Sunday, June 19, 2016

Witness by Sinners

Witness by Sinners from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Luke 5:1-11
1Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." 5Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that tour nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter sow it, he fell down at Jesus knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
29By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 20By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

32And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barat, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets - 33Who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered Justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, there were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented - 38of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

39Yet through all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfected of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

I love a good historical recap. It’s a pretty good trait considering I’m married to a historian. Now I’m not talking about the “previously on” at the beginning of a TV episode, or about the soporific speech of a stereotypical bad history teacher. Those folks are just throwing out events. It’s not enough to just recite a timeline.

I love when a speaker fills the air with all the accomplishments and challenges of a people, giving them a running start into their hope for the future. I love kind of historical recap that reminds us that we are surrounded by history, that we are shaped by it and continue to reinterpret it as our own identity and understanding shifts.

Historical recaps have power because the stories they reference are shared stories. Shared stories belong to the people, they shape the identity of a group, and are known to those who live it.

When we read Hebrews 11, we are caught up midway through one such recap. The congregation who first heard Hebrews preaching is weary, and need to remember the promises on which their hope is founded. We can almost hear the congregation leaning forward in their creaky pews as they move to the edge of their seats. "Yes" they nod, "I know that story," they whisper. "These are my stories, the ones I was raised with" they say. By the end of the list the air is crackling with the energy that can only come from history that is shared and with stories that have been told and retold. The congregation is fully on board, bonded together by the shared story of scripture, and so when the Preacher of Hebrews makes the turn to the hope for the future, the future is theirs as well, because it emerges from their history, from the shared stories that shape their faith.

The stories lifted up in our Hebrews passage are of warriors and martyrs and everyone in between. These are the stories of those who witnessed the greatness of God and whose lives testified to the Truth, even truth that they didn’t fully understand. These stories are not about flawless testimony or expert witnesses, they are of witness by sinners. Sinners like me, sinners like you, sinners like us.

These stories can take on a kind of mythic proportion, where the characters are larger than life and stand for some sort of universal virtue or vice. See if we keep them at arms length, up on a pedestal, then we are not obliged to follow their example. But the people in our shared stories are not mythological symbols, they are sinners just like you and me. The Israelites who crossed the Red Sea grumbled constantly about the quality of God's providence. Gideon defeated the Midianites, but also fell into Idolatry. Barak was a general who defeated invading armies, but was too scared to challenge them until a prophetess name Deborah said "fine, I'll lead Israel's armies." Samson was strong, but not so much smart. Jephthah was a bandit who won a great victory but ended up sacrificing his own daughter. David and Samuel had their own faults as well, and none of the rest of the prophets were perfect either.

We have inherited a witness by sinners, and if our list of faith contains both warriors and martyrs, we must acknowledge that sometimes we are the victors, and sometimes we are defeated. We must acknowledge that sometimes we are the ones who suffer for the right reason, and sometimes we cause suffering for the wrong reasons. A witness by sinners is complicated and messy, but it is ours nonetheless.

When we worship a crucified God, we must acknowledge that while we join him on the cross, we are also the ones who put him there.

And yet, we are not judged by our triumphs or by our failures either. Our witness by sinners is realized not by our own capacity, but by faith. By the faith of Christ Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. The great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us give us stories of witness by sinners, and we join them.

That great cloud of witnesses matters, both those who have gone on before and those with whom we gather week after week. Our shared stories, our witness by sinners, keep our identity rooted. The faith we share supports us even when our own faith stumbles, or when we, like the congregation of Hebrews, are weary.

When we are in profound grief and despair, when our hearts are being sawn in half, the only thing we can hold on to are the rhythms of our faith. Those rhythms may have lost their meaning in our despair, and we may only go through the motions out of habit, but that's ok. The meaning will return in time.

Until it does, the habits and the community that practices them with us will carry us through the darkness. This community is built on sturdier stuff even than the faith of its members. We are joined to the story because of the faith of Jesus Christ, which does not fail. We may keep the faith, but we know full well it is the faith that keeps us.

The faith of Christ empowers us to respond in faith, and to offer new witness by sinners, so that we can witness the greatness of God and live our testimony to the Truth. The faith of Christ confirms our witness by sinners, and shows us that our shared history is ongoing.

By faith, two churches who had been divided for a generation set aside their divisions and rejoined on ether another.

By faith we grew in faith throughout the last century. Nearly 900 people have been members of this congregation since its beginning on June 8th, 1947.

By faith we faced challenges of leadership, and persevered in spite of what felt at times like abandonment, trusting those who served on the Session to keep things together during difficult years.

By faith we maintained our identity as a particular expression of the church of Jesus Christ when it would have been easy to fall into nostalgic idolatry.

By faith we began to trust again the hope we have always had, allowing our brokenness to show that we could find healing in the love of our family of faith and in the grace of God.

By faith a group of volunteers that stretched across generations held a vacation bible school that introduced our faith to a crowd of energetic, imaginative children.

By faith the people who are the Presbyterian Church of Lowell have shown love to more people at more times than we could possible know.

And what more should I say, for time would fail me to tell of Reid Price, Bob Harrison, Margaret Robbins, Evelyn Medlock, Dr. J. W. Reid, Parks Wilson Sr., Lois Benoy, Elizabeth Phillips, and the many others who by faith have shaped the history, tradition, and life of this congregation.

These are our shared stories, and the story is ongoing. God is not done with the people who are the Presbyterian Church of Lowell yet. Our contribution to the witness by sinners is still a rough draft, and we are adding new stories to it daily. New stories of failure, of triumph, of faith, and of the followers of Jesus Christ.

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