Bearing Witness

hildegards saintsA sermon for July 15, 2018, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.  The scripture readings are Amos 7:7-15Psalm 85:8-13Ephesians 1:3-14, and Mark 6:14-29

Listen to the sermon HERE.

At yesterday’s wedding, here in the church, the congregation came through beautifully on what is one of my favorite parts of the wedding ceremony.  At the section near the beginning, called, “The Declaration of Consent,” the bride and the groom make promises to one another. This is where the language of “love, comfort, honor, and keep in sickness and in health,” comes in.  But then, in the Prayer Book liturgy, the officiant asks the whole congregation, “will all of you witnesses these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?”  And the congregation thunders, “WE WILL!”  (If that sounds familiar, it’s because we do a very similar thing at every baptism when the congregation is asked to support those being baptized in their life in Christ. Again the assembly answers “WE WILL!”)

If there is a wedding rehearsal, I also instruct the wedding party to really say this part loudly.  If the congregation is too meek, I’ve repeated the question before, and added, “Once more, please, … with feeling this time…”

I want to hear people say We Will support the couple, because of the power of bearing witness.

The Greek word for witness is martys, or martyr in English.  A martyr, among people of faith, is often portrayed as one who is persecuted or who dies for his or her faith.  But in its truest sense, a Christian martyr is simply one who bears witness to Jesus Christ.

Today’s scriptures are not the cheeriest.  They speak of difficulty and demand—but they also speak of deep and abiding faith.

The Old Testament lesson gives us a brief profile of the prophet Amos.  Amos has the hard job of speaking out against power, in this case against King Jeroboam.  The king’s own priest gets wind of it, tells the king, and they put out the word that Amos is all about “fake prophecy.” The religious power structure of the day (which has cozied up to the governmental power structure) turns against him.  “Go preach and prophesy somewhere else,” they tell Amos.  But Amos says, I’m not in this to make a name for myself.  I’m no threat to you.  I’m a migrant farm worker.   Amos basically says, “Look, I’m nobody special.  But God called me and told me to step up and tell the truth.”

The story of Amos reminds us that being a witness to truth is easy.  And of course, the example from our Gospel comes down to us in history not only from scripture but from theatre by Oscar Wilde and opera by Richard Strauss.

John the Baptist DID speak the truth, and we have the awful story that is all too current—literally in other parts of the world, but just as real in our world as people lose job, reputation, friend, retirement, social standing—when they speak hard truth.  With King Herod, power prevails, in the short run.  But that’s the essential thing for us to remember. The powerful appear to win, but they only have the advantage for now.

The Letter to the Ephesians gives an eye into God’s long-run plan.  God has a “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  That’s a huge plan.  It means that in Christ everything will find its completion and fulfillment.  In Christ, everything will grow to its right purpose and ending—event those who are cut short in this life.

Everything and everyone is redeemed and perfected, brought to completion in God’s good love.

That sort of hope doesn’t allow us to rest content with injustice in this world, assured that life in the next will be better.  Instead, hope in God compels us to live forward, in the open, in the light.  It’s that hope in which we live, toward which we point… that hope to which we bear witness.

I have a cousin who lives in a small town near Tampa, Florida.  We were talking on the phone a few weeks ago, and I asked him how things were in his community.  He laughed and he said he thought he might have to find a new barber.  When I asked, “Why?” he explained what happened the other Saturday morning.

It’s a chain of a hair place where men and women both get their hair cut.  A woman was almost done getting her haircut in the next chair and she was talking to her stylist about all the Muslims who had moved into her neighborhood.  “They’re everywhere,” she said, “and I’m afraid to even go outside. You never know if your next-door neighbor is a terrorist or not….”  My cousin said that he had heard similar comments while the lady had been getting her hair done, but he decided that it was time to say something.  “You know,” he said in his slow, Southern accent. “If you look at history, everybody has done their fair share of violence and terrorism.  Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus… people are people, and even though most people are good, there are always a few who make the headlines. You can’t just all Muslims by what you see in the news.”

My cousin’s barber stopped cutting his hair for a minute, exchanged looks with the other stylist, and then continued.  The lady in the next chair grew red in the face and didn’t say another word–but left soon thereafter.  The stylist who had been cutting her hair went outside for a smoke and several of the other customers who were in the shop went outside to join her. My cousin said that he though his barber might have rushed the haircut.

My cousin might find another barber, but in that one, quiet moment in the barbershop, he spoke up and spoke the truth.  Whatever conversation was brewing next to him, he at least, stopped it for a moment and took the energy out of it.  There might be consequences but there also might be the possibility of surprise, of encounter with someone who might point to a larger issue, and might suggest a more complicated picture than first imagined.

We are called to bear witness to the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  Sometimes that means saying “no, thank you” at work, in social situations, or at the voting booths.  Sometimes it means protesting and witnessing in public ways, and other times might mean a quieter approach.  Bearing witness always and everywhere includes prayer, that God would reveal God’s truth, that faithful people everywhere might be strengthened, and that God’s reign would enfold and embrace all.

Our prayer for the day asks that God might “grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.”  With the saints and martyrs, with the mothers and fathers, with the sophisticated and the plainspoken, may we also bear witness.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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