Testify!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Testify!

 

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC November 113, 2016, the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost.

Text:  Luke 21:5-19

 

I begin today by telling my truth:  this past week has been excruciatingly painful and difficult.  In past presidential elections, my preferred candidate has lost plenty of times.  That’s not what this is about.  What I’m dealing with grows out of the convictions of my faith and the contours of my experience.  My faith and experience have raised concern and discomfort about both Democrat and Republican candidates and administrations in the past.  What is happening now, however, feels like a whole new category of concern.  I’m not so naïve to have believed that a campaign fueled by fear, bullying, and boldfaced racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and prejudice of every kind couldn’t win.  But I was caught off-guard by the depth of my reactions to the election results—grief, rage, humiliation, the visceral sense of my own vulnerability as a woman and survivor of sexual assault; and painful awareness of the much greater vulnerability of my sisters and brothers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, black, brown, immigrants, Muslim, disabled, or poor.  I haven’t even begun to unravel my thoughts and feelings about the hypocrisy represented by the polling data related to Christians. Add to that, worry about the safety of the planet and our relationship with nations around the world… I know full well that there are others who are having different reactions to the past week, who hold very different perspectives, many of which are truly not fueled by hatred.  I am profoundly grateful that we live in a country in which the transfer of power is accomplished without violence—something I pray we as a nation never undermine or take for granted.  But today, I feel I must begin with the truth of where I am.  I am anxious and fearful for people I love and for what may be in our collective future as a nation.

 

In our Gospel assigned for today from Luke, those who heard Jesus must have felt the same way as he predicts the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. The temple represented not only the center of religious and civic life, but also the very presence of God among the people.  Nothing would have felt more devastating.  For us to make any sense of this passage, it helps to understand that the author of Luke is writing around fifteen years after Jerusalem was sacked by Rome in 70 CE.  When Luke’s version of the Jesus story got into the hands of the early Christians, the whole story had already happened—including what Jesus talks about in our passage today:  not one stone of the temple left upon another, nation against nation, arrests, persecutions, betrayals.  All of these have occurred.  The Romans have killed the Jews—including Jewish Christians—and have razed Jerusalem.  Those holding the book of Luke for the first time are people who have suffered, are suffering, persecuted for who they are, persecuted for their faith, persecuted by those in power, reviled by family and friends, and some even tortured and murdered.  The first hearers of this text know this story.  It has already happened TO THEM—the pain still fresh, the dust still settling… I imagine them adding their own, personal stories to the accounts of persecution. Into the flow of memory and pain, Jesus throws a line, teaching that even victims, those powerless against stronger forces, have the power to choose what they believe and to be a witness: “This [awful situation] will give you an opportunity to testify.”  These are not words only pointing backward to those who have already stood firm in their faith.  These are words for those reading the story—those who are still suffering, still struggling, still being persecuted and facing trials and temptations.  These are words for us today.

 

Today, this gathered body and our nation as a whole is facing trials and temptations. There is suffering and struggle, division and demonization, anger and confusion, fear and deep uncertainty.  I hear blame flowing in every possible direction.  Theories about what is going on in our nation abound.  The “problem” is described in terms of rural versus urban, white versus black, educated versus under-educated, establishment versus anti-establishment, rich versus poor. “Versus” is the common denominator… The “problem,” depending upon who is speaking, is “coastal elites” or immigrants or evangelicals or Muslims or the media… // The best I can tell, there is not just one “problem” but rather a whole mess of deep-seated, and often interrelated issues that have contributed to our current situation.  In this and every moment of deep division and struggle, subtlety and nuance and the realities of history and complex intersections in human community are often lost as we cast about for some scapegoat for our own anxiety and fear and rage.  But there is no quick “fix.” Blaming someone won’t bring transformation. 

 

This is not to say that there is nothing to be called out, renounced, and challenged.  Lord knows Jesus didn’t mince words with purveyors of injustice.  But Jesus never ever acted with violence or hatred or deceit.  He was angry at the death-dealing ways of Empire; he was angry at the perversion of religious law. But Jesus’ anger was fueled by his love for people and a desire for all people to experience the liberating love of God and life in God’s Kin-dom; it was not an anger seeking a scapegoat, but rather reconciliation, mercy, and justice. 

 

You and I find ourselves in this complicated and volatile moment in our nation’s history, gathered as a community who bear the name of Jesus the Christ.  And Jesus speaks to us today saying: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”  What will your testimony be?  How are you going to respond?  How are you going to choose to live?

That has been the question I’ve asked myself again and again over these past days.  The challenge has been to feel what I feel even as I keep perspective of the larger picture, to resist being pulled into polarized, absolutized, scapegoating and blaming scenarios on the one hand, and to resist capitulation to any easy “peace” on the other.  The struggle is real!   But my simple grounding is this:  I am a Jesus-follower and that means I am called to love, compassion, forgiveness, and humility.  I am called to sacrificial solidarity with the most vulnerable.  I am called to non-violent resistance to empire and to courageous renunciation of weaponized religion.  I am called to mutual respect and reconciliation as I seek fulfillment of God’s vision of a peaceable Kin-dom.  In other words, I am called to Love God. Love each “other.” Change the world. 

 

Here at 16th and P Street, NW, we find ourselves called into a great struggle for the heart and soul of our nation and of our church and of the Christian faith itself.  This struggle is not new; it has been going on in every age and generation around the globe—it is the ongoing struggle for God’s vision of love and mercy and peace with justice to appear on earth as it is in heaven.  The struggle is not new, but this is our time, our moment in the struggle.  This struggle, Jesus reminds us, provides an opportunity to testify.  What will our testimony be?  Love God. Love each other. Change the world.  That has been our testimony here at Foundry and it will continue.  Our testimony will be to try to follow Jesus who laid down his life for the sake of love and justice.  Our testimony will be to support policies and politicians that support the wellbeing of all people.  Our testimony will be to challenge any policy or politician that does harm.  We will continue to proclaim and seek concrete ways to witness that Black Lives Matter.  We will continue to embrace and cherish LGBTQ persons, families, and marriages.  We will continue to advocate for the poor and homeless, to feed the hungry, to walk gently upon this planet.  We will continue to be Foundry and to do what we know we are called to do. But here’s the thing: I believe this work will require even more from us in the years to come. Already dangerous streets will likely become more dangerous, not less.  We must not only be alert to emerging needs for care, sanctuary, and support, but we simply must stay in the struggle for the long haul.  Jesus says, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Where does the endurance come from?  How do we find the energy and will to persevere?  How do we manage to keep perspective and to be wise and discerning when all the forces in the world make us want to revert to the reptilian brain of reactivity, fight or flight, scapegoating, and all the rest, when grief tempts us to fall into the abyss?  The endurance we need is not something that we can achieve by our own strength.  We need help.  And our help comes from God.  If we lose our ability to trust in the promise of God’s presence, God’s goodness, God’s faithfulness, then we are sure to fall into despair or worse.  New every morning, we have to choose…choose to trust God’s love, choose to trust that God’s vision of peace is more than a pipe dream, that the lions and the lambs, the hawks and the doves, will not hurt or destroy, that justice will finally reign, that holocaust of people and of creation will cease, that people will learn to love one another and that the church will one day be the resurrected Body of Christ and not just the crucified and broken Body.  We need to trust that God’s love has triumphed even when the empire strikes back and seems to be winning the day.  We need to trust that our lives are part of God’s life and that God will give us grace in order to not only withstand the pains of life, but also to act, to testify to our faith, hope, and love in the midst, that God’s grace will help our lives be concrete signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.

Towers and temples fall, illusions crumble, eco-systems disappear, empires come and go, flood and fire are real, hearts are broken, bodies age, fall ill, and die.  “Heaven and earth will pass away,” says Jesus, “but my words will not pass away.” (Lk. 21:33)  Jesus’s words and life testify to this truth:  what truly endures is God—God’s presence, God’s Word, God’s promise, God’s love; GOD endures.  Forces seen and unseen keep trying to run God off and stamp God out and break God down.  They thought they had done it when they tore down the temple. They thought they had done it when they nailed Jesus to a tree.  But the love of God is stronger than every evil, every suffering, every death-dealing, destruction-seeking power.  Everything else falls apart and passes away, but God is indestructible.  And by God’s amazing grace at work in our lives, here and there and now and again our own little lives will testify to that truth even though some call us fools.  Our hope draws us forward into a life that requires engagement in the struggle, a life that is not free from pain, uncertainty and risk, but that is full of meaning, vitality, and love.  Our hope is not in vain.  What we hope for has already happened, after all.  We know the story of the cross. And we know the story of Easter morning.  And we are an Easter people—so even now in the face of this present moment of struggle:  hope, love, trust, be brave… this will be powerful testimony.  Hold on to each other.  God holds on to us from age to age until all things are made new.