Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
Warning: this is going to be one of the scariest sermons you’re ever going to hear.
I’m invoking the poet and author Annie Dillard, who said, It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares.
So you have been duly warned.
Now you might be thinking that I’m going to preach a fire and brimstone sermon about the wages of sin and the threat of eternity in the flames of hell. But you’d be wrong. Or you might think this is going to be one of those intimidating stewardship sermons, which will end with a plea to log into Vanco right now and give until it hurts. Nope, not that either.
Today, I am going to be talking about a word that makes Lutheran Christians shake in their shoes. I’m talking about witnessing. I’m sorry, I really am. It’s unavoidable. Jesus has the last word in today’s gospel reading: “You are witnesses of these things.”
Granted, we’re not the only Christians who quake at the idea of witnessing about our faith. But since Garrison Keillor made a living out of portraying Lutherans as shy, unassuming, self-effacing people, we have a reputation to live down. So, while I know that some people do find it easy to do, I’m going to make a wild guess that 99% of you would say that – even if we were not sheltering in a pandemic – you would not relish the idea of walking out your door and start talking to passers-by about your faith.
Well then, what are we to do with these words of Jesus? For starters, we could say that he wasn’t talking about us. He was talking to those eyewitnesses who had seen the post-resurrection appearances, had seen Jesus walk through doors, heard him ask for something to eat, met him and talked with him on the road, read the scriptures and broke bread with him. We’re not eyewitnesses to these things. Whew! We’re off the hook.
Except then we’ve forgotten the words from last week that Jesus spoke to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
That makes us witnesses, too.
The gospel writers took great pains to convey the stories of eyewitnesses to appearances of Jesus after the resurrection. And as much as they can cause us to scratch our heads and wonder what exactly happened in these sightings, we can understand that they experienced a profound encounter with Divine Mystery.
What’s particularly touching about Luke’s description of this appearance is that, even though the disciples responded to this encounter with a mixture of joy and doubt and wonder, they were still called to be witnesses. Spiritual experience, rational questions, and conflicting emotions were all bundled together in those very-human disciples, just as they are in us. They discovered that a big part of being followers of Jesus now, post-resurrection, was to be witnesses, even with their doubts and fears. And if it was true for them, then we’re certainly not exempt. We’re called to be witnesses to what God has done – and is still doing
Now, I get that there’s a further reason for us to shy away from this ‘witnessing’ word. We’ve probably all been accosted by enthusiastic believers who want to testify to their version of the true faith. So let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that we join the crowd that tries to shove their faith down people’s throats or threatens them with eternal damnation if they don’t believe as they do. I’m sure that’s not what Jesus had in mind.
So then the question is: if we’re called to get over our shyness and be witnesses – but not that kind of witness – how do we do it? What do we say? How do we do it without being offensive? How can we take the scariness out of witnessing?
First of all, let’s take it out of a religious context. If you’ve been keeping up with the news at all, you’ve heard what witnesses have had to say about the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright. Maybe you saw the video of the witness who described the killing of eight people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis on Thursday. Perhaps you have even been called upon to bear witness in court to something you saw. The point of telling your story is to hopefully contribute to the revelation of truth in the pursuit of justice.
I never had to testify in court but I did witness a bank robbery once. After the robber had run in, jumped over the counter, grabbed some cash and run out again, the doors were locked, and all the customers had to stay until the FBI could come and interview us. Once I told them what I had seen, I was allowed to leave. All I had to do was simply tell my truth.
That’s a dramatic example, but the fact is we do witness all the time. We talk about things that are important or of interest to us. We might tell someone (bear witness) to a great movie we’ve seen and think they’ll enjoy. Or a book we’ve read, a video game we’ve played, or a binge-worthy Netflex series.
We bear witness to the accomplishments (or failures) of our sports teams. We bear witness to important events in our family or work lives. It’s as simple as that. We bear witness to things that matter to us.
So let’s practice.
Think about something you often talk about, something you love – sports, work, family, school, tv, music, whatever. Think of something about that subject that’s happened recently. Don’t overthink it. Remember, we’re not talking about ‘witnessing’ in the church sense.
Does anyone have something they’d be willing to share? This is a relatively safe place. Just speak simply and conversationally about it. Don’t worry if you’re doing it right. You can’t go wrong when you’re sharing about something you love. Not too intimidating, right?
OK, now take a deep breath as we move into the church zone.
And let’s consider that witnessing is not all that different when it comes to your faith. Witnessing is simply saying where you sensed or experienced God in your life – at home or work, through a stranger or friend, a doctor or teacher or neighbor, something you read or heard, even through yourself. It could be through the work of the government or school or the church or through someone else’s life. Bearing witness is nothing more than saying where you think God is at work in your life and the world. We witness all the time; we’re just not used to thinking about doing it in terms of our faith. It doesn’t take any fancy church-y language. All it takes is a simple story of what you yourself experienced.
Here we are, almost in the middle of the Easter season. Easter Sunday was the high holy day of belief in the possibility that good can triumph over evil, beauty can overcome beastliness, that there can be hope for a way through whatever challenges confront us.
On one of the news shows the other night, in the midst of a difficult conversation on race relations in our country, Rev. Al Sharpton was surprisingly optimistic. He credited two things that give him hope. He said,
When I’ve lived long enough and fought in the civil rights movement long enough to see chiefs of police get on the stand against a policeman and Pat Robertson come out for police reform, I know there is a possibility that we can turn this country around.
He didn’t frame it as such, but that was a witness to resurrection. Another panelist on the show was less optimistic – for some very good reasons. Oftentimes, we proclaim resurrection while we’re still entombed in Holy Saturday. But I like to think that his witness sparked some small flicker of hope in her that can grow and sustain her. Sharpton isn’t naïve; he ended the quote “I know there is a possibility that we can turn this country around” with “if we don’t get weary in our well-doing.”
So, in these 50 days of Easter, I am encouraging you to be on the lookout for signs of resurrection life. Not just on Sunday morning, but in the news, with the family, at work, at school, at any and all places – even the ones most impossible to imagine such a thing.
Here’s another resurrection story. I recently read an article about 185 baby tortoises recovered from a smuggling attempt from the Galapagos Islands. In Googling around for more information, I learned that just six years ago ten baby tortoises were seen on the Galapagos Island of Pinzon. The ten new hatchlings were the first bred in the wild in more than a century. Recent surveys suggest that there are now more than 500 tortoises estimated to be now living on the island.
This is a resurrection story – good news to those of us who sometimes wonder if there is any hope for our planet. Now we could put this down to human activity, our conservation efforts. And we would be correct – to a point. However, I believe there is even more to it. The God of creation and redemption is never inactive. The story of the baby tortoises is a witness of God’s resurrection work in the world – working through us, through human repentance and commitment, as well as through the healing power of the earth that is part of the body of God – “if we don’t get weary in our well-doing.”
Now, if I were to tell these stories in a non-church setting, I might say something like: “you know my pastor is always encouraging us to look for signs of hope in the world, especially in places you wouldn’t expect to find it. I’m going to tell this one next time in church.”
Of course, that might open you up to further questions – especially if they didn’t know you were a religious person. So you have to be prepared to say more. But don’t be afraid. Because you know what, those first witnesses were afraid, too – which was the reason for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit then and now, and the on-going support of our church community. So take a deep breath of Holy Spirit and speak your truth.
So now that I’ve told you a couple of my witness stories, maybe you’ve had time to think of one of your own. What has God been up to in your life or in the world as you’ve observed it? Would you be willing to tell your story? Anybody want give it a try? If not today, that’s OK; we have another 35 days of Easter. And then it’s Pentecost, so who knows what might happen then! During Easter, we’re going to collect our resurrection stories. And we’re going to practice witnessing. Because like everything else, it gets easier with practice.
Maybe you could even find a trusted friend or family member who could be your witnessing partner. You could each make a commitment to remember these times of noticing and share them at some point each week. That way you can practice with somebody you trust until you feel more comfortable and willing to tell your story to whoever happens to be listening – in your own natural, unassuming, shy-Lutheran way.
Then, when it’s not so scary any longer, all you’ll have to worry about are the fire and brimstone sermons and multiple offering plates. And I really don’t think you need to be concerned about them here.
You are witnesses of these things: the all-encompassing love of God, the compassionate justice-seeking of Jesus, and the power of Divine Presence to bring new life out of the many death-dealing experiences we face.
We are witnesses of these things. Together we are a community of witnesses. And we will not be afraid.
Luke 24: 36b-48
While they were still talking about this, Jesus actually stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
In their panic and fright, they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus said to them, “Why are you disturbed? Why do such ideas cross your mind? Look at my hands and my feet; it is I, really. Touch me and see—a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones as I do.” After saying this, Jesus showed them the wounds.
They were still incredulous for sheer joy and wonder, so Jesus said to them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” After being given a piece of cooked fish, the savior ate in their presence. Then Jesus said to them, “Remember the words I spoke when I was still with you: everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the psalms had to be fulfilled.”
Then Jesus opened their minds to the understanding of the scriptures, saying, “That is why the scriptures say that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. In the Messiah’s name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
“You are witnesses of these things.”