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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Devotional – John 14.18

Devotional:

John 14.18

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

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I stood by the bell tower in my robe and I casually greeted everyone as they walked into the building for worship. Just inside the doors were greeters, ushers, and handful of other church members eagerly waiting to address those entering with greetings and salutations. I talked with individuals and families under the bell tower and when one particular woman stepped forward she was greeted by the small crowd with, “Happy Mother’s Day!” and she immediately grimaced; she is not a mother, and will never be one.

On Monday I spoke with a member of the church about a number of matters pertaining to the local community and right before we said goodbye she apologized for not being in church the day before. I asked if everything was okay, or if there was a specific reason she avoided church to which she responded, “I never come to church on Mother’s Day. It just hits too close to home.” She is not a mother, and will never be one.

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Mother’s Day is a strange Sunday in the liturgical life of the church. There is nothing in scripture about the need to have a specific day focused on the glorification of those who are mothers, but in many churches that is exactly what it becomes. And it happens to such a degree that while trying to be grateful for mothers, we often ostracize a sizable community within our churches who can’t be, don’t want to be, or never will be, mothers.

To so emphasize and value the roles of the presumed normative domestic situation does a disservice to the truth of what the church is called to be: the new family.

Jesus, near the end of his earthly life, promised to not leave his friends orphaned. In a sense Jesus’ promise is a prediction of his own death and resurrection, but it also speaks to the future existence of the community of faith. Just as Jesus’ friends were not abandoned after the cross, so too have we not been abandoned in our communities of faith.

Through the sacraments of baptism and communion we are grafted into a community whereby the common identifiers and labels of mother and father are no longer limited by their biological connections. Instead we become brother and sister and mother and father to the entire community that gathers together to encounter the living God.

Being a mother is a remarkable responsibility and should be lauded on a regular basis, but it is not the most important identity that one can have. Following Jesus Christ as a disciple implies a willingness to be maternal toward all people regardless of whether or not we are biological mothers.

In the community of faith we are called to open our eyes to the realities of those around us so that, rather than discomforting someone on their way in or ostracizing someone to the point that they don’t even come, we remember that God will not leave us orphaned, not even in church.

My Cup Runneth Over – Sermon on Psalm 23

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

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The 23rd Psalm. Many of you know that I am far more eager to preach on the lesser-known texts of scripture, than I am to preach on those that are remarkably familiar. I decided months ago that after my wedding and honeymoon, Psalm 23 would be the first text I preached on, precisely because it was familiar. All things considered, I have been very busy the last few weeks, and I thought that it would be easy to prepare a sermon on this beloved text; I was so wrong.

When we proclaim one of the best known texts from the Bible, there is an incredible amount of baggage that comes with it. If I wanted to preach on something from Obadiah or Nehemiah, I could say a whole lot about whatever I wanted because so many of us are unfamiliar with the texts, myself included.

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But when you hear Psalm 23 read aloud, many of us immediately have a memory or a determined understanding of what the text means. Its familiarity makes it challenging to proclaim because we’ve all heard it before; The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…

What is it about this psalm that makes it so beloved? Perhaps many of us were taught to memorize the psalm when we were younger. Maybe some of us can remember our mothers and grandmothers whispering it by their bedside before they went to sleep. Is it the simplicity, the ease for memorization? It the use of this psalm in contemporary pop-culture? Besides the Lord’s prayer and John 3.16, this is perhaps the best known of all the Christian scriptures.

I believe what makes this psalm so compelling is not so much its brevity, but instead its realism. This is no happy-go-lucky, “everything is awesome,” kind of passage. Rather, it faithfully faces the dark realities of what life is really like, while at the same time calls us to honestly remember the delights of life. It has become so popular and beloved that many of us can recite it from memory, but have lost touch with what the passage is saying. Every verse contains a wealth of theological treasure waiting to be uncovered and enjoyed.

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The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. We of course remember immediately that Christ is the good shepherd, as our wonderful stained glass window portrays. God in Christ is the guardian of the church. The great I AM shepherded the Israelites through the wilderness, delivering them from slavery and captivity to the promised land. The Lord was the shepherd to the prophets who proclaimed the Word to the lost Israelites. God helped shepherd Christ throughout Galilee, even to the cross. Our Father was the shepherd to the disciples as they spread the gospel throughout the world. The great shepherd is now with us, guiding and keeping watch over all that we do as we witness to God’s love in the world.

God guards the flock as a whole, the sheep have been brought into the fold. Each of us are one of God’s sheep; we are safer if we stay connected with one another. If the church begins to stampede in one direction, some will be inevitably lost. If the church divides into factions, we will be like a panicking flock of sheep. We listen for the great shepherd who leads us.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. In our modern lives we seem to have lost the power to relax; we no longer know what it means to observe sabbath time in our lives. We succumb to the power of stress that overcomes us regularly, and lose the energy to live vibrant and fulfilling lives. So, God, father of all mercy, bids us to relax, to observe some sort of sabbath in our lives, and to find rest. However, notice that rest is not a end in itself, God restores our souls through rest so that we can continue on our faithful journeys. Life is filled with movement, following the paths of righteousness.

He leads me in rights paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. God leads us, as the shepherd, on the right paths. So much of the vital moments and decisions in our lives do not come from our choosing; we do not determine the time of our birth, the kind of parents that we will have, the culture in which we find ourselves, the opportunities that “come our way.” At times life is beyond our control, and that is a good thing! To so desperately seek control of our lives will eventually end in disappointment. In order for God to be the shepherd of our lives, we have to let him into our hearts to shepherd us and guide us on the paths of righteousness. We need to let God be in control. It is only when we let go that we can faithfully proclaim, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” It is only when we let go that we can know that God is with us.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil. Like any good shepherd, God has brought his flock back home to safety, brought us to his table, just like the table that has been prepared for us here. Some of our truest enemies might be with us here in church this morning, but God has prepared the table for you so that you can feast with friend and foe. 

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And so now we come to an incredible collection of words that encompass God’s goodness in our lives: my cup runneth over

How often do we take time to look back and reflect on what God has done for us? How much time do we spend in prayer thanking God for all that he has done? Can we faithfully declare “my cup runneth over…”?

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Today, of course, is Mother’s Day. I am blessed and privileged to have a mother who has cared for, and loved me, every day of my life. A mother who is still so accustomed to attending swim meets, baseball games, and band concerts, that she will drive two and a half hours to attend church with us here at St. John’s. A mother who participated in my life and activities, but gave me the freedom to grow and experience life independently. A mother who sacrificed her own needs again and again because she loved me. My cup runneth over. 

Some of you might not have had a mother like mine, some of you may have lost your mother, some of you might have grown up without a mother, but look around you. The call of the Christian is to be motherly to all that have gathered here. Though your mother might not have been like mine, I know that each of you have mothers in Christ that are here with us today. Our cups runneth over.

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On April 27th I stood at the front of Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, VA, waiting for Lindsey Rickerson to walk down the aisle with her father. I cannot tell you how nervous I was. I know that I was leaning from side to side, standing before all of my family and friends, my nerves attempting to get the better of me, but the moment Lindsey appeared at the back of the sanctuary I felt God’s presence surround me with a sense of calm I have rarely experienced. I covenanted with God and Lindsey to love, honor, and keep her with all that I am for the rest of my life. I am blessed to be her husband. Lindsey has changed my life for the better on numerous occasions, she challenges me to be a better man, and lives out God’s call on her life every single day. My cup runneth over. 

Some of you might not have a spouse like mine, some of you may have lost yours, or never felt called to be married in the first place, but today and for all days I get the joy of sharing Lindsey with you. We are all called to love one another in such a tremendously wonderful way that people like Lindsey can be and live for those that have gathered as the body of Christ. Our cups runneth over.

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After the wedding, while Lindsey and I celebrated at the reception. I had countless staff members continually refill my glass to the degree that I literally learned what it meant for my cup to runneth over. I looked around the reception hall and saw joyful faces that conveyed endless memories of how much my life has been shaped by others. In that room I witnessed God’s incredible goodness manifest in the lives of so many that I have been blessed to call my friends. My cup runneth over.

Some of you might not have the opportunity to sit in a room surrounded by droves of friends and family to congratulate you on the newest development in your life. You might feel lonely and isolated in your current life situations. But look around the sanctuary. Being one in Christ means that we discover our newest and greatest friendships here at church. Christian friendship and fellowship is what made the church so appealing in the beginning, and it rests at the very fabric for what it means to be the church today. I look out from this pulpit and I see the friendships that will sustain all of us through the coming years. Our cups runneth over.

The 23rd psalm is filled with such vivid and realistic imagery, applicable for our daily living. The great shepherd tends to his sheep, keeping them close and protecting them from harm. Our God compels us to find rest so that we can continue on our journeys of faith. The Lord invites us to this his table so that we might feast on heavenly food and meet the divine. But today, the Lord asks us to look on our lives and remember our blessings.

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Because our blessings are everywhere; from the tiniest details of a perfect sunset, to a incredible wedding and the joining together of two people. God has blessed our lives over and over again. We have the choice to reflect on his goodness, or remain in our suffering. Today we remember what God has done, we remember our mothers, and the call of the church to be motherly toward everyone, we give thanks to the Lord our God for shaping us through those we call our friends.

It’s only when we look at our lives and faithfully say, “my cup runneth over” that we can begin to proclaim the final verse of psalm 23: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever.” Amen.