Sermon for August 19, 2018

First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine

Sermon by
Rev. Kent Allen
August 19, 2018

Scripture: Luke 2:41-52, Jeremiah 1:4-9

“Don’t you go putting words in my mouth!” Perhaps you have found yourself saying those words when someone assumed they knew what you meant. We like to have our independent thoughts. We don’t always appreciate when someone dares to speak without our permission.

Jeremiah, the prophet, seemed to have a different perspective. He had been summoned by God to be a prophet. He was merely a boy and he resisted God, declaring, “Ah, Lord God! I do not know how to speak for I am only a boy.” Somehow, it seems though that God won the argument, because only two verses later we read, “The Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

So out of the text we receive testimony that God actually uses human beings to speak on God’s behalf. What do we think about that? Is that something that only occurred back in Biblical times? And how would we know, if it still occurred, whether it was God’s word or simply words created out of one’s imagination?

Certainly there have been folks who have done horrible things and then have declared that God told them to do so.

In 2004, our denomination, the United Church of Christ, began a campaign entitled, God is Still Speaking. It was begun with the belief that God still has a lot more to say. Its focus has been about extravagant welcome and its vision included the following components:
Where God is all loving and inclusive.
Where the Church of Jesus Christ welcomes and accepts everyone as they are.
Where your mind is nourished as much as your soul.
Where Jesus the healer meets Jesus the revolutionary.
Where together we grow a just and peaceful world.

So if we believe that God is still speaking in the world, what does that mean? How do we know whether or not it is just one’s imagination? Could it be that when we speak with compassion, or when we are advocating for inclusion or when we are standing up for the least of these, that God is putting words in our mouths? Could it be that that is the way that God is still speaking?

In the reading from Luke, we have the only gospel account of Jesus as a young child. Jesus is 12 years old and travels to Jerusalem for their annual pilgrimage there. The fact that the family took this trip every year is a testimony to the fact that their family was deeply rooted in their faith. The story is significant for a number of reasons. Perhaps it is helpful for those who have preteens and teenagers because it reminds them that even Jesus declared his independence as he found his path into becoming fully himself. But it is also significant because it highlights Jesus as one who listened deeply. “After 3 days they found him in the temple, listening to the (teachers) and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

It’s true that in the Bible we have several accounts of Jesus speaking. But as importantly we get the impression that Jesus was also a really good listener. He listened as he heard the rabbis, but also as he heard people’s struggles. He gave them the opportunity to tell their stories. He was more eager to listen and to help than he was to judge or condemn. And as he listened, what he offered as a response, in so many instances was compassion. And the word that he wanted people to hear and that he wanted people to put on their lips was love.

Do we believe that God is still speaking, and if we do what do those words sound like? Some are convinced that the words are harsh and threatening. That the words are full of judgement and threat. I personally find that idea hard to adopt, mostly because that is not who I believe Jesus was or who he came into the world to model.

A woman who has been given the name Carmen as a pseudonym and her daughter came into our country from El Salvador seeking asylum. Her story is that for the last 20 years, she has been sexually abused by her husband and not been safe in her country. Although she ran away and now lives separately, he continues to threaten and stalk her. In a culture where women are not always granted voice, she fled here knowing that this has been a haven for others who have experienced similar atrocities. But Carmen and her daughter were turned away without a hearing and flown back to El Salvador. When Federal Judge Emmet Sullivan of Washington heard this story, he ordered the government to turn the plane around. He ordered that the woman be allowed to have her day in court- her chance to tell her story.

I know nothing of Emmet Sullivan’s religious beliefs, and he might even be insulted for his presence in the sermon. But whenever I hear about acts of compassion, I hear God’s voice. Whenever I witness someone really listening deeply to someone’s story and honoring those words, I sense God’s presence. Whenever I know that someone is included in the circle that might be different, I have a deepened sense of God’s love, and I believe that it was what Jesus came into the world to teach us.

But this compassion, this inclusion, this listening has a cost. As we dare to get in touch with our pain and another’s, it can cause us to question our faith. When we have a dark night, or when we witness someone else’s darkness, it can shake us, it can make us wonder whether God is still speaking. If nothing else, a life of faith is an invitation to live life deeply. To listen, to feel, to dare to look at injustice, to be courageous enough to fail and then admit it. But all this can break your heart.

Mary Luti writes, “The Christian life isn’t about feeling feelings or having “powerful” spiritual experiences. Baptism ushers us into a life of greater depth than that — a life of faith. And at some point in every life, faith is a journey through the desert and the dark. If you don’t feel God right now, you’re not failing. You’re not a second class Christian. You have a gift. A hard gift, but a gift all the same. It’s your heartache, faith’s heartache. And like nothing else, it can lead you straight to the heartache of others, to neighbors whose abandonment is human, not divine. For them you can be company. With them you can outwait the night until the coming day.”

The church, in all its humanness, is to be the community where we can help one another get through the night until the coming day. Jesus not only offered wisdom and compassion, but he gathered people together in a community so they could live out what he modeled. We are called to open our hearts, to be present and to listen and to dare to care. If we go deep, to places that might be scary and vulnerable, there will be times when God puts words in our mouths. Not words of judgement or shame or anger, but words of compassion that God has placed on our hearts. Maybe you have felt it, when you have said things that seem just right, when you knew you made a difference. God is still speaking and sometimes it happens even through us. Sometimes it happens through the actions of a judge or the words of a young prophet or the words of 12 year old Jesus. God is still speaking.