Text of the sermon preached on Easter 6A (May 21, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
1 Peter 3:13-22
I couldn’t help but notice the reading the Revised Common Lectionary assigns us for today all have some flavor of courtroom drama. We have the Apostle Paul sightseeing around Athens and discovering an out of the way shrine dedicated “to an unknown god.” When he stands up to debate at the Areopagus (the Athenian equivalent of the Supreme Court), he proclaims to the Athenians that this unknown god is the God who created all that is, the God of Abraham and his descendants, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the end of his speech, some scoff at him and leave, while others are intrigued and join Paul on his journey.
Continuing the courtroom theme, in the letter of Peter, the writer urges the reader to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
And finally, on the night before he dies, Jesus makes a promise to his disciples: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.” You can think of this “Advocate” as the one who would stand up for you in court, one that would counsel you and speak on your behalf.
The courtroom drama of these three passages makes sense when we hop in our Delorean and go back in time to first century Asia Minor. In the early days of the movement that would become Christianity, those spreading the word about Jesus were met with many reactions: anger, curiosity, rejection, embrace, incredulity, joy. Last week, we read the tragic story of the stoning of Stephen, the first person to die for faith in Jesus. Two weeks ago, we read about three thousand people being baptized after hearing Peter preach. Notice here that reactions to the proclamation of the Gospel at that time — at least the ones recorded in the book of Acts — were never tepid.
Now hop back in the Delorean (that’s the car they used as a time machine in the Back to the Future movies, by the way), and come back to the present. We’ve all heard the news and seen the statistics. The church in the United States is in decline. More people than ever before marked the “none” box on the religion question of the 2010 census — note that’s none N-O-N-E, not nun N-U-N. The reasons for this are many and varied, and they are way beyond the scope of this sermon. Well, all but one is. You see, one reason for the downward trend is that over the last several decades the church has lost the ability to tell our story — the story of the God made known in the witness of the Bible and in Jesus Christ.
For too long, the church relied on its primacy in American society, a society steeped in the language and tradition of the Biblical story. When that primacy began to erode, the church didn’t realize how much it was relying on society as a whole to carry its message. And ever since that primacy evaporated entirely, the church hasn’t come to grips with how to proclaim this wonderful and life-giving story from its new position as underdog.
People nowadays — even many faithful churchgoers — just don’t know the story, both the Biblical story itself and how we fit into the story’s narrative trajectory. At the same time, we’ve entered into that underdog role. This might not sound like good news (and in many respects, it’s not, to be sure), but in one honest-to-goodness way, this news is good. This is the first time in history since the earliest centuries of Christianity that the church is not the dominant force in Western society. Back then people didn’t know the story either, or they didn’t know the version the apostles were telling.
What I’m trying to say is that we have reached a new apostolic moment. We have a story to share with a world that’s unfamiliar with this life-changing narrative. And I guarantee you there are people hungry to hear it.
Case in point: I love to play sports. And as a lot of you all know, I play adult league slow pitch softball in the summer. In the Dodge City summer league, you usually play two games a night, so you end up spending most of one evening a week hanging out at the ball fields with your teammates and their friends from other teams. The folks on my team and their friends were mostly those who would have checked “none” on the census form. But as the season wore on last summer, an interesting thing happened. As people got to know me and found out what I do for a living, they started asking me questions — deep questions about faith and morality and how to know God. They were hungry for something beyond their own physical ken, for something deeper than today’s reality, for something….more.
This seeking happened occasionally, but often enough that I started thinking of myself as the chaplain of the softball fields. And I’m glad and feel so blessed to have been someone who could bear witness to my faith and let them in on the story we all share.
I know this kind of witness and sharing can be so daunting. When we feel like the underdog or when we feel like we’re on trial, speaking up can be hard. But remember the promise Jesus gave the disciples: the Father “will send you another Advocate” to help you speak, to walk along side you as you share your part of the greatest story every told. Paul felt that Spirit when he spoke out in Athens, but you don’t need to be a Christian rock star like Paul to do it. All you need is six words.
Some of you might be familiar with the Six-Word Memoir Project started by SMITH Magazine in 2006. Based on a legend that Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story in only six words (he succeeded, by the way), SMITH Magazine invited people to share their life stories in only six words. Such an extreme restriction bred abundant creativity, and people continue to share six word stories today on blogs and Twitter.
This week, I invite you to write your own six-word witness to how you fit into the story of God’s creative and redemptive work among us. I’ll be honest: this is quite a challenge. I’ve been working on mine since Wednesday and I’m nowhere close to happy with it. But the act of trying to distill my witness to God’s movement in my life down to six words has me currently wrestling with what parts of God’s story are truly the most important for me and which parts I fit into. And when I find those words, I’ll have something to say when someone inevitably asks me why I’m a follower of Christ.
I went through scripture looking for six-word stories to get us started. I’ll end this sermon with a few. Consider these some of the ways the Spirit of truth, the Advocate that Christ promises us, is still speaking to us.
Here’s a story from Genesis: God said, “Go.” So Abram went.
Here’s one from Psalm 23, which we read two weeks ago: God’s my shepherd. I lack nothing.
Here are a few from Jesus himself: I am the resurrection and life.
The wind blows where it chooses.
And my favorite: Remember, I’ll be with you. Always.
Perhaps your six-word witness will spring from your favorite Bible story like one of these. Or maybe from your favorite hymn. How’s this one: Amazing grace will lead me home.
When we tell our story — even just six words at a time — we actively participate in it, and we invite others to join it, as well. We can trust our Advocate the Holy Spirit to help us bear witness to God’s constant and creative movement. This is our new apostolic moment, when the world is hungry and….
We have good news to share.