May 22, 2011

John 14:1-14
1 Peter 2:2-10

It was an amazing week… filled with beautiful worship, inspiring preaching, informative lectures, and so many interesting conversations with ministers from across North America. I spent Monday to Friday last week in Minneapolis at the Festival of Homiletics (that’s a fancy word for preaching) and I got to listen to some of the best preachers and teachers of preaching of our time.

We heard Barbara Brown Taylor, Thomas Long, Walter Brueggeman, Anna Carter Florence, Otis Moss III, and many more, as well as lectures by Diana Butler Bass and Brian McLaren. I don’t know if these names mean anything to you or not. But trust me, these are the big names in preaching today… and we were absolutely inundated with fantastic sermons and lectures on preaching all week.

The conference ended on Friday at noon, after an absolutely wonderful worship service at the huge Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis where the largest events were being held. They told us there were 1700 pastors at the conference, and when we all got together, we filled the church almost to capacity. When we sang together, it was a huge swell of sound such that we didn’t really need the help of the organ to lead us. It was like a giant massed choir that seemed to need no rehearsal as we blended our voices together to sing some familiar and many new hymns of our shared faith in Christ.

Some of you are probably going to think I’m weird, but I loved the pattern of the days in Minneapolis. In addition to two or three lectures on preaching, we gathered for worship four times every day. And I don’t mean short little 10-15 minute opening and closing prayers. Every service lasted about an hour with at least a 20-30 minute sermon as part of it. And despite the weariness that can start to set in by the end of a conference, we were still staying awake through those sermons! They were interesting and relevant and insightful, and they made us both laugh and cry. If we could have stayed for another week, I think most of us would have.

But the week sped by, and soon Friday morning was coming to a close with a beautiful Communion liturgy and 1700 pastors coming forward to receive the bread and wine by intinction. And then it was time for me to say good-bye to some new and some old friends, to kill some time at the Mall of America, and then to head to the airport and home to Saskatoon.

It felt kind of strange walking around the mall that afternoon. It was one of those giant malls with an amusement park and an aquarium and a comedy club. I kind of felt like I was re-entering the world after having retreated from it for five days. I was no longer surrounded by pastors and preachers who wanted to do nothing more than worship, sing, pray, and listen to sermons together. Now I was back to the everyday realities of our society – to the hustle and bustle of mothers with strollers, teenagers hanging out, sales people working hard to offer their free samples, and crowds of people hurrying to their destinations with bags of new purchases in hand.

After checking out a portion of the massive mall, I found an arm chair in an open area and sat down thinking, “I really should start thinking about my sermon for Sunday.” What was God calling me to say this week to a congregation of faithful people who were living in the world… not exactly the “Mall of America” world, but also not the world that I had been living in at the Festival of Homiletics.

I reflected on all the amazing preaching that I had heard throughout the week, and I wondered about how that might influence my preaching this Sunday. Would it make a difference? Did I learn any new techniques or take away any good ideas that would actually help me to share God’s life-changing and relevant Word in the context in which we live?

It’s one thing to spend a week listening to the experts preach and appreciating their skill. But it’s quite a different thing to come back home and try to put those lessons into practice in the real world. Not one of those excellent preachers was willing to come home with me to help me figure out what to say to you today! Well, I didn’t actually ask them to, but I’m fairly sure that they would have said no.

I wonder if Jesus’ disciples were feeling something like I was as their master’s ministry was drawing to a close. They had been travelling with Jesus for some time now… not just one amazing week, but maybe a year or two, or even three. They too had heard some amazing sermons, and they’d witnessed some spectacular events. They had devoted their days to following along with Jesus’ group, and they’d left their families and their jobs behind so that they wouldn’t miss a thing. They had watched and listened, and struggled with his stories and his ideas. They had hung on all his words and tried to soak up as much wisdom as they could.

But by the time we get to Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel text, the disciples are starting to come to terms with the fact that this very special time of travelling with Jesus of Nazareth is coming to an end. And as much as they would prefer to avoid or at least delay the inevitable, their leader is making it clear that he is going to be gone and they are going to have to continue his work.

Now, Jesus DOESN’T tell his followers that they’ll get a PORTION of his power and authority so that they can preach a few little sermons and do a bit of good in the world. He doesn’t let them go thinking, “Well, I won’t be able to do what I saw and heard Jesus doing, but I’ll do my best and hopefully I won’t mess up too badly.”

No, Jesus says to his friends, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me [the one who has faith in me, who trusts in me] will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”

Jesus predicted that his followers… Peter and Mary, Thomas and Paul… Patti and Leslie, Judy and Trudy and Joan, Logan and Walter, Elizabeth, Tanyss, Alice and Lydia and… Well, you get the idea… Jesus predicted that his followers (that WE) would do the works that he did and, in fact, we would do even greater works than these.

If someone had told me in the middle of last week that I would come home to Saskatoon and preach a better or greater sermon than Barbara Brown Taylor or Thomas Long, I would have said, “Oh ya, right… sure I will…” I can’t imagine even my best work measuring up to the creativity and eloquence that I heard from those masters in Minneapolis.

So how could the disciples of the Lord possibly imagine their ministry measuring up to the wonder and power and wisdom and grace of Jesus’ words and work in the world? They must have thought that he was crazy to be suggesting that what they would do after his departure would be even greater than what he did during his ministry.

After all, what HE did changed the course of history and transformed the world! As John’s Gospel explains it, “God’s Word became flesh and lived among us” and Jesus revealed God’s very presence in the world, calling all people to return to relationship with the God of love and grace and goodness.

But what Jesus’ first disciples were just discovering, and what followers of Jesus today so often forget is that God’s Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth was just the beginning of the incarnation. It was a high point… that’s for sure. It was a moment of revelation in which God’s people were beginning to understand that God is not a distant God who watches and judges from above. They were starting to realize that God is with us, and in us, and between us creating communities of caring and concern, welcome and sharing, right where we live.

But as Jesus prepared for his inevitable death and departure, he tried to explain to his followers that his physical absence from their community would not mean God’s absence. The Spirit of God would come to them to comfort them in their grief, but also to fill them, to equip them, and to guide them in carrying on Jesus’ work. The Spirit of God would live within and between them so that these fishermen and tax collectors and women would BECOME the very presence of God in the world. They (and WE) would BE the body of Christ in the world. And through our many hands and feet, ears and hearts and voices throughout God’s world, we would do even greater works than Jesus did.

The 1700 pastors with whom I gathered last week likely all experienced the Festival of Homiletics as a gift and an inspiration. Many of us came home with copious notes and books, and some purchased CD’s of their favourite presentations. But no matter how much we may try to hang on to that experience, or how much we might wish for an expert to give us the words for our Sunday morning sermons, we have to trust that it will be God’s Spirit that goes with us into the world and who equips us to do the greater works in our particular communities and contexts.

Today’s Gospel passage is one that is often selected for funeral services. That’s probably why it sounds so familiar to many of us. Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places [there are many rooms. And] I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you.”

It’s reassuring, isn’t it? When you are nearing the end of your life, or when someone you love has died, this text may give you hope and comfort in the midst of your sadness and grief.

But Jesus wasn’t preaching to a bunch of dying disciples. He was the one who was going to die. They were going to run and hide from the mounting danger, and they were going to live… at least for a while longer. And so even though I appreciate the comfort and encouragement that Jesus’ words offer to us in the face of death, I think that they are PRIMARILY instructions for us as followers in the middle of life.

“I’m going to die,” Jesus is telling his friends, “and you’re going to live. But you’re going to need to live like I did. You’re going to need to live my way. And that means that you can’t be held back by your fear of death.”

“You noticed that about me, didn’t you?… How I spoke my mind… how I spoke the truth? Even when I knew that the words were going to get me into trouble with some pretty powerful people, I didn’t keep my mouth shut.”

“If you can do that… if you can follow my way, and speak my truth, and live my life… then you will carry on my work and do even greater things than I have done.”

“The key to all of this is that you’ve got to trust God. You’ve got to have faith in me. And since faith comes as a gift from God, I know that you’re going to do just fine. You’re going to do wonderful things!”

For disciples like Stephen in the early years of Christianity, speaking the truth about God’s love in Jesus Christ literally led to his death. While they were stoning him, Stephen followed the example of Jesus, asking God to forgive the attackers and to receive his spirit. And like so many other martyrs throughout history, we get the impression that Stephen went to his death without fear. He trusted God, and he was not afraid, and that is great.

But what is so much more important than how Stephen died is how Stephen lived. And he lived his life (however brief) without fear. He lived with freedom because of Jesus’ promise and because of the gift of faith to live and to serve, to preach and to witness without fear of what might be done to him. And that is the way of Jesus that we are invited to follow.

As a preacher, I know it means that I can’t get stuck worrying about whether my sermons will be as spectacular as the experts. And it means that I can’t get caught up with concerns about whether my preaching will either keep everyone happy or get me into trouble.

But this message is not just for preachers. As the people of God, we are all called (as 1 Peter reminds us) to proclaim the mighty acts of God who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.

We are called to proclaim it in our words and in our actions, in our churches and in our families, workplaces, schools, communities and friendship circles. We are called to speak the truth and work for justice and goodness. We are called to use our hands to reach out to people who are in trouble, to use voices to speak up for what is right, and to use our ears to listen for the cries of those who have been left behind or left out. We are called to engage with the world around us, to witness to God’s presence and love within it, and to do all this with the help of the Spirit and without fear.

Thomas was confused by Jesus’ words about going ahead to prepare a place for his followers. He didn’t know where Jesus was going to, and he didn’t know how to get there. I suppose Thomas was like so many of us today when we get caught up in a religion of figuring out what we can believe and what we can do so that God will welcome us into heaven.

But I really think Jesus was telling his disciples, “Don’t worry about death. Don’t worry about heaven. Just focus your attention and your energy on the life that I have given to you today, and do your best to live like me. Trust God, and live without fear. And you will do the works that I do and, in fact, you will do greater works than these.”