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  • Writer's pictureRev. Nick Reed

Soul Stories

John 17:6-19 and 1st John 5:9-13

Today’s two text are wonderful reminders for followers of Christ of what it means to faithfully live in the world. The community that John is sharing the gospel with was a close knit community; so close knit they might have wanted to focus only on caring for each other and block out the realities of this world. The 21st Century Christian might find themselves with a similar mindset of wanting to block out the realities of this world. They might think they have all the answers that others do not have, so they focus on only themselves. Maybe the pain of the world is so great that they want to shut down and not engage the world.

Jesus’ prayer today is a reminder of our calling not to disengage from the realities of this world, but to engage and live in a holy and creative tension in the world. “Sanctify them in the truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

Kathy last week preached on a text a few chapters earlier that proclaims the truth that sanctifies us, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” God’s love for us is the truth that offers us hope and gives us purpose. As Kathy mentioned last week our calling is to abide in love and tend to the world around us. The truth does not make us part of some exclusive group. The truth of God’s love that claims us, redeems us, and sustains and empowers us to engage a world that might feel broken and overwhelming at times. Abiding in God’s love gives us courage to not shy away or seek shelter from the things of this world, but to faithfully engage a world in need.

When we see the world through the lens of love, and abide in God’s love, we can navigate the world’s complexities and respond to a world in need with our gifts of compassion, justice, empathy, and peace.

In his prayer Jesus lifts up the reality that navigating the things of this world is difficult sometimes. Jesus specifically prayers for the disciples protection because he knows that there will be moments when they will be vulnerable to the brokenness of the world. Vulnerable to choose status, comfort, and power over love. “Sanctify them in the truth.”

God’s powerful truth of love has no boundaries, so as Jesus sends the disciples out into the world he wants to them to remember their ministry will have no boundaries. As they set out in the world they might encounter a world that wants to resist their calling, a world that at times will show them tempting false truths. “Sanctify them in truth.” To be sanctified in truth is to remember that God’s love is always there to claim, redeem, and sustain us. Our calling is to keep listening and discerning God’s testimony that is among us.

Testimony is a gift that God has given us all as we are sent out into the world. Testimony is a word that might cause some Presbyterians to get antsy in their pew. It might not be in our normal church vocabulary, or tool we think we have in our theological tool box. But we do have it in our tool box, we might just use a different set a words to describe it. Testimony is just another word for story. Testimony is a simple and powerful gift that God has given us to link God’s story to our story.

Every Sunday morning we worship and praise God for the Good News of God’s testimony or story that God chooses to love us unconditionally through Christ. God chooses to sustains and sanctify us with the gift of the Holy Spirit. God’s testimony liberates us from brokenness and God’s testimony gives us hope!

The Bible is full of testimonies or stories of God being present in people’s lives. Scripture is a powerful reminder for us that God’s story or divine testimony is always in the midst of our human stories or human testimonies. God story intersects with people in the wilderness, people seeking liberation from oppression, people seeking hope of better days.

Our reading this morning from 1st John speaks of God’s testimony and speaks of the power of testimony. It also acknowledges the reality of human testimonies or stories that we interact with, and proclaims “the testimony of God is greater.” This reality of human testimony in the midst of divine testimony has at times been a stumbling block for Christ’s church and caused people to manipulate the gift of testimony.

Christians have enslaved, oppressed, and dominated others while trying to justify it because they believed that God’s testimony told them it was ok. That is human testimony trying to manipulate Divine testimony. Christians at times have excluded others and created their own exclusive community because because they believe God’s testimony says so. That is human testimony trying to take advantage of God’s divine testimony of love.

That is why Jesus’ prayer for his disciples holds so much meaning for us. “Sanctify them in truth”. If we are listening and discerning for God’s testimony in the midst of our human testimony, then we listen for the voices of love not the voices of power or status. We keep our eyes and ears open to all voices around us because we know that love knows no boundaries. The truth of love will be our guide as navigate the complexities of this world.

When I was in seminary I came across a book that has been such a great resource for ministry. It is a book called Soul Stories African American Christian Education by Anne Wemberly. Dr. Wimberly is a Christian Education professor at Interdenominational and Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

In her book I love how she frames the power of human testimony in the midst of God’s testimony. She found influence through other Christian educators and lifts up this perspective “our stories are sacred texts of our lives that open the way for transformation…through remembering the sacred texts of our lives, we come in contact with the wisdom inherent in them and the Holy One, the Source of hope and healing.”

Her model of Christian education is one where people find intentional space to share their stories and link their stories with one another and with God. Her approach of story linking reminds us that testimony is about sharing mutual burdens. Testimony is about sharing together the assurance of God’s love that is present in our lives.

Dr. Wimberly lifts up her African American ancestors as a model of using story linking and story telling as a means of navigating the difficulties in this world. She writes, “Our African American forebears in slavery were cognizant of the Bible as a storied document with which they could link their own stories, from which they could find direction and hope in the hard trials and tribulations of their circumstances. Their story telling continued a revered African ancestral manner of relating in community. It allowed them to reveal the depth of their own experiences and pose tough questions about life. It connected them to God’s guiding, sustaining, and transforming Story in the Bible, to resources from the past, and led them to decide how they would act amid the realities of life as moral and accountable beings.”

By sharing our soul stories or testimony of mutual burdens and mutual assurances of God’s love that is present in our lives, we find ourselves in the midst of God’s great testimony of love through Christ that brings us spiritual and worldly liberation. By sharing our soul stories we find ourselves sustained and renewed by God’s truth of abiding love. By sharing our soul stories or testimony to one another we are able to experience hope together and discern how to best serve and love a world in need.

Imagine if we just stayed in our bubble and ignored other voices or thought our story was more superior than others. By not engaging and linking our stories with one another we will miss out on so many moments when God is proclaiming truth in our midst through others’ stories and revealing to us what God’s compassion looks like, what God’s justice looks like, what God’s love looks like. Testimony whether shared or received provides us hope, and sustains us in our journey of life and faith.

These last few weeks I have had so many wonderful and supportive conversations with you all as I plan and approach this period of sabbatical. I have never had a sabbatical before, so it has been so nice to hear encouraging insight from members of this congregation. I have kept going back to one particular conversation with a long time member of this congregation. As I was sharing our sabbatical plans of various experiences and places they said this, “it is important for people to experience other perspectives, we will all be better for it.”

I have been pondering those words these last few weeks. This summer during this sabbatical period, we as a church all have an opportunity to experience new perspectives and testimony of God’s love. God’s testimony in the midst of human testimony will be a gift of renewal, and time to hear new hopeful perspectives. Kathy and I have are grateful to this congregation and excited for the opportunity to experience new perspectives with our family and visit places we have never visited before. As a church you all will have a sabbatical period of experiencing new perspectives through guest preachers who are committed to sharing the Good News of God’s love with you. Rev. Caroline Barnett and the church staff will experience new perspectives as they take on new responsibilities.

Kathy and I are looking forward to rejoining you all in August and sharing together what we all experienced during this sabbatical period. I can not wait to hear about what hopeful stories or testimonies you have heard from this pulpit this summer. I can not wait to share with you all the new perspectives and testimonies we have experienced while away. I can not wait to listen and discern together as a community how this sabbatical experience will transform our ministry together for years to come. May we all experience and share the gift of testimony that God has given us. May we all experience a period of linking our story to God’s story and experience new perspectives, and share the hopeful Good News of God’s love through Christ that claims, redeems, and sustains us. Alleluia Amen!

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