Witness Always – Sermon for Lutheran Schools Week 2014

Witness Always

2 Kings 5:1-15

3rd Sunday After Epiphany

National Lutheran Schools Week

January 26th/27th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Last Friday was another snow day.  Or, more like a cold day to be exact.  Since my girls were home from school, I stayed home too.  We worked on school projects, watched the Hobbit, got some pizza.  It was a nice day at home.  But as much as I like snow days, I don’t want one this next week, because this week is National Lutheran Schools Week.  It will be a week full of festivities.  There are going to be dress up days where I’ll get to wear pajama pants to work, there’s a scheduled volleyball game between staff and students, and most exciting of all, the circus is coming to town.  It promises to be a memorable week.

The theme for this year’s National Lutheran Schools Week is “Witness Always.”  It is the first in 3 year series that will draw from the Synod’s “Witness, Mercy, and Life Together” initiative.  This “Witness, Mercy, and Life Together” was introduced by our current Synodical President, Dr. Matthew Harrison – who will be our guest preacher the first weekend in March – and it emphasizes different aspects of our life as the church.  As a the Body of Christ on earth, we are people who witness, people of mercy, and people  who live together with the other members of the  Body of Christ.

In fact, you can see these three elements at work in today’s readings.  In the Gospel reading we see the mercy of Jesus as he heals the leper and the centurion’s servant.  In fact, we see the mercy of Jesus continually throughout his ministry on earth as he restores what is broken in creation: healing the sick, giving sight to the blind and speech to the mute.  As Jesus cared for those in need, so also we as his body on earth today do the same.  We hear of the second aspect, our life together as the Body of Christ, in Paul’s words to the Romans where we are exhorted to live in harmony with one another, have an attitude of humility, and overcome evil with good.  Mercy and life together are both important elements of living together in the Body of Christ, and we will hear more about them in the years to come.  But the focus of this year’s Lutheran Schools Week is Witness, which can be found most clearly in the Old Testament Reading.

Sometimes Christians get nervous when they hear the word witness because it makes them think of going door to door.  However, witness is a familiar word that should call to mind the image of a courtroom.  In a courtroom, the witness is someone who speaks to what they know.  If they speak to what they don’t know, the attorneys object or they are held in contempt.  Some witnesses are eye witnesses who speak to what they saw with their own eyes or heard with their own ears.  Other witnesses are expert witnesses who speak in a particular field, like a forensic scientist or a psychologist or a medical examiner.  In either case, witnesses only speak to what they know.

In this morning’s reading from 2 Kings, we see a few different witnesses.  There’s the witness of the Prophet.  Prophets were commissioned to speak to the people on behalf of God, so the message that the Prophet Elisha delivered to Namaan came first from God.  The prophet testified what he had first heard from God.  He was a witness who testified what he had heard.  There’s the witness of Namaan, who demonstrated what he thought he knew about how prophets and gods should act.  He arrived with his entourage and grand displays of wealth and prestige, and he expected a grand display of power in return.  Instead, what he got was a simple command to wash in the Jordan.  Unlike the centurion from the Gospel reading, who confessed that he believed Jesus could heal his servant with a mere word, Namaan expected something more majestic.  Both of those witnesses are worth more meditation, but in light of Lutheran Schools Week, it seems more appropriate to explore the witness of another person from today’s reading: the little servant girl.

She’s only mentioned briefly in the beginning of the reading, yet she plays an important role in how the story unfolds.  The rich and powerful Namaan is at his wit’s end.  When his Israelite servant girl hears that Namaan is in such trouble, she says, “If only my lord was in Israel, then the prophet would be able to help him.”  And with just a few words, the first domino is knocked down, setting into motion a series of events that ends with Namaan cured of his leprosy.  The words of a child were the first step.  The witness of a child was the first step.  But how could she be such a witness?  How did the child know what to say?  Where did she hear of the prophet?  If witnesses speak to what they know – how did the little girl know of Elisha?

The short answer is that we don’t know, but there seems to be a few reasonable possibilities.  The most likely answer is that her parents or some other adult had taught her about prophets at some point.  Prophets were more or less a common feature in those days, and the Israelites would certainly have known what the prophets did and who they were.  Much like our children today know what the President or an Astronaut does even if they’ve never met one, Israelite children would know what the Prophets did.  It’s also possible, although less likely, that she had had personal interaction with the prophet.  Either way, the important thing is that she knew what the Prophet was capable of, and she was willing to speak of what she knew.

That is the vocation of every Christian at any age.  It is the responsibility of Christian adults to speak of what we know, both to the world around us, and to the children in our midst.  We train them to be witnesses, teaching them to be both eyewitnesses of God working in their lives, as well as expert witnesses who speak to what they have learned about him.  And as any teacher can tell you, teaching something is a great way to learn it.  So as we teach our children these things, we learn them ourselves.

We teach them to be eyewitnesses by teaching them to recognize the ways God is active in their lives and ours.  First and foremost we teach them to spend time in his Word, for that is where he is most actively speaking and shaping.  We spend time in his Word with them, bringing them to the services of our Lord’s house and making time for family devotions.  Our school is a great gift to that end.  Each day students and teachers alike gather around our Lord’s Word.  There is chapel once a week.  The Word of God, the same word that cleansed Namaan of his leprosy, the same word that cleansed the lepers in Jesus’ day and healed the centurion’ servant, is living and active in our lives today.  It creates faith in our hearts, it helps us understand and make sense of the world around us.

We teach them to see the Lord at work in their lives through challenges and struggles.  Our world is always looking for answers in the face of hardship, looking for ways to deal with the challenges of life: with sickness, despair, guilt, failure.  We don’t pretend that these don’t exist, rather we recognize that in Christ we are a new creation, that we are destined for life in a new and perfect creation.  We recognize that the hardships in this life are nothing more than a drop in the ocean of eternity.  In short, we have an eternal perspective on temporal suffering.  And we share that with our children.  We teach them, and ourselves, how such instances of struggle can be sanctified when they drive us to our Lord in prayer.

We teach them to see the gifts of daily life that our Lord has given us.  Each breath we take is a gift from above.  The sun rises and sets without our approval.  We do not control the rain or the drought.  We do not cause our lungs to work or heart to beat.  These are gifts – our life is a gift.  When we teach our children to be eyewitnesses of God’s gifts, we are teaching them how to deal with whatever this life can throw at them.  As the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians, we teach them how to be brought low and raised up, how to be in want or to have plenty, how to live life in any circumstances:  We can do all these things, for Christ is our strength.  In this school we are doing more than teaching children reading, writing and arithmetic.  We are teaching them how to see God at work in their lives, how to be eyewitnesses of his mercy, and we are reminding ourselves of the same.

But we are also teaching them to be expert witnesses who can speak with confidence about what they have studied and learned.  Luther wrote about a threefold learning of the catechism.  You have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run.  So also learning the teaching of the Scriptures.   It begins with the basics – simple memorization.  Children learn the Lord’s Prayer.  They learn the Creeds.  They learn the Bible Stories from their preschool days.  Even if they don’t understand what all the words mean, even if they have a hard time pronouncing “trespasses,” they are learning the words.  They are learning the stories.  They are learning to crawl in the faith.

After crawling comes walking, which is understanding the basics.  In Lutheran terms, this is where we ask and answer the question, “What does this mean?”  Here the students learn what we are praying for in the Lord’s Prayer, what we are confessing in the Creed, and what is required by the 10 Commandments.  But it does not stop with memorizing the meanings.  The third step is living the Catechism, taking the things learned and applying them to everyday life.  The words learned will strike the ears of an 8th grader differently than a senior in high school, or a recent college graduate, or a newlywed, or a new parent, or an empty nester.  The learning that takes place in these classrooms is the foundation for a lifetime in the faith.  We continue to grow in our Lord’s teaching every day of our lives.  We are gaining an awareness of what we know, so that when it comes time to speak of it to others, we are able.

And that is why we have a school.  As we enter Lutheran Schools Week, it is important to remember that here at St. John, our school is our mission.  It is fundamental to who we are.  It is a big reason that many of the new members welcomed this weekend first visited St. John.  It has produced many graduates who have gone on into the church as pastors, teachers, and musicians.  And even if they don’t pursue careers in church work, it has produced graduates who remain witnesses for the next generation, boys and girls who will grow into men and women who defend the faith in the world.  Our school is a great blessing and great responsibility to us.  Whether you have students enrolled or not, you are part of St. John Lutheran church, therefore you are part of St. John Lutheran School.  What a blessing that is.  What a blessing to have so many people praying for and supporting the work of this school.  What a blessing to have so many students praying for and supporting the work of this congregation.  What a blessing to have so many people working together to raise up the next generation of witnesses to the Gospel.

The theme for this year’s Lutheran Schools Week is “Witness Always.”  May we be just that – faithful witnesses who speak what we know both to the world around us, and also to the next generation in our midst.  For like the little servant girl in the story of Namaan, we never know when one of the kids in our midst will plant a seed that grows into fruitful faith.  We never know when one of the kids here will knock down the first domino that sets into motion a series of events that results in the cleansing of another person’s soul.  May we give them the words to speak, and as we train them to speak such words, we continue to learn those words ourselves.

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