We Are Witnesses

5.22.22 Homily on 1 Peter 3:15-16 by Rev. Trenton Prieshoff

We are Witnesses – this phrase says so much about both our identity and purpose. Who we are and what we are meant for are so beautifully and powerfully wrapped up in our understanding of this one word.

I was introduced as Reverend Prieshoff but I understand how much of a mouthful that is. Pastor Trent is fine. But I am also known bu another name. I teach 8th grade math here in the public schools and my students know me as Mr. Prie (pree).

We are witnesses… that is our calling: our identity and purpose are wrapped up here… it’s who we’re meant to be… what we’re meant to do… We are witnesses.

But I think there’s a lot of discomfort and confusion with that being our identity and purpose…

Some may have images of bible thumping with fire-and-brimstone and the pain that leaves behind

Some may think of it as something for people with who have had lots of training

Some have memories of being turned away or shut out because someone felt weird when you spoke up.

The way that Peter describes our calling as witnesses is important. He writes in 1 Peter, 3:15 “Do not be afraid. Instead, in your heart, honor Christ as the Lord and always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

To Peter, To be witnesses isn’t about a quota, a job we need to get done, or a communication style we need to perfect… it’s a stance.

The way a runner starts off in their stance, they are ready for the moment… The way a dancer holds a form, they are ready to respond to the music and to their partner… the way soldiers will gather in formations to assess their situation and plan the next step.

The assumption is… if you have experienced Christ then you will live like you have hope.

And if you live like you’ve got hope… then people are gonna ask you some questions.

And as a witness… you need to be able to respond to their questions.

We are in the world but not of the world… those words in that order don’t come from the bible but Jesus communicates that truth in John 17:14-16 when he prays to the Father because of the challenges that he knows his followers like you and me are going to face

We are in the world… but we are not of the world.

As a teenager, that meant I shouldn’t drink, smoke, and cuss because I have to go to school in the world but I shouldn’t do what other kids do to fit in. But I think that means something deeper… It’s about the stance we have in the world.

As a teacher… I don’t evangelize in class. But I witness.

After getting herself into trouble one day, a student came back to my classroom to apologize and ask, “am I still in trouble?”

And I could tell her, “look, kid… I’m not mad at you. You’re a bright student and you could have a lot of opportunities opening up for you in the future. But I have also witnessed this anger that is bottled up in you and if you don’t find a way to process and get rid of it instead of just covering it up… I am really worried about how you are going to lose opportunities.”

She said, “I don’t know how to do that.”

“Well,” I told her, “You know that I am also a pastor. I don’t know how to answer that as a math teacher. Is it okay with you if I talk with you like a pastor instead of a math teacher?”

Being a witness … being prepared to give a reason for the hope you have… is something we all do in all of our vocations in every kind of community.

There is an important question I would like to ask you… You don’t need to answer right away, but you should think about it. It should shape the conversations you have after church when you go to brunch and watch baseball:

What kind of stance do you have? What does your stance communicate about what is real? About what is true?

But that’s not what I came to talk with you about today. I didn’t come to talk with you about your stance or how to be a witness in three easy steps.

Peter says “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

This command is built on an assumption:

The assumption is that you have hope.

And sometimes, it’s hard to have hope… Sometimes, being in the world… that’s too much to assume.

In our scripture reading today Luke is telling us that they set sail on a journey that takes them from Troas (Northwest Turkey) to Samothrace (an island in between Turkey and Greece) to Neapolis to Philippi. But we are missing some context.

Go a little further back in verse 6 and we are told that the team tried to go to Asia (another district in NW Turkey) and God told them “no.” They traveled all that way… only to be told “no” when they finally got there. They went to Mysia… “no.” They went to Bithynia… “no.” And because we read this in just a few sentences I think it’s easy to read over it too quickly.

Paul tells us that he funded his ministry by making tents. These were weeks, maybe months of stopping to make tents, set up in the market, save up money, buy provisions and get ready to travel again… Stop to make tents, set up a market, and so on.

I’ve been in a season like that: a season of wandering… a season of searching, a season of wondering.

Seasons when you feel like “What am I even doing?”

Am I making any progress?

What difference am I even making?

Did I hear God correctly?

I told you that as a teacher, I am a witness. A witness has experienced things… and they tell what they have experienced: what they saw, what they heard, what they felt.

And every day I am a witness: One way or another.

I like to think my life is a witness of the power and love in Jesus.

But in the classroom, I am in the world and I witness the grotesque language they use to bully and belittle one another.

I witness the gross inequality of resources for students in one zip code over another zip code.

I witness the coldness, obstinance, and defiance of students in crisis.

I witness the ways students belittle my own dignity… the way they twist my words, slander my integrity, and misrepresent my character.

I witness children resorting to violence, alcohol, and drugs.

I witness the parent express disgust toward their child and I witness the look on that child’s face when they hear those words.

And some days I like to hope my life is a witness of the power and love in Jesus Christ, and some days my life is a witness of the abundance and potential for them… And some days all the things I witness are a lot to take, line is crossed and my stance looks defensive. There are days when my stance is just putting my palm to my face. There are days when my stance is to break down and just weep.

“In the world but not of the world” is more than a catch phrase. It is the reality. We are in the world. And in the world, we witness corruption, negligence, and indifference in the classrooms and workplaces around us. We witness pettiness and one-upmanship. We witness the fresh atrocities in Ukraine. We witness hate crimes in Buffalo, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

We witness the anger and the grief made fresh every morning. 

We witness the fear and the suspicion that are all that’s left when our optimism dries up.

…and hope? It can be hard to come by.

We are in the world, but not of the world. We experience all the broken promises, grotesque violence, and terrible inequalities of the world…

AND

Because we are in Christ… we experience the unfailing love of God.

So what kind of hope is Peter talking about?

  1. He is talking about a hope that sees.

People of God, if you are writing anything down, please write this down.

We are witnesses.

We see what is happening and as good and faithful witnesses, it is right to call out what we see.

It’s common to get the impression that… in order to win people over to Christ… we have to be optimistic and happy. When we see pain and heartache in people around us, we have to turn to a hollow positivity, saying things like “well, God will work all things together for the good…” or “there’s gonna be a testimony that comes from this.”

Maybe a testimony will come… and God will work all things together for the good of those who love him. But that does not mean we shouldn’t call a spade a spade; a crime a crime; a sin a sin.

Our calling to be a witness does not ask you to turn a blind eye to the heartaches and grief in the lives and communities around us. Our hope is not blind optimism. Our hope sees. And our hope testifies.

2. He is talking about a hope that remembers.

I think it’s tempting to think that hope is something you can see coming.

When do you feel hopeless? When you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel… when you can’t see where you’re going. When you’re anxious about the future.

When do you say that you are feeling hopeful… when there aren’t any foreseeable conflicts or roadblocks ahead.

But that is a hope that is based only on your circumstances. Everyone has that kind of hope.

Hope isn’t based on what you are feeling right now.

Hope isn’t based on the expectation of progress ahead.

It is based on what is real. What is more real even than the pain and grief we witness. What is real is that God is a God who sees us. God is a God who knows our hurts and failures and loves us. Our God is not a God who stands by wishing the violence of our world away. Our God is a God who puts his own skin in the game.

I am reminded of one of my favorite verses from Lamentations 3. The prophet, Jeremiah speaks about the pain and loss and heartache he has experienced and even blames it on God. He says, “I remember my affliction and wandering; the bitterness and the gall. I remember them well and my soul is distraught within me … yet … this comes back to mind and therefore, I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not overcome. His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. I will say to my soul, “the lord is my portion. I will wait for him.”

Our hope is not based in what we feel or what we can see… that would be “of the world” but we are not “of the world.”

3. And last, our hope is a hope that praises.

I read to you earlier from 1 Peter chapter 3 when Peter writes about giving an answer for the hope we express.

I want to read to you now from his introduction when he describes that hope:

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Praise does not do a disservice to the reality of grief. In fact, our hope is born out of our grief.

We are in the world… but not of the world.

And that allows us to be witnesses of all that we see.

It allows us to be advocates of all that is right.

It gives us the footing to be able to point to the promises of God and His faithfulness.

Get Up!

May 8th, 2022 homily on Acts 9:36-43 by Pastor Galen Zook

Today is Mother’s Day, a day when we celebrate motherly love. And today we want to especially express our gratitude for all of the mothers and grandmothers and women of faith in our midst who love us and demonstrate God’s love to us.

In addition to our biological mothers, I’m sure all of us have people in our lives who loved us in motherly ways. Perhaps it was a grandmother, or aunt, or teacher, a mentor, or a friend. 

Many times the way we experienced love from our mothers and grandmothers and the women of faith in our lives was not just through words, but through actions and deeds. They cared for us, nurtured us, supported us, encouraged us, and served us in practical ways – day in and day out. In fact, so often it’s those everyday acts of love that we so often take for granted, and yet impact us the most.

Of course, on a day such as today, we also think of those whose mothers and grandmothers are no longer with us. The pain of loss and separation is often felt that much more strongly on a day such as today when we celebrate motherly love, and so we are especially thinking of all of you who are missing your mothers and grandmothers on this day as well. 

Tabitha/Dorcas

I imagine that many of the people of Joppa thought of Tabitha, or Dorcas, as a motherly figure. Here in Acts 9 we see that she was “devoted to good words and acts of charity” (Acts. 9:36). In particular, one of the ways she cared for others was by making clothing for widows in the town – many of whom probably could not have afforded the cloth to make their own clothes, or who were so busy trying to put food on the table for their families that they didn’t have time to make clothes for themselves or their children. 

And that’s where Tabitha had stepped in, sewing clothes for the widows of Joppa and their family. Making sure the children had nice tunics to wear for school, and warm cloaks to wear in the winter.

I imagine that the Tabitha didn’t just mass produce the clothing for the widows and their children. I picture her sitting there at her loom, weaving each and every article of clothing with unique patterns and fabrics. She probably took the time to get to know each of the children of the village – not only their names and ages, but their favorite subjects in school, the games they liked to play in the town square. Their favorite colors. She handcrafted each article of clothing with love, smiling to herself as she pictured the children running around the marketplace wearing the various articles of clothing she was making for them. 

Whether or not Tabitha had ever been a mother herself, she certainly was like a mom to all of the younger widows and a grandmother to all of the children in the village. 

And that’s why everyone took it so hard when she suddenly became ill and passed away. The widows were in a state of shock. How could they go on without Tabitha in their lives? It wasn’t just the clothes that she made for them and the other acts of charity that she carried out. It was her spirit, her love, her personality that they would miss the most. 

And so they sent word for the Apostle Peter, one of the twelve Apostles who carried on Christ’s mission now that Jesus had risen and ascended in heaven. They called Peter to come and see what he could do to help them. The Apostle Peter speaks the same words Jesus spoke when he encountered the widow’s son of Nain who had passed away in Luke 7, and to Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8 – “Get up.” And sure enough, Tabitha, although she had been dead, got up! She was raised back to life through the power of Jesus Christ. And her life once more became a living testimony to the power and wonder of God.

The Witness of Deeds

There are many of us here today who may wish we could bring our mothers, or grandmothers, or others who have impacted our lives back to life. But while we may not be able to raise the dead as Jesus and Peter did, the witness and testimony of these godly women of faith lives on in the people they loved and cared for, and in the acts of love they carried out for others. Each of us are in many ways an extension of the people who have loved us and poured into us. And as we follow their example and walk in the way of love and compassion, we keep their legacy alive.

The reality is, though, that often acts of love and charity go overlooked in our world and society and even in the Church. People who serve those in need day in and day out usually don’t get buildings named after them. People who care for children, or tend to those who are sick, or visit those who are in prison, or who serve at Food Pantries, usually don’t get their names in lights. Their good deeds so often go unrecognized. They may spend their whole lives serving others and rarely receive gratitude.

And yet often it’s those acts of love and charity that lead many people to Christ. It did so in the case of the widow’s in Tabitha’s day, and it often does so today in the case of so many people who are drawn to Christ through humble acts of love and service and prayer. 

So often we hear stories of people who wandered away from the faith or stopped attending church, as in the case of my colleague Donna, who I shared about last week. And often they will say that it was the prayers and love and compassion and prayers of their mother or grandmother or another woman of faith that drew them back.

Peggy

A couple of weeks ago, I was called to the bedside of our dear sister in Christ, Margaret “Peggy” Corbin, who passed away last week. Like Tabitha in the Bible, Peggy was known for her good works and charitable deeds. Peggy was married to her husband Michael for 55 years. She was the mother of three sons, the grandmother of four grandchildren, and she was survived by many nieces, nephews, extended relatives and dear friends.

The last couple of years were extremely difficult for Peggy and her family as Peggy’s onset of Alzheimer’s coincided with the COVID pandemic. It was difficult for her to understand why she couldn’t come out to church or visit with friends and family. The past year was especially difficult for Peggy and her family as her alzheimers grew increasingly worse, and she had a number of other health-related issues as well. 

As I shared with her friends and family at her memorial service this past week, although Peggy will be dearly missed, we can take comfort in the fact that she is now at peace and in the presence of Jesus, that her body and mind are fully restored, and that one day we will be reunited with her and all of our friends and loved ones who have gone on before us.

But something that struck me as I talked with Peggy’s family over these past few weeks is that each and everyone one of her family members told me that Peggy was always thinking of others, always putting their needs before her own. In many ways, her family were her life. And she didn’t serve others to get attention or to receive gratitude. Her acts of love and service were always done in love. Peggy’s friends and family shared how her humility and acts of love exemplified the love of Jesus to them and drew them closer to Christ.

In a time in our society in which so many people care only about themselves, the love that Peggy had for her family and even those outside of her immediate family will stand as a living and enduring testimony to the love of Jesus Christ. Even though Peggy has gone on to be with Jesus, her witness and testimony will live on in and through her family and our church.

The Lord is Our Shepherd

The way that Peggy and Tabitha loved and cared for others throughout their lives reminds us of the image of the Lord as our Shepherd, as we see in Psalm 23. 

The Psalmist says that the Lord is like a shepherd who makes us lie down in green pastures, and leads us beside still waters. And the psalmist says that even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, still the Lord is right there beside us, leading us and guiding us. His rod and his staff comfort us. 

Although in this image the shepherd no doubt uses words to speak to the sheep, it’s interesting to note that it is the physical actions of leading the sheep to water and making the sheep to lie down in green pastures that gives tangible expression to the shepherd’s care and concern for the sheep. 

Even if and when it is sometimes difficult for us to recognize our Shepherd’s voice, we can know that  Jesus is right there beside us, leading us, guiding us, looking out for us. And even when we go through the valley of the shadow of death, we can rest in the assurance that Jesus will be there to lead us safely to the other side. 

Many of us have probably heard the quote that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” And while words are often necessary, the point stands that we can preach the Gospel not only through the words we speak, but also, and maybe even more importantly, through our actions. In fact, often we are not given the opportunity to speak – either because our friends or neighbors or coworkers or family members don’t want to hear what we have to say about Jesus or because they have closed themself off to the message of the Gospel. But no matter what, we can always share the love of Christ through our actions – and through the love and care and concern that we demonstrate to others.

People may forget or misinterpret or misremember the things we say, but they will more often remember the things we do. This is one reason why acts of love and compassion can be such powerful forms of witness. And this is why Tabitha’s form of Gospel proclamation as seen here in Acts was an especially powerful form of witness.

A Living Testimony

So let us not overlook or downplay the power of acts of love and charity when it comes to being a witness for Jesus Christ. 

Let us remember those who have witnessed to us through their acts of care and compassion. And let us keep their memory alive, not only through sharing the memories we have of them, but also through picking up their mantle, and carrying on those acts of love and compassion for others. 

As we do this – as we love others in the same way those who have gone before us have loved and cared for us – their witness and testimony – and ours as well – will live on. 

Amen.

Who Are You Lord?

May 1st 2022 Homily on John 21:1-19 by Pastor Galen Zook

Peter

In John 21, Jesus’s disciples are trying to figure out what it looks like to live without Jesus physically present in their lives. Jesus had risen, and had shown himself to all them. They knew he was alive. But things were different now. Jesus was no longer walking and talking with them on a daily basis. Instead he was appearing to them at various times, but they never knew when to expect him to show up. And he had been talking about how he would soon ascend into heaven and leave his Holy Spirit with them to lead and guide and direct them.

I imagine they spent hours arguing back and forth about what all of that meant. And finally Peter got tired of talking, and said, “I’m going to go fishing!” That was what was familiar to Peter – it’s what he had spent his time doing before he met Christ. And given the way he had messed up big-time when Jesus had been arrested and was on trial, Peter didn’t know if he would ever be able to continue with the mission that Jesus had called him to – that of being a missionary, or a witness. You see, when Jesus was arrested, Peter had misunderstood what his role was supposed to be. He was prepared to fight for Jesus, and had even tried to attack the guard who came to arrest Jesus. 

But Jesus had told him that wasn’t what he was supposed to do – that Jesus was going to let him get arrested.  Peter had followed at a distance as Jesus was arrested and taken away. But when people asked him if he was one of Jesus’s disciples, he had totally denied that he even knew him. Denied that he knew his own friend, and teacher! As I said, he messed up big-time.

So now, he’s out there fishing, but he can’t catch anything. And that had to have been frustrating for Peter. But then someone appears on the seashore (Peter and the other disciples don’t realize it’s Jesus) and he calls out to them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat. And I’m sure Peter is thinking, yeah right, like that’s going to make a difference! But sure enough, they catch a boatload of fish. And that’s when Peter realized it was Jesus who was standing on the seashore calling out to them. 

Peter and the other disciples haul the fish in – 153 to be exact, and when they get to shore, Jesus is, ironically, sitting next to a campfire cooking fish. (Jesus, sure does have a sense of humor!) He tells them to bring some of the fish they had just caught – presumably to add to the meal, and then they have breakfast on the beach. With Jesus. Who had been dead, but is now risen. Peter’s friend and teacher, who he had denied that he even knew just a few weeks ago. Awkward! And then, even more awkward, Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves him.

Now, this story brings up several questions. What was the significance of there being 153 fish? And why does Jesus ask Peter basically the same question 3 times in a row? 

And we’ll get to those questions. But first, I want to tell you about my colleague Donna, who also tried to live her life for a while without Jesus. And how it was questions that eventually brought her back to faith.

Donna

My colleague Donna was a medical doctor who became a seminary professor. She refers to herself as a “Doc-Doc” since she’s both a medical doctor and she has a doctorate in ministry.

But for 10 years of her life Donna was an agnostic. Meaning that for ten years of her life she didn’t attend church, and she was not convinced of the existence of God. 

Donna had grown up going to church, she had been baptized and confirmed and had attended Sunday School. Growing up she was always a kind and affectionate person. And she loved Jesus. As an only child she spent a lot of time by herself, but she never really felt alone, because she always felt the presence of God in her life. She would swing on the swingset in her backyard and she would literally breathe her prayers, just saying the name Jesus over and over while she was swinging. When she felt the wind rustling her hair as she swung back and forth, she imagined that it was God playing with her hair.

As a teenager she dreamed of being a medical doctor. Not a nurse – she insisted to her parents – a doctor! And sure enough, she worked incredibly hard in school, and went off to college (the first girl in her family of Italian immigrants to do so), and then eventually to medical school, and her internship, then residency. 

It was while she was in residency that she began working in a children’s hospital. And that’s also when the doubts began to creep in. Seeing children who were struggling with terminal illnesses, or who had been hurt or abused on a day-in and day-out basis, eventually made her doubt the existence of God. How could a good and loving God allow so much pain and suffering to happen?

It challenged her theology, because she always thought that good people were rewarded for being good. But here she was seeing innocent children suffer, for no fault of their own. She began to feel less motivated to go to church, her church attendance dwindling to only a couple times a month, then less than once a month, then just Christmas and Easter, and then not at all. 

“I just don’t get anything from church anymore,” Donna told her mother. “It’s just a waste of time for me to go.” Her father asked her why she was fighting against God. “I’m not,” Donna said. “I don’t even know if God exists.”

It wasn’t that she had grown to love God any less, or that she didn’t like Jesus anymore. It’s just that she didn’t know how to rationalize the pain and suffering that she saw every day with the God of love and compassion that she used to believe in. She wondered how in God’s sovereignty all of this could happen.

During the course of those 10 years, friends and family tried to convince her to come back to the church. Her mom stayed awake at night praying for her to return. But Donna just couldn’t bring herself to worship or believe in a God who seemed to idly stand by watching as the children she worked with on a daily basis suffered.

Throughout all of this, Donna remained a devoted pediatrician. She loved the children that she worked with. She was a wonderful doctor, she just didn’t believe in God. Interestingly enough. It was the children who brought her back to God. Or more particularly, it was their questions. 

To this day, Donna doesn’t know why this happened, but it felt like every child under her care who had questions related to God or faith would direct their questions towards her. They would ask her, “Dr. Donna, why is God allowing this to happen to me?” “Why hasn’t God healed me?” “Doesn’t God love me?” Even when Donna was in a room full of other doctors, for some reason the children would always direct their questions to her. 

And Donna didn’t know what to say. She knew the children deserved an answer. She didn’t want to lie to them, but she couldn’t tell them that she didn’t even believe in God, or know if God was real. Eventually the questions, and the faith of these children and their parents forced her to re-explore her faith. Also, a coworker tricked her into going to church with her one day. She told her they were going to the movies, but instead she took her to church! (I wouldn’t recommend that strategy, but it worked in this case!) Donna began to take another look at the story of Jesus of his suffering and of his love for each and everyone of us. And somehow, slowly, Donna’s faith slowly began to be restored over time.

It looked different than it had before. It was a faith that was more mature and complex and nuanced. She was in no ways ignorant of the reality of suffering and injustice in the world, but she learned to hold these things in tension with her faith in God, recognizing that Jesus sees, and that Jesus cares, and that Jesus is present with us in our suffering.

Breakfast on the Beach with Jesus

I have to wonder if Peter’s denial of Jesus wasn’t in many ways a rejection of suffering. That when Peter said he didn’t know Jesus, that it was because he couldn’t get his mind around a Messiah who would willingly experience suffering rather than vanquish all of his foes. Peter loved Jesus so much that he was prepared to fight for him. But he couldn’t stand it to see Jesus suffer. He couldn’t fathom why Jesus would submit to being arrested, beaten, and eventually put to death. It was all just too much for Peter to handle. And so he had gone through a period of denial that he even knew Jesus.

But now here they are sitting on the seashore. Jesus has made breakfast for Peter and the other disciples, and Jesus is asking Peter questions. And with Peter, as in the case of my colleague Donna, it was questions that brought Peter back. Questions that drew him back in. Questions that were really invitations to Peter recommit his life into the service of Jesus – and even be willing to suffer and die for Jesus. Questions that were also invitations to help the little ones – to feed Jesus’s flock.

Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves him, giving Peter an opportunity to make up for the 3 times he had denied Jesus. Jesus was drawing Peter back in, gently reminding Peter of their relationship, of how much he cared about him, and how Peter was called to be a witness for Jesus. Jesus’s statement that Peter should feed and tend to Jesus’s sheep is a reminder that Peter would play a very significant role in the early church, and indeed the other apostles looked to Peter for wisdom, guidance, and direction as he was led by the Holy Spirit. 

Oh, and the significance of 153? Well, one early church theologian suggested that 153 was a reference to all of the different kinds of fish known in the world at that time – a foreshadowing of Peter’s role in preaching the Gospel to all nations!

We are Witnesses 

Jesus had a significant for my colleague Donna to play as well. Eventually as her faith was restored, she decided to take a class of theology. She wanted to learn how to better answer the questions that the children were posing to her. She wanted to be the best medical doctor that she could be, caring for her patients body, mind and soul.

She decided to keep taking classes, eventually earning her master’s degree in theology and then going on for a doctorate in ministry. Now she serves as the associate Dean at the seminary where I work throughout the week. But she hasn’t given up medicine. Now, she runs a program called CONNECT, which helps medical doctors and church leaders and members connect faith, health, and medicine. And she chairs the oversight committee for the Johns Hopkins Board of Chaplains, assisting others in caring for patients who have questions about God and spirituality.

Donna became a witness, just as Peter became a witness. And their stories remind us that no matter how many times we’ve messed up, no matter even if we’ve gon through periods of denial, or rejection of our faith, that God can use each and every one of us to be a witness. 

Their stories should also give us hope for family members, friends, and loved ones who have stopped going to church or who are experiencing questions about their faith. Who knows, it might even be their questions that will bring them back! At the very least, we see in the stories of Peter and Dr. Donna that God can show up in surprising ways and surprising places, and draw us back to himself. 

So may we never give up hope, may we never stop praying and seeking God, and may we too become witnesses of the love and tender mercy of our God, who forgives and restores. Amen.

We are Witnesses

April 24, 2022 sermon on John 20:19-31 by Pastor Galen

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich (1343 – after 1416) was born in England in the year 1343, which means she was just six years old when the Bubonic Plague swept through her hometown. During the course of her lifetime, it’s estimated that the disease may have taken the lives of over half of the population of her city. Julian was also alive during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when the city was overwhelmed by rebel forces.

Even from a very young age, Julian had a deep longing for God. She longed to feel the passion of Christ, wishing even that she could have been “at the crucifixion along with Mary Magdalene and with the others who were Christ’s dear friends” (Revelations of Divine Love, 3). Julian longed to experience the passion of Christ because, she would later write, she desired “to suffer with him as others did who loved him” (Revelations, 3). 

At the age of 30 years old, Julian fell so gravely ill that she thought she was going to die. The parish priest was called in to administer the last rites of the Church to her, in anticipation of her death. As the priest held a crucifix above the foot of her bed, Julian began to lose her sight and felt physically numb, but as she continued to gaze upon the cross she began to have a vision of Jesus hanging on the cross, suffering and dying. 

This vision, and a series of 15 more visions that occured over the course of the next few days convinced Julian of God’s love for her, and for all humanity. In one of those visions, Jesus assured her that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Seeing the Risen Christ

Although Julian never saw the risen Christ in the flesh, as Jesus’s apostles did our Gospel account, the visions that Julian had of Christ’s suffering felt so real, and were so transformational for her, that she would continue to write and reflect theologically on those visions for the rest of her life, which ended up being a lot longer than anyone expected. Julian recovered completely from her illness, and lived 43 more years, to the age of 73. Her theological reflections on the visions that she had during that time, referred to now as Revelations of Divine Love, are the earliest surviving pieces of English literature that we know with certainty were written by a woman.

In John 20, Jesus’s disciples, with the exception of Thomas, were hiding behind a locked door, for fear that the same people who had crucified Jesus would be looking for them as well. Jesus had been falsely accused of being an insurrectionist, and so the authorities very well could have been looking to exterminate his followers as well. 

Earlier in the day, several of the women disciples had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body and had discovered that his body was missing. Two angels appeared to them and told them that Jesus wasn’t there because he had risen, and the women instantly believed. 

Their male counterparts, however were skeptical that Jesus had actually risen from the dead, and it wasn’t until Jesus appeared to them in the upper room that evening that they believed. But Thomas, who was not with them when Jesus appeared, refused to believe that Jesus had actually risen, saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). 

And sure enough, the following week, Jesus reappeared, this time when Thomas was in the room. He addressed Thomas directly, saying, “‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe’” (John 20:27).

Jesus meets Julian in her doubts

Julian of Norwich never doubted that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But like Thomas, Julian did wrestle with significant doubts and questions. And like Thomas, Jesus appeared to her, albeit in a vision, and met her in the midst of her doubt and despair. As with Thomas and the other disciples, Jesus’s words to Julian were words of peace, and reassurance, and invitation. He did not reprimand her for her questions or scold her for her doubts, but rather invited her to a deeper understanding of his love.

In the vision mentioned above, in which Jesus assured Julian that “all shall be well,” Julian had been asking God the question of why sin exists in the world. Julian wrote, “I thought that if sin had never existed, we should all have been pure and like [the Lord], as God made us; and so I had often wondered before now in my folly why, in his great foreseeing wisdom, God had not prevented the beginning of sin; for then, I thought, all would have been well” (79). 

Many of us have probably wondered the same thing at one time or another. We look around at all of the pain and suffering and injustice in the world that is caused by sin. War. School shootings. Global climate change. Racial injustice. Economic disparity. Domestic violence. Abuse. Embezzlement. The list could go on and on. Many is us have experienced the direct result of some of these injustices in our own lives.

Along with Julian, we ask, why does God allow this to happen? Why did God even allow sin to exist in the first place? It’s a fair question to ask, and it’s one that gets at the core of the Christian faith and tradition, and yet we each grapple with this in a different way. Some people try to ignore the pain and suffering of this world altogether. They try to drown it out with various forms of amusement or entertainment to try and forget that there is pain and suffering in the world.

Others decide, well, if we can’t avoid sin, then we might as well just give in! They enter into the fray. They seek to get revenge on anyone who has hurt them, they step on others to avoid being stepped on. 

Others cope by drowning their sorrows, turning to various substances or unhealthy habits to try to numb the pain.

All of these coping mechanisms just further exacerbate the problem. We compound problems on top of problems. Sin on top of sin. We become trapped in cycles of sin and despair.

But Julian did not ignore these questions or try to avoid pain and suffering. Rather, she brought her questions directly before the Lord in prayer, and inquired as to why God allowed sin to exist at all. 

And as Julian brought this question to the Lord, God brought to her mind all of the pain and suffering of all humanity. And then in a flash, as she saw the vision of Jesus hanging on the cross, she realized that the pain that Jesus had experienced on the cross was so much greater than all of the pain and suffering in the world. She realized that Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer, and that even though he was sinless and did not deserve to be punished for any sins of his own, he willingly took on the pain and suffering of all humanity. 

She also discovered that suffering is what allows us to recognize sin for what it is, and to cry out to Jesus for help. Just as when we fall and break a bone in our body, it’s pain that alerts us to the fact that something is wrong, and motivates us to get help. Similarly, Julian discovered, that suffering “purges us and makes us know ourselves and pray for mercy” (79-80), drawing us deeper into intimacy with Christ and with God. 

And indeed, Julian did grow deeper into intimacy with Christ. Over the course of her lifetime as she continued to reflect on questions of grief and suffering, and as she brought her doubts and questions before the Lord, Jesus continued to draw her closer in relationship with him. Using language that sounds quite radical even our own day and age, Julian of Norwich eventually came to see God as both our Father and our Mother, saying, 

In this I saw that all the debt we owe, at God’s bidding for his fatherhood and motherhood, is fulfilled by loving God truly; a blessed love which Chist arouses in us. And this was shown in everything, and especially in the great, generous words where he says, ‘It is I that you love’ (142). 

What a deep and meaningful encounter with God’s love. Oh that we would all experience such intimacy in our walks with Christ!

Effective Witnesses Wrestle with Doubt

Our theme for the next month or so is “We Are Witnesses.” And at first glance, we may look at people like the Apostle Thomas and Julian of Norwich, and we might wonder, what do they have to do with being witnesses?

Often we think of witnesses as people who have rock-solid faith, who never doubt or question God.

But in actuality the best witnesses for Jesus are often those people who have wrestled with doubts and despair, and came out the other side. Rather than turning away from God, they continually take their doubts and questions to the Lord and allow Jesus to minister to them. And their witness – their testimony – is how Jesus met them in their doubts and disbelief. 

History tells us that the Apostle Thomas became a missionary to India – in fact the Orthodox Christian church in India traces its roots all the way back to the Apostle Thomas to this day!

Julian, too, became a witness in her own way. Not only did she write down her theological reflections and experiences with Jesus for later generations to read, but she also became known as a spiritual authority within her community, and served as an adviser to many. In 1411, when Julian was in her seventies, she was visited by the English Christian mystic and author Margery Kempe, who traveled to Norwich to obtain spiritual advice from Julian, saying she was “bidden by Our Lord” to go to “Dame Jelyan … for the anchoress was expert in” divine revelations, “and good counsel could give.”

We Are Witnesses

Friends, if we want to be effective witnesses for our Lord Jesus Christ, we do not have to push aside our questions, or ignore our doubts.The stories of Thomas and Julian demonstrate that we can bring our doubts and our fears and questions, our uncertainties, and even our anger and grief, and bring it to Jesus, trusting that God can and will meet us in our doubt and despair. 

Jesus may not appear to us in bodily form, but Jesus can help us gain a clearer vision of himself, and Jesus can reframe our understanding of the world and our place in it.

So may we, like Thomas and like Julian, come before God, bringing our doubts and our questions. And may Jesus reveal his heart of love to us, speaking peace to us, and reassuring us that “all will be well,” so that we too may become effective witnesses of the Good News to those who have not yet come to believe.

Amen.

All Things New

April 17th, 2022 Easter Sunday homily on Luke 24:1-12 by Pastor Galen

Have you ever felt like your world was coming to an end? Like all of your hopes and dreams were crashing down around you? Like everything you had worked for, hoped for and longed for might suddenly be gone forever?

Perhaps it was the sudden passing of a loved one, the loss of your home, or a serious car accident. You were disoriented, dazed, or confused. It felt like the world was spinning around you, or like you were walking around in a fog or a haze.

When our oldest daughter was about 10 months old, our family was in a serious car accident. We were driving in rural Ohio, visiting my aunt and uncle and cousins, and on the way to Wisconsin to see my brother and his family. We were driving on a rural road, and come to a stop sign, where an Amish buggy was waiting at the stop sign ahead of us. The people in the buggy waved for us to go around them, which I did, not realizing that the traffic coming from the other direction didn’t have a stop sign. Suddenly our minivan was blindsided by a large white work van barreling down the road. Our minivan spun around several times, my arm apparently swung out of control, hitting the face of my aunt, who was seated next to me. The impact was mostly in the middle of our van, right where our baby was strapped into her carseat. She emerged without a scratch, but my wife, who was seated in the middle seat next to her, was knocked unconscious, and suffered a broken pelvis. 

My wife was taken by helicopter to a hospital a few hours away, while our daughter and my aunt and I were taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where we were checked out and then soon released. 

I don’t even remember how I drove to the other hospital where my wife had been taken by helicopter – I think my cousins let me borrow their van, although I’m shocked that I was able to drive another vehicle so soon after the accident. On the drive there I remember thinking about a friend of mine who became paralyzed in an accident shortly after she had gotten married. I worried my wife might suffer a similar fate. All in all, it felt like my world was spinning in circles, or like I was driving through a hazy fog.

Like Walking through a Fog

I imagine this is just a small glimpse into what it must have been like for the women who came to the tomb early that first Easter Sunday morning. The events of that week had been a whirlwind, from Jesus entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey on Palm Sunday, and then overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple on Monday, celebrating Passover with his disciples on Thursday, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane late into the evening on Thursday night, and then arrest. Beaten and mocked, unjustly tried, and sentenced to death, and then crucified on Friday – hung on a cross for all to see, publicly shamed and humiliated. 

For the women, it must have felt as though the ground had been taken out from underneath their feet. How could this have happened to Jesus? Jesus, who always had a kind word, who welcomed children, ate with the marginalized and outcasts. Jesus who healed people, who always took the time to listen, who sought out those who were lonely. Jesus, the one who had personally transformed each and every one of their lives. Jesus, the one they had built all of their hopes and dreams around. Their Jesus, the one they loved, was gone.

What would they do? How could they possibly go one? How would life ever be the same again? How could they possibly live without Jesus? They wished it was all a bad dream, but they knew it was real. They had seen Jesus die with their own eyes, watched as he was buried in the tomb.

It’s a good thing that the women weren’t allowed to do any work on Saturday because they wouldn’t have been able to get anything done anyway. Saturday was a Sabbath – a day set aside for prayer and worship and rest, but I’m sure their hearts weren’t in it. How could they rest and worship, when it felt like their world was coming apart?

They went through the motions, prayed the prayers and read the Scriptures, but their minds were mulling over everything that had happened. They must have wondered, where had everything gone wrong? Why did all of this have to happen? And like most of us, when we experience tragedy or loss, they must have wondered, where is God in all of this?

What the women didn’t know, and what they couldn’t fully grasp until much later, is that it had been God – in the flesh – hanging on that cross. Through Christ, God was experiencing the suffering of humanity. Through Christ, God had taken on all of the sins of the world. Christ hanging on the cross, breathing his last breath was not God abandoning humanity, but rather God was experiencing suffering and grief and sorrow as we experience it, in order to defeat sin and death and hell and the grave once and for all. 

He Is Not Here. He Is Risen.

You see, the story doesn’t end with Jesus buried in the tomb. On that first Easter morning everything changed. When the women went to anoint Jesus’s body early that Sunday morning, they found that the stone had been rolled away, and Jesus’s body was gone. Two angels appeared to them, and told them that Jesus had risen, just as he said he would. That’s when the women remembered Jesus’s promise that he would suffer and die but would rise again. They were overjoyed, ecstatic! The cloud was lifted, the sorrow and heaviness were gone. Jesus wasn’t dead. He was alive!

It must have felt like they were walking or running on air as they ran back to tell the apostles that Jesus’s body wasn’t in the tomb, and that he was in fact alive. But they were met with strange looks – perhaps even sneers. Jesus, alive? Did you see him? How do you know he’s alive? Two men in dazzling clothes told you that? Surely they must have thought this was simply wishful thinking on the part of the women. To the apostles, it seemed absurd to think that Jesus was alive. 

But Peter, one of the apostles did go to see the empty tomb, and John’s Gospel tells us that one of the other disciples went with him. They saw the empty tomb, and the linen cloths that had been wrapped around Jesus’s body. And while some translations say that Peter wondered what had happened, others say that he marveled, or was amazed at what had taken place. Later that day, Jesus appeared to two of his disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. And then to the apostles, and over the course of the next 40 days he appeared to more and more of his disciples. With each resurrection appearance more and more people believed. 

God is Making All Things New

But they also began to grasp the reality that Jesus had not simply come back to life – but rather his resurrection was the start of something altogether new. You see, Jesus’s resurrection was unlike any other resurrection accounts that we see in Scripture. Unlike the widow of Zarephath’s son in 1 Kings 17, Lazarus in John 11, or Tabitha in Acts 9, Jesus did not simply just return to his prior state of living.  

Jairus’s daughter, and Lazarus, and Tabitha, and any of the other people who experienced resurrection in the Bible eventually died again. But when Jesus rose from the grave, he was raised to an eternal body, one that would never die again. Never again would he experience physical pain or suffering or death, never again would he be vulnerable to the sickness or diseases that we experience in this life. 

And that’s the type of resurrection that we who have put our faith and hope and trust in Jesus have to look forward to when our time on this earth is done. This is why the Apostle Paul says that Christ is the “firstfruits of those who have died” (1 Cor. 15:20). Jesus was the first to be raised to eternal life, never to experience physical pain or suffering again. Jesus’s resurrection was the proof that God is indeed making all things new, as the prophet Isaiah foretold. 

Christ’s resurrection points to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that God is creating a new heaven and a new earth. A new heaven and a new earth, where no more will there be an infant who lives but a few days, or anyone who does not live out a lifetime. No more will there be weeping, or cries of distress. In the new Heaven and the new earth we will enjoy the fruits of our labor, there will be no more death or pain or destruction. No more car accidents, no more hospital visits, no more funerals to plan. And God will be fully and completely present with us, as in Christ. 

This is what Christ’s resurrection means for us. This is why it is indeed Good news that Christ was and is still alive! Christ’s resurrection is proof that God was and is making all things new. That when this life is over, we who have died in Christ will be raised to eternal life, that will be so new and different, that “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind,” as we read in Isaiah 65:17.

Never the Same Again

After our family’s car accident 15 years ago, our lives were never the same. Fortunately, Eboni eventually regained her mobility, and didn’t suffer any sort of traumatic brain injury or anything of that sort. But it took time for her to heal. It took time for us to recover. 

Going through an experience together like that so early on in our marriage shaped us and transformed our lives in a lot of ways. One small example of that is that those months after the car accident, while Eboni had to use a wheelchair or walker to get around made us much more sensitive to issues of accessibility. It’s one reason why we’re so passionate about trying to make sure that we can do everything we can to make our building more handicapped accessible. It also taught us to treasure the moments that we have together, not to take life and health for granted. It helped us to see how temporary our lives are – how everything can change in an instant. And it helped us become more sensitive to the pains and struggles that others go through. Finally it helped us grasp the reality that our hope ultimately rests not in this life, but in eternal life that Christ offers – and in the new life that is to come.

New Life in Christ

Many of you know firsthand the reality that experiences of death and tragedy and loss change our lives forever. When a friend or loved one passes away, we are never the same again. Even after the shock is gone, and the reality of their loss sets in, even after the more intense time of mourning and grieving are over, we never go back to the way things were before. 

But the hope of the resurrection, and what we see in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that God is in the process of making all things new. Christ’s resurrection proves that God can take the tragedies and losses that we experience in this life, and mold and shape something new in us. Something eternal, something that will last. Something that will never be taken away.

Christ’s resurrection is a foretaste of what is to come. So may we live into the hope of the resurrection. May Christ reveal his presence with us even in the midst of our suffering and tragedy and loss. And may we cling to and proclaim the promise that God is in fact making all things new. 

Amen.