An Opportunity to Testify
By Chris Paige
this text is based on a sermon delivered at
Tabernacle United Church, Philadelphia, PA
November 19, 1995
You will say in that day, I will give
thanks to you O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your
anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my
salvation; I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord God is my
strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you
will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in
that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known
his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be
known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal
Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
- Isaiah 12:1-6
When some were speaking about the temple,
how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to
God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days
will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will
be thrown down." They asked him, "Teacher, when will
this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take
place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led
astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and,
'The time is near!' Do not go after them. When you hear of wars
and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must
take place first, but the end will not follow immediately."
Then he said to them, "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. But before all this occurs,
they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over
to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings
and govenors because of my name. 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.
You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives
and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be
hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will
perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Where are we?
In this passage from the gospel of Luke, we find Jesus being asked about signs of the times. And he paints us a pretty dismal picture. My first reaction to being asked to preach on this text was "Oh boy, what have I gotten myself into now!?"
I hate this stuff! I hate it when religion is used to fill us with fear. Stories of cataclysmic ends and final judgements. All the world is a battlefield and we must choose sides--against one another. It just doesn't seem healthy.
And more importantly, it doesn't sound like the Gospel. Where's the compassion? The love? Where's the partnership and mutuality? The peace of God? And joy? Can this passage possibly hold a liberating message for us? Or just a confirmation of the despairing world we see everywhere around us?
Jesus was no fool. We can look around and see that he was right. Wars and insurrections. Nation against nation. Conflict on a grand scale at a societal level, with no apparent solutions in sight -- while structures and demands sap our strength and resources. We've got that today, don't we?
Earthquakes, famines, epidemics... Estranged from nature and the earth, at war with our own bodies and with the very environment in which we live. That's our story isn't it?
Friends and family members hurting one another. Pain caused by the ones who are closest to us. Alienation and abuse, even in our own personal lives. Well, I suppose we've got that too.
And he talks about the Temple being torn up by its very foundation. To the Hebrew people, the Temple in Jerusalem represented the very presence of God. And where do we find God today? In the church? Or alternative ministries that seek to embody the love and presence of God to all people? Sometimes. But we are still tired. Tired from this daily work of surviving. And we desperately need to find God's presence with us.
Called to Testify
So, what is Jesus trying to tell us about our place in this mess? He says, "This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance." And that's a tough line -- because it suggests the determination it can take to maintain a real sense of openess and vulnerability.
But I want to think more about this opportunity to testify. I mean, what will we say? I looked back at the Hebrew scripture reading for today. And it provided an answer of sorts...
You will say in that day, I will give thanks to you O Lord... Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid... With joy, you will draw water from the wells of salvation... And in that day, you will give thanks. Make known God's deeds. Proclaim God's name. Sing praises. Shout aloud and sing for joy -- for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. Shout aloud and sing for joy!
Now that sounds more like the gospel -- more like good news. But it doesn't sound too much like the world we live in -- if we bother to open our eyes.
So, maybe we can just hang onto this vision of the future--looking forward to a time when all the struggles will be over, when we will finally find joy and peace in our lives. And someday it'll come, right? Someday. Because Jesus said so, right? If we only we endure to the end. Someday.
But that's not what Jesus says. He doesn't call us into the future, he calls us into the present. The kingdom of God is in your midst. Now. It's here already.
Jesus doesn't say we'll testify with joy someday. Jesus says we are to testify in the midst of this present reality -- with all of it's pain and uncertainty. Even more than that, Jesus says we are to testify at the moments when things seem their worst. When our lives are in danger and when we are facing our greatest fears. We'll be put on trial and that is when we are called to testify.
And in that day, you will sing for joy.
It just doesn't sound possible. I mean we could discipline ourselves and somehow force ourselves "happy." But the real question would remain... How can we authentically sing with joy, when we are surrounded by systems of violence and death? How can we sing, when we are tired and worn out or when our resources are running on empty? How can we keep going with a song in our heart, when we are afraid for our very lives or livelihood? It seems like too much to ask -- but these are the real questions of our lives.
Jesus says, I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. And the writer of Isaiah says, In that day you will sing with joy.
This isn't some hocus pocus magic spirituality. This is practical advice about how to keep up the struggle for justice. Practical advice.
The Voice Within
Jesus says I will give you two things. When we skim over this passage, maybe we hear Jesus saying, I will give you answers. Words. Wisdom. You will write dissertations and study papers. You will publish reports. You will find solutions. Answers to the mighty questions that confront you in this world. And you will be victorious.
That's what we want to hear, isn't it? We want to hear him say, "I will give you security." But I don't think that's what he means. It's easy to read this passage passively. That we should just stand by and wait for something to happen. Something beyond our control. And in some ways that's a good corrective because we often rely too much on our own strength to get us through. But in other ways, that image can be terribly disempowering. And I don't think that's the whole picture.
In greek, the two words are stoma and sophia. These are the two things Jesus says he will send. While stoma is often translated as "words," it literally means "mouth." Jesus says, I will give you a mouth. I think that's a powerful image. Because clearly shows that we have an active part to play.
Whereas words are disembodied and supposedly universal, our mouths are clearly our own. Personal. Individual. Ours. We are not just given words. We are given a voice. A voice of our own.
And something happens when we find that voice from God. Something transformational happens. When we find that voice, we find the very presence of God deep within ourselves. And that is a sacred thing. It's communion with God -- deep within our heart and soul.
And when someone shares their voice, something miraculous happens. When someone shares their voice with us, we share the very presence of God between us. And that is a sacred thing. It's communion with God through one another.
Supporting One Another
But friends, it can be so hard to find those voices. And Jesus reminds us, so that we might remember. Because so much of this world is about hiding who we really are. About hiding what we really feel. And so much of this world is about other people telling us who we are -- or who we ought to be.
And it can be hard to resist the voices that tell us. Shut up. Be quiet. We don't want to hear who you are. We don't want to know how you feel. Just fall in line. Take your place. Do your job. We don't want to know.
It's so hard to resist those voices -- and we can't do it alone. That's why communities of support are so important. That's why good friends and supporters and mentors are so important. We need somebody speaking God's voice to us.
Somebody who says, "I see you... I see you and I see God in you... I see you and you are so precious." Somebody who says, "I see you and I want to hear what you have to say... I want to hear the voice that God has given you... I want to hear who you really are." We need people in our lives speaking that voice of God to us. Because sometimes it's so hard to hear on our own.
I've been blessed by many people in my life, but I want to tell you about some important friends in college. Friends who said, "We love you Chris. We want to hear what you have to say."
And when I came to them and nervously said, "I think I'm a lesbian." They said, "We love you Chris. We want to hear what you have to say." And they said, "Thank you... Thank you for honoring us with your voice. Thank you for showing us who you really are." They said "Thank you." They empowered me with that unconditional invitation. They honored me with their response and affirmation.
And many people have spoken that voice of God to me. And those voices have been so important in my life -- helping me to discover who God is calling me to be.
I hope you've got voices like that in your life. Because you see, we've got to do that for one another. We've got to invite each other to speak with the voices that God has given us. We've got to call God's voice out of one another. And call God into our midst--into that space between us. We've got to do that for one another.
And something happens when we do. Something happens when God's words stop being disembodied figments of our imagination. When God's words find their way into our mouths -- for us to speak them. Into our bodies -- that we might live them. Something happens.
Singing for Joy
Jesus said, I will give you a mouth. A voice. And Wisdom.
And do you know who She is? Wisdom is more than an intellectual idea. Wisdom is part of the ancient Hebrew tradition--part of the tradition Jesus inheirited.
In Greek, the word for wisdom is Sophia. And that's the word in this text. She's a person not a concept. And there is no doubt in my mind that Jesus knew who she was (and is).
In Proverbs, we are told that Wisdom calls out to us. Having set out a table before us, she says "Come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed." Indeed, a table has been set for us. And we are invited to come eat of the bread and drink of the wine. To use our mouths.
Jesus says, I will give you a voice and wisdom.
In Proverbs, we also read that Wisdom participated in the entire process of creation. It says, "She was rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race." When I hear about Sophia-Wisdom rejoicing and delighting, I see this vision of a woman. She's singing. She's dancing. And she is filled with joy.
That's a revelation of God, my friends. She's alive. So very alive. And She has everything to do with the power of creation -- and the spirit of new life. She has everything to do with resurrection. With hope and joy overcoming despair. She has everything to do with singing a new song in a frightening land.
And Jesus reminds us: In the midst of this pain, I will give you wisdom. In the midst of this death, I will give you life. In the midst of your struggle and fear, you are still alive. In the midst of your isolation and alienation, you are not alone.
He's reminding us: In the midst of your tears, I will make you dance. He tells us: I will give you Wisdom. Sophia. And she will be with you giving you life, even as the world tries to take it away.
She is with us.
And we must let this passionate energy of God out of our heads and into our lives where it can grow. We talk about accepting Christ in our hearts, but we've got to go further than that. We've got to take a resurrected Christ into our mouths -- and speak him to world. We've got to find our voices. We've got to find Sophia deep within ourselves. And we've got to be willing to dance with her.
Friends, we've got to be willing to sing the song that God has given us. And sing it boldly. Because the world needs to hear it desperately.
So what should we say when we are confronted with the very forces of death? When we are called to testify? Should we defend ourselves? No. Let us make up our minds about this.
We'll invite them to sing with us. We'll invite them to join in the dance. We'll invite their spirits to come out. To be liberated from their chains. We'll show them that they don't need to hide.
We'll speak to them with this voice that feels Sophia-Wisdom rejoicing and delighting within us. We'll show them the joy and passion that comes from knowing that we are loved by God. And we'll invite them to feel it for themselves.
And when we forget. We have to remind one another.
Jesus said, I will give you a voice and Wisdom.
Sing with Sophia.
Dance with a resurrected Christ.
And embody the love of God to one another.
Because something happens when we do.
And it's the power of a new creation. Amen. Blessed be.
"An Opportunity to Testify" by Chris Paige; http://www.angelfire.com/on/otherwise/paige.html
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