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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What’s Right With The Church?

Psalm 145.1-8

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I will declare your greatness. They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

 

People outside the church love to talk about its faults and failures. For instance: Church organizations were able to mobilize and respond to the recent devastation in Texas and Florida before FEMA or the Red Cross, but whenever the Church is in the news it has to do with a failure to keep track on money properly, a scandal involving clergy, or a denomination’s vote on something like homosexuality.

Last week I shared some stories about a recent wedding I presided over, and I told you about how effusive some of the people in attendance were with their praise. There is something strange and mysterious about a wedding that leads people to speak in deeply honest ways. Perhaps it’s the fact that love is in the air, or that reunions are bringing people together, or the free alcohol. However, what I didn’t share with you last week were the negative comments from other people.

“I don’t think you’re gonna have a job much longer preacher. You know the church is dying right?”

            “How can you support a system that is so archaic and out of touch with reality?”

            “You seem like a nice guy but I think the church is more responsible for evil in the world than good.”

It’s easy to pick on people outside of the church who are so harsh and judgmental with their language. It’s easy to pick on them because they’re not here, they don’t know what God is up to, they don’t know what the church is really like.

And for as much as people outside of the church love to talk about its faults and failures, people inside the church might be even worse.

I went to my first clergy meeting for the Alexandria District this week and I was struck by how somber so many of us were. Throughout the time of our gathering there was far more negativity than positivity, and at some point it felt like the whole point of the meeting was to get preachers together to complain about people like you.

            What’s right with the church?

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A few years ago I was given a copy of sermon preached by a man named Zig Volskis in 1987, the year before I was born. In it he attempts to answer that very question, “What’s right with the church?” Zig, like me, was frustrated with all of the negativity surrounding the church and instead he wanted to focus on the life-giving elements of the body of Christ that is the church.

Zig preached that as a child he would have responded to the question with: the church bells and music. They both represent the energy and depth of the worshipping community through sounds and communal response. The music of the church reassures the people that God is the one in control, even is the world claims the contrary.

As an adult, Zig claimed that his answer had changed over a career of serving the church for thirty years. He believed the best thing about the church is that it endures. Empires come and go, even church buildings are destroyed by war and exodus, yet the body of Christ always endures. With all its blindness and plundering, for all its inability to faithfully use its enormous resources properly, the church has sought to minister to human needs in thousands of different ways. And, for untold numbers of persons, the helping hand of the church has been a lifesaver.

Zig ended the sermon with a call to those who love the church: make more room for church, bring to the church your best and highest devotion. And to those who are not sure about the church: you will not find perfection here, but come in anyway, and help us make the church better.

And with that he said: Amen.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about Zig’s sermon, and in particular our willingness to overemphasize the negative rather than addressing the positive. And, I’ll be the first to admit – The church does have problems. From this Cokesbury here in Woodbridge to the great universal church, we have problems because, at its heart, the church is filled with people like us: broken, flawed, sinners.

I could take time to bring up poor management, or fiscal irresponsibility, or personal judgments. We could spend weeks talking about how we’ve failed as a church, we could spend weeks talking about how we need to get better, but in so doing we would fail to recognize all the things that are right with the church.

But the psalmist, and the witness of scripture, chooses to focus on the things that are right. I will extoll the Lord, I will meditate on the goodness of God, I will declare the greatness of God. Every generation will share with those who follow all the splendor and majesty of God.

The psalm we have today is like a hymn, something to be declared by the entire congregation. And if you look at it, and really read through each line, it is so over the top with declarations of God’s glory that it sounds like the kind of love letters middle school students used to leave in each other’s lockers.

The love and praise the psalmist has for God is not something that can remain bottled up and hidden away. There is a quality of God’s grandeur that evokes a response, it pushes us to bring forth our gladdest praise and declare from the rooftops about the mighty works of God.

However, most of us are uncomfortable with wearing our faith on our sleeves. We don’t know quite what to make of religious displays of affection. We can’t even imagine standing up in church to talk about what God has done for us.

This psalm, these words about God, they are an invitation to remember what God has done for us, and shout it out.

I love asking people to tell me about sermons they remember from the past. Such as: Have you ever heard a sermon on Psalm 145? Can you remember the preaching from when you were a kid? Can you even remember what I preached about last week? The truth is that most of us remember very little, myself included!

I think back on what it was like to be raised in the church and I can’t remember any sermon I heard. There are a couple phrases that continue to bounce around the grey matter between my ears, but I don’t remember anything more than that. But you know what I do remember? I remember the people who got up and talked about how the church had changed their lives.

I remember sitting as a child at the altar and listening to a man in a hospital gown talk to us about how the church visited him when he was in the hospital after finding out he had cancer. I remember the woman who wept from the pulpit as she was thanking people for attending her husband’s funeral. I remember the older man who was baptized in front of the whole church who then shared his story about how he lost everything in his life, and then found everything when he started coming to church.

There is a profound power in being reminded, again and again, of what God is doing in the world and in the church. There is something good and right and true about sharing stories of what is right with the church. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

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I’m going to go first, as an example, but then I want to open up this space and this time for you to share what you think is right with the church.

Shortly after I arrived here at Cokesbury, I was working on a sermon in my office when a bunch of people came in through the door and kept walking past without saying a word. I mean I was the new guy and they didn’t even both to check on me. And they call themselves Christians! I found out later they were the Prayer Shawl team, and that they had work to do in the conference room.

I sat in my office for a while, pretending to work, but what I was actually doing was eavesdropping. I wanted to know what they were really up to, I wanted to know what these ladies were really like, I wanted some gossip.

But I was disappointed. Instead their conversation was filled with affirmation for one another, and they worked and worked and worked.

You want to know what I think is right with the church? Our prayer shawl team. They gather together and have created a beautiful community designed to make the community more beautiful. They work to give away everything they’ve created to be a blessing to others. And they do so with abundant joy. Each of their shawls, and all of the squares in our bulletins today are seeds they are casting into the world, and because of their work and God’s grace, those seeds will grow to bear beautiful fruit for God’s kingdom.

So, now its your turn: What’s right with the church?

 

There are few things in this life more joyful than discovering how our lives are caught up with the great and enduring story of God’s wondrous works. As we share what’s right with the church we discover how connected we are with one another. As we listen to what’s right with the church we rediscover the faith and the fervor of the psalmist within each and every one of us.

So to those who love the church: make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. And to those who are not sure about the church: you will not find perfection here, but come anyway, and help us make the church better. Amen.

Can I Get A Witness?

Psalm 66.8-20

Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net, you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us our to a spacious place. I will come into you house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.

 

What do you want for your funeral? It’s a strange question, and its one we would rather like to avoid if possible. But have you ever thought about what your funeral might look like? What hymns would you want your family to sing? What scripture has meant the most to you in your life? Do you want people to offer testimonies?

Every time I meet with a family to plan a Service of Death and Resurrection I avoid mentioning a time of testimony. I avoid it for a number of reasons including the fact that testimonies are supposed to be about how God has worked in the life of the person now dead, and that rarely happens, you never know what someone might say when they are invited to speak freely from a pulpit, and sometimes you don’t know whether anyone will get up to say anything at all.

To be clear, a lack of testimonial witness on behalf of the gathered body for worship is not an indication that the person lived a flawed or inconsequential life, it usually has more to do with how uncomfortable many of us are with public speaking.

But every once in awhile the family insists on having it, even when I didn’t bring it up. And every time we have a service and the time comes for the testimony, I invite anyone who would like to speak to come up to the pulpit, I sit down, and I pray that God taps on at least one person to come up and say anything, but I am always prepared to make something up on the spot should the pulpit remain uncomfortably empty.

If I were bolder, if I had more faith, I would just say, “Can I get a witness?” and then I would sit down in comfort knowing that God will provide.

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In Psalm 66 the faithfulness of God is remembered, offerings on behalf of God’s people are made, and then one lone worshipper offers a witness to all who will listen.

Bless the Lord your God! Let the sound of his praise be heard in this place and in all places. Our God has kept us among the living! What a great God is ours who has tested us, laid burdens on our backs, let people ride over our heads, and delivered us through fire and water. We remember, o people, how God journeyed with the people through the valleys of the shadow of death and brought them to the Promised Land. We remember, o people, how God has been with us in the midst of suffering and carried us through to the other side.

And because of what the Lord has done, we will come into this house with our offerings. We will present our money, and our gifts, and our time. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me.

The writer describes in great detail the types of offerings made to the Lord, the physical things brought forth as an act of faith. But it is also about far more than that: God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel, God’s faithfulness to us, is the lens by which we interpret our own lives.

God has listened to the prayers of the psalmist; God has listened to us. And because God has listened we must testify.

Can I get a witness?

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Witnessing is a taboo thing in the church these days, or at least in the United Methodist Church. There was a time however when worship was all about testimony, moments when the preacher would step away from the pulpit and let the people of God proclaim the glorious works of God to the rest of the people of God.

But today, we don’t have time for any of this witnessing stuff. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. We don’t want to evangelize anyone. Professional Christians like pastors are the ones meant to testify.

Or, we might say that we don’t want to talk about our faith because it is a private thing. Which is ridiculous since we can only understand and interpret our faith within the faith community.

Over and over again scripture bombards us with the call to testify, to witness, to our story because that is exactly what the bible is. The bible is the witness to the marvelous works of God.

The psalmist witnesses to the truth of God’s reign because the psalmist has experienced it and cannot be kept from proclaiming it. The psalmist has been so transformed by God that the only way to respond is to tell the stories to everyone with ears to hear.

Can I get a witness?

When we are lost and found by God, that is a worthy beginning to our witness. For it is when we are lost that we are most open to the possibility of being found.

And here’s the thing: Testimony, witnessing to God, is not limited to speech about what God has done. Testimony is speech shaped by what God has done. The psalmist witnessed to the works of the Lord and in so doing allowed others, people like us, to hear and even experience what the writer experienced in God.

We don’t care much for the idea of witnessing any more. It no longer matches up with our modern sensibilities, but telling our story is the means by which we come to understand our own faith. When we do it, when we are brave and bold enough to witness, we don’t simply tell what we have already come to believe… it becomes the means by which we believe.

And that is why we witness, that is why we testify, because in so doing we become the very community God has called us to be.

So, can I get a witness?

Seriously this time, who among us will stand to share what God has done for you?

 

(Time of congregational testimony)

 

My testimony:

I’ve shared with you on a number of occasions the ways and means by which God called me to spend the rest of my life doing what I do. You’ve heard about the sidewalk square where I fell to my knees and offered my life to God. You’ve been brought into the narrative of being marched to the front of the church as a teenager and attempting to proclaim God’s Word through my first sermon. But I want to testify to another of God’s marvelous works in my life: God sending me here to you.

I never would’ve picked St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Not because there was anything particularly wrong with the church, I just knew nothing about it. When I walked into the sanctuary that first Sunday morning I only knew about 5 of you, and even then I barely knew you. And yet God called me here.

When Lindsey and I arrived, it was really hard at first. We were a young couple plucked out of our community in Durham, NC and planted here. She couldn’t find work. I didn’t know what it meant to do this work. We didn’t make friends with people in the community. And, whether or not either of us would admit it, I wondered if God had called me to the right place.

And I got up in this pulpit every week to proclaim what God had placed on my heart. I prepared for Bible Study. I visited people in the hospital. I sat on the floor with our preschoolers and told them about the bible.

And slowly, you grafted us into the community. As the weeks and months passed we felt more and more connected to the people in the pews this very morning. We loved you, and you loved us. And suddenly, this church became our family. We wept when you wept; we celebrated when you celebrated.

God sent me here to you. And some might say that God sent me here for a reason, that this church needed me. And that might be true. All churches need pastors for different reasons. But for as much as this church needed me, I needed this church.

I know in my heart of hearts that God sent me here in order to rekindle my faith; after spending years reading about God in seminary it was too easy to be cynical about what the church might be. In coming here I needed to rediscover the wonderful power of God made manifest in a community of love that you can never discover in a book on theology; I needed to re-encounter the One in whom we live and move and have our being. And you provided that for me.

And I know in my heart of hearts that the time has come for God to send me to a new place. But when I got the call about moving, it came without knowing who would be the new pastor at St. John’s. And I’ll be honest, I’ve been nervous about it. I love this church because this church has loved me. And I want it to have a pastor that will love it, and receive love from it, like I have.

And today we can finally announce that the new pastor of St. John’s is Rev. Chuck Cole. When I found out Chuck was coming here I knew that God had answered my prayers: Chuck and I were ordained together last June and have interacted a lot before we knew he was coming here. Chuck and his wife Sarah have four children and they currently live in Covington where Chuck is serving two churches. Chuck is full of love for God’s church and I know that he will love this place, and that you will love him.

What has God done for me? God sent me to a church that listened to me, prayed with me, and loved me in spite of myself.

What has God done for me? God is sending me to a new place and is sending a new pastor to the church that I love to continue the good work of the kingdom.

What has God done for you? Amen.

 

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The Cole Family