Finding Voice

Scripture  |  Matthew 5:13-16  |  Acts 17:16-31

This morning is special in the life of our church because we’re welcoming new members – our brothers and sisters in Christ – into our congregation’s family. And we’re celebrating the faith of our 9th graders who have made the decision to confirm the promises made at their baptism, and be followers of Jesus Christ.

In a little while we’re going to read together an Affirmation of Faith written by the Confirmation Class. Trip put it together from some of the things they’ve written through the semester, their understanding of God and Jesus, about Discipleship and what it means to be the Church. I think it’s pretty amazing - articulate, and faithful, and beautiful. They are giving voice to their faith. That’s not an easy thing to do. It’s especially hard to do it in a way that other people will understand. 

That’s what I want to talk with you about this morning. About finding our voice. (Honestly, I’d like to find mine. I know, God has a sense of humor, right?)

When Paul was at the Areopagus in Athens, that’s exactly what he was trying to do. His speech was a rhetorical masterpiece – it had to be to catch anybody’s attention in that tough crowd. The city of Athens wasn’t just filled with shrines to a pantheon of gods, it was full of philosophers representing competing schools of thought. The crowd Paul faced was sophisticated, educated, and skeptical. They were experienced debaters and could poke through an argument in no time. They thought they’d heard everything - which is, I think, why they were open to Paul at all. Hearing something new was appealing, at least for the moment. 

I’ve often thought it took courage for Paul to get up there and argue his case for God, especially since what he was saying was so  ‘out there.’ But he began with what was familiar to them, quoting their poets, in language they would understand. “In him we live, and move and have our being,” he said, quoting the philosopher-poet Epimenides. “We are offspring of God,” he said, quoting another philosopher. He established what they understood in common, and then Paul took it a step further. He described this God as one they can know themselves, a God who cares for humanity, who cares about what we do with our lives, cares how we live. God is not an inanimate object, nor an intellectual concept, nor a theological construct, but a Being in relationship with us, God’s own creation. We do not determine who God is; God determines who we are. And this God is as close as breath itself. 

You know, it’s so easy to forget that the world of the early church was just as complicated and fraught as our own, filled with disagreements and competing points of view, warring camps and power struggles over who has a corner on the truth. And finding one’s voice to speak through fear of conflict and recrimination was just as hard then as it is now, even more so. Those were dangerous times, and Paul had every right to be afraid. Maybe he should have been. He was arrested more than once. You know, he died in jail. He had every right to be afraid. But he spoke anyway. Because he believed so much that what he had to say mattered.

How do we find our voice even in the face of fear? 

The cover of today’s bulletin is a quote that Trip found. (He and Doris always find our bulletin covers, and I’m amazed what they find.) The quote is by Maggie Kuhn. Trip had never heard of her, but I knew that name. Maggie Kuhn was the founder of the Gray Panthers, an advocacy group for older adults. She actually started the group when she was 65 and she lost her job because of what was then forced retirement based on age. Ironically enough, she had been working for the Presbyterian Church. 

In an interview she explained what happened inside her:

“I suddenly felt wounded and angry at having been sent out to pasture to get lost,” she said. “Then I figured there must be thousands of old people just like me, and so I decided the time was ripe for us to fight back.”

She found her voice – and not just for herself, but for others. If she was afraid – when she was afraid – she got over it, got through it. It reminds me of something South African leader Nelson Mendela said of his own journey: 

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” 

I often think of the famous words of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, who criticized the cowardice of intellectuals during Hitler’s rise:

What if they had broken through their fear and found their voices on behalf of others? How different the world might have been. 

“There is a time to speak, and a time to keep silent,” the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us. These days there’s so much vitriol on air and on social media we may wish a lot more people were keeping silent. How we use our voices matters, too. Like Paul speaking to the Athenians, the goal should be to be heard, not to bludgeon people with our own self-righteousness or to drown them out in the sheer volume of our noise.  But keeping silence should never be from apathy, or fear, or despair. And the time to speak should not just be when we are speaking in our own self-interest.

It’s happening all around us, sometimes in public and sometimes out of sight. I think of the Stoneman-Douglas High School students, and how articulate, persistent, and passionate they are. Some of them are even amplifying other voices that aren’t often heard - the voices of young people who come from inner city schools, who haven’t been taught debate or journalism or public speaking, whose parents aren’t so well connected, who lack the confidence and poise of those who have been groomed for the public spotlight. The Parkland students aren’t just speaking out, they’re amplifying the voices of others.

And I think of the quiet advocacy that goes on behind the scenes, of which we’re barely aware. I think of a mother speaking for her special needs child, making sure he gets the help he needs to make it in this world where so often we want ‘problems’ to simply go away. Sometimes advocacy needs to be fierce. I think of my cousin, a retired police detective in Los Angeles, and the times she had to take the stand as a witness in a case, and the toll it took on her. But she found her voice when it was needed most, even though it was costly. It was costly. 

Speaking out is sometimes costly. It was for Paul, but he did it anyway.  All around the Roman Empire, to friendly crowds and to hostile ones. It wasn’t about him; he wanted the voice of Jesus to be heard. Frankly, no one had heard of Jesus until Paul took his show on the road. The truth is, without Paul, chances are Christianity would not have spread nearly the way it did. After all, Jesus was just an itinerant Jewish preacher from a small backwoods town in a place few people cared much about. And he had gotten himself crucified by the authorities. Why would anyone listen to him?

But Paul was convinced that Jesus’ voice needed to be heard. Paul was speaking for the faith that saved his life. He was speaking out for the sake of anyone who would listen, telling them the good news, telling them that they, too, were children of God, that their lives mattered, that God was not a construct or a concept but love. In Jesus Christ, God was revealed: God was love.

We live in a world just as confused and confusing as Paul’s was. And if we talk about our faith openly, we may get shot down, too. Christianity doesn’t have a lot of authority or credibility in some circles. Speaking faith to critics and skeptics can be scary. It’s just easier not to speak out.  

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can find our voices, too; and our Confirmands have given us a head start. They have given us their words of faith, words that others can easily understand: about the One who sought out those who were considered lost, and loved them, the One who restored people’s hope, the One who showed just how far God’s love can go. They know the challenge ahead – for them, and for us - can we spread God’s Word by living and loving the way Jesus taught us?

With God’s help, we’ll find our voices, too.