With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. – The question that seemed to resonate with the Easter crowd was the “Which disciple are you/Which believer are you?” I had quite a number of conversations with Adventers over their perceived answer to that question, plus I had some conversations with those outside the parish who . . . let’s say . . . wanted to argue a bit about whether they were more doubting than Thomas or any of the other disciples . . . at first. I had other conversations after the first service, so this will be one of those weeks where, if it works, you should give thanks to them.
How do you testify to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus? I know . . . it’s horrible. I’m barely 30 seconds in and the Holy Spirit is giving out wedgies. Relax. Everyone is here on Low Sunday. I am not here to accuse you or berate you. I am glad that you are present. More importantly, though, God is glad you are here. I cannot say for certain whether we all get an extra gem in our crowns, but, in the end, it does not really matter as we throw them at His feet. But, like those disciples 2000 years ago, He is working to transform you, both on high days and low days and on every day in between. Nothing, of course, changes us like the Resurrection. If we believe it, if we truly believe that God has raised Jesus and has promised to raise us because of His cleansing or sanctifying work in us, it ripples throughout our life. Our life should become a living testimony, as the liturgy says, to the truth or reality of that redeeming power. So let me ask you again: How do you testify to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus? How do you evidence the great grace that is upon you?
We live in a culture saturated by denominations that used to proclaim on street corners. Most don’t any more, but they have that kind of reputation. Everything is about Jesus to them. Our friends and co-workers derogatorily call them Jesus Freaks because they make everything about Him. In one sense, I admire their strong belief and desire. If God truly raised Jesus from the dead, then He really is the focal point of history. Of course, I have my issues with our brothers and sisters. They are so passionate and confident that they assume everything is part of God’s plan, even the bad things. They counsel those who are suffering by telling them “this is part of God’s plan,” as if that somehow comforts the one hearing it, and worse, drives those who do not yet believe away from God. This, the world around us, is not what God intended. We live in a post Genesis 3:14 world. It’s impacted by sin. Now, God will redeem all things, but He did not plan for us to lose jobs, to get cancer, to be bullied, to be harassed, to end up divorced, to in any way suffer. We rejected His plan way back in the Garden. Heck, who are we kidding, many of us reject His plan day in and day out in our lives!
I suppose this particular sermon’s seeds were scattered in my brain last Wednesday or Thursday of Holy Week, but Rich and others did some watering earlier. If you were here between the services, you heard Rich give an incredible testimony to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus and evidence the grace of God that should be present in all our lives. It’s Rich’s story to tell, but he tells one of . . . if not outright disobedience, one of delayed obedience. He tells a story of lots of objections and, even worse, of having to listen to the correct words of a little brother, of all people!, that God will provide whatever is necessary to do His will. He tells a story of unending need, hunger, in a community that lacks some of the benefits of metropolitan Nashville. He tells a story of how believers in the Lord Christ, to use John’s language, are unified in their effort to meet the need of food in their community. He shares, with some humor, how God has met their needs, be they volunteers in a small community, financial resources in a community that lacks the big bucks of Brentwood, of how their work has drawn in those of other faiths to fight the need. And, if you ask Rich, he may even tell you of another need in his community and his vow to make sure he does not fight God too long this time! In short, Rich shares a story that would be right at home in our lesson from Acts today.
But, before I turn Rich loose on you this Outreach Sunday, I spoke of the seeds for this sermon being sown last week. Keep in mind, last week is Holy Week. There are a lot of services for clergy to prepare. In some ways, of course, it’s the most important week in the life of a parish. Certainly, tons of visitors show up. So we put pressure on ourselves to make it a memorable one. We clergy love the full pews; Vestries and treasurers love the potentially full offering plates. Most of us clergy probably want to preach THAT sermon that causes visitors to become members. Many of us probably want the liturgy to be done just right so that moderately active members determine to become active members. You all are laughing, so you know what I am talking about. It’s for that reason, I’m assuming, that God caused this to happen.
Now, in truth, those seeds I mentioned were sown several years ago in a community that is some distance from us. As those on the search committee know, my previous parish gained a reputation for feeding people, much as the good folks down at Church of the Messiah, Pulaski are getting now. Anyway, one of those ladies that we helped feed was a foster mom. Linda took in foster kids for weeks or months in preparation for their forever homes. I learned last week she took in 64 kids during the course of her life. That sounded like a Jane gasp? She’s nodding. Imagine this for a second. Linda was an older (though she would be young around here) woman living by herself. I never asked if she was widowed or divorced or whatever, and she never said. But she determined as a part of her life’s ministry to take in foster kids for the purpose of caring for them until their adoptive families came along or were approved or whatever. That act alone is worthy of praise, but that’s not what her foster kid wanted to share.
Funds were always tight for her, so she was thrilled to learn of our feeding ministry. She was a typical Midwestern hard working woman. She did not want handouts. But our ministry allowed her to stretch her dollars and to get food that she might otherwise be unable to afford when caring for one or two or three kids. As the leaders of the ministry came to know her better over the months and years, she was one of those who got the “extras.” Rich talked about the peppermint ice cream between the services. Linda would have been one that the leaders made sure she got a couple containers. So impressed were some with her work that they would buy her food to help her. They bought extra food to give to me to give to her, all under the guise that we’d received too much. Y’all get the idea?
Last week, in the midst of all the Holy Week preparation and stress, I received a call from one of her foster kids. Linda had died last week. He was thrilled my cell phone still worked, as he had heard I had moved on to another church. He asked if I would say a prayer for her and if I had a minute or two for him. Y’all know me now. I took the time. He wanted to thank me for all the help my church had provided them. Momma Linda always made us give thanks for you folks at your church before we ate. She reminded us over and over that you guys were the hands and feet of God in the world, and that if we liked what we were eating, we owed you all a special prayer of thanksgiving. He went on to share how so many of those 64 kids weren’t Christian when they entered the care of Momma Linda, but her life made it a bit easier to believe in God and the simple fact that God loved them. I won’t bore you with the details, but some of you have heard the stories of kids in the foster system. Jane’s gasp gives you an idea how hard it is to find good foster homes. Heck, the first slaver I met was a product of a bad foster system. Yet this woman lived her life as a living example of our reading from Acts today. And you all, some 9-10 hours to the south and east and however many years distant are hearing her story alongside that of the apostles and disciples.
Now, it’s Low Sunday, so I know there are no cynics here today, but I can well imagine a cynic’s response that Rich’s example and Linda’s example are not really evidence of “a loving God in our midst working to redeem all things.” We live and work for the expansion of God’s kingdom in the same diocese as Rich and wonderful saints of Church of the Messiah. It makes sense that we hear and learn of their work. And, the Vestry called me from that church in Iowa to live among you and encourage you to do the work God is giving is as Adventers and you as individuals the work He has given us to do. But what are really the odds? It’s not like Pulaski is in Alabama or anything, but we in Nashville are not known for our love of trips to see that wonderful town to our south. Why are they laughing, Rich? Churches have not earned a reputation of being willing to work together in the South, let alone willing to work with people of other or no faith, yet think of the work Rich has shared with us. That kind of unity is not often in evidence in our world today. Lastly, and perhaps hardest to explain, Rich had to recognize that a little brother was right. C’mon, how many of us have little brothers or little sisters? What would it take for you to admit they were right and you were wrong? I know, I have a little sister, too. Such admission for some would be harder than accepting the truth the Resurrection or the parting of a Sea!
Back to Iowa for a second. How many of you wondered whether anything good could come out of Iowa? Be honest now. We’re in church and I have, in some cases, simply affirmed your conviction that nothing good can come from there. Yet here you all are, hearing the story of Momma Linda. Like the woman who washes Jesus’ feet or the woman who asks for the crumbs from the Master’s table or the Samaritan woman who encounters Jesus, there is nothing from a worldly experience that would commend Momma Linda to you or to anyone outside those 64 children she fostered over the years. Yet, like those other seemingly inconsequential women, even like the women who first saw the empty Tomb, you have heard the amazing witness of a woman in Iowa who, by the testimony of those whom she served, was full of grace and a living testimony of a Father in heaven who loved them and us all dearly. Assuming 8000 clergy and 8000 churches, there’s what, a 1 in just under 64 million chance we, you and I, end up together, never minding other variables like timing. Ugh! It just dawned on me that in the midst of this I just redeemed statistics for Sarah. I remember telling her in January that I never use probability in the pulpit, that Stats is just one of those classes you suffer through. LOL. Now, in the midst of this sermon, God has redeemed all those horrible Stats classes in our lives! What are the odds of that?! Go ahead. Laugh. We are supposed to be full of joy, even when we reflect on Stats!
We have laughed a good bit this morning, and I think that a great thing. It is a hard thing to drag oneself to church when it is cold and rainy. It’s a harder thing to come on Low Sunday in the Episcopal church. The brass players are gone. The pews are empty. The mimosas and Bloody Mary’s have all been drunk. The lilies and hydrangeas have begun their decay. We are treated to this bare foretaste of the glory we are promised last week, and it is followed up with, in a sense, the Sunday of “meh.” It is harder still to laugh when political discord rages, when people in our communities are suffering, when the need is so great and the powerful care so little, when the threat of war hangs like a malaise over us, when all the things in the world are happening around us . . . or to us. Today is even Healing Sunday. Some of you will come forward for anointing and prayers. Some may experience healing; others may wonder if God heard our prayer and honors our requests and intercessions. I recognize it is tough sometimes to believe in God’s love. More importantly, so does God!
We are, though, a people who believe! We are a people who are called by God to live as if we do believe, even if our unbelief sometimes threatens overwhelm our belief. How do we do that? Through our obedience and His grace in power in our lives. The template is simple. We bear those crosses He asks us to bear, and He takes care of the rest. Time and time and time again He has proven His faithfulness to us. He proved it throughout the Old Testament, through that amazing Resurrection, and even through the gift of the promised Holy Spirit. He has proven it in those favorite Sunday school stories you and I still remember even to this day! And that we might know that we have a share in that inheritance He promises, He gives us these amazing stories. We read about many of them in the book of Acts and throughout the rest of the New Testament, but we see and hear them in our lives today.
How does God ask you to testify to our Lord Christ’s Resurrection in your life? Where is He asking you to trust in the sufficiency of His grace and His redemptive power? As sure and certain as that tomb was empty all those years ago, He is longing to create in you a redemptive story that the world needs desperately to see and to hear, that it might be pointed toward Him by you. Scoff? Snort? Before you dragged yourself out of bed this cold, rainy April morning, how many of you ever thought you would be encouraged in your faith in Christ by a bearded guy from Pulaski or an anonymous foster mom from Iowa? Just as God ached to glorify them for His Son’s presence in their lives, He is aching to do the same in all our lives! How is He asking you to testify to His Son’s Resurrection in your life?
In Christ’s Peace,