May 29, 2011

Acts 17:22-31

Several stories in this sermon are borrowed from the book “Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian” by Thomas G. Long (San Francisco: 2004).

I’ve been reading a book this week called, “Testimony” by the American Presbyterian preacher, Thomas Long. Out of the various volumes that I brought home from my study leave last week, it seemed the most appropriate one to read as I was reflecting on this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

Testimony is about bearing witness. It’s about using our voices to tell about what we have seen and heard and experienced of God in Jesus Christ. And testimony is a fundamental part of what Christians are called by Christ to do in the world.

Love God. Love our neighbours. And tell the world about God’s love in Jesus Christ. If we wanted to sum up our purpose… that would be a pretty good summary.

But at least within the mainline churches, and at least within the last several decades, we don’t do a lot of talking about our faith out loud. We don’t want to offend our neighbours or come across as pushing our religion on anyone, so we generally keep our mouths shut and we blend in with the rest of secular society.

I don’t think it’s that the average mainline Christian is lacking in faith. It’s just that most of us aren’t used to putting our faith into words. We’re not used to praying out loud where others can hear us, and we’re not used to giving testimony about what we have seen and heard and come to believe.

The strange phenomenon of the 1950’s in North America, in which more people than ever attended church on a regular basis might have something to do with it. For a short blip in history, Christians started to live like we were everyone… like everyone was Christian… like everyone went to church… like everyone knew about Jesus and his love.

Sure, we still had missionaries. But missionaries were especially gifted people who answered a call to travel to the farthest reaches of the world and to tell the good news to the poor people of those countries that had not heard. It’s just a theory. But I’m wondering if that’s a part of why talking about our faith is so challenging for us today… because there was a time (not so long ago) when we thought everyone already knew.

Well, the only way that people come to know God and God’s love in Jesus Christ is if we tell them… if we testify to our experience and tell them what we have seen and heard and what we believe.

Tom Long tells a story in his book about the day that Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ neighbourhood) had been invited to address the prestigious National Press Club in Washington. The National Press Club was accustomed to hearing speeches from diplomats, top administration officials, and key opinion makers on the top issues of the day, and some members of the press had privately joked that with “Mister Rogers” on the podium, they were probably in for a “light lunch.”

However, when Fred Rogers stood up to speak, he said that he knew the room was filled with many of the best reporters in the nation, men and women who had achieved much. Rogers then took out a pocket watch and announced that he was going to keep two minutes of silence, and he invited everybody in the room to remember people in their past – parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and others – who had made it possible for them to accomplish so much. And then Mister Rogers stood there, looking at his watch and saying nothing. The room grew quiet as the seconds ticked away, but before Fred Rogers tucked away his watch, one could hear all around the room people sniffling as they were moved by the memories of those who had made sacrifices on their behalf and who had given them many gifts.

Likewise, Long continues, if those of us who find meaning and comfort in the Christian faith were to take two minutes to reflect on how our faith came to be, few of us would say that we got it from a book, and none of us would say we thought it up on our own. Quickly or gradually, we would begin to remember the people who spoke to us about God. “Faith,” the Apostle Paul once observed, “comes from what is heard,” and that is true about our faith, too.

We heard and we believed; slowly or suddenly, in a moment of stillness or in a thunderstorm of passion, we believed. The faith we have, whether large or small, whether born of struggle or comfort, whether richly textured or barely patched together, whether grasped firmly or held onto be our fingernails, is a part of our lives because somebody along the way had the courage and the conviction to talk to us about God and about Jesus Christ.

It all started back in the first century, in a time and culture not so different from our own. I mean, not so different because in neither case was Christianity the norm. And in neither case was Christianity known and understood by the average person on the street. And though most people today wouldn’t say that they worship “other gods,” most of us do bow down to the gods of fashion and popularity, materialism and success. Our culture is not so different from the culture of Athens in the first century.

And the Apostle Paul got up and spoke to the people of Athens. He spoke to them with respect… acknowledging their religiosity and their interest in searching for the unknown god. And then he told them about the One God in whom Paul had come to believe, and how this God had been made known in Jesus Christ. Paul explained that God was the maker of everything in the world, but that God was also very close to us – like a loving parent. Using the poetry of Athens, he described this amazing God saying, “in him we live and move and have our being.”

Now, it would be logical to think that preachers and missionaries should learn to give speeches like Paul’s. And we do… though perhaps not as eloquently as he spoke that day. But I think that Tom Long is right when he suggests that testimony is a practice of faith that all Christians must learn. Most of us probably won’t be standing up in front of crowds of people and giving convincing speeches about our faith.

But as 1 Peter encourages us to remember, we should “always be ready to make [our] defence to anyone who demands from [us] an accounting for the hope that is in [us]…” and we should do it (as 1 Peter adds) “with gentleness and reverence.”

Let me share another story from Tom Long’s book: One morning some years ago, a young bookstore clerk named Deborah arrived at work early to open the shop. Standing at the door waiting for the store to open was a man dressed in the characteristic garments of a Hasidic Jew. As Deborah was unlocking the door, the man quietly asked if he could come in. She hesitated; it was nearly an hour before the store was supposed to open, but the man seemed polite and evidently needed something right away, so she decided to let him come in early. After turning on the lights, she said, “Would you like any help?”

Softly and with an accent he said, “Yes, I want to know about Jesus.” This was not an altogether surprising request, since the store specialized in books on religion. So Deborah guided the man upstairs to the shop’s ample section of books about Jesus. She pointed to shelves filled with scholarly volumes of Jesus research and books about the early history of Christianity. Then she turned to go back downstairs, but the man called her back.

“No,” he said, “I want to know about Jesus the Messiah. Don’t show me any more books. You tell me what you believe.” Was this man asking for interfaith dialogue? For spiritual counsel? For evangelism? Deborah was unsure. All she knew was that she was being asked what she had almost never been asked before: to put her faith into words.

“My Episcopal soul shivered,” she said later, recalling the encounter. “I gulped and told him everything I could think of… as much as I could sputter out in my confusion, in the dark.”

Deborah’s “Episcopal soul shivered,” and many of us, regardless of what denominational brand our souls happen to be, would shiver as well. If we were suddenly put in the position of having to express what we believe, many of us would also feel confused and in the dark.

Moreover, Deborah recognized that he conversation partner was himself a person of faith, which made visible a truth about all urgent speech: it must be spoken with tenderness and awareness of its impact on others. The man who talked with Deborah eventually chose to be baptized and became a Christian. Deborah was grateful, of course, for his spiritual awakening, but her gratitude was mixed with concern. She did not want what she had said to transgress delicate interfaith boundaries, and she did not want to be any part of any aggressive evangelistic techniques – “winning trophies for God,” as she put it. “I am not ashamed of my faith,” she wrote. “I am, and will always be, a Christian. But the God I catch glimpses of is a large-hearted God, one to whom all hearts are open. Spiritual arrogance is inexcusable.”

That’s a pretty blatant example of a Christian being invited – even pressed – to testify… to give an accounting for the hope that was in her. Maybe you can relate to that. Maybe something similar has happened to you, either with someone who was curious about your beliefs, or maybe with someone who was challenging them.

Were you ready for that conversation? Or did your Presbyterian soul shiver? And did you speak, or did you find a way to avoid the conversation?

Tom Long suggests that church (and worship, in particular) should be a training ground for testimony. In preaching and prayer and praise, we should be learning the language of faith. We should be getting used to the sound of the words of faith rolling off our tongues. We should be preparing for all the conversations that we will have this week out in the world.

All the God-talk that we do in here should be getting us ready to talk about God wherever we go… not beating it over the heads of the people we meet at work or in the grocery store… but nonetheless talking about God with gentleness and reverence.

Most of the opportunities won’t be as obvious as someone coming up and saying, “Tell me about Jesus the Messiah.” And so we’ll need to pay close attention as we get ready to speak about our faith in God.

One final story: In 1986, a woman named Susan decided to take a spring course at the local community college. Checking the catalogue, she spotted an offering titled “U.S. Foreign Policy: 1945 to the Present.” She’d never ventured into politics, and she thought this course might stretch her. It met in the evening, once a week, so it looked convenient, interesting, and challenging. She enrolled. At the first meeting of the course, she was surprised to discover that she and the professor were the only American citizens in the class. The dozen or so other class members were all international students, some of them taking the course as part of the process of becoming naturalized citizens of the United States.

The course moved along well until mid-April, when newspaper headlines announced that the U.S. military had carried out a bombing raid against Libya, resulting in the deaths of several dozen people. President Reagan said that the air attack was a direct response to the bombing one month earlier of a German nightclub in which American soldiers had been killed and Libyan agents were suspects. Public opinion strongly supported Reagan, viewing the air raids as an appropriate and needed retaliation against Libya and its leaders.

The professor began the next meeting of the class by saying, “We have seen in the news this week a controversial expression of U.S. foreign policy. What reactions do you have?” The students were silent as stones. Finally Susan hesitantly ventured a response. “My husband and I disagree about this,” she said, “but I don’t think America should have done the bombing.”

A young Asian woman in the class looked dumbstruck. “You are the only American I have heard say anything like that,” she stammered. “Are you a revolutionary?”
“No,” Susan snapped. “I’m a Republican.”
“Then why,” asked the woman, “why are you against the bombing of Libya?”

Susan said later that she was tempted to respond, “Hey, it’s a free country. Everybody’s entitled to an opinion,” but she sense that something was at stake here, that something about the situation called for a deeper, more honest response.

“The reason why I disapprove of the bombing,” Susan said, “is because of my Christian faith. I know we cannot make foreign policy out of the New Testament, but we are told to ‘repay no one evil for evil,’ and I just can’t rest easy with this.” What followed was a spirited and probing conversation, involving the whole class, on balancing love and justice, peace and security, national loyalties and faith commitments, all because the window opened and Susan decided to speak.