Sermon preached on the Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
You will say on that day:
I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.
‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
I’ve been thinking a lot about silence this week.
As a person, I am not inclined to talk politics. As a pastor, I am not permitted to preach politics. As someone who tries to see all sides of every issue, I am often baffled by the stark, oversimplified rhetoric of politics. As someone who loves people of every political persuasion, I do not wish to cause pain. And as someone who tries to keep her focus on Christ and Christ’s values, not the values of any political party, and who is easily distracted as it is, I generally don’t have time to get deep enough into the minutiae of politics to have anything worthwhile to say.
But have you tried not talking politics this week?
Not easy. Whether you were upset, elated, surprised, or even bored by the result of this week’s election, it was hard to escape conversation about it. And a lot of that conversation was pretty ugly.
So, since silence has been my go-to in the past, I figured it would be my get-out-of-jail-free card this week as well.
But then two incredibly annoying things happened: I read scripture, and I listened to the Spirit.
And lo and behold, what does our scripture say this morning? It says we will have opportunities to testify, and that, when we do, we will be given “words and wisdom.”
Now, before you get nervous, I am still not going to preach politics. But neither am I going to pretend that the most important thing that happened this week was that I changed the batteries in my thermostat, although that was a pretty exciting development.
When I chose this text for today several weeks back, I have to admit I skimmed that line about words and wisdom. I was much more interested in the dramatic and graphic description of the fall of the temple. It seemed to capture the apocalyptic mood of the country. But in some ways Jesus’ prophecy of destruction of the temple is a red herring—or at least a light pink one. Luke wrote his gospel some twenty years after the temple fell. The original draft of this sermon included, at this point, a rather long and graphic history lesson on the Jewish revolt that led to the siege of Jerusalem. But suffice it to say, Luke’s rhetoric does not undersell the devastation. It was the end of a world. But not the end of the world. Because Luke can still write about it.
Luke goes on to talk about the persecution of the disciples. Arrested, imprisoned, tried, and executed. But somewhere in that process, they’ll get a chance to testify, to witness before the world to the grace and power of Christ. All they have to do is endure and speak up.
I know that the dilemma I faced this week about speaking up was nothing compared to the testimony of a disciple on death row. But still I was petrified, because I was raised in a church where silence on current events kept the peace. The world stayed politely outside the sanctuary for an hour each Sunday, and we would all raise our voices to the God who knew us inside and out as if God could only see the parts we were willing to share.
A lot of mainline churches are like this. We are fiercely proud of our politeness. We are not like those other churches. We have manners.
And so with every proper Presbyterian bone in my body quaking with fear, I shared a post to our Facebook page, calling us all to hold ourselves accountable to God’s Love, regardless of how we voted; to be sure that in everything we do, we are displaying the Love God first displayed to us. I added my hope that we would be a congregation that could work together through diverse opinions and perspectives; that we would model what it means to live our life together first and foremost in Christ, not by the standards of the world.
Let me be clear: posting to Facebook is like, the absolute lowest rung on the ladder of learning to speak up. Baby steps, people.
There are three folks who encouraged me to write that post: Luke, who in Jesus’ voice told us to testify and promised us words and wisdom; the Spirit, who insisted that I should probably follow the scripture I profess to believe in; and, less directly, Cassie.*
Luke and the Spirit I hope you know, but I’d like to take a moment to introduce to you my friend Cassie. Cassie is one of those people I wish I could clone and scatter all over the world. She is brilliant and kind and humble, and manages to share the depth of her faith in a way I only aspire to. Cassie and I went through seminary together. She was supposed to start a postgraduate degree in September.
Instead, this summer, Cassie’s life fell under siege.
Not by Roman armies, but by medical crises. Cassie’s husband, Ron, got sick. It began with little things—vision problems, inflamed joints. Soon he was clinging to life in the hospital. Eventually Ron was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease—his body makes a type of blood cells that inflame his blood vessels. All of them. All over. The doctor said his body was basically on fire from the inside.
Did I mention Cassie was 39 weeks pregnant when they got the diagnosis? The baby wasn’t turning properly either. Cassie would have to have a C-section. They were able to arrange it so that Cassie could give birth in the same hospital where Ron was, so they could wheel him down to the delivery room. There is a beautiful picture of him holding his newborn daughter. He lost so much weight he looks like he can barely sit up straight. But he is alive, and that was the miracle that counted.
A few weeks before the birth, Cassie started posting updates on Facebook. She hadn’t shared their situation publicly before. Her messages began very matter-of-factly, just keeping folks in the loop. But as the weeks wore on, she began to talk about how their shared faith was helping her and her husband face each precarious day. This is what she wrote right after Ron’s diagnosis, four days before giving birth:
“We are aware that a lot about a real diagnosis and real treatment options can be scary. The presence of danger is very real, but we are also aware that in the face of these challenges, there is a moment-by-moment choice presented to us: to walk in fear or to walk in faith and trust. We are choosing not to fear. Some moments we are stronger in that resolve than in others, but we thank you for supporting us with this choice. God has been supporting us in our weak moments through the love of others and through the promises of [God’s] love and redeeming power.”
Week after week, I have been astounded by Cassie’s faith—and not just her faith, but her vulnerability with that faith. Her willingness to publicly admit that it is not easy. Her willingness to say what is and isn’t helpful. Her willingness to find joy in the small moments—like the hawk that roosted outside Ron’s hospital window or watching her infant daughter finally fall asleep. Her willingness to say how much it hurts, how much she is scared, how tired she is. Her willingness to admit that Jesus’ love and power does not make everything magically okay, but that it does help her endure each not-okay day. Her willingness to share the words and wisdom God has given her, even at a time when much of her world is falling apart.
Cassie is enduring, and she is testifying. And in doing so her faith has strengthened my own, and, I expect, that of many others. It might have been easier for her to keep silent. But she has put her faith into the public square, and it has been beautiful to see.
There was at least sixty years between Jesus and Luke, sixty years in which knowledge of Jesus’ story relied almost entirely on people being willing to speak out about it. Think what we might have lost if his disciples chose to be silent! Instead they endured, and they testified, and they witnessed to Jesus’ power and grace.
I have one more story to share with you, and I hope it will be heard in the spirit of vulnerability in which it is offered. I received a phone call this week from a friend of a friend, an African-American woman who grew up in Southwest Virginia and spent most of her working life in my hometown, though she has recently moved to be near her son, who is in med school. She explained who she was and how she knew my friend, and then asked if she could tell me a little bit of her story.
I said it would be an honor.
We talked for almost an hour. She told me about her past struggles, about when she has been overlooked, harassed, discriminated against, abused, ignored. She told me about her daily fear for her son’s safety. She told me she tries to show God’s love to everyone she meets, and how she has prayed for strangers on the bus and counseled students in her school. She told me she feels a call to love, to believe, to hope, to keep faith, but also that she feels worn out, and scared. She said she didn’t know who she could reach out to, but that the spirit nudged her to call me. She asked me to pray with her. The Spirit must’ve been busy that morning, because I prayed like I’ve never prayed before—like a Baptist, I told a friend later. Before we hung up, she asked one more favor: to share her story with my people. “Tell them we are hurting,” she said.
I promised I would. If the Spirit had given her words and wisdom to testify to her truth, than it would be my honor to pass it on.
I will admit that I have never been particularly thrilled with the outcome of a presidential election—because the outcome is always to uncover the deep rift among many of us, and division is not what my heart longs for, nor what my faith champions. Part of that division, I believe, stems from an inability, or an unwillingness, or even a lack of opportunity, to listen to each other–and likewise, our inability, or unwillingness, or lack of opportunity, to talk to each other. I have seen so many assumptions, so many echo chambers, claiming to know what the other side thinks and feels. I am aware that I can get caught up in my own small bubble of the Presbyterian world, and fail to engage with more than a selected few folks who are vastly different from me. I am recommitting myself to listening to the witness of anyone who is willing to offer it.
And I pray that each of us would be willing to speak up about our own truths, our own fears, our own hopes, our own faith. First and foremost, I pray that we would be willing to speak these truths to each other, and receive them with compassion and respect. But also, I pray the spirit would give us the courage—the words and the wisdom—to share our faith with those who might need it in the days to come—those who are tired, those who feel attacked, those who are misunderstood, those who are unloved. What would the world looked like if we each shared our faith as bravely as the disciples did, as bravely as Carrie did, as bravely as Melinda* did? What would it be like to stand before the world and claim there is something more than this endless cycle of division and rancor? What would it be like to testify to Christ’s enduring love, that shall never be torn down or destroyed?
All week, I have found the words of the Brief Statement of Faith from our Book of Confessions running through my head:
In a broken and fearful world,
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in church and culture,
to listen to the voices of peoples long silenced
and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.
May it be so.
*names, as always, changed