2021 04 18: Witnesses

Posted on 19 Apr 2021

Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

For the past three weeks, men and women across the United States, and indeed the world, have been gripped by the testimony of one witness after another speaking in a socially distanced courtroom two miles away from here in downtown Minneapolis.  It may not be the trial of the century, but for many critics and legal observers it is the place where the dream and hopes for a future society more just and less colorblind are challenging historic patterns and perceptions of prejudice and privilege.  None of us here today knows how this trial will end.  For nearly a year now, a great cloud has overshadowed the blue sky and lakes of our city, only to be darkened again this week by another painful, agonizing and tragic death and its violent aftermath.

Witnesses are found in a variety of settings.  In the courtroom, a witness is one who has observed an event and verifies the accuracy of the facts.  Over the last weeks, we have heard that facts are open to interpretation. There are eyewitnesses who tell what they saw. Then there are the expert witnesses who interpret what they have seen. There are the character witnesses who tell about the kind of person the defendant or the victim was. And of course, there are rebuttal witnesses who testify so refute the claims of another witness.  We have seen them all in the past three weeks appear before the court.

In the church there is generally only one witness and most often that task is rendered to the preacher whose testimony is the classic sermon. Stand up boldly, outline three strong points, and sit down quickly. I will be honest: it can be a challenge writing a new witness each week. I was once asked by a young seminarian, “Just how many points are needed in a good sermon?”  After critiquing the seminarian’s last sermon, I sighed, “At least one.”   Mind you there are the less effective forms of pastoral witness.  The Rocking Horse sermon: rocking back and forth, and back and forth, but going nowhere.  And there’s the Smorgasbord sermon: a little bit of everything, but nothing solid.   Or the Jericho sermon: March around the subject seven times.  At the core of every witness, there must be a truth.  But as we approach the week ahead, I do not believe it is the pastor alone who must shoulder the responsibility of witnessing to the truth and bearing light in this dark hour. I believe that everyone here must play their part. For as Christ said on that first Easter evening to his disciples, “You are all witnesses of these things.”

By that Jesus was not simply saying, “You saw this happen.  You saw, the Son of Man who was crucified and raised from the dead.  Tell the world what you have seen.”   Witnesses for Jesus are not merely observers.  Like the brilliant lawyers who carefully and expertly choose their witnesses, Jesus called his own witnesses quite intentionally. They were men and women who believed that their witness of Jesus’ life and teaching  could change the lives of others – for the better.

Scripture tells us that on that first Easter evening, even as the women returned from the tomb, and as the disciples came running back from the village of Emmaus, the majority of the disciples whom Jesus personally hand picked were still frightened and filled with doubt.  Faithful Thomas was not the only naysayer among the twelve. Huddled together in their large upper room; the doors were shut; the drapes were drawn; and the disciples were scared. And then suddenly, miraculously, Jesus appeared to them. And what was the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ appearance? Did they fall down on their knees in adoration and praise?  No, they thought they were seeing a ghost. “Look at my hands and my feet,” Jesus said, “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.”  They needed one more proof, so Jesus asked them for something to eat, and they gave him a piece of broiled fish.

I imagine we are all like those cautious and skeptical disciples huddled together in the Upper Room, but the surprise, my friends, is that Jesus called them to be his witnesses. Even with their doubts and fears, even after they denied him and deserted him, and watched him breath his last and die on the cross, he dared to call them to be his witnesses just the same. And if that was true for them then, well, dearly beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re certainly not exempt today. Part of being an Easter “resurrection people,” is the task and challenge of being God’s witnesses. In the world.

I know the word “witness” frightens a lot of people- Lutherans, especially.  It’s right up there with evangelism and stewardship.  You don’t think you can witness, because you’re afraid of being cross-examined on the witness stand, or you’ve had a bad experience of being on the receiving end of someone else’s witness. But actually, I think we witness all the time. Yes, every day we bear witness to things that are important to us.  We bear witness to the experiences we have had, to the work we do, and to the accomplishment of our families. We bear witness to the things that give us joy and to everything that is important in our lives.

Frankly, it’s not really all that different when it comes to the faith. Unfortunately, if we’re not used to doing it very often, we may not feel that we’re very good at it.  But witnessing is simply using the opportunity afforded to you to tell others where you have sensed God at work in your life. So what is the important truth is there for you and me to share and proclaim through our words, though our actions and through our lives- especially in this turbulent time?

Interesting, Jesus began by focusing on his broken body.  If you want to know what a healed society looks like, you should start by studying Jesus’ resurrected body.  In the Upper Room, he invited his disciples to look at his hands and feet, and to touch and see. Even in his glorious resurrected body, Jesus remained scarred. Moreover, Jesus’ wounds were an integral part of his identity. It was by his wounds that his disciples recognized him as Jesus himself.  That is what we must learn as Jesus’ witnesses.   When the world and those you love look at you to see if you are real, and if the faith you profess is truly approachable and trustworthy, then they need to see your scars.  They need to see and hear in you, that God has healed your wounds, but your scars are still there. An you must learn to see the wounds in your neighbors.

Remember, you must witness to God’s gift of repentance.   Unfortunately, many Christians choose to present repentance as a roadblock.  They declare, unless you first renounce, unless you first confess, unless you first reject, we will engage with you no further. That is not where Christ begins.  Repentance means to turn around, and to begin anew with the hope of something better.  And we pursue this in the way and lifestyle of Jesus.  Wherever there is real sorrow for sin, wherever there is an honest determination to begin again, wherever there is a change of heart and mind, there God is producing the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Don’t speak out of guilt and shame of privilege, but speak out the love and compassion that was first offered to you.  In Jesus’ name, repentance is a gift, not a roadblock.  That is the witness we have to offer.

And do not overlook “the forgiveness of sins.”  We cannot regard one sin greater or lesser than another.  Nor can we defend one act of pain and terror over another. The world has watched on as our city has devolved into evening scenes of destruction. They are vivid examples of which overflows from the sin of racial division, pride, anger, mistrust and hatred.   There is only one solution for healing this division and that it the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Christian message is not universalism, but it is universal. In Jesus’ own words to his disciples. “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed and made visible to all nations- beginning in your own backyard- in Jerusalem.” To be a witness is a daunting task, but for Christians, it is the word of life that has the power to change and restore lives.

My friends,  this morning, I close with a plea that our most noble and heartfelt prayers may be for the families who have suffered deep and tragic losses, both now and for those who died leading up to this day, for the lawyers and court appointees who have done their work skillfully,  for the police and military personal who are entrusted to protect the city, and most fervently we pray for the jury who must now discern the truth of the witnesses they have heard.  Yes, let us pray for patience and compassion, peace and comfort and healing closure to this tragic chapter in the life of our city and our mutual life together.  Every new beginning starts with an ending.  My friends, “You and I are witnesses of these things.” Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.