No, Really. Be My Witnesses

In its original context, its first hearing, this passage (Isaiah 43:1-21) was the Word of God, spoken to the people of God through the prophet Isaiah. Many many generations ago, before the gentiles  – people like us –  were folded into the tribes of Israel, made one family as adopted children of God through Jesus, the Christ. It was the Word of God, given to the people of God, so that they might bear witness to God’s goodness.

Did you catch that reference in there?  About halfway through… You are my witnesses, says the Lord.  Jesus used very similar words to prepare the disciples for their work to come.  You will be my witnesses.  The work that we continue in this generation…

The request that prompted this week’s sermon asks the question that Peter, James, John and the others must have wondered.  How do we answer that call? How exactly do we – today – carry the good news to our Jerusalem, Judea Samaria and beyond?

How do we become witnesses and bear witness?

The classic answer to this question flows out of the topic that we looked at a couple of weeks ago:  How do we get to heaven? And its corollary concern about avoiding hell.  

Back in college, when I spent a summer working as a youth minister for a Baptist church in a tiny town in Central Arkansas, we did what these folks called “witnessing.” This activity consisted mainly of walking around the neighborhoods where my youth group members lived, knocking on doors and then feeling like an absolute idiot for having done so.

I mean seriously… what did the church leaders really expect these people at home in the middle of the day on a Wednesday to say when I asked if they knew Jesus?   

Of course they said yes.  And of course they had a church home.  

Even if they didn’t, they knew to say yes! Otherwise, they would have had to listen to me attempt to tell them how to get saved. Or get invited to a Bible study at First Baptist that night. So mostly we walked and sweated for a couple of hours, then went back to the church for cokes and Bible study.    

I don’t remember what tracts we always had on hand, just in case someone didn’t know Jesus and wanted to. But I can tell you that most of them follow the same basic outline that we teach students who are involved in the high school or college ministry.

Way back in the day, our founder came up with what came to be known as the 4 Spiritual Laws. These four principles offer a clear expression of what most Christians believe about connecting our stories to the story of God, about understanding God’s grace.

  1. God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life. Pretty straightforward John 3:16 stuff, right?  The love of God in Christ is the offer of eternal and abundant life. But we don’t experience life that way because…
  2. All of us sin, and sin separates us from God.  There is a gap between God, who is perfect, and imperfect humans like us. There is nothing we can do on our own, under our own power, to bridge that gap.  But God has a solution.
  3. Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for our sin. Through Him we can know and experience reconciliation with God.
  4. We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord;  then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.

Now, as I said a couple of weeks ago, there are some nuanced theological differences among Christian denominations and traditions when it comes to describing that last principal.

We say that we are saved by grace, through faith, then it is sufficient to acknowledge the truth  of who Jesus is (the Son of God) and what that means for us (he came to save the world, not condemn the world).  And we believe that humans are incapable of choosing God on our own. The grace of God through the work of the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to these truths, and enables us to profess our faith in the saving work of Christ.

But truly – whether we pray a prayer or talk about receiving Christ, or affirm the promise made by the community at an infant baptism, the work is already done. By coming, living, dying rising, ascending, the reconciliation between God and humanity is complete and real and whole.

This means that God’s full force of love is available to us, even us.
God’s kingdom could be on full display, even now.
And all we have to do is show up, let the Holy Spirit speak through us…
So that the power of resurrection is made known, pointing the Christ, glorifying God, and transforming the world.

But the truth is, we falter, we fail to love ourselves, and we forget to love or choose not to love God and our neighbors.

Sometimes we get lost in striving or surviving in this hectic and complicated culture of ours. The buying and selling, saving and spending. And the inevitable comparing and judging that happens among friends and neighbors. We hold tight to our own stuff, the resources, power and privilege we have amassed, and we become unable or unwilling to trust that God’s generosity can overcome the scarcity that fear tells us is coming.  

Sometimes the surviving and striving find their way into the church, and faith gets pushed to the edges. We become comfortable swimming in a shallow pool of religiosity and forget the joy of spiritual disciplines that take us into the deep waters of relationship with the divine. Powerful worship  and earnest prayer get replaced by disconnected habits and rote patterns, mostly void of meaning.  

Part of the problem is cultural… We are coming out of an era in which Christianity enjoyed so much privilege that showing up took very little effort.  We could assume that the vast majority of people around us believed essentially the same things we did. Witnessing to the work of God in our lives was like, well, preaching to the choir.  And in an era of relative prosperity in the most prosperous country on the planet, it was easy for churches to send missionaries and ministers into the field, asking for reports in return for money.

Somewhere along the way, the good news got bifurcated, chopped into two ideas: Evangelism and Social Justice, creating a paradigm in which making disciples has nothing to do with meeting human needs.  

Here’s where that can get sideways…

When the church – the Body of Christ- becomes focused on salvation as the means to a heavenly afterlife, or as some form of eternal fire insurance, members of the Body forget their function in the world here and now.
Why work toward reconciliation with our neighbors?
Why work for peace in the world?
Why advocate for those with little or no influence over the systems and structures that leave them poor, sick or oppressed?  

There are other organizations, non-profits, even government programs to handle those things. The church’s work is to be sure they know about Jesus – Our version of Jesus, and baptism, and what a good Christian man or woman does or doesn’t do.

This privileged Christian culture we’ve created and inhabited is dangerous territory…

Over and over, in every one of the gospel accounts,  we see Jesus reminding the leaders and influencers in the synagogues and the temple that knowing the law is not the point. Parsing the people’s sins and doling out punishment or shame is not the point.

When we consider what we know of God’s faithfulness,
when we consider God’s great love for us,
when we go back to the story of Zelophehad’s daughters, petitioning Moses for a place in the promised land, and God’s huge, unexpected YES…
We see God’s desire is to bring everyone into the family.

We should be able to see that shaming and ostracizing others based on legalism to the exclusion of grace… is so not the point. In fact, it is so far from the point, it threatens to make us unrecognizable as followers of Jesus, witnesses to God’s love.  It threatens to keep us from recognizing Jesus among us, in the faces and lives of our neighbors.

The passage from Matthew 25:31-46 is a familiar one– but listen again

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry  and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Then the portion we don’t like to hear…. That we don’t want to believe can apply to us

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then, as if they had been in a sound-proof booth while the other conversation happened…

…they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

If we want to be witnesses for Christ, bearing witness to the work of Christ, we need to be able to proclaim the good news. Yes – In words… even paraphrases of scripture work…

God so loved that world that God sent Jesus, the one and only son of God, into the mess that is human existence. The good news is that he did not come to condemn the world, to condemn us, but to save us in all of our messiness.

God sent Jesus in human skin, with human hands, walking around on human feet.  Jesus was more than a prayer, more than a good idea. Jesus was a walking, talking, eating, sneezing, preaching, mourning, laughing and healing declaration of God’s desire to see ALL people experience love and grace.

All people, even the ones we are not so sure about, Even the ones we have been taught are somehow unworthy, unclean, or less than. Even people like me.  

That is the good news we are sharing, the gospel to which we are called to bear witness, the good news isn’t just that “Jesus paid it all”, but that Jesus made a way for all.    

My friend Martha reminded me yesterday:

“Jesus went to places and ate and drank with people who the religious authorities disapproved. We’ve got him all wrong if we try to turn him into some kind of elitist priss-pot. We’ve got him wrong if we prioritize any characteristic above his love for humankind, for all kinds of humanity.

When we are ready to condemn others for their differences, to define them as outside the circle of human consideration and divine love, we create a climate in which hatred and prejudice seem natural and sensible.

When we combine this evil spirit of condemnation with the ready availability of semi-automatic weapons, we sentence ourselves to the kind of fearful scenes that played out in Orlando and the aftermath of suspicion and despair that continues.”

(paraphrasing) Now – It’s really tempting to pretend that the evil, hateful spirit that was on display is confined  to one particular religion. The truth is, we can find it in any religion and we can find it among those with no religion. We can even  find it in the Central Florida churches suddenly expressing sympathy for the very lives they preached virulently against in the not so distant past. We can find it closer to home, too, anyplace we convince ourselves that we are the only ones Jesus would care about, the only ones Jesus would want to save.

But the good news to which we bear witness is for all people, and binds us in love to all people, love for all of creation,  and for our loving Creator.

We proclaim our faith in the one who came to save us from our hunger and our worry that sharing might leave us hungry.  Because people need bread and the bread of life.

We bear witness to the one who came to save us from our thirst and our willingness to poison our rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers in the name of progress and profit. Because people need clean water and access to streams of living water.

We proclaim our faith in the one who came so that we might know what it means to be claimed,  and to save us from our willingness to exile the ones Jesus would join for a meal. Because people need community and need to hear that they are God’s beloved children

We bear witness to the one who clothes us in righteousness and saves us from the shame that we would heap on ourselves and others. Because people need shirts and shoes and need to know that a heart can be made beautiful again.   

We bear witness to the one who touched the untouchables, and who loves the unlovables, including us. Even on our worst days…. We are loved. Because we are all more alike than we are different, all worthy of hope, all worthy of the faith in God.

It takes more than words to bear witness in this way, more than claiming membership in a congregation or a faith tradition, It requires so much more of us than saying to Jesus, I know who you are.  I want to be part of the family.  

We bear witness to the risen Lord by showing up.

The Christian response to the broken-ness, death and evil that still obscures the Kingdom of God here on earth is the same as that of the Christ we follow. We embody the love of God and put ourselves physically among the ones suffering because of brokenness, death and evil.

We lived out here when my dad died back in College Station, Texas.  My team at work was just 2 weeks away from hosting a major conference near San Antonio. I was trying to keep up with at least some of my responsibilities for the event and help with funeral arrangements and be a wife and mom, and begin to grieve.

A lot of people came to the service later that week, including 2 of the guys on my team here in Florida, who were doing their work and picking up some of mine to get ready for this event. They flew from Florida to Texas and back again… Just Days before we would all be in San Antonio… Because they wanted me and Paul and my whole family to know that community matters, friendship matters, being the Body matters. They were good news and God’s grace for me.

They showed up

At Sandy Hook. At Charleston. Here in Orlando.  Fifteen times President Obama has met with families whose lives were altered by mass shootings.  In quiet, hard, private conversations, he offered what solace he could, and he listened to their pain. He held hands and prayed with them.

He showed up.

If you want to bear witness to what God can do. You show up.

You bring casseroles and comfort food without worrying about the cost, without asking first. You show up and ring the doorbell.

You come by on a Friday and sit with our lunchtime regulars, and you eat out of a styrofoam container. You have rambly conversations and build relationships because everyone matters.
You show up.

You take a moment to ask the people who worship alongside you week after week, if they are doing ok,especially those whose hearts have been broken by grief, those who might feel a little less safe about living proudly just as they are and being open about who they love. Because children of God are children of God, created, claimed, loved and saved, every single one of us.
You show up and offer your love.

You go to a vigil, you attend a memorial service knowing you might be the only person there who doesn’t know the victim, doesn’t know the family.  You go, not because it makes you feel good, because it actually feels pretty awkward. You go because one more lit candle brings 100 more lumens into the darkness. Because when one part hurts the whole Body suffers.
You show up

You show up.
Like the women who showed up at the tomb to finish their work and came running back to say He is risen!
Like Peter showed up to preach when that first sermon started flowing from his heart and out of his mouth.
Like the brave souls who welcomed Paul in those early days following his conversion, even at risk of their own lives.

You show up
And you bear witness
You tell a story.
You sow a seed.

You show up because… how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?
And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?
As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14-17)

Because I have only been here a short while – a year and a half, maybe-  when I look at the empty spaces in our pews, I don’t fill them with the same people that many of you can recall, friends and loved ones no longer in town, no longer on this earth…  

But I can fill this place with faces I wish were here.  And it breaks my heart to face the truth that many of them will probably never voluntarily cross the threshold of that doorway or  the door of any sanctuary.

Because far from being a sanctuary where they could worship and grow as disciples, in a community of people aware of and working on their own sins that separate them from God, too many sanctuaries have become places of judgment and rejection.  Even rejection of the children baptized in their fonts.

The faces I long to see in any sanctuary (here would be great, but truly anywhere) are those children of God, as well as their parents and friends who left when they no longer felt safe offering their dear ones welcome and support in their faith community.

I fear that sometimes, in our zeal to be the best we can be for Jesus, we lose sight of the best ways to show up and be Jesus for one another.  We create a gap that was never meant to exist.

And the only way to bridge that gap, is to show up.
To show up humbly aware of the ways we helped create it,
To show up willing to have all the conversations and do all the work that reconciliation requires.
To bear witness to the perfect love that drives out all fear.
Those are some feet I’d really love to see show up.

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