I am Witness.

Easter III Year B, Sermon

I am witness.  

While living in Florida, we were dirt poor.  Lance was a reservist and was working on his degree, but we had nearly no income.  We lived in government subsidized housing, or as some will know it, Housing Authority.  We were so grateful for a roof over our heads. It was a difficult time and we were surrounded by folks who had little hope.  The evidence of it was all around us- broken homes, broken bodies, and drug use were of the pain and attempts to ease or escape it..  

So it was no surprise that a drug deal went badly.  And the fall out happened in our front yard, where my 4 small children had been playing only 2 minutes before.  Our neighbor was shot multiple times. Immediately after, he was pulled into another car, bleeding and crying out.  And we witnessed it. We were not alone in the witness. When I called my children in to wash up for dinner, I had seen porches full of people.  Yet when the detective came around, it turned out that Lance and I were the only “witnesses” to be found. Our lives became a living hell from the moment we went on record and witnessed to the detective.  

We are witness

What does it mean to be witness? It is a two part verb.  It is to see and know, but to witness also has a follow up action- it is to declare what we see and know.  For example, “she witnessed the accident” and “she witnessed in court.” For the sake of this sermon and simplicity, I will call the second part “bearing witness.”  I do so because I believe it is a burden we carry- and we do not have choice in it when we put on the name of Christ.

What does witness require of us? In many ways, the first part of witnessing we have no choice in.  We cannot choose to be a witness to something- it simply is or is not an event or circumstance that we are a part of in some way.  We cannot make up that we saw something we did not. However, in the second part of witness, we are given a small bit of agency (will to act for ourselves.)  We are able to bear witness to the circumstances that lead us to believe that something has or has not occurred. There is a birthday cake in the Gathering Place this morning.  If we go in and there is a finger of icing missing, we do not need to have been there to bear witness to the fact that indeed, someone enjoyed a bit of icing early. We could all see the evidence that icing is missing and in the shape of a finger swipe.  No need for DNA analysis or first hand accounts of it happening. It is obvious. Yet, we have a choice in bearing this sort of witness.

We are witness to the Crucifixion.  

While we are not first hand witnesses of Christ, we do actually bear witness to the effects and history as well as the current work of Christ in our lives.  One did not need to be there to see the difference in how a person of faith can live their final days with cancer.. I am not saying faith and the hope of the future automatically gives us grace and patience.  But without it- there is none to be had.

Peter was witness.  He had seen and lived following Christ.  He knew his power and yet, when he denied to those around the fire, he denied only to himself- the folks who accused him already knew.  He could not escape his witness of Christ and neither can I.

Witness of the evils today

I need not be direct witness to an exact evil, but only be aware of it and see the signs of it, even if in the negative  in order to bear witness to the evil among us. This week the news has been heavy and it has been doubled down by statistics that anger and frighten me. The Syrian conflict has been ongoing.  Nearly countless lives have been lost. 5 million Syrians seek refuge. That is approximately the entire population of both Orange and Riverside Counties. Yet, I do not see and hear of Syrians flooding our nation.  Rather, I hear of congregation after congregation prepared to receive them and none come. These congregations have done the work to partner with the state department and are certified refugee resettlement partners. And yet they wait with no word of families in need.  Because in our fear, only 11 Syrians have been let to resettle here in the United States this year. 11.

I do not need to see the Syrians to know they are out there in need- the world has born witness.  I also do not need to see them personally to have the refugee partners bear witness that they are not engaged with new refugees.  And I do not need to see the eyes of those who suffered the chemical attacks or the subsequent NATO approved bombings to try to take out chemical facilities this past week to bear witness to the fact that we as a nation are complicit in the death of innocent lives.  Because they are not here being saved and protected. That means by simple math, they are out there, desperate for safety.

What Shall I do?

If you recall my opening story of witness you may wonder what the difference was between my family and many of the others whom we knew also bore witness.  We had hope for the future. Lance and I had seen and experienced a wide world already and knew that things can change. We knew he was working toward his degree and that we could find financial security once more.  We knew the future had good and different things prepared for us. But many of the families there did not. Of course they all had heard of college- but few of them had any clue how to get there, let alone a real belief they could.  They had lived generationally poor in education, finances and hope of achieving either. For them, to witness would be a dead end road- a promise of being followed and likely shot, if nothing else, they would be ostracized in their community forever.  For me, it was not. I knew we would not be there forever. I knew there was hope.

Beloved, in our world of hopeless news stories, we are the ones who hold the different witness.  We are the ones who hold hope for the future. We have seen the evidence of Christ in our lives. We have seen the dance of the Holy Spirit moving among us and changing hearts and spirits.  We have glimpsed the promise of what is to come. And we are called to bear witness to it. We do bear witness to it- with our very bodies- even if not our voices.

Every time you reach out a hand and help you bear witness.  Every time you smile you bear witness. Every time you cut someone off, curse them out, or are dismissive or judging, you bear witness.  And every time you love beyond reason you bear witness.

I do not have an answer to the Syrian crisis or any other crisis of life in our world.  I wish I did. I have cried out like the Psalmists, in desperate plea and do not have an answer.  This past week was International Holocaust Rememberance Day. It was meant to be a day to bear witness- to remember the trauma and cost of humanity in the days before, during and following Nazi rule.  It was to remember innocent lives left because others would not bear witness by first choosing not to see. Then, not to speak, and finally not to act. Our nation and other countries not directly impacted,  were complicit in letting it get to atrocity and we then paid the cost of our sin by holding ourselves accountable and paying with precious lives to correct the sin we allowed to run rampant in our world.

This is the sin our first reading calls us to repent from.  We ARE witness to our world and what happens in it. We cannot avoid it.  But how we choose to bear witness matters too. And we are called in our baptismal waters to bear witness with integrity.  We are called to bear witness to Christ’s suffering and to his risen presence among the disciples as proof that we are forgiven and there is more than life lived in fear and defensiveness.  There is promise and hope for more- for grace and mercy to flow like Niagara Falls- bountiful presence in every Eucharistic meal. Peace to be found in locked rooms and a Christ who comes to us just where we are- always with us, never forsaking us and bearing witness to God’s infinite and forgiving love for us.  

This week- go out and live like this.  Live like we have hope- Live as witness to the promise and presence of Christ among us now.  For this, we are called. For this we are bound. For this, we are born again.

Author: mistressofdivinity

Pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Riverside, California; a congregation of the Pacifica Synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Even though the diploma reads "Master of Divinity," the learning continues and I have the wrong body parts to earn a "masters" so I claim Mistress. I lean into this pastoral role more each day, learning to balance vocation and family, life and passion, living and loving.

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