Sermon, April 17

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? Two Sundays ago I began a sermon series of sorts, based on the Baptismal Covenant, the five questions about how we intend to live out our faith that are part of our baptismal liturgy. This question, the third one, is really the shortest and simplest – at least grammatically speaking. Conceptually, perhaps, it’s not quite so simple…

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? In today’s Gospel, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd that has heard about him, and wants to know, Are you the real deal? The Messiah, the Savior sent by God? And Jesus says, I’ve already told you that, and what’s more, everything I do in the name of God bears witness to my closeness to God. “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” John’s Jesus talks about works a lot. It’s interesting that he doesn’t use a word like “miracles” or “wonders”. Some of the things Jesus does are wondrous – healings, exorcisms, feeding vast multitudes.

But many of the things Jesus did, that we remember and reflect on and learn from, were more human and mundane. Not wonders but works. Acts. Deeds. He told stories. He gave people his full attention and responded to them with compassion and truth. He sought out the company of those most people avoided. He raised his voice about injustice and hypocrisy. He spoke out even in the face of oppressive violence. None of those are easy, but they’re not superhumanly impossible, either. All those works and deeds were Jesus proclaiming by example the urgent love, the thwarted tenderness of God.

And then we have Tabitha. I love this little story, from the book of Acts. Tabitha – her Hebrew name – or Dorcas in Greek – was an early convert to the way of Christ, and perhaps a leader in this tiny Christian community in Joppa. Tabitha gets sick and dies. But Tabitha’s community knows that the apostle Peter, friend of Jesus, is just one town over, and they think, Maybe, just maybe, there’s enough of our Lord Jesus’ power left in Peter that he can help. Peter comes, and Peter is able, by the power of God, to restore Tabitha to life.

But the detail I really love comes earlier in the story: “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” Now, the widows weren’t necessarily really widows; in the early church that was what they called women who devoted themselves to serving God, their community, and the poor. And the widows of the little church in Joppa, grieving Tabitha, do what we do when we’re grieving our dead – they show and share what that person meant to them. The gifts and graces of that life. And for Tabitha, it was all these garments, pieces of clothing, lovingly and skillfully sewn. It sounds like she kept the whole community dressed, and probably gave away clothes to the poor as well. Doesn’t that make Tabitha real for you? Maybe in your mind now she’s wearing the face of somebody you know or knew, who had Tabitha’s skill and Tabitha’s heart, overflowing with capability and generosity. I know people like that; some of them are in this room. I bet you know some too. Tabitha, Dorcas, a disciple of Jesus, proclaiming by her acts, her works, her example, the boundless generosity of God’s love.

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? Word and example. Example and word. Episcopalians tend to be more comfortable with “example.” In our focus groups last month I asked you, Tell me a time when you acted as you did because of your faith. Maybe you even consciously thought, “I HAVE to do this, because Jesus.” And you paused for a few minutes to think about it, but then you had answers. Ranging from the impulse of a moment, to reach out to a stranger, to speak a needed word to a friend – to decisions with life-altering consequences. Leaving or taking a job. Following a dream. Beginning recovery.

We might have to think about it for a minute, but we can name the times and ways in which our actions, our works, reflect our faith, testify to our love for God and our striving to follow Jesus’ example. We are, in fact, tolerably good at living by our faith.

And by and large we would much rather do it than talk about it. Proclaiming our faith in word, not just example, requires us to be able to put it into words. We live in *Madison.* Home of the Freedom From Religion foundation. Being “out” as a Christian feels like a big deal for some of us, depending on our circle of friends and acquaintances. Anne Lamott has a wonderful moment, in her book Traveling Mercies. She invokes an old joke about Judaism – about some guy who isn’t really a serious Jew, he’s just Jew-ish. And she says that her non-church friends prefer to see her as “Christian-ish” – just a “vaguely Jesusy bon vivant.” But it’s not true, she says. I just love Jesus. I really love the guy. I love that passage… because I do too.

Proclaim the good news of God in Christ… What if I misconstrued my role and overstepped my authority and administered a pop quiz, right now? Handed out slips of paper and number 2 pencils and asked you: Define the good news of God in Christ, in your own words?

I think a lot of our reluctance, our hesitation, is that we don’t feel like we have those words. The language of our liturgy, our prayers and hymns, has its pros and cons. It is beautiful, artful, powerful. We love its poetry, its grandeur, its unapologetic premodernism. But it is a step or several steps removed from the language we speak in everyday life. We have to build our own bridges between the language and symbols of our liturgy, and our own experiences of and thoughts about God and faith. We may – and I hope we do – deeply internalize the words of liturgy and Scripture, so they become part of the language of our spirits. But you can’t tell your co-worker, “Well, my church believes that Jesus, rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new; and that we might live no longer for ourselves, sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” Beg pardon?

We don’t feel like we have the words to testify to the faith that is in us. To proclaim the good news of God in Christ. But I think maybe we do, really. Working on this sermon, I gave myself that pop quiz: How would you summarize the Gospel, which just means, Good News? What’s the Good News of God in Christ as you understand it, Mrs. Priest Lady? And actually, lots of things came to mind. The idea, the hope, that we are never abandoned. Love, you are not alone, in the words of a current pop song. The idea, the hope, that God loves us just the way we are, but isn’t going to leave us that way. Snippets from Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: The human propensity to mess things up does not define us. Don’t be careful. Risk love’s consquences. Much more can be mended than you know.

Favorite snippets of Scripture, the ones that lodge in my heart – An alternate translation of John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the system, that God sent God’s son into the system – not to condemn the system, but that the system through him might be transformed.” That passage from Ephesians – So then you are no longer strangers and outsiders, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God.

Bits of songs – There is more love somewhere; I’m gonna keep on till I find it. For the love of God is greater than the measure of the mind. ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home. God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy.

We’ve been working together, here at St. Dunstan’s, to find our own words for how we live as disciples of Jesus, a list of core practices by which we live out our faith. One of them happens to be Proclaiming; Rob Chappell will talk about that in a few minutes! I hope that list, itself, will become a tool for speaking about faith, both within and beyond our community – a way to begin to answer the question, spoken or unspoken: So you’re a Christian. So what? What difference does it make, for you, in you, beyond you?  And of course our proclamation is most powerful and profound when we’re able to find words not just for what we believe, but for how it’s active in our lives, how God in Christ shapes, comforts, leads, challenges, saves us. You. Me.

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? I think you do, friends; and I think you can. We’re finding the words together. Practicing sharing our stories with each other. Talking about what it looks and feels like to proclaim God’s love by our actions, large and small. With God’s help, we are keeping this promise, and learning to live into it ever more fully. I’m going to say it once more, and this time you can answer, I will, with God’s help!

Sisters and brothers, will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? …