‘…the story we tell II’
January 19, 2020
Scripture: John 1:29-42, Matthew 25:34-40
As I shared last week, I believe very deeply that there is a very real crisis in Christian faith understanding all across our nation. A crisis that is due to the inadequacy of the way we tell the truth of our faith, and of the loving nature of our God. And unfortunately, it seems to be a crisis that shows little to no sign of abating, as we seemingly, unwittingly allow ourselves to become further divided and even more deeply polarized every day.
And it is due in no small part I feel, to the disappearance of widely and universally accepted Truth with a capital ‘T’…meaning specifically, truth and facts which are widely accepted across the full societal span of belief and understanding. There are separate and vastly divergent systems of, or ways of viewing and understanding reality that are made all the more fixed in place by the prevailing national political climate and, dare I say, the ‘theatre’ of the moment.
And when it comes to finding a way to proclaim the truth of our faith, when it comes to lifting up the good news of the gospel, the message of a Savior come to save us from ourselves, while extolling us to truly love one another, to care for the hungry and naked, the sick and the captive, the refugees among us…when it comes to actually sharing our faith story and belief, it would seem that our greatest battle is against what I see as the outright theft and distortion of those same first-principles of our faith by one side of the political divide, as they have successfully sought to replace the original gospel call to sacrifice and unrelenting love, with a warrior God who cares not for the ‘refugee’, nor the oppressed and the unfortunate whatsoever. But rather a ‘God’ who promises prosperity and abundance to those who adhere to an increasingly isolationist and exclusive-in-the-extreme faith understanding and practice.
As I said last week, there is a crisis all around us due to what I feel is the ineffectiveness of how followers of Jesus, those who truly hear and then seek to follow the teachings of the four gospels and the example set for us by Jesus, are able to convey the story of our loving and merciful God. A message set apart by its call for the extension of unconditional love, for mercy and forgiveness that is offered not up to seven times, but rather seventy times seven. A message that, true to the words of Jesus in our reading, knows that every time we reach out and minister to the least among us, we are truly ministering unto Christ our Lord…a claim that has become not only unpopular, but in fact dangerous to those who seek to live into such ministry, and who openly proclaim the same from within the bastion of false-faith narratives that are so deeply afflicting our Christian faith.
Indeed, few are those brave enough, or able and willing enough to challenge the momentum of those who are actively seeking to turn the Christian faith to their own personal advantage, and away from the call to the selfless pursuit of justice for all God’s children in these truly tumultuous times. All of which means that our God, our Lord of love and mercy is being spoken of in truth less and less, and as a result, even fewer souls are finding that glimmer of hope that the Spirit so seeks to extend to all seeking comfort and a sense of hope and peace.
I truly had no intention of continuing to speak of ‘story sharing’ or witnessing our faith again today at all. However, our gospel reading for today brought the issue of giving true witness to our faith, back into clear focus. In our passage from John’s gospel, we see John the Baptist giving witness to the identity of Jesus two days in a row, insisting to those all around him, that indeed Jesus was the one sent to redeem Israel, the one anointed ‘Messiah’, by God. And his telling of this truth was so convincing that several of his own disciples or students followed after Jesus, and eventually became his followers. John offered his faith story, his testimony, his true witness, and as a result, people believed.
And I suppose one might counter that those times were so very different from our own, and therefore it is hard to make a comparison between the two. But I am not so sure they were all that different, for humanity it seems, has always had various competing truth narratives vying for broad social acceptance. And the setting of our reading was in a time and place experiencing strict and crippling top-down religious control, as well as overwhelming Imperial Roman oppression and occupation. As such, the Hebrew people of Jesus’ day were desperate for relief, desperate for deliverance from all of the pressures weighing them down. And the outside pressure to enforce servitude and social compliance, and to quell any anti-religious or anti-Roman thought or behavior was just as dominant and pervasive.
Many were those before Jesus who had also been put forth and acclaimed as the ‘Messiah’ or the ‘Savior’…the ‘One’ who was promised to deliver the people from their oppressors. But just as many of these had been brutally silenced, crucified and then put on public display to quiet or to silence rebellion and dissension altogether.
So, John the Baptist’s proclamation out in the very public square that Jesus was the ‘Anointed One, the One sent by God, the One on whom the Holy Spirit had descended and remained’, was in fact not only bold and audacious, but extremely dangerous as well, both to John for even bringing the subject up, and to Jesus who would now surely be a target of those seeking to maintain social order and control, and empowered to eliminate all opposition to their authority.
For in their eyes, and in their understanding of what was true, right, and socially acceptable, these Roman and religious enforcers saw John’s claim as a criminal act, as a claim against the Divine Authority of the Roman Emperor. And likewise, they would now see Jesus as one to be watched very carefully, and to be eliminated if and when his actions or words also proved to be anti-government or anti-religious establishment. Indeed sadly, the times were, and are, not so different.
The difference today, at least in our nation founded on principals of religious freedom, and on a political model that purportedly allows for universal freedom, is that there is this ability for one to express whatever someone decides they want to. A right, if you will, to speak truth, or unfortunately, even falsehood out into the public square. And it may not seem that it is so, but the pressure to conform to a prevailing social narrative is still quite intense as the battle for what is actually the Truth and nothing but the truth, rages on all around us. Amply demonstrated by the fact, that it is actually possible to hear two completely different versions of events, two interpretations of what would seem to be ‘facts’, that both start and arrive at completely different places. I have never seen such a wide divergence between neighbors and friends based on what they have each accepted as ‘truth’ from their preferred source of news or information.
And somehow, in the middle of all of this confusion and electricity in the air, we as people of faith are still being called upon by the Spirit of our God, to bear true and faithful witness to a Savior who, we must not forget, was crucified for what he had said and done. And, one who I fear, would be treated pretty much the same today by many whose faith understanding has become mired both in false understanding of the nature of our God, and by the lack of awareness of the degree of sacrifice required to truly follow Jesus all the way…even if that ‘way’ stands in contrast to the dominant social narrative…and even if that ‘way’, leads to a cross.
Somehow, and in some way, we are still called to give truthful witness to this One who taught that unending love was the true nature of our God. We can no longer avoid the difficult encounters, we must speak out. We cannot pass by on the other side of the road whenever we see a stranger lying hurt on the roadside of life, we cannot withhold food, clothing, or shelter from any seeking refuge within the promises which we ourselves hold deep within our hearts…promises made by our God of mercy and grace.
We cannot be afraid to offer our own story and telling of our loving God, even if it runs fully counter to the world-view or story of others nearby who would marginalize, exclude, withhold, or diminish the value or the sacred touch that makes us all beloved children of our God.
Indeed, we know the truth that is found within our gospels…the hard truth that love is costly, the hard truth that love must be inclusive, the hard truth thatanything we do, no matter what, that is done in the absence of love, is worthless and unholy. We are not allowed to hide behind lukewarm expressions of our belief, in fact, not even to say ‘I believe it is so’ or ‘I hope it is so’, for to speak in this way is somehow less than what our Lord needs of us in these times. ‘Do not be’, as Hosea wisely counsels, ‘as a half-baked loaf of bread’. Rather than meekly saying, ‘I believe’, we must stand up and be counted as those who proclaim boldly, ‘This I know, of this I am certain’!
As did John before us, we must give witness to the nature of our God of love by lifting up the life, the words, and the witness of Jesus our Christ, speaking out boldly in the public square in defense of mercy and compassion for our every brother and sister, and against all that would seek to oppress, diminish, or exclude.
We were given a clear choice – either to listen, to see, and to make decisions that restore or enhance our relationships one with another, reflecting the loving example given to us by our Lord Jesus…or, or instead to do nothing, to isolate ourselves, to turn away from or refuse to hear those cries or those opportunities to share and to be God’s love-in-action. We were given that choice before we chose to follow our Lord Jesus and to love one another as he first loved us.
However, it is no longer a choice for those who believe and profess to follow our Lord Jesus. It is no longer a choice for those of us who have decided to follow this One who came that all humankind might be set free to enjoy the bounty of our Lord’s love and grace. Our only choice now as those who in fact ‘know’ our Lord, is to proclaim and to live into the truth that our God, is a God of unimaginable love…of a love that knows no limits, and that has no end…
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry…?”
Was it out on the street, or in line at our food pantry, or when you came to the Thrift Shop on a Thursday morning, not so much to buy anything, but because you knew there was food available there? Or was it when you called in the middle of the night or at some other ‘most inconvenient time’, asking for some food for you or for a friend…was that when we saw you hungry my Lord?
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you thirsty?’…
Was it when so much of the water all around the world and even in our own cities had become polluted and unfit to drink? Or was it when you went to school, or came home and drank water contaminated with deadly high levels of lead due to crumbling infrastructure all across our nation…was that when we saw you thirsty Lord?
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you sick’?”…
Were you Oh Lord, one of so many of our children born with two strikes against them already? Predestined at birth to suffer from poor nutrition and an increasingly unhealthy food supply, or already addicted to one of so many different drugs or afflictions?
Or are you my Lord one of the poor folks living out on the margins of our community…suffering from an inability to get access to affordable health care, are you in danger of succumbing to some disease or condition that in our brash boldness we claim to have already conquered…except of course, in cases where the home or apartment in which you are forced to reside falls outside of acceptable limits for health and wholeness…was that when we saw you sick dear Jesus?
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you a stranger, and invite you in’?”
Was it you my Lord, one of many standing on the corner, with a look and a name different than what we are used to? Or were you one of those who have been recently separated from your family thousands of miles away, and brought here all by yourself to stay in an unfamiliar place with people you do not know or understand? Or are you one of those who walk along the streets in town, familiar to all, but actually known by few if any…was that when we saw you a stranger…was that you my Lord?
“The Lord will answer…, ‘I tell you the truth… whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, co-bearers along with you, of my image…whatever you do to restore, to preserve, and to honor the breath of life everywhere within the Creation I made for you, the Creation I myself called “good”… the Creation I gave to you for your abundant enjoyment’…“Whatever you do for one of these…that you do directly unto me”…
Ours it is, each one of us, to tell our story…to tell our story as those who have seen our Lord, who no longer simply believe…
…but indeed as those who ‘know that we know’, of our Lord’s grace, mercy, and love, there for every single one of us. Come let us tell our story, for indeed in this day, it is the one thing that we know to be true…
…and the only thing that can truly bring light and life to an increasingly darkened world so deeply in need…