Testimony (A sermon)

In my Bible study class, we have been reading from the Old Testament prophets. It’s is pretty tough stuff, filled with images of unrelenting warfare, destruction and desolation; stories of people streaming away from smoking cities, seeking refuge; of people being rounded up and led away into exile, with hooks around their necks. Amid all this, the prophets were engaged with an existential question: If God is on our side, then why was the the center of our life together (the Temple) destroyed and God’s people scattered or taken captive?

Various prophets voice various “reasons” for the destruction. Some cite wrongful worship: You have bowed down to idols, they say, and have been unfaithful to your God. Others cite political maneuverings: You put your trust in, and made alliances with, Egypt or Assyria instead of trusting your God. Still others point to injustice in society: your leaders push aside the people they are supposed to be caring for to get to the food and water first; and you yourselves, like heedless animals going to the river to drink, thoughtlessly foul everyone else’s water with your feet. You trample the poor and the needy and do not care for the widow and orphan or show hospitality to the alien in your land, and therefore God is turning the Divine face away from you, they say.

It’s a complicated mix of religion, politics, governance, and morality.

For me, this election season has been something of a parallel to my study. It’s felt like a long siege, rife with accusations, dire predictions, handwringing, and angry blaming. On occasion I have participated in all of the above, and on occasion I’ve just tried to keep my head down, hoping that once the election was over, the anger and fear would abate. 

But it has not. 

Many of us are not comfortable with this level is discord and wish to move past it quickly. We are polite Virginia Episcopalians and there’s a certain veneer under which we place our differences. But Tuesday’s election results made this perfectly clear: we the people are not united, and calls to national unity right now, while no doubt made in good faith, are like rushing to put a band-aid on a broken heart, like asking a still-shaking victim to gloss over abuse to make an abuser feel better. Some among us are truly grieving. And some among us - some of your own fellow parishioners who have gotten in touch with me and other staff here - feel unsafe and afraid, for themselves, their children, their friends. And some among us may be very surprised and frankly bewildered by the feelings of others. We do not all see things from the same vantage point and perhaps have not yet learned to truly hear one another. 

But here we are in church together, listening for the word of God, wondering what are we called to now, as the people of God, in this divided nation?

Today Jesus says this: In times of upheaval, you will be given an opportunity to testify. And by your endurance, you will gain your soul. 

This is a time for us to testify to our faith. And here is the testimony I believe we - you and I - are called to give, no matter which political side we are on: That God is love. That God says the outcast, the poor, the alien, the lost are precious. That we - you and I - denounce hateful language, bullying, threats, intimidation, bigotry of every kind, harassment, contempt, vandalism and violence. That we - you and I - stand up for the powerless and marginalized and take their situations seriously. And I mean that literally - if you see someone being talked to or treated badly, say something. But say it directly to the person who is being hateful, without resorting to hate yourself. 

Testifying is not just about using words. We - you and I - are called to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to welcome the stranger. We are called to work for their welfare as well as our own. We may have to think pretty hard, and get way outside our comfort zones, to determine exactly who are neighbors are and how exactly we are needed to love them. We are called to sometimes actually go stand beside someone who needs protection - even to go out and find them so we can stand beside them, remembering that perhaps we do not know them and so need to develop relationship with them - and to teach our children to do so, too.

We always are called to do these things, of course. This is our work for life as followers of Jesus. But our testimony to and in the world as faithful witnesses of the Gospel is crucial now, in the wake of such obvious division. This is a time for the Church to be the Church - as a body and for us as individual Christians - and shine the light of Christ as brightly as we possibly can, by our words and our deeds. And by our endurance, we will gain our souls.

Most of the prophets spoke not only of destruction, but also of reconciliation and restoration. And of course eventually that’s what we all hope for. God is going to bring good out of chaos, in God’s time. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and we will not study war any more. God will return the people from captivity. There will be no more weeping or children born for calamity, and the people will live in peace. The vision of the new Jerusalem, where there is no more hurt or destruction, is a vision we desperately need to hold on to. God will have a beautiful new song for us to sing, some day, a song of delight to which even the rivers will clap their hands.

Some day. But right now, with God’s help, we the people of God together have work to do.