What is your testimony? A sermon for difficult times
A sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati, on November 13, 2016. The texts are those of Proper 28, especially Luke Luke 21:5-19. You can watch the whole service online or just the sermon. The text below is slightly different from how I delivered it in a couple of places.
Jesus said, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
Along about November, as we get to the end of our liturgical year, the Gospel readings always turn to the end times. Now, this tends to make most Episcopalians uncomfortable. When the scriptures turn toward violence and persecution, we look away awkwardly and change the subject. When the Gospel has Jesus speaking about judgement, we imagine that this is an antiquated idea, or that it somehow doesn’t apply to us.
The truth is, scriptures like these were not written for comfortable people. They were not written by comfortable people. These scriptures have nothing whatsoever to do with comfort. And so it makes sense that preachers like me — a person who benefits from more privilege than I probably know — would not quite connect with a message that challenges my very being. It makes sense that Episcopalians, many of whom are pretty well off, wouldn’t want to linger in these parts of the story very long. But nevertheless, here we are.
This week, we can’t look away. We can’t look away from the scriptures. We can’t look away from what they call us to do. And we shouldn’t look away from the message of grace and mercy that the Gospel has for us.
The scriptures say, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” The scriptures speak of “wars and insurrections”. The scriptures talk about how powerful people will deal with the people of God; they will “arrest you and persecute you”.
And the headlines this week say nation rises up against nation. CNN tells us there are famines and plagues. Earlier this week, when I was in a more jocular mood, I promised a priest friend in Oklahoma that my sermon this week would contain a shout-out to earthquakes there. These earthquakes are not great because of their size, but rather because we humans are causing them as we poison the earth to extract oil. It’s as if we are giving the end times a helping hand. Locally, we wonder what justice will come from the death of Samuel DuBose.
This is not the first moment in history when these scriptures have been disturbingly relevant, and it will not be the last. Contrary to what some Christians might tell you, there is no magic formula here to decode the words to understand when the end of history will come. To engage in that folly is to miss the point entirely.
The point of these frightening warnings is plain as day. Jesus says to his followers then and now, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” At the most difficult moments in our lives and in our history, God does not abandon us, but promises to redeem us, to bring us into eternal life. Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased Theodore Parker when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Along the way toward justice, the scriptures seem to say, the moral universe will know setbacks. And in these setbacks, when injustice seems to gain an advantage, the Good News of Jesus Christ is that God’s love redeems us and ultimately our universe.
This week, we have seen a lot of setbacks. I’m not going to say a word about the presidential election itself, except for this. Jesus is not a Democrat. Jesus is not a Republican. Anne Lamott said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” I think it’s also true that we can safely assume we’ve made God in our own image when God’s politics agree precisely with our own politics. Nothing I am preaching today has a wit to do with Republicans or Democrats. Someone else, some other time, can preach about politics and party. Those sermons need to be preached. But this is not that time.
This week, we have seen a lot of setbacks. Swastikas have been drawn in public places. Racial slurs have been written in schools. People have been verbally assaulted with the most vile racist, misogynist, and homophobic speech. The KKK, which until recently kept largely to the shadows, has come into the light of day. Too many of my friends who are Muslim, Jewish, LGBT, black, or brown are terrified. I know immigrants who now wonder if they have a home here. I have heard from women that our nation has become less safe. A lot of setbacks. A lot of fear. A lot of persecution. The arc of the moral universe seems stuck, or maybe even backwards.
We’ll never know, but I don’t imagine the proliferation of public hatred and intimidation would have been all that different if the election had turned out differently. This campaign season seems to have unleashed an ugly side of humanity. But it didn’t start with the campaign, did it? My African-American friends tell me that on election day eight years ago, they celebrated while also fearing a backlash from people who resented a black man in the White House. Those same friends tell me that it’s never been safe to drive through certain neighborhoods. Women have always had to work and live in a world that favors men. It’s not that our nation suddenly got racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic. It’s just more public now. So what’s a person to do? More to the point, what’s a Christian to do? What are we to do?
Just last week, we heard Jesus’ words of comfort to people who are vulnerable and afraid. We heard his disturbing words for the comfortable and maybe a little too secure. This is a sermon we need to hear again today.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you are sitting in this room today, and you are terrified or afraid, you should know two things. First, the God who raised Jesus from the dead is on your side. Second, the people all around you — the Body of Christ — see you, love you, and will stand with you against the powers and principalities of death and destruction.
If you are sitting in this room today, and you are wondering what to do, you should know two things. First, God’s teaching is clear that much is expected of you, and his judgement will be visited on the strong and mighty who do not come to the aid of the lost, the last, and the least. Second, you are not powerless. We are not powerless. We are the Body of Christ. Jesus is our Lord, not any flag or nation or idol. Jesus Christ went to hell and freed captives, so Jesus Christ can surely come to America and liberate our captivity to sin.
I do not believe for a second that God has sent this adversity. Nearly every time in the scriptures when difficulty comes to God’s people, the adversity does not come from God, but rather Almighty God promises to abide with God’s people in the midst of hardship. In other words, I don’t think God has done this to us, but I do believe God is with us, especially when we are most fragile and vulnerable.
In these times of trial and hardship, we are given an opportunity. As the Gospel says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” And so Christians have testified for centuries.
Against the power of empire, the early Christians testified, Jesus is Lord. Creeds are testimony. Tertullian, writing in the second century, said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Blood is testimony. Against the corruption and persecution of the church, reformers testified that God’s Word endures forever. The Bible is testimony. Slaves in this country testified as they sang songs of freedom, hope, and liberation. Spirituals are testimony. Against the Nazis, the confessing church testified that Word and Sacrament are the only things that matter. The church at its best is testimony. When Nazis ordered Jews to wear yellow badges, some Christians joined in solidarity and clothed themselves as Jews. Solidarity is testimony. Martin Luther King, Jr. testified with a great dream. Visions of righteousness and justice are testimony. Rosa Parks testified by keeping her seat on the bus. Sitting down or standing up are testimony. LGBT people testified with a glorious rainbow. Banners are testimony.
What is your testimony?
Silence, friends, is not an option. To remain silent is to bless what must be cursed, and cursing requires words.
What is your testimony?
What will this church do? What will we do with this great edifice? Will we open our doors as a place of sanctuary and refuge for the fearful? What will we do with our great wealth? What will we do with our voices and our presence in the city?
What is your testimony?
What will you do? Will you cry out for help, if you are afraid? Will you offer help, if you are strong? Will you place yourself in harm’s way to protect another? Will you speak of equality when racism is given voice? Will you challenge all our leaders to work for justice, freedom, and peace? Will you reject fear-mongering and offer hope?
What is your testimony?
Do not expect that it will be easy to testify. Do not imagine that you can do this and not get in trouble. Do not think that Christ Church Cathedral can side with the vulnerable and not become a notorious place in the city. If testimony is easy, we are not doing it right. But hear this: Jesus Christ promises that when we testify, we will gain our souls. We will gain our souls.
Dear friends in Christ, now is our time to testify. Now is our time to testify.
Photos by yours truly: Christ Pantocrator, central dome of Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and detail from Anastasis Icon Fresco at Chora Church in Istanbul.