Faith is a Public Act: Luke 7.18–35

2017.2.12 mary christDelivered at Ames UCC
on February 12, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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JOHN AND JESUS
Take a look at the image on the cover of your bulletin today. It’s depicting the moment, in the gospel of Luke, in which Elizabeth and her cousin Mary meet. They are both pregnant, with John and Jesus. John moves in such a way that Elizabeth is able to acknowledge the blessing Mary will birth.

Given that moment, it may seem a little odd to have today’s back and forth between the adult Jesus and John, through John’s intermediaries. Why is John having his people ask Jesus if he is really “the one”? Didn’t he know from birth? What is the function of this dialogue?

BEING DEFINED
To answer the first, John may be having his disciples ask these questions, because John himself may be in jail. That’s where he is by this point in the story according to Matthew: caught up in Herod and Herodias’ sick power plays (Matthew 11.2–9). But not even prison will keep John from his role of heralding Jesus.

Jesus has an interesting response to his cousin’s questions. In the gospel of John (the disciple, not the Baptist), Jesus is very quick to say who he is and his role in Creation. But in the rest of the canonical gospels he is more opaque. Jesus doesn’t just say, “Yes, I am the one.”

Instead, he reveals his identity by confirming John’s. He does so through quoting the prophet Malachi 3.1a: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.” Jesus only describes who he is by naming who John is, the one who prepares the way. John is the one who prepares the way, therefore I am the one for whom the way is prepared.

Jesus is very careful in how he allows himself to be defined. Whatever the people have to say about Jesus, Jesus defines himself through the context of God’s unfolding story and in relation to God’s people, which we will eventually learn means all people.

This begs the question of how we define ourselves.

Certainly relationally. I am the daughter of, sister of, wife of, friend of, graduate of, pastor with. You have similar lists. But how do we define ourselves as people of faith, as a collective looking to God through Jesus Christ? I am the daughter of Kristine and Neil through no choice of my own, but who do I say that I am when I enter Ames UCC?

DEFENSIVELY
I think that within the United Church of Christ at large, in the last several decades, our efforts at defining ourselves have most often been defensive.

No, we do not think women should be silent. No, we do not think the treatment of people of color in the U.S. is okay. No, we do not hate gay people. No, we don’t think the planet is only 6,000 years old.

Each of these is a response to the larger narrative of American Christianity. Each of these is a retort to the dominant talking heads of our faith, the ones with cable networks and enough pews to get in the news.

And I resent that.

I resent any time people use the name of God to bloody and alienate, while making themselves out to be righteous.

And I resent that we have let them.

Now, I know that we have a hard road as an expression of faith. In the United Church of Christ we don’t offer the comfort of a lot of absolutes. We leave room for questions and uncertainty and the real possibility that God might do something new—and not just in the ways our ancient scripture predict. We do not give a lot of attention to who is in and who is out of heaven or hell.

That isn’t easy. Our lack of spiritual taxonomy or hierarchy means that each of us has to do a lot more work, and on an ongoing basis. I get why what we practice is a trickier sell than just waving a “John 3:16” sign or saying “Yes” when asked if Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior as if that was the abracadabra to open up a cave of God’s grace.

But the easy road has never been Jesus’ Way.

CHILDREN OF WISDOM
At the end of today’s selection, Jesus turns his attention from his mediated conversation with John toward the crowds.

“How can I describe you?” he says. “You are petulant babies. You rejected John because of his words and deeds, saying he is like a man possessed by a demon. You dismiss me, too, by comparing me to that rebellious son in in Deuteronomy (21.18–21). But the children of wisdom will be proved right.”

Wisdom, Sophia, God’s original partner and the mother we would claim, in Proverbs 1.20–22:

 … cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:

 

 ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?’

We do not hate knowledge here. We are not afraid of knowledge here. However we are defined in our individual relationships, by coming into this room we are saying we want to be children of wisdom, not her scoffers. We come to a church like this because we know that the physics of creation and divinity cannot be as simple, as black and white, as our louder siblings profess.

Look again at your cover: Who could have been further from the centers of power from the televangelists and talking heads of her day than Mary?

God through Christ means that no one can claim exclusive access to God.

God in Christ means that holiness may most often be evident in the places of the least power and the greatest instability, places as fragile yet full of potential as a baby waiting to be born.

Maybe John had his disciples publicly approach Jesus to make a point: This is not a hidden conversation. Who God is through the man and mystery of Jesus is work for us to debate and describe in the public square. Because faith is not a private matter. It never was in Jesus time and it cannot be now.

As our nation’s leaders seek to restrict access to these shores, an exception is being made for Christians. Well, which Christians? Which kinds of Christians? Jesus defined himself in relation to God’s unfolding story and God’s people, which are all people. If we absent ourselves from the public debate about what it means to be a Christian, then real people—real children of God, which includes Muslims—will die.

PEOPLE ARE READY
So here’s what I want to invite you to do this week: Wear your comma pins outside of church. We have a new batch out in the parlor. They are free.

Talk about your church. Repost things from the national church and Ames UCC on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Come out of the closet as a Christian who does not have all the answers but does adore God. Vindicate our lady Wisdom by refusing to be simple and by taking ownership the knowledge you have of God.

Trust me when I tell you that based on the conversations I am having outside of this place, our friends and our neighbors are starving for what we have here.

Yes, some people may react badly. You may have friends or even family members who are bothered. Even though I’m your preacher, I have those same problems and worries. I’m not asking you to do anything harder than what I ask of myself.

But as pastors all, we have to try to be like Mary and Elizabeth, those mere women who fearlessly told the truth.

And the truth is that God is in the dark, vibrating life of our bellies and our breasts—every human’s belly and breasts. And here at Ames UCC we love that holy mystery, that cosmic divine, so much that we do not need to try to hoard it with dogma or doors for ourselves or people who are just like us.

I know that these are anxiety-ridden times, but Ames UCC, to audaciously quote the book of Ruth, with our love of love and radical welcome we were made for such a time as this.

AMEN

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