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Sermon – May 22, 2011 – Seen Me

Sermon for May 22, 2011
The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
Seen Me

Acts 7: 55-60, 1 Peter 2: 2-10, John 14: 1-14
In the early 2000ʼs a local man was called on the phone by someone he was slightly acquainted with, and asked if he could visit with the man and talk. The person being asked the favor was free to grant it. He knew that the individual who had called him had had his marriage come to grief, and the memory of a double murder and suicide in the community years earlier, which involved another unhappy man with family problems, made him think it might be important for the man to have someone to talk to, so he went.
The rendezvous was set for the western part of the county, along a creek, down a dirt road. The caller was working there building a cabin. It was a nice day, and the two men stood in a clearing talking. There was no cabin in sight. The builder said it was on the other side of the road, up in the woods.
So what did he want to talk about? The builder began talking about his cabin, how he was building it for his family. He didnʼt say he hoped it would put his marriage back together, but his listener supposed that was the idea. Talking about his family started him talking about his wife, and how they had met, and how they had both been committed to a cause connected to church life. In fact they had moved their memberships to another church which was identified more wholeheartedly with their political ideas.
His hearer would ask for clarification now and then, and during lulls in the conversation, bring up the few things he knew about the man. He did that to keep things going, and also to try to reinforce the sense that there was a relationship of sorts there which might make talking easier. It was a little uncomfortable being alone in the wilderness with an unhappy human being who felt the need for someone to listen to him.
It got more uncomfortable before too long, because the builder, with a significant glance, said heʼd seen black helicopters pass overhead. They were looking for him, he said, and thatʼs why he was building his place in the woods, where it was hard to find. The man whoʼd gone out to be the listener was vaguely aware that there were conspiracy theories about the government using black helicopters for sinister purposes, and his slight unease about being in the middle of nowhere with someone he barely knew tipped toward fear. He had failed immediately to recognize the meaning of the black helicopter reference, and wasnʼt sure he had signaled that he was on the side of the builder, now that he saw there were sides. He wondered how dangerous people suffering from paranoia could be.
The builder saw that his hearer wasnʼt convinced, but he himself wasnʼt alarmed by that. He was one of those true believers accustomed to having people not see things his way. He changed the subject, and the conversation rambled on for a bit, and the visitor sensed a chance to say goodbye and go, and left.
Nothing ever came of it, as far as can be known. No crisis occurred, perhaps none was averted. Theyʼve crossed paths since and nodded. This past week the builder walked across the intersection at which his visitor was waiting for the light.
I tell you this because this morningʼs scriptures are about people who, because they have seen things others have not seen, and believed things others have not believed, live in the midst of their society and yet donʼt quite belong to it. They are, to use an old phrase from Christian talk, “in the world but not of it.”
See, everything about this guy who was in the woods, either building a cabin or imagining he was building a cabin, this man whose life had come unglued enough to make him bid a virtual stranger come and pay attention to him, because he sensed he needed to have contact with the rest of society somehow–everything about him was true of people in the first generation of believers in Jesus Christ. This man had religious instincts–they were important to him, they led him to make decisions which changed his life. That was true of those who responded to the urgency of the apostlesʼ preaching. This manʼs beliefs were part of creating a family for himself, and later he experienced alienation, probably because his tendency to have unusual beliefs went too far for his wife. The earliest Christians gained a new kind of family by becoming believers, and the earliest Christians often experienced alienation from their kin because their beliefs made them too different to belong together any more. The earliest Christians had a conviction about a reality which others could not see, and this enabled them to go on seeing the world in a different light, and to bear the strain of living as oddballs by the consolation of possessing true and favored insight.
See, the New Testament is a believersʼ book. It sees everything in terms of how astonishing it is that people donʼt see the resurrected Christ, donʼt recognize the inbreaking of Godʼs kingdom, donʼt abandon their futile ways and join the church. The New Testament is on the martyr Stephenʼs side, it shares his passion for service to God and his innocence before the accusers and persecutors who canʼt understand him. It shares his vision of God welcoming him into heaven as he is being put to death, and it rejoices in reporting his imitation of Jesus in bidding forgiveness for his killers.
When we become people of the book, this same “of course God really is there and really is in charge and the faithful are guaranteed a welcome into paradise” mindset bids to become our own. Every time we open it up, there it is: “once you were no people, but now you are Godʼs people.” We are part of a fellowship of persons who negotiate life in the world on different terms than those without faith. We are made distinct by the status conferred on us by accepting discipleship. We, in the midst of a world of confusion, believe in living a certain way. Among many theories and habits and takes on what constitutes reality, we hold onto one which includes a God Who hears our prayers, and Whose Spirit animates our highest resolves. God, to us, looks like Jesus of Nazareth, so life, for us, looks like it should look like Jesus of Nazareth.
Thatʼs what Jesus tells his disciples in this morningʼs gospel lesson. Philip had said to him, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied,” which is an interesting thing to say. Does it mean that if Philip and the others were to see God, their lives would be fulfilled? Or does it mean that if Jesus somehow really can produce God Almighty, theyʼll be satisfied that Jesus is, after all, the savior sent from God?
What Jesus tells Philip is that, having seen him, Philip and the others have seen God. Jesus tells them that even if they donʼt recognize holiness and heaven in Jesus himself as such, that they should see it in the things heʼs done. Heʼs fed hungry people, heʼs healed sick people, heʼs challenged mean spirited people.
Johnʼs gospel is different from the other gospels in many ways, and one way it is different is that it is much more concerned with the oddity and alienation of Jesusʼ disciples. Johnʼs gospel knows they wonʼt fit into the world any more. Johnʼs gospel knows that theyʼll be disregarded some of the time and opposed the rest of the time. Johnʼs gospel knows that seeing something others donʼt see, and living by values others donʼt hold, marginalizes you. It is not easy to be part of a movement which has its eyes fixed on heaven, when you still are living in the world.
Jesus wants them to regard their peculiar status–because not only are they misfits when Jesus is among them, but theyʼll still be that when he leaves them, and they have to get ready for that–this is all set at the Last Supper–Jesus wants them to own their oddity as an advantage, and part of that is telling them that if they ask anything in his name, even works greater than Jesusʼ own miracles, God will make them happen. His name will still equip and encourage them even when heʼs gone, and theyʼll still be effectively engaged in the unseen world which all of them have been hoping is really there behind the events of their lives.
This is such a large promise that it tests disciples. Who hasnʼt made what seem like perfectly good requests of God and been disappointed? Yet who hasnʼt also had prayers answered? Our place is always to pray with hope, neither presuming on Godʼs obligation to dance to our tune nor presuming that God will not answer our prayer.
The first thing to admit is that we are not strange enough to our world. We should be able to dress like worldly people and drive cars and eat and drink what others do, and still be noticeably distinct from those who vaguely trust science to explain things and more attentively trust finances to secure them from trouble. We should walk around this world as peculiarly as the poor guy who may or may not have built that cabin, who hasnʼt been able to get things to go his way, whoʼs probably got a diagnosable malady– not because thereʼs anything wrong with us, because whatʼs right with us does involve a glimpse of heaven and the compulsion to offer forgiveness to enemies, just like Stephen the martyr. What we have seen of God remains what Jesus said and did, and so we really should have a bit more of Jesus in the way we live, and in the choices we make about how we react to trouble in othersʼ lives. Our prayer must be that God increase our faith, to enable us to live in this world as those who belong to heaven.

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