Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sermon: The Public Witness of Billboards

Here is my sermon from May 4th, 2014

I had the privilege of attending a worship leadership course in Thunder Bay, Ontario last weekend. I left Winnipeg on Thursday and drove 2 hours to my hometown Kenora, then in Kenora I caught a carpool on Friday and we drove the additional 5 hours to Thunder Bay. It was a long journey. Northwestern Ontario has some breathtaking scenery: I love the pines and the rocky hills, but as beautiful as it was, it was still a long drive.
Since I was lucky enough to be the passenger in this car, I occupied myself by reading road signs and billboards. And what I found particularly interesting were the billboards with scripture quotations. Things like:

“The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth all sin”


“Seek ye me (Jesus) and ye shall live”

I started to wonder what verse from scripture I would choose if I was planning to put up a billboard. I wonder who is deciding which verses belong on billboards, and why they want the verses to be in the very beautiful but quite old-fashioned King James version. I wonder what verse each of you would choose to put on a billboard. How would you sum up the good news… the meaning of the gospel, in one verse?

The conclusion that I’ve come to personally is that it is impossible to sum it up in a single sentence. Ask me what the good news is right now, and then ask me again in ten minutes and you’ll get two different answers. It’s not that I believe that the Good News changes, but I change: and whatever it is that God has done for me and continues to do for me through Jesus Christ is so huge that I can’t seem to ever fully comprehend it.

That’s why I think it’s important to look at the whole of scripture, not just isolated verses. Although isolated verses can give us a word of Good News at a particular time, different verses apply to different times and situations. That’s why we need the whole of scripture, every word. And we need to hear it regularly as we go through changes in our lives. We need the multifaceted word of God to guide us on our journey through this vast land of human experience.

Today we continue on our journey through the church season of Easter. The last time I was here worshipping with you, the season of Lent was ending, and in the time between then and now, we commemorated the most important events of the Christian faith: the crucifixion and the resurrection. Now in the season of Easter, we journey with the resurrected Christ.

I pondered today’s lectionary readings for a long time until I noticed something: in the Gospel stories from Lent, Jesus is the main character, the star of the show. In today’s Gospel reading, the focus is on the disciples: what they see and experience. The story has shifted from a story about Jesus to a story about us: the followers of Jesus. And the season of Easter seems like the appropriate time of the year to ask ourselves: “what does it mean for us to walk with the resurrected Christ?”.

Today’s responsive psalm reading gave us the words of one person who had a personal experience with the living God. This person was in deep suffering and cried to the Lord for salvation. Then this author tells us that the Lord saved him, and he struggled with the question about what is a worthy human response to the experience of salvation.

“What shall I render to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”

What can I give back to the Lord for all the good things he’s done for me?

It’s a great question. What do you give the God who has everything… the God who made everything, the Creator of heaven and Earth? The psalm writer decides that all he can offer is his gratitude. He offers public gratitude, “in the presence of all God’s people”.

How do we, as disciples of Christ, show our gratitude to God in the presence of all God’s people. Perhaps we give thanks in prayer before meals. Perhaps it is just the way we talk in a casual conversation with someone, expressing our appreciation for our blessings in life as being gifts from God. As much as people like to laugh at football players who credit God for their touchdown, I think that is also a form of testimony, a reminder that the glory of our success has not come because we have done something to deserve it, but because God is generous and bountiful and blesses us.

Today’s reading from the Book of Acts described a very public action taken by Jesus’ disciple Peter. In this passage, Peter preaches the Gospel, he preaches salvation and repentance, and his words lead three thousand people to baptism.

Peter, as a disciple, goes beyond expressing his gratitude to God publicly. He shares the Good News and inspires people to become baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

For many in the Church today, there is a strong desire to share the Good News with the people around us. We want to bring people into this wonderful and flawed community that we call the Church, where we ourselves have experienced salvation. Yet the experience of trying to, as some people call it, “bring people to Christ”, often seems fruitless. Where are the three thousand people who are going to listen to me testify and then go and get baptized? My normal experience goes more like this: bring a friend to church, my friend says it’s nice, my friend never attends church again.

So when I’m pondering the meaning of discipleship, and I look on the behaviours and successes of the early disciples in the Book of Acts, I am left with these unresolved questions about the role of Jesus-followers as people who inspire others to join the faith. Am I trying hard enough to live out this aspect of discipleship?
One comforting response to this issue comes through in Peter’s letter that we heard today.

Peter’s words in this passage remind us that discipleship is not something that we have initiated. Discipleship is our natural reaction to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Thank God that it is not good discipleship that makes us Christian, but rather our faith that makes us good disciples. For we are saved by our loyalty to Christ, not by our actions. And we remain flawed human beings, even as our faith compels us to strive to be good Christian disciples. We strive, as Peter says in the letter, “to purify our souls by obedience to the truth” and to “love deeply from the heart”. We do this not to please God, but through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And even with the power of the Holy Spirit that works in us through our lives, we do remain flawed human beings. And perhaps that’s why it is so easy to relate to the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. The clueless disciples who can’t recognize Jesus.

These are disciples who have heard the Good News about the resurrection from the women who visited the tomb but are unable to believe it. They have lost hope and are so trapped in their own doubt that they are unable to recognize the Risen Christ when they encounter him. We might wonder how they could possibly have been unable to recognize the one that they journeyed with for so long and who had been the central figure in their lives. Yet this experience of being unable to recognize Christ in contexts where we don’t expect to meet him continues to be a common experience for Christians.
It seems like section 6.2.1 in the Presbyterian Church’s Living Faith: A Statement of Belief Document describes this story almost perfectly when it says:
  • We are not always certain that God is with us. At times God calls us to live in this world
  • without experiencing the divine presence, often discerning God's nearness only as we look back.

This is exactly what happened to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Looking back, they discerned God's nearness, and they remember that when Christ was with them, even when they did not know it, still their hearts were burning within themselves.

Reflecting on this story, I think about how often I see a stranger and do not recognize the light of Christ in him or her. If I became better at recognizing this light in other people I think my behavior would change. If I could recognize the light of Christ in the people around me, in the stranger,I think I would become less fearful and more generous. But I am like the disciples in the story: flawed, human, and kind of clueless.

Fortunately in my life God has been persistent. Like Jesus who explains scripture in this passage, God has spoken to me through the Scriptures. God renews my faith and restores my hope.

Scripture is a reliable source of inspiration and revelation, but the Emmaus Road story also points us towards another source of revelation: the ordinary.

We know a lot of Jesus stories in which he performs miracles, but it is interesting that in the Emmaus road story the recognition of Jesus by the disciples comes through an ordinary act that anyone might have performed: the breaking of bread. Like Jesus who revealed himself in the breaking of the bread, God reveals himself to us in the ordinary things of life. In meals shared with friends we experience something holy. When I hear the first birdsong outside my window in the spring, I feel the comfort of God’s presence. When my friend in Thunder Bay showed me the crocuses sprouting up through the snow in her yard last weekend I felt the hope of new life and renewal. God speaks to us through scripture, but I also believe that if we pay attention, God is trying to reach us through ordinary things in our day-to-day lives. If we are paying attention, there are abundant clues that God is a God of resurrection: of renewal and hope and grace.

There is nothing wrong with being a disciple who needs this kind of reassurance, both from scripture and from the ordinary stuff of life. There are ample examples in scripture of disciples who experience doubt but are brought back to faith through the many ways the Holy Spirit comes to meet us where we are.

Today’s scripture readings spoke to me about discipleship, probably because discipleship has lately been a burning question in my mind. This is all part of the magic of scripture for me, that in pondering the word of God I find wisdom for my daily life. And if I had to summarize what I learned about discipleship from this week’s scriptures I would say that a disciple:

expresses gratitude in the presence of all God’s children.

lives and acts in response to what God has done for them in Jesus Christ.
Purifies their soul by obedience to the truth.
Loves deeply from the heart

And a disciple also...
Loses hope.
Regains hope through a the words of a stranger
Doesn’t always recognize Christ
Regains hope through hearing the scriptures.
Breaks bread in community.
Has a heart that burns.
Tells the story.

In the following week, and in every day of our lives, may we be open to the power of the Holy Spirit, and may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ help us to live ever more fully into our lives as both flawed human beings and disciples of the risen Lord.

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