Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Door Opened by Our Neighbor

Zion Lutheran Church, Blackduck, MN
January 18, 2009 (Epiphany 2)
Installation of Pastor Dan Heath
John 1:43-51

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

"Jesus loves me/This I know./For the Bible/Tells me so."

Don’t you just love it when the SS kids sing that old song in worship? You know the scene--there’s always one little girl singing louder than all the rest, and there’s at least one boy in the front row waving to his parents in the back pew...

Such shenanigans make me smile….but so do the words of this beloved old song.

"Jesus loves me/This I know./For the Bible/Tells me so."

Isn’t it amusing...hearing a bunch of 3- and 4-year-olds singing those words?

"Jesus loves me/This I know./For the Bible/Tells me so."

Really? How many of those darling preschoolers have ever actually opened up a Bible and looked inside? How many of them have ever read from the scriptures--or from any other book, for that matter?

And still the cherub choir stands up there on the chancel steps, belting out those words: "Jesus loves me/This I know./For the Bible/Tells me so."

Well, you know, that's not exactly the way it happened.

The Bible probably hasn't directly "told" those little kids anything—at least not yet. It would be far more accurate, far truer-to-life...if our children sang something like: "Jesus loves me/This I know./For my mommy...for my daddy...for my grandpa or my neighbor or my Sunday school teacher or my pastor.../Told me so."

Faith isn't so much taught by a book as it is caught in a relationship. "Jesus loves me," is a message that first got into our bones because someone else...some flesh-and-blood human being..."told us so." Word-of-mouth is how it happened.

The Bible, of course, informed all those "tellers of the story" who first sat us down on their knees and told us about Christmas and Good Friday and Easter and our baptisms.

But in the beginning...when the gospel was just dawning on us...when "Jesus" was becoming more than a name to probably happened by word-of-mouth: "Jesus loves me/This I know/For a Christian/Told me so."

It's as simple as elementary as the scene that unfolds for us in this Gospel lesson from John, chapter 1.

Jesus is on the road, issuing invitations, calling on prospective believers, telling the story. He does it up close, face-to-face, one-on-one.

It's as uncomplicated as that: Jesus speaks with Andrew and Andrew talks to Peter. Jesus travels on a little farther and finds Philip...and, before you know it, Philip has gone and grabbed a hold of Nathanael, who winds up confessing: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"

That's how it happens. The gospel gets heard, sometimes over-heard. Faith gets caught by word-of-mouth. It begins when one person tells the story of Jesus Christ--God's point of access with the whole wayward human race...the One in whom heaven and earth meet, with angels ascending and descending upon him.

One person tells the story of Jesus Christ; another listens; and soon that person is telling the story to listeners who are themselves destined to become tellers.

It's as simple as that.

And yet, if we’re honest, there’s nothing simple about that.

Faith may be “caught”…but it doesn’t usually happen without a struggle and a monkey wrench or two thrown in.

Take this gospel lesson. There are all sorts of things that could have gone wrong here. The ball could have been dropped at any point along the way.

Moreover, some obstacles did pop up here—road blocks that almost prevented faith from happening.

We see that especially in Nathanael, who sounds like some Lutherans I know.
Nathanael doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Nathanael isn’t buying just because someone else is selling. Nathanael takes a little cajoling and convincing.

Nathanael is put off by the fact that Jesus comes from a little, backwater village called Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of THAT town?” he blusters.

We know people like that. We’ve encountered skeptics like Nathanael…folks who make us think twice about mentioning Jesus or our life of faith. Is it worth it—having to confront these Nathanaels in our lives, with their raised eyebrows and sharp tongues?

But here in our gospel lesson, Phillip is not put off by his friend’s reluctance, and perhaps that, too, is a miracle of God’s determination to grab us by the ears.

Nathanael throws up a brick wall of doubt--but Philip persists. “Come and see”—what have you got to lose, Nathanael?

Philip persists, and Jesus isn’t put off by Nathanael’s prickly personality, either….and in the end one more follower, one more disciple signs up for God’s mission in Jesus Christ.

That, dear friends, is how it’s been happening for over two millennia.

That’s how the gospel has made its way down through time and across the globe, all the way to Blackduck, Minnesota. The Good News about Jesus has traveled that long and that far, in order to make its way to our ears here on this snowy January morning in this new year of 2009.
"Jesus loves me/This I know./For a Christian/Told me so."

Imagine a centuries-long, worldwide chain of story-tellers, a global network of gospel-spreaders...who have confronted obstacles, endured skeptics, spanned the eons and traversed the miles from mid-1st century Galilee...all the way to 21st century America...from Philip and Nathanael...all the way to you! That's how far the Word has journeyed....that's how far the story has word-of-mouth...from Jesus' own vocal your own eardrums.

When we start to get a feel for that, we catch a glimpse of just what our God is up to…and who we're called to be: not just patrons of the Lutheran branch office in northwestern Minnesota...but rather members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church…Christ’s set-apart, sent people.

The name of Lesslie Newbigin may be unfamiliar to you. But he was a great missionary bishop of the 20th century who built up the church on the sub-continent of India, and then retired to his native England--only to discover that the mission field had followed him home.

Newbigin, in a series of books, developed an understanding of mission that reflects God’s own relational nature and the way God has designed us for relationships with one another. It is in such relationships that the Good News about Jesus is caught, that vibrant faith is formed in us.
Here’s how Newbigin once put it: “God’s purpose is precisely to break open that shell of egotism in which you are imprisoned since Adam first fell and to give you back the new nature which is content to owe the debt of love to all men. And so God deals with us through one another. One is chosen to be the bearer of the message to another, one people to be God’s witnesses to all people. Each of us has to hear the gospel from the lips of another or we cannot hear it at all…Salvation comes to each of us not, so to say, straight down from heaven through the skylight, but through a door that is opened by our neighbor.”[1]

What a word for us to hear on this day, as we install a new pastor for Zion Lutheran Church.

Make no mistake about it, Pastor Dan Heath has come among you to speak Christ into your ears, and to live out the Christ life in your midst. That’s what pastors do, and I’m confident that Pastor Heath will do that well.

But Pastor Dan cannot, Pastor Dan must not be the only one who speaks of Christ and brings Christ to folks. He may lead you, he may show you the way, he may model for you how that is done. But you, dear sisters and brothers, are called to pick up the ball. God has created you for that and Christ calls you to do that..

As surely as Jesus called out to Peter and Andrew and Phillip….and as certainly as Phillip “went after” that cantankerous skeptic Nathanael, so also God uses each and every one of you, to “go after” others, bearing witness to Jesus Christ. God’s M.O., God’s modus operandi, God’s preferred way of doing things is to use us, to take on flesh and blood again, in our relationships. Lesslie Newbingin was right: “Salvation comes to each of us not, so to say, straight down from heaven through the skylight, but through a door that is opened by our neighbor.”

This Good News has found a home in our hearts–because God has graciously sent persons into our lives to tell us the story of Jesus, the story that discloses the very heart of God.
God has done all that so that we might get into the act, too…joining that great chain of witnesses throughout all time and space…men, women and children who all love to sing: Jesus loves me/This I know/for some Christians/told me so.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Paul Weston, Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian, A Reader (Eerdmans, 2006), p. 50.

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