Sermons

An Opportunity to Testify: November 13, 2016

Like many of you, I have struggled this week.  I have struggled to understand in my heart how we can be so persistently divided in this country and how that division has played itself out in politics, policy, race, vision, and hope.  This weekend, my mind continued to grapple with the 200 plus incidents of hateful harassment and intimidation that have occurred since Election Day as reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a reputable non-profit that monitors both domestic hate groups and extremists in our country.[1]

Simultaneously, I have been confronted with both those who are tearful and those who are rejoicing, those who urge calm and promote efforts to unify, and those whose pain, fear, and oppression has not yet been addressed, much less acknowledged.

I have been genuinely frightened for my sisters and brothers of color, for my LGBT family that fears a roll-back of rights, for my children who look to me for answers and relatively peaceful routine, and for this church as it stands as a place of sanctuary for our Muslim friends and family, for immigrants and refugees from far and wide.

In addition, there are those in my own family, workplace, school, and church who remain angry, divided, and hostile to both parties, their representatives, and spokespeople.

Somewhere in the midst of this, I choose to trust that God is working.

Somewhere in the midst of all of you, I choose to believe that God is calling.

Somewhere in the midst of this, we pastors dare to proclaim to the gathered that God holds us, that we are not utterly lost to each other, not utterly devoid of hope, well-being, or answers, and not completely resistant to the vision that the prophets, including Jesus, holds before us as a promise— for this day and age.

In the words of Rev. David Lose, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, “it may be an important time to remind folks that wherever we may be politically, we come together on Sunday to give thanks for God’s love for the world – the whole world – Republicans, Democrats, rich, poor, women, men, young, old, persons of all races and ethnicities. God loves us all. And we are united not by gender or race or economic status or political affiliation but rather by faith – faith that God created all things and people, sustains all things and people, and will redeem all things and people, all because of God’s overwhelming love for all things and people.”[2] (my stress)

          And then from a Presbyterian friend who has been a strong advocate of justice for her African-American sisters and brothers, “It occurs to me that having, expressing, and sharing joy are forms of resistance. Laughter is not only medicine, but protest. The world needs serious work, it’s true. But when we lose touch with how beautiful it can be, we forget how much it’s worth fighting for, and our fight loses necessary vigor. Laugh today. Smile today. Have joy today so that you can keep fighting today, tomorrow, and forever.”[3]

          But first we may need to grieve and lament as a people of God.  We lament that we as a people still have much personal and collective work to do before God’s vision may become real for us, real enough to see enacted before our eyes.  We must question the evils we have chosen to ignore and believe that it is within our power to vanquish them once the scales fall from our eyes.  We must use our voice to check power, to prompt soul-searching, and to befriend those who are continually marginalized as “other” not just during this election cycle but in all times and places.

As Vernon Robbins points out, during the time leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, many people either took action to defy the governing powers, or they were suspected of doing so and then were destroyed by the Herodian or Roman soldiers.  Luke’s gospel account reflects not what was about to happen, but what was already happening.[4]  People during Luke’s time reflected on Jesus’ words and ascribed to Jesus prophetic and prescient powers.  King Herod had expanded the building of the Temple beginning in 19 BCE but that vast building project continued throughout Jesus’ lifetime until 62-64 BCE.  Yet, in ten short years after the Temple was completed, the building would be quickly destroyed by the Romans.  Jesus’ words remind us, in a very vivid way, of the words of Psalm 146…”Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”

In Luke, Jesus gives instructions to the disciples of how they should face calamitous times of upheaval and chaos.  Reading these passages, one might find little comfort in Luke’s harsh words of war, insurrection, famine, earthquake, and dreadful portents.  But it is helpful to remember that the readers of Luke had already seen far too much, and placed in this context, Jesus’ words, “to not be terrified” becomes the writer’s way to reassure the disciples that their testimony and endurance will prove both valuable and necessary.  They are to speak boldly in the midst of their suffering.  Despite persecution, despite being betrayed by relatives and friends, despite being hauled before courts, kings, and governors, despite natural disaster and false leaders, they and their souls will endure, as they already have endured.  And Luke says thru Jesus, “Not a hair of your head will perish.”

Like some of you, when I hear these words, I have trouble hearing that I and my family will be kept safe.  But then I realize that our collective safety is something that we all desire and must diligently work towards.  My safety is in your hands; your safety is in mine.  In the same manner, our dignity and worth as human beings is also shared; I must uphold yours as you uphold mine.  In this way, not a hair on our heads will perish. We must guard the safety of all, and not just for some.  We endure together, and not separately.  We are not separate and equal, but equal and together.  Or in the words of Ben Franklin, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

One of the most curious lines in this passage from Luke is the one where Jesus says, “But before all this occurs [all the wars, insurrections, natural disasters, etc.], they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over…and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.  This will give you an opportunity to testify…”

It is in crisis and not the calm where Luke sees an opportunity for the disciples to testify…But testify to what?  Perhaps we can imagine someone testifying to their experience of Jesus as in Matthew when Jesus says “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”[5]

Or maybe our testimony is simply that we know and live by a different narrative than the one that fear would create in the minds of others about “the other.”  Perhaps our testimony is to refuse to surrender our own goodwill and compassion towards others, or our refusal to surrender kindness, or to be silent in the face of unjust or hate-filled action.  Perhaps our personal testimony is to stand in solidarity with those who are targeted, or to wear a safety pin showing that we are persons with whom one can feel safe.

In any case, Jesus tells us not to prepare our defense in advance, maybe because he knows that such defenses can sound more rote than inspired, more like polemical, than personal…more from the brain than from the heart.

For those who cower at being put on the spot, even for good reason, Jesus promises himself—words and wisdom that our opponents will not be able to contradict or withstand.

The late Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock, one of the best preachers of his day, shared this story about a conversation he had with someone on a return flight from California to Atlanta.  His seatmate was a woman visiting her grand-kids in Atlanta.  They fell into conversation as she began to ask him questions.

“What were you doing in California?” she asked him.

“I was visiting Loma Linda,” Craddock replied.

“Oh, that’s that 7th Day Adventist place, isn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it is.”

“Are you 7th Day Adventist?” the woman asked.

“No, no, but they invited me.” Craddock answered.

“You mean, you went to a 7th Day Adventist place and you’re not 7th Day Adventist?”

“No, but they were kind enough to invite me.”

“I know what you were doing,” the woman said.

“What?”

“You were ‘othering.’”

Craddock said, “I was?”

“Yeah, you were ‘othering’ she said.

“What’s ‘othering?’”

“My preacher preaches on it every Sunday.  We need to do more ‘othering,’ he says.  What he means is get acquainted with people who are different from yourself, establish friendships, share in work, and play and pray and praise, and everything together.  Other people.  The other.  Get acquainted and deal with them..relate to them, the other.  He calls it ‘othering.’ Why, he preaches on it every Sunday.  I am so sick of his talking about ‘othering.’ It’s just a fad, she said.

Craddock said that at this point, the woman got all bothered about it.

“It’s just a fad,” she said.  “It’ll pass.  I’ll be glad when it passes.  ‘Cause if the preacher says one more word about ‘othering,’ I’m gonna throw up right there in church.”

Craddock said, “It’s not a fad.  It’s not a fad.”

She said, “It is a fad.”  She said, “Look here,” and she took the Sky Magazine, the airline magazine from the seat pocket and opened it up, and pointed.  And there was an article there.  And it was written in English, Spanish, and Japanese.

She said, “Now, looka there.  This airline thinks they’re ‘othering.’  She said, “a few years ago it would just be in English. We’ll get back to just havin’ it in English.  But’s it’s just a fad.

“It’s not a fad,” Craddock told her, “It’s as old as Christianity.”

“What do you mean?” the woman asked.

“Well, when Jesus died… Pilate put a sign on the cross: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.’ And it was written there in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.”

Now, the woman, she didn’t say another word the whole flight. [6]

And that, my friends, is how Jesus gives you words and wisdom to counter your opponents.  Trust it.  Trust him.  And trust yourself.