A Community of Witness

This is part of a series of sermons on being the church based on the Foundations chapter of the PCUSA Book of Order. It started here.

Texts: Matthew 5:13-16 and 2 Corinthians 4:1-7

I know not everyone keeps track of time by way of the liturgical calendar, but it’s kind of an occupational hazard for minister types. Especially nerdy ones like me.  But I would like you to think back with me a few months… right back to the beginning of the year, the end of Christmastide….  I’m thinking about Epiphany

Epiphany marks the end of the 12 Days of Christmas. As a Festival Day, Epiphany marks the visit of the magi. It is the day of light, when we talk about the star that led them westward toward the Holy Family, that led them toward Jesus, the Light of the World.

This year, on Epiphany, those of you who were here had the opportunity to pull a star from a basket – a paper star with a word on it.  Do you remember yours?

I remember Dottie A’s star word – Shalom.  I remember because we thought it interesting that during the passing of the peace that morning, she said “Shalom” to me.  A word she seldom uses. We laughed after the service in wonder at God’s way of making a small gesture into a bit of a “take notice” moment.

I wondered what God might be do in her life as she reflected on Shalom this year. When I think about what Dottie and John have experienced in the last weeks, how hard it has been to feel the peace that comes from balance and wholeness in every aspect of life. And I pray shalom over Dottie’s heart, mind, and spirit.

Perhaps you’ve set your stars aside. Maybe yours is tucked into your Bible or stuck on your refrigerator door.  You may have forgotten about it completely or tossed it in the garbage or recycling months ago. I totally understand. I couldn’t tell you where my star is at the moment.

But I know the word.  Liberty.

I know it because it surprised me when I pulled it from the basket. It’s one of those words that feels out of place outside political or patriotic contexts. I remember looking up the word, because it seemed such an odd word to reflect on as a spiritual practice.

Liberty is freedom. Freedom from oppression, from restrictions, from an authority imposing an outside will on one’s beliefs, behavior, political views and so on. The first synonym my dictionary offered for liberty is independence.

Yep. That’s pretty much what I’d thought it meant. And I confess to feeling a bit disappointed.

What would God do with that word in my life? I am not really all that much in need of liberation. I experience more freedom than a majority of the people in the world.

I am an American.  I am anglo and middle class. I have more than one degree, more than one job, and more than one vehicle at my disposal. I live at a time in which women can pursue pretty much any career – including a call to pastoral ministry. I am free to travel, free to speak my mind, free to be Christian (or in the unlikely event I decided to change),free to explore any other faith or even not to pursue faith at all.

Most of us were raised to expect these sorts of freedoms, to be strong-minded, strong-willed, independent people. That is, as Sam the Eagle might say to his muppet friends, “The American Way”

The bunting and flags and fireworks that mark our celebrations of American independence started appearing early this week. They came out about the time I began thinking about our scripture and about the church as a community of witness.

The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.

We are to live by faith, in community, trusting that God’s provision and care for us is greater than anything we might create or store up for ourselves. We place our hope, together, in Christ and in the promised new creation. We must care for and nurture the vertical relationship with God that deepens our shared faith and restores our shared hope.

We are bound together by our shared love for God and the reconciling work of Christ on our behalf. Only by doing the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation do we develop and strengthen horizontal relationships that reflect Christ-like love.

At the same time, we are to be a community of witness; we must turn our eyes and our hearts outward. The community that cares only for itself does not embody the Christ who not only saw but moved toward the cast aside and forgotten.

As I pondered all that… all that we are called to do… together as a body made up of many members…I realized something crazy about God’s plan.

We get to choose.
We get to choose whether or not to do or be any of these things.
We each get to choose individually, and we get to choose together.

Jesus calls us, invites us, equips us, commissions us…
the Holy Spirit inspires and empowers us…

But God doesn’t force us to do anything.

Now I can hear you thinking really loudly right about now – Laura, you have totally lost it. The Ten Commandments…. duh!  Doesn’t God command us to honor our parents, to worship only God?  Isn’t  that list kind of binding with a name like that?

Yes, they are commands. They make very clear what to do and not do, according to God’s commands.

But we also have been given the very hearts, souls, minds and bodies with which we are commanded to love God.  And we have been given the will to move them.

Each of us has the freedom to say yes to God.
Each of us has the freedom to stand here, flat-footed, and say “nope”.

And as anyone who has ever attempted to care for a toddler can tell you, the human will can be very very strong.  Combine free will with our American culture of independence, of liberty, and you begin to see why being the Body of Christ is actually really really hard.

Coming together as a community is hard work.
Staying together in community is even harder.

All this had me thinking about the history we celebrated this weekend. We remember with pride the patriots who fought for independence from the tyranny of England, and we mark the the signing of the declaration that started a revolution.

In some ways, the Civil War that occurred fewer than 100 years later, was also a battle for independence and freedom.  But it was also about interdependence- could all the states be counted upon to go forward together- as one Independent Nation?

Considering the news of the past weeks, it strikes me that we are still trying to answer that question.  Debates and Supreme Court decisions about voting rights, immigration, health care, gun ownership, access to marriage and so many other issues are deeply divisive…. They seem to be tearing apart our nation, our families, even our churches.

What is a person of faith to do?
What is the Body of Christ to do?

Well, the church is to be a community of witness. The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.

We are to point to grace.
We are to point to Jesus.

We are to point to the ministry of Jesus, in which he looked out at the people who had gathered to see and hear him, and he saw that they were like sheep that had been harassed and harmed.

We are to point to the Christ who had compassion for the poor, the sick and the unwanted.

We point to the Living Water whose compassion became action as he did whatever was necessary to bring men, women and children back into community.

We point to the Bread of Life who fed the hungry and set captives free.

We are to point to God’s transforming grace by telling the stories, his stories, our stories, that reveal the ways that God has been and still is at work in the world in real and tangible was.

We can point to transforming grace by looking beyond these walls and out into the city with compassion for the poor, the sick and the unwanted.  And then by trusting God to provide whatever it takes to feed the hungry and set captives free from the bondage of addiction or sin, to clothe the naked, to bind up the brokenhearted.

We point to transforming grace by speaking truth to those who would squander their influence and power, chasing fame and greater power rather pursuing than the greater good…  By giving sight to those who are blind to the way their policies endanger the health of our ecosystem and thus threaten the planet that sustains us all.

We point to God’s transforming grace when we allow each member of the community the space to find and use their gifts to the glory of God. When we treat one another with respect and dignity. When we ask for and offer forgiveness. When we finish hard conversations, staying in the room when we’d rather storm out, staying in relationship when we’d rather leave, trusting God to draw us ever closer to each other by keeping Jesus at the center.

See that is the key – my freedom, my independence, my liberty – is worthless if it leads me away from faith, hope and love that are centered on Christ or dislodges me from the community. I can follow all the commandments, do hundreds of hours of volunteer work, and be incredibly polite. But if I am not seeking the welfare of my community, this community, you all, none of it has meaning to God, none of it will point others to God’s grace.

My ability to bear witness of God’s grace to the world, your ability to bear witness of God’s grace to the world, both are bound up in our identity as a community transformed by grace into a body where faith, hope and love abide. We are, in fact, dependent upon each other, even as we depend on God. Even as God depends on us

You see, we are carrying around God’s greatest treasure. Inside these fallible, corruptible, mortal containers, is the light and life of the indwelling Christ. Paul described us as earthen or clay jars. Today, he might point to our brown paper grocery bags.

The jars he was thinking of were used to transport everyday items – water, wares to be sold, food supplies- so the jars were plain, serviceable. Nothing fancy. They were pretty durable, but eventually, they developed cracks and imperfections.  The truth Paul points to is this:  that despite all our imperfections, we are the bearers of the good news of God’s grace to the world. and because of those imperfections, those cracks, we can only point to God as the source of our light.

When we allow them to be seen in true humility, people can see Christ in us. When we wrap ourselves too tightly in our arrogance, or when we put on the mask of false perfection or when we hide ourselves away from the world the light of Christ gets hidden as well.

Imagine being part of a community of faith and hope, a community that has so much trust in God, so much hope in the promise of new creation that they set aside all pretense of wisdom, set aside all fear of failure, and choose only to say YES to God.

Imagine being part of a community of love, a community that was open about its strengths and faults, its fears and hopes, asked forgiveness and offered grace, where everyone felt safe and cared for, loved and trusted.

When we choose to say YES to God We are free to be a community where faith, hope and love abide where trust in God’s abundance overcomes our learned expectation of scarcity, where we share the sacraments with joy, where transforming grace leaks out through our imperfections to bear witness to God’s goodness, where we shine with the light that cannot be hidden.

Earlier this week I heard from my sister Amy.  She’s a pyrotechnician at Disney. That means she is one of those experts trained to program and produce shows with lasers and fireworks. She called me this week because she was preparing a children’s sermon for today at the church she attends.

She wanted to do something fireworks themed, so she was telling me some of her ideas and wanted me to help with the theological side – which is harder than you might think.  Finally, she told me that she would actually have a prop with her. A sample – though non-explosive – so that people could see what the fireworks look like before they go up.

I don’t have that prop with me, so imagine if you will a basketball-sized sphere that looks like it’s a papier-mache project. Think brown- like a paper grocery bag or parcel paper. Pretty plain looking, to be honest, like a piñata before you add the colored paper.

They transport these pieces in fairly plain crates. After all, you don’t want someone who is up to no good to get any ideas. But even in their plain packaging, they move these boxes around as if they are the company’s greatest treasure. Not because they are expensive (because they are) but because there is so much power tucked inside.

When you take that everyday looking brown basketball, tuck it into a tube pointing at just the right angle, ignite the fuse and give it space to fly, the plain paper burns away, allowing the chemicals inside to combine and then explode into a beautiful pattern that lights up the sky and makes people stop, point upward and say, “Wow!”

Now when they take 100 of those shells, combine them with music and choreograph hundreds of those little explosions so that lights fill the sky for 20 minutes – that will cause a whole theme park full of people to stop, point upward and say, “Oh wow!”

Imagine… Just Imagine… how much more powerful is the treasure we carry around.

No – stop imagining and live.

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