November 13 Sermon

An Opportunity to Testify
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
November 13, 2016, the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Based on Luke 21:5-19

About 35 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Roman Empire put down a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem. The Temple was looted and destroyed, and Judaism was outlawed. Luke’s account of Jesus life and ministry was written in the decades after these events, when Jews and Christians were experiencing varying degrees of persecution. Hear how Luke comforts believers, and hear how we are challenged to live faithfully today.

I don’t talk about it much, but I serve another congregation. While I am the Interim Pastor here at Lyonsville Congregational, I am also the Associate Pastor for Leadership Resources at Northfield Community Church. (I always have to read that, because I have a hard time remembering that title!) The main reason I don’t talk often about my work there is to keep myself clear about the work I am doing here with you. If I talk about Northfield Community Church too often I begin to confuse the work I do here and the work I do there – and then work with both congregations becomes less clear. But I’m going to bend that practice today because yesterday, before the Harvest Home Turkey Dinner, I was part of a significant moment in ministry that I think may have meaning for you.

Up until August, the building of Northfield Community Church housed three congregations: Northfield Community Church, a United Church of Christ; The Love of Jesus Christ Mission Church, a Korean Presbyterian church; and St. Peter Community Church, a United Church of Christ. In August, the Korean Presbyterian congregation did not renew their lease so that they could start a new lease with a congregation nearer to where more of their membership lived. St. Peter Community Church is still in the building, just not as St. Peter Community Church.

About four years ago, St Peter Community was faced with dissolving the congregation because they were nearly bankrupt. The leadership of St Peter Community was approached by a Chaldean Catholic congregation who offered to buy their building and property. It meant this congregation that is almost 175 years old went from near bankruptcy to having nearly two million dollars, but it also meant leaving the location where they met, worshipped, and served for almost 50 years. Gathering as a congregation was more important than gathering at that specific place, so they accepted the offer.

Without their own building, they then approached Northfield Community Church asking a place to use as they discerned how God was calling them to continue as a faithful community. After almost four years, they discerned to unite with Northfield Community Church. Now, that has meant a lot of ecclesiastical gymnastics, because these two congregation represent two different parts of United Church of Christ heritage: St. Peter Community was founded by the German Evangelical Church in the 1840’s, while Northfield Community Church was founded by the Congregational Christians in the 1950’s. (For those of you who don’t know why that is significant, ask me later and I can explain. Meanwhile, trust me: these are two very different forms of Protestantism.)

As I said, these two UCC congregations have united: in August St. Peter Community held their final worship service, and in September the two bodies held their first unified worship service. It is uncharted territory for both congregations, because neither congregation has ever been united with another congregation before,  and both groups are figuring out how to honor their own heritage and respectfully honor the heritage of the other group.

Yesterday morning, I joined a group from St. Peter Community to retrieve a time capsule, which will be relocated to the property of Northfield Community Church. In that service, I reflected with them that a sense of place plays a significant role in our spirituality. When Noah exited the ark, he built an altar as a place to give thanks. As Abraham and Sarah traveled, they marked several places where the encountered God. Jacob, Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, wrestled with an angel – and put up an altar to mark the place. When the children of Israel where thirsty and God provided them water, Moses marked the place with an altar. Solomon builds a temple as a place for God to live, a place where it would be certain that God touched the world and kept the world going. We mark places where God has been encountered, and we return there with hopes that God will be encountered again. The more we return to those specific places seeking God’s presence, the more those places become associated with encountering God.

Today’s gospel lesson has Jesus also reflecting on place. Throughout Luke’s gospel, the disciples are presented as something like country bumpkins. They have arrived in Jerusalem, faces slack-jawed while staring upward at the Temple. “Look at the size of those foundation stones! Look at the ornate carving! Don’t you just feel the sense of God’s presence here? Jesus, isn’t this just magnificent?”

I cannot identify Jesus’ tone of voice here. I don’t know if it is mournful, filled with sorrow and sadness; or sharp, rebuking the disciples; or kind of disconnected and ethereal as if staring off at something others do not see. I can’t figure out the tone of voice to the words: “There is a time coming when none of these stones will connected.”

I can imagine the impact of these words. A time without the temple? The disciples knew Jewish history: the temple had been destroyed before, and the people of Israel and Judah were scattered throughout the known world, scattered so that there was no longer any single, unifying form of worship to hold them together. Now when Jews came to Jerusalem, the place where God had been known and had been encountered, those Jews spoke many languages, wore many different styles of clothing, even had different colored skin because they had married people from the many nations where they now lived. It had been unchartered territory then; it was confusing territory now; would it be even more perplexing in the future?

The topic changes: the disciples want to know when this will happen. They want to be prepared for the confusion. Jesus does not answer them directly. Instead, he describes three things. First, the messiah will come – but it will not be clear: “Watch out that you aren’t deceived.”

Second, there is trouble coming:

  • wars and rebellions;
  • nations and kingdoms fighting each other;
  • people betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends;
  • people put into arrested custody and harassed because of their faith;
  • some people executed.

This is not some sort of historic itinerary. Jesus is not saying “When this list of troubles begins to happen, expect the end of history to occur.” The troubles listed here are troubles every generation of humanity has encountered. Each generation will have militaries moving across battlefields and into cities; earthquakes and hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones, tornadoes, blizzards, and famines and droughts, and food riots, and plagues and communicable diseases and incurable illnesses, and bullies and demagogues and hate-filled rhetoric and political oppression. These are not the ultimate signs of the end of time: these upheavals have happened before and will happen again – and yet they will generate unprecedented historical circumstances. These are not signs that God is absent: they are events that call us to seek God’s presence – and to be present to one another.

Right in the middle of describing all these calamities s a simple sentence, what I think is the most essential of Jesus’ three responses: “This will provide you with an opportunity to testify.” We are not called to belie how difficult it is for us to have faith or how difficult it is to act upon our principles. We are to seize the opportunity to testify about God’s goodness which is greater than any suffering; we are not to be strong and endure the hard times but to proclaim trust in God who is transforming all of creation so it is a just, grace-filled and joyous expression of God’s love.

We are called to seize the opportunity to testify about God’s goodness because we have witnessed transformed lives, we have experienced love that saves us from despair, and we know God has intervened not merely in our individual lives but in the course of human history – in politics and culture and art and technology and education and marriages and civil rights. We are called to seize the opportunity to testify about God’s goodness because through prophets and apostles God has given us a glimpse of what God has planned.

So, testify. Don’t wait on a preacher to deliver a good sermon: you, good people of faith, are the ones called to talk about God’s goodness. You are called to give evidence of what God has done in your life. In all circumstances, tell of the great things God has done. When you begin to testify you will begin to see a change in your faith. When you begin to testify you will begin to see a change in this congregation. When you begin to testify you will begin to see a change in who visits this congregation, and who visits more than once. Don’t wait for the visitors to come before you testify: you have to testify so those visitors know about your faith, know about this congregation’s commitments to God’s realm. In these unprecedented times, testify to God’s goodness.

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