01/19/2020: A Well-Kept Secret
Psalm 40: 1-11
John 1: 29-42
A Sermon by Rev. Gretchen J. Switzer
The words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “Anybody can be great…because anybody can serve, You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
When I was growing up in staunchly New England type town here in Massachusetts in the 1960’s , the people who went to my church were concerned with being appropriate and decorous and giving a good impression to the world beyond themselves. Part of it was the time:
-A time when upper middle class folks in suburban towns felt a need to display a certain amount of decorum, particularly in their spiritual lives. No one was waving their hands in the air and shouting alleluia, no one was laying on hands and crying aloud to the Lord. The truth is that in that church, at that time, Jesus was a well-kept secret. We dressed nicely on Sunday morning, and we came into church quietly. We sat and listened, but rarely showed any real reaction to the gospel message. After singing the last hymn, probably written hundreds of years ago, we would file out of church pretty quietly, perhaps shaking hands, but rarely engaging in any meaningful conversation. Eventually, we would get to the pastor, shake hands solemnly and thank him for “having us” as if we’d been invited for a special occasion at his home, as if we were not really members of the church, but simply guests, acknowledging the church’s hospitality.
Back then, we didn’t even have a coffee hour or a “fellowship time” . We came, we listened, we sang (maybe) and we went home. Even as a child, it always seemed odd to me that we never really interacted with each other, or the pastor, and the experience of coming to church didn’t really seem like it made any difference in the rest of our lives.
Yes, we learned things in Sunday School, but Jesus was kind of relegated to the status of a distant celebrity, whose meaning could be summed up in a few verses of “Jesus Loves Me”. Bible Stories didn’t seem quite real- certainly not as real the wonderful new technology called television, where we could see ‘real’ people doing ‘real’ things. Jesus seemed more like a fairy tale back then, than a real flesh and blood human being, or a truly tender, compassionate God.
When I read the gospel passage for this morning, I am always struck by the fact that John the Baptist has such an amazing perspective on the long-expected Messiah. John clearly understands that Christ is a servant of God, and he, John, is a servant of Jesus. But he also understands that the coming of Jesus will change his life.
It isn’t like John baptized Jesus and Jesus replied “Hey man, thanks for having me.” Like he was a guest who would come and go and that would be it. The thing is that Jesus doesn’t come to us as a guest, he doesn’t enter our lives as a ‘passerby’. When Jesus comes into our hearts, he comes to STAY! “He comes to stay” and that, on some level has to make a difference in our lives. Jesus in our hearts means we become loving, kind, compassionate human beings, that we are transformed into the kind of people Jesus would want to hang out with. Jesus in our hearts mean that we desire to create a world where peace and faith and love are greater than war and doubt and hatred and violence.
But how do we do that? How can we possibly change the world that much, or even our own little corner of it that profoundly? We see people and congregations that are much more theologically conservative than most mainline churches are. They proclaim loudly that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the Savior, and at the same time, they declare those who believe differently to be sinful and useless unless we believe exactly as they do. Many of them claim that we are without value and worth, but I go back to my old Sunday school hymn: “Jesus Loves me, This is know!”
One of the things that is impressing me about the Federated congregation is that you have a broad spectrum of theological belief and biblical understanding, BUT, you treat each other with respect. You extend your hearts, your compassion, your care to those with whom you may disagree, just as generously as you provide love and kindness to those who believe as you do. It is a marvelous and wondrous thing that God’s children can live together here in harmony and peace and respect.
So, how do we extend that message outside of our own little cadre of faith at 8 Maple St. Sturbridge, Massachusetts? How do we spread the love and respect we feel here together out into the world? The truth is that you do an extraordinary job of making your church known to the community, and you work terribly hard creating and running fantastic fundraisers to finance the work of the church. But it seems to me that there is something missing. Where is the hands-on Ministry of Jesus? When are we going out into the world showing and telling the community what we are about? What our God is up to? What Jesus means to us?
Martin Luther King said it this way: “Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the PERSONAL CONCERN, which demands the giving of one’s soul.”
Now I am not suggesting that we run outside and start grabbing strangers off the street and telling them about Jesus. The truth is, they already know about Jessus, they have heard the stories, but what the world has not seen enough of is how knowing God and believing in Jesus Christ changes lives.
What could we do? Volunteer at a food pantry or a homeless shelter? Create a ministry that reaches out from our church into the community? I am not suggesting giving up the outreach of our fundraisers, but I am proposing that we balance out the fundraising with some hands-on ministry—inviting the people who come and get the free bread we offer every Tuesday morning to come back on Tuesday night to eat a nutritious meal we have prepared for them, or posting church members by that Tuesday bread table to welcome folks, offer kind conversation and invite them to join us on Sunday.
These are just a couple of ideas I have had. Think about what else we could come up with together. I remember when my kids were younger, and I volunteered at their elementary school. Something happened that helped me see and understand what a difference it makes to let your life be transformed by your faith. When my daughter, Sabrina was six or seven near the end of first grade, I was speaking with her teacher one day, and the teacher touched my shoulder and said, “ I bet your family goes to church.” (She did not know my husband and I are clergy.) “Why do you say that?” I asked curiously, trying very hard not to let my pastor’s face show. “Well”, she said, “ I watch your kids in school and whenever another kid is upset or being teased or bullied, Parker and Sabrina are always quick to go to them and show them some kind of kindness and care and compassion. Sometimes, they even take on the bully, and stop them from hurting the other kids. They learned that somewhere. Not just at home, but in a community full of love like the church, where they have been taught how to behave in a way that helps rather than hurts. I can always tell which families go to church. They are always the ones who are kind and caring and helpful and respectful because they are being taught that that is what is expected of them. They don’t have to say a word about Jesus or what they believe. Instead they put that love into action by helping other kids and the other kids notice. I can spot a kid who goes to church every time.”
Tell me, can the world spot you as a Christian? Without you saying a word about Jesus? Does the way you conduct yourself in the grocery store, or at work or at the coffee shop or in traffic reflect your faith?
Both scripture readings this morning talk about the way we are supposed to let the light and love of Jesus be reflected in each of our very own lives. That when we act with love and respect and thoughtfulness, we are testifying to our faith in God of Love who brought us Jesus Christ.
To quote Martin Luther King, Jr: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive away hate, only love can do that.”
The way that we live, the way that we speak, the way that we act – all those things tell others about Jesus Christ in a much deeper way than just mentioning his name. The power we need to make the world a better place will not be found in our words, but our actions! God calls upon you and me to reflect our love for Jesus and Jesus’ love for us in how we are in the world.
Every day, every moment, for our entire lives as individuals and in our life as the church.