February 12, 2017 // Narr 26 // Epiph 6 // First Congregational UCC, Ashland, OR //
Rev. Christina Grace Kukuk // “No Offense” (a.k.a. “What You’ve Seen & Heard”) // Psalm 146:5-10; Luke 7:18-28
When I meet with a new UCC 101 class, the first question I throw out is: “What is a Christian?” (Pause) There are no wrong answers in class. I simply invite people to describe what they would tell an intelligent alien life-form visiting our planet for the first time to study its religious landscape and who is wondering what this tribe called “Christian” is all about. (Pause) I ask, in other words, imagine someone who has never met a Christian and doesn’t know anything about them. Imagine someone like that asking, “What is a Christian?” I’ve never gotten the exact same definition twice. Although common themes reoccur, responses vary widely, and it’s fascinating to see what we – or others – think we are and are about. (Pause)
Last month, though, one person told a story I haven’t gotten before in class. They told a story that when they were in 5th or 6th grade at summer church camp, about 50 years ago, they asked that very question of a camp counselor. What is a Christian? The camp counselor would only respond: You should go ask your parents that question. Now, I’d like to give the camp counselor the benefit of the doubt. Parents are the primary religious educators of their children – whether individual parents embrace that role or not, whatever a child learns about religion or spirituality, they learn first and loudest from the adult role models at home. The counselor may have feared crossing those parents or being accused of indoctrination. But years later that counselor’s answer still bugs the now-adult who in 5th or 6th grade genuinely wanted to know: What is a Christian? Hearing the story again a few weeks ago, it made me wonder, If an adult at a church camp can’t help us understand our faith, who can? Why is it so hard – even in a religious setting – to speak of faith? (Pause)
Long before there was a thing called “Christian,” some people came to Jesus asking a question about his identity: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? These weren’t random passersby, these were disciples of John the Baptist. They were contemporaries of Jesus who’d heeded John’s call to repentance and to baptism, to a reorientation of their lives toward the Realm of God. Luke began his story with prophecy about both John and Jesus, with birth stories that forewarn the audience these two will be special. And while John preaches to the crowds about one coming who is “stronger than he is,” there is no evidence in this gospel that John identifies that One with Jesus. It’s very likely this question is absolutely genuine. Here, through his students, John asks the question, “Are you the One or are we to look for another?” Instead of flashing his divine ID card, Jesus describes what these seekers have seen and heard using words they would recognize from the psalms and the prophets: captives set free, sight given to the blind, the low raised up, the poor brought good news. Jesus says, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard.” “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Pause)
This week, it was that last line that leapt out at me. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense as me.” When it comes to speaking of faith, offense may be what we most fear today. We fear taking offense or giving offense. We fear either hearing something we don’t want to hear from someone else and judging them for it, or saying something unknowingly for which others may judge us. We are afraid of what we might be associated with when we speak of ourselves as Christians, when we talk about our faith. In more than a year now that I’ve been with you, it feels like every week someone in this community “comes out” spiritually to me. Sometimes they’ve discovered some traditional language no longer works for them. Other times they’ve surprised themselves with an experience of Christ that feels startlingly orthodox. They want to share about this with me, and the unspoken question underneath their temerity always seems to be: Am I safe here? To speak of God, the holy, this way? Do I still belong? Speaking personally about faith is part of what is so terrifying about these 100 Days of Discernment that we embark on today. Meeting in groups of three is intimate. There’s not a lot of hiding you can do when three people share together. We are going to make every effort to ensure these spaces are safe for sharing. We are going to equip you with tools for how to have good conversation that listens deeply and respects all. But as we embark on these triplets and triads, I remember the question of that 5th or 6th grader – the child who asked “What is a Christian and really wanted to hear an answer. I want to remind us that every one of us is hear because someone else told us what they had seen and heard of God in this world. I want to remember and remind and make a plea: Let us not become so worried about the potential for offense that we forget about the blessing. (Pause)
Look again at what Jesus tells John’s disciples. The first word Jesus says in that sentence is “Blessed.” “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” He doesn’t scorn, he doesn’t boast (“You’ve seen these crowds! Look how big I am!”) He simply says, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard.” One preacher points out that the question up for debate is not whether Jesus accomplishes great acts of power – healings, raisings, etc. – that’s par for the course for a prophetic spiritual teacher in Jesus’ time. Rather, the question for John is, “Is this the kind of thing God’s anointed will do?” It’s John gets to decide: is this the kind of thing that is of God’s Realm? What God’s Anointed would do? Go tell John what you have seen and heard. Then, he gets to decide.
So it is with all of our faith journeys. We are called to speak of what we have seen and heard, spiritually. And this is where I invite you to that audience participation that I warned you about earlier: What are some words you’d use to describe who Jesus is to you?
[time to write down the words people shout out]
In this climate, friends, we desperately need to recover some faithful speech. We live right now in a time when ICE agents are raiding the homes of families who’ve lived and worked in this country for years and when one of the most frequently interviewed so-called Christian spokesmen for the conservative Christian movement on camera says there’s nothing in the Bible about refugees, this doesn’t really apply. We must find the words to speak of faith. It is time, Rev. William Barber says, for a moral awakening. Friends, we’ve got the language for that. We must be able to tell others what we have seen and heard of God’s ways of working in this world. If we really do that, if we can find ways to say “Here’s what I’ve seen and heard,” there is no room for offense. There is only the opportunity for blessing.
This is the safe place where we get to practice, to learn a vocabulary for faith, to hear and encourage one another into speech. We’ll get that opportunity on our Spiritual Strategic Journey. We get that opportunity now. Let’s try it. I invite you to repeat the words you all have used to describe who Jesus is for you. At my hand signal, we’ll start in the front with each word and repeat it until it rolls to the back and out the doors. How many ways can we speak of you, Jesus?
1st Service: Teacher 2nd Service: Teacher
Advocate Human & Divine
May it be so. Amen.