch of high-schoolers and myself. Nevertheless I had a wonderful time with the group as we talked and prayed together for the future of the church.

That night I had one of the most powerful conversations of my life with a 16 year old boy named Sam. After introducing ourselves to one another, Sam informed me that this was his 8th Annual Conference in a row. He came for the first time when he was 8 years old and had come back every summer. I immediately thought he was crazy! Annual Conference, for me, can be a life-giving endeavor while at the same time a constant reminder of the brokenness of our church. But he wasn’t crazy. He was faithful.

I saw in his eyes a sincerity about the value of conferencing so I asked him to explain what it meant to him. He said, “Going to church every week has done a lot to help me grow in faith, but being around the same people all the time just kind of felt boring. But when I come here, I encounter thousands of Methodist from all over Michigan who have given their lives to Jesus, I sing with the faithful remnant and our voices echo like the angels in heaven, I discover that I am part of something so much bigger than myself.”

I was stunned. While I felt apathetic and cynical about Annual Conference, this young man had discovered, and grabbed hold of, what it could be.

Our conversation continued and he told me that about a year prior he started wrestling with a call to ordained ministry. How perfect – here I was a young seminarian responding to the call of God on my life and I had the opportunity to share this moment with a faithful and clearly gifted young man.

But I’ll never become a pastor.” He said.

“What are you talking about?” I nearly shouted. “In just a few minutes you have articulated a deeper faith than many Christians I know. You have all the potential in the world to be a gifted pastor. Are you worried about how much it will cost? The conference can help you out. Are you worried about how much work it will take? God will give you the strength to make it through.”

No” he sighed. “I’m gay.

I’m gay and I’m open about it. I am not ashamed of who I am and how God made me. But I also know that if I’m openly gay I can never become a pastor in the United Methodist Church.

I was speechless. This young man felt so committed to the church that he had attended Annual Conference eight years in a row, and yet he knew that same church believed there was something wrong with him. I didn’t know what to say in return. How could he be sitting with me in the midst of all this denominational stuff knowing what the denomination believed?

In reaction to my silence he continued, “When I told my family, they disowned me, told me I was wrong and that I had lost my mind. But my church… they welcomed me just as I am. My church has become my new family. But that same church says I can never become a pastor and that who I am is incompatible with Christian teaching.

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The story of Jesus with the crowds is a strange one. We hear about demons and Beelzebub and Satan and we immediately wonder what it means. But Satan does not necessarily mean a person with horns and a bifurcated tail, but the name does represent a demonic power that attempts to divide us from the Lord. Satan is anything that separates us from doing what is right, and good, and true.

The powers of Satan, demonic powers that capture our attention cause us to hurt ourselves, others, and our relationship with God.

There is the demonic power of Racism – which tells us to believe and act as if one group’s pigmentation or cultural values are superior to another.

There is the demonic power of Patriarchy – which tells us that men should dominate women.

There is the demonic power of Materialism – which tells us that the accumulation of wealth and goods will bring us everything we need to be happy.

And there is the demonic power of Homophobia – which tells us that anything outside of male-female relationships is an abomination.

Whether or not we believe that Satan is a real person acting in our midst is not as important as recognizing our captivity to powers of evil signified by Satan, powers that continue to affect our lives everyday.

Regrettably, churches are often the focal arena where these powers take hold: hostility, fear, and anger boil over between groups debating the value of human beings. Yet, through the story of Jesus with the crowds, we learn that the powers of Satan must be recognized and confronted if we are to truly experience the incredible love of God.

Jesus’s family tried to stop him. Just like a racist white mother tries to stop her daughter from going on a date with a black man. Just like a homophobic father berates his son for holding hands with another boy. Just like a liberal college student chastises his parents for being too conservative. Jesus’ family tried to stop him. Sam’s family tried to stop him too.

Living out our faith means discovering a new solidarity with ALL of God’s people; all of humanity. Jesus bids us to cry with those who are suffering and rejoice with those who feel free to live their lives as they are. Jesus asks us to look on the people around us who are different from us and love them because they are different from us.

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Whether we admit it or not, we are products of our families and culture. We might believe in the idea of equality, but we grow hesitant because we were cultured into things like racism, and homophobia, and materialism, and sexism. We were taught by the people around us, not because they were evil, but because they were caught captive to the same evil powers that are desperately seeking our allegiances.

The problem with families today is that we don’t challenge ourselves enough to be better. Jesus was not against his family, but he saw them as a challenge to the kind of community and kingdom he was preparing. Today we still face the challenge of how our families prevent us from seeing one another the way God see us: equal.

Wrestling with the powers of the world is difficult. The story of Jesus being accused of having a demon is not easy to handle. Learning about a young man who loves the church in spite of it’s declaration about his identity is sad.

But they also remind us of the great possibilities for hope, love, and recreation in God’s kingdom. They help us to see the moments where we can become better, opportunities for us to dig deeper in our faith, and occasions to say “Yes” to the wonder of God’s kingdom while saying “No” to the backwards values of the past.

Jesus Christ, Lord of lords and King of kings, came into the world to turn it upside down, to show us the way the truth and the life, and to create a new family where ALL are welcome. And all means ALL. Amen.

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Washing With Tears – Maundy Thursday Homily on John 13.12-20

John 13.12-20

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who are my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

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The disciples had already finished their food, they had passed around the bread and the cup, and Jesus had told them it was his body and blood. For many of them these words might’ve gone in one ear and out the other; after all Jesus was known for saying all sorts of the things that didn’t make sense right away. Perhaps some of them were picking up the crumbs from the bread when Jesus got up from the table. Others might have been refilling their cups with wine when Jesus tied a towel around his waist. But by the time he started to wash their feet the room must have been silent. 

Imagine how profound it would have been to see Jesus kneeling on the floor and using water to wash away the grime of Jerusalem. Even more amazing is the fact that Jesus doesn’t waste time explaining what he’s about to do, he just gets down on the ground and goes to work.

However, Peter, the ever vocal disciple interrupts the serene mood with a question: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?

“Right now it won’t make sense my friend, but soon it will all come together. If you want to be in this with me, you must let me wash your feet.”

Jesus went from one disciple to the next taking as much time as necessary, holding their feet in his hands, letting the water drip upon them, until he finished.

I took a group of middle-schoolers on a mission trip a number of years ago to Winchester, Virginia. We worked in trailer parks building wooden steps up to the doors, we worked on a wheel chair ramp that took up an entire yard, and we worked on clearing out areas that had been long forgotten. All week we did everything we could to serve the needs of the people from the nearby community, and every night we gathered to sing songs and praise our Lord.

At the end of the week we were invited into the fellowship hall for a foot-washing ceremony. I don’t know if any of you have had the chance to spend a week working outside with middle-schoolers, but it begins to smell pretty bad pretty fast; the prospect of washing one another’s feet was not high on my list of priorities. The leader explained that long ago Jesus washed his disciples feet and we would be doing the same thing. Everyone was invited to participate, but if you were uncomfortable you could simply ask for a prayer instead.

A few chairs and basins were set in the middle of the space, and when the music began we were on our own.

In my work group there was a precious young girl who had worked so incredibly hard all week and there was a young boy that annoyed her every chance he had. He would begin by playfully flicking paint onto her clothes, but when she asked him to stop he became relentless. He called her names behind her back, and schemed to turn the other kids against her. Even after I pulled him aside to set him straight he continued to prey on her at every opportunity. 

As we sat in the room waiting for the first people to go forward for the foot washing, I watched the young girl stand up, and bee-line across the room for the annoying boy. For a fleeting moment I was afraid that she had finally had too much and she was about to sock him in the face, but instead she leaned over and asked if she could wash his feet.

While other people started to do the same, my gaze was transfixed on the boy and girl from my group. The boy had gone over the line time and time again yet there she was holding his foot in her hand and washing it. When I looked closer I saw that she was crying and her tears were falling on his feet. And when I looked even closer I saw that he was crying and his tears were falling in her hair.

Foot washing is a service among equals in a company where no one’s status stands out. When Jesus finished with his friends, he called them to do the same to one another. We wash and are washed by our Lord through our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we kneel before a fellow Christian and hold their feet in our hands we make our way back to the upper room so long ago. We aren’t just called to wash the feet of those whom we love, but even the ones who drive us crazy and fill us with anger. Remember: Jesus washed Judas’ feet knowing full and well what he was about to do. 

Sometimes the people we need to reconcile with most are the ones in the pews next to us. We tend to sweep under the rug all of the proverbial problems we have with our friends and family and are far more inclined to complain about strangers. If we are filled with stress regarding the closest people in our lives than this might be the best place to embark on a new beginning. Perhaps the water can bring new life for us and for the ones we love and hate.

Jesus took time after breaking bread with his friends to wash their feet. He humbled himself to the floor and showed them what faithful love looks like. With each foot he equipped them for bringing the peace of God into the world. He washed away their insufficiencies and doubts. He rid them of labels and assumptions. He showed them how important they were for the kingdom of God.

If you want to know what faithful love looks like, look no further than this time when we follow the example of Jesus and wash one another. Amen.

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