Sunday, May 21, 2017

Moriah Hurst: Use Your Words: Balancing Doing and Being

Easter 6
Pastor Moriah Hurst preaches from Acts 17:22-31 and 1 Peter 3:13-22.

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When I first read the texts for this week I confess that I was a bit scared. I had to wrestle with what I was reading in the text and what I felt drawn to include in this sermon and my fear was that I would be too preachy.
How do I talk to a faithful group of people but call us to something more?
I got stuck on a few phrases that kept coming back to me as I read today’s passages  “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
So even through my fear of sounding preachy I want to talk today about sharing our faith and more broadly about mission.
In some ways me talking about mission is an unlikely pairing. I have been resistant to being called into leadership in the church and am highly critical of some ways I have seen mission done. Yet as I have grown in my faith, my understandings and my experience I’ve moved from being resistant to mission to being a passionate advocate for mission.
One very formative experience for me in this journey happened in my first pastorate in Australia when I was fresh out of college. I was on a walk with a friend and one of her friends came along too. My friend’s friend, a woman I had never met before, upon hearing that I was a youth worker in a church started asking questions about my faith, the church and how we did things.

She was asking with genuine curiosity and interest and not in a spirit of judgment. But before I realized what I was doing I shut her down. I had nothing to be defensive about but I kept changing the subject and redirecting the conversation onto other topics. Here was someone who was asking me about my faith and it freaked me out so much that I started talking about the weather.
I wonder how many of us have felt this fear or resistance to talking about our faith? Maybe it’s just me.
I had tended more toward the saying “preach the gospel at all times and if need be use words”. Wasn’t my life of good works enough for people to see?
As Mennonites we do so much good. This is a comfortable place for us – doing things. We make food, we build houses, we pick up buckets and bail people out after a flood, we recycle, we make quilts, we teach sustainable farming, we fill relief kits. We do really well.
But when it comes to talking about our faith we can choke on our words and find ourselves tongue‑tied.
Where does this fear of speaking come from? We are an educated and articulate people. As we have been talking about Kid’s Club and what kind of mission we are called to as a church doing this work in our neighborhood, we’ve heard some resistance to the idea that this might be evangelism. So we’ve asked ourselves: Why are we scared of evangelism? Is it the history of it? Not wanting to be the colonial force pressuring our beliefs on others.

But our history as Anabaptist is mixed. The first Anabaptists had their tongues cut out or tongue screws forced into their mouths to silence them preaching on the way to their deaths. Yet somehow we went from that to the quiet in the land, not making waves and staying to ourselves. Now we are articulate and almost evangelistic about aspects that have flowed out of our faith like peace making and community. But are we able to speak of the one who put our faith into motion and who grounds all of our actions. I’ve been trained how to speak about my pacifism and engage people in conversations about social justice and direct actions I’ve taken part in. Yet I’ve had few times and spaces that have invited me to be clear and authentic about my faith in God through Jesus. A dear mentor Alan Kreider said that we have been silenced but not by tongue screws.
A few commentaries I looked at reflected on today’s passage this way “we should be prepared to give an answer for our faith not only in unusual situations but every day, wherever we are, and in whatever we are doing.” (Faith refined by fire). This is a going beyond lifestyle as a primary form of witness – there is a need for verbal response that engages the outsider in a conversation (Interpretation).
This isn’t only about reaching the outsiders. I see this as an act of our own formation and how we work at faith development with each other. I know that there are those among us who are skilled, knowledgeable and would feel at ease about articulating their faith but I fear they may be the exception and not the norm. Do we have places to talk about what is real, life giving and hard about our lived out faith.

One thing we trip over here is what I call Christianese. The church has some well developed vocabulary built up around faith. Some of this language has become burdensome and carries negative connotations. So we get stuck. We start to throw out words or particular expressions of our faith but we haven’t found other new, good ways of talking about faith. How can we talk about what it feels like for God to be present with us in active ways, transforming and guiding us and yet not spend half our time explaining what our language means. This may be more of an issue for a younger generation but I do not see this as limited to Millennials or even Gen xers. How do we find different or new expressions instead of just being scared to talk about our faith?
Another fear that I have often heard about evangelism or mission is that it is not nuanced and becomes formulaic or shaped by a theology of judgment.  This is where we need to look at the second part of the verse. We are to speak with respect and gentleness or as one author puts it “we should respect the full personhood of the one who asks” we are to “speak out of a deep inner integrity” (Faith refined by fire).
To be able to do this we have to know how to talk about our hope. What does faith look like in our context and life.
In the Acts passage Paul is speaking to the Greeks in Athens. Like Harrisonburg, Athens was a university city. In Paul’s eyes they were strongly shaped by both philosophy but also by a culture of idol worship. Paul affirms that they are seeking to worship, which is good, but that their worship is misplaced.

They are worshiping things and people and not the one true God who created them all. While we can look back with eyes of judgment we need to not jump too quickly to condemn idolatry as a thing of the past. If we take a good hard look at where we place our trust, our time and our energy; are we placing our hope in God, the creator of all or are we more reliant and devoted to the things of our world? In all of our running around and doing have we lost sight of the one who created us in the first place? If someone would look around Harrisonburg today what do you think they would see as the objects or places of our worship and devotion?
Now I don’t want people to go straight to feeling guilty. Guilt is another thing we are very good at as Mennonites, sadly. I do want us to think a bit about suffering. The 1 Peter passage says “even if you do suffer for doing what is right you will be blessed”. So even in all of our doing good we may still suffer. When I read this and am honest with myself, I have to confess that my life is not hard. My life is full and I, like many around me, wear my business like a badge of honor, as if to say – look how important I am because I have so much to do. But we don’t want to suffer, we avoid it like the plague and we want our lives to be comfortable.
In a few of my sermons so far I’ve been scared that I would ruffle feathers or make people uncomfortable. But when I’ve gotten positive remarks then I’ve thought maybe I haven’t been pushing hard enough – should we be comfortable in church? I am all for welcoming new folks and finding ways to make church open, friendly and yes, comfortable for those who are new or unfamiliar.

But for those of us who have been here for a while – those of us who have grown up in the church – do we need to be shaken up a bit. Is church where we should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? What is our growing edge and how do we push it. As a preacher should I be looking for nodding heads and affirmation for my good words or should I make people squirm, think and possibly be uncomfortable enough to challenge their lives.
I don’t mean uncomfortable about the music we don’t like or that a child was louder than we wanted them to be – but uncomfortable because God’s spirit is convicting us – and that is some of the language I was talking about earlier that I’m totally allergic to but I need to find new ways of saying this. We need to still open ourselves to the possibility that God’s Spirit could shake up our lives and come to church expecting that shake up to happen here.
“But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed”. These words harken back to the beatitudes, blessed are you when¼ Father Greg Boyd says that we should replace the word “blessed” in the beatitudes with “you are in the right place when”¼ Are we in the right place with our actions, our words and our worship? 
            Both of our texts today call us to repentance and new life. What is that call in our lives?
            When Paul tries to explain God to those in Athens he says that we are created with the purpose of searching for God, and perhaps groping for God and finding God, because God is not far off from any of us. We are God’s offspring – In God we live, and move and have our being.

            Can we be ok with just being in God? Not having to serve God or do for God. Can we just be held and known and then express what that is like?
Let me circle back around to where we started today. When I went back to Australia as an adult, I went as a missionary. I didn’t use that language much for myself because it made me uncomfortable. Yet the questions I had to start asking myself are still ones I wrestle with now. How is being a missionary any different from just living out my faith? Yes, I was called to a type of work but aren’t we all called? And an even harder question for me was this: How am I as a Christian any different to the other nice people around me? Is it in my walk, in my talk or in my very being? Maybe this week you can ponder these questions with me: How do I articulate and live the hope that is in me – what is that hope? How has my walk with God changed me? How has the life, death and resurrection of Jesus transformed me? We just came through Easter with our beautiful, massive celebrations – what does that mean on the day after Easter – what life are we born anew into? “The Anabaptists during the time of the Reformation talked about ‘walking in the resurrection’. (Faith refined by fire) What might that look like for us?
            1st Peter gives us a clue as to what sets us apart. “Do not fear what they fear.” Hope is what makes us different to our non‑Christian neighbors, we are set free from fear through Jesus. How are we ready to express that hope and freedom?

            All that I’ve been saying today feels so basic yet so difficult. Being in God and speaking of our faith seems foundational and yet foreign. May this simple yet hard work be the work we do together.

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