On Bearing Witness
April 18, 2021
Third Sunday of Eastertide
Psalm 4: 1, 4 and 8
Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer. I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.
Luke 24: 36-48
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
Today’s sermon is titled, On Bearing Witness. I’ve never witnessed a car crash, but many times I have seen other cars pulled over on the side of the road, cars that were obviously not involved in the accident, but they pull over anyway because it’s the right thing to do even though, in most cases, I imagine it is a major inconvenience. It is no wonder we speak of “bearing” witness; the truth can sometimes be a burden.
This week I read a true story about the mayor of Salt Lake County, Utah. His name is Ben McAdams. Salt Lake had invested heavily in building shelters for the large homeless population and yet there were so many people still sleeping on the streets. Ben McAdams and his colleague Patrick Reimherr, without telling anyone but their immediate families, put their wallets in a desk drawer one Friday evening, and disguised themselves appropriately to blend in to the street community. In the state-of-the-art shelter, McAdams and Reimherr witnessed multiple accounts of wrongdoing, intimidation, physical violence and drug abuse. McAdams and Reimherr learned enough in their three day stint to completely overhaul the support system for the homeless in Salt Lake. * They had to make some very tough decisions, but because they had seen with their own eyes and experienced rising fear within themselves, they could no longer turn away from what they now knew to be true.
So it is with the disciples in our story for today. Once, as the scriptures say, Jesus “opened their minds,” the disciples were forever changed by what they had experienced. What else could they do, then, but to bear witness to all they had seen and heard? This was not an easy task for the Jewish followers of Christ. Sharing the story of a risen Christ would have sent shock waves throughout the Jewish culture. It was a culture that was already struggling to protect their tradition from outer influences and all the while under oppressive occupation by the Roman Empire. This was not a good time for dissension, but the risen Christ speaks in no uncertain terms when he says, “repentance and forgiveness… is to be proclaimed… to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
You are witnesses of these things. You have seen, you have experienced, and now you know. Like that mayor and his colleague in Salt Lake who experienced first hand the day and night reality of living on the streets and in shelters; like the people who see a car accident and pull over to the shoulder of the road to take and hour or two out of their day to offer their account of what they saw. So the question for us, in this hour and on this day is this: To what do we bear witness?
To what do we bear witness in 2021? Where do we even begin, Friends? How did we arrive at this point where trust in one another and in government and science is so compromised? How can a double standard in policing continue to play out in body cam footage that shows, beyond doubt, more severe treatment for people of color like in the recent case of Army second Lieutenant Caron Nazario? We bear witness to these things. We bear witness to this pandemic and to the inept response that we suffered through for a year while hundreds of thousands in this country alone died as we were squabbling about the need for masks and lockdowns. We bear witness, Friends. It is a heavy burden to bear. We have seen people in America waiting in food lines for 6 or 7 hours and waiting in line to vote for just as long. We bear witness. The economic apocalypse for middle and low income people and small businesses over the past year is made all the more severe when we learn that, during the same time period, the 600 billionaires in America saw a collective gain of 3 trillion. Three trillion! We bear witness, Friends.
What are we, as followers of Christ, to do? I believe the message that Jesus gave to the disciples is one that can help us, too, in our lives and in our times. Jesus charges his disciples with two tasks: “proclaim to all nations repentance and forgiveness.” Repentance and forgiveness…these words are both familiar, but the word repentance is one worthy of our consideration. Repentance is a process, a process with multiple steps. “Repentance is the process of reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs, which is accompanied by commitment to and actual actions that show and prove a change for the better.”** In short, repentance is all about admitting mistakes and making changes for the better. Sometimes I think repentance is too often avoided these days. Without repentance, without evaluating what has gone wrong and making a commitment to change, forgiveness can not really have full effect.
Jesus charges his followers to bear witness to the messages of repentance and forgiveness. I believe Jesus charges us to bear witness to the messages of repentance and forgiveness. Friends, this is the essence of the gospel, the good news. This is the essence of Jesus’s teaching during his time on earth. This is what the Holy Spirit whispers in our hearts every waking instant: pay attention, admit mistakes when mistakes are made, make changes for the better, forgive yourself and forgive others, too.
Before I close, I want to share a prayer published in the Christian Century, written by the chaplain to the US House of Representatives offered on March 10th of this year. Her name is Margaret Gunn Kibben. In this prayer I hear a sense of both repentance and forgiveness. She prays, “Forgive them, all of them. For when called upon to respond to a once-in-a-century pandemic that has rocked our country, upended its economy, and widened the chasm of partisan opinion, they have missed the opportunity to step above the fray and unite.”
In closing, Friends, I remind us that we are all witnesses. We are witnesses to life and to death, to health and to illness, to unity and to disunity. We are witnesses to the highest ideals of our nation laid down in our founding documents that all people are created equal. We are witnesses to the pain of injustice and to the promise that justice holds when applied equally and equitably. The teachings of Jesus inform us and, Friends, he asks us to bear witness, to bring change, and to forgive one another, with God’s help. So be it. Amen.
Beloved God, I thank you for the precious gift we receive when we look to Christ as the embodiment of your highest wishes for us and for our fulfillment as human beings. Lead us through these dark times with holy light and divine love. Many in our nation and in our world are emotionally wounded, traumatized, grieving, and experiencing financial crisis. Empathy for our brothers and sisters and the struggles they face can be painful to bear, Lord, and yet through this deep feeling, we become more alive, we become more humane. I pray for our nation, for America; lead us in the ways of righteousness. Lead us in the ways of Peace. With devotion, I pray in Jesus’s name, who taught us to pray by saying…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Ephesians chapter 5:
“Walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Walk in the way of love. Amen.