Can I Get a Witness?

A sermon for Pentecost 12 (Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and Luke 12:49-56)

That great philosopher, Marvin Gaye, sings these words:

Is it right to be treated so bad
When you’ve given everything you had?
Can I get a witness?

Have you ever worked your hardest at something only to discover that no one else seems to notice it, and worse, they may even try to work against you?

Is it right to be treated so bad when you’ve given everything you had? Can I get a witness?

Have you ever explained and explained something, only to have people come back and bite you with comments about how they just couldn’t understand you?

Is it right to be treated so bad when you’ve given everything you had? Can I get a witness?

Have you ever loved with all your heart and discovered you were no longer loved in return?

Is it right to be treated so bad when you’ve given everything you had? Can I get a witness?

Have you ever spent a child-sized lifetime instructing your beloved offspring in the ways of the world, only to see that young person go and do the exact opposite of what you hoped?

God must feel that way all the time.

Oh, sure, somewhere someone is getting the message, actively loving God, reading the signs in the sky, living a life that leads to being part of that great cloud of witnesses.

But almost always, somewhere, there are regular people such as you and I who, even when we believe we are trying, cannot help disappointing God.

Jesus cries out his dismay in our passage from Luke. I often think his tone in storytelling is dry and almost sardonic, but here he becomes impassioned, nay, inflamed! He wants those listening to know that they are not with his program; what’s worse, he wants us to know it, too.

The second half of Luke’s gospel winds toward Jerusalem, and by this time, Jesus wonders if anyone will every understand him, if there will have been any point in being on earth at all. He speaks first to the disciples, and he challenges their ideas of him. He challenges our ideas, too. He makes it clear that being one of God’s people, being a witness for God, may well not be an easy road. We are so comfortable with an image of a candy-coated Jesus, a nice guy with a beard who asked us to love each other and had a special fondness for children. Isn’t that the Jesus we meet in Sunday School?

But in Luke 12, we meet a wild-eyed rabbi, so unusually wrought up that I considered calling this sermon “Jesus Loses It.”

Some of us lose it regularly. At our house we refer to it as having “a little nutty.” When things feel too hard or too complicated, when we are sure we know what’s right and can’t get the message across to whomever needs to hear it for whatever reason it’s not traveling, we may be inclined to lose it. I’d like to think that sort of expression of passion comes only when it’s related to an appropriately important matter, but I have to admit I have lost it over small things from time to time.

Can I Get a Witness? In other words, have you ever felt that way? Do you know what I’m talking about?

Jesus might as well say, “I have had it up to here with how slow you are!” And this is to the disciples. He might as well say, “I am on fire for God, and I thought after listening to me, you would be, too! I took on the strain of living in this human body, and it is literally going to kill me! You like to think of all that peace on earth jazz in the stories about my birth, but can’t you see that following me separates you from the rest of the world in some very important ways? I’ve got things to say that will stir you up, not settle you down! Following me is even going to break up families!!!”

Can I get a witness? He must have wondered if anyone would ever understand.

Jesus went on to give an earful to the crowd. “You set such store by the signs of the weather, but can’t you see what really matters?”

We don’t know for certain what Jesus meant when he talked about interpreting the present time. But I think we can guess that he wanted the people around him to understand that both his birth among us and his leaving us would be a sacrifice made out of a love that is not Hallmark-sweet but Lioness-fierce.

In our passage from Hebrews, we hear references to some of the faithful witnesses who understood that kind of courage. The letter was written to a community of Christians, most likely living in Rome in the second half of the first century. A generation, or maybe two, had been born since Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  He had not returned, as many people expected he would do soon, to bring God’s heavenly kingdom.  More than a letter, this is a sermon preaching hope and encouragement to a community of persecuted believers.  It wasn’t so much their belief in Jesus that got them into trouble, but rather their rejection of the Roman gods. They had to really believe that Jesus was the one and only way to God if they were willing to risk death for their beliefs.

Is it right to be treated so bad when you’ve given everything you had? Can I get a witness?

Hebrews is full of unique words and unusual phrases.  In Hebrews 12:1 we read, “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.”  “Clings so closely” is just one translation of a word coined by the unknown author of Hebrews, and a better translation may be “easily distracting.”  We might read it, then, “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that is so easily distracting.” What distracts us from living a life of faith?

It should be easier for us, shouldn’t it?  Here in Southern Vacationland, we Congregational people don’t face violent persecution for our faith. I don’t know the last time one of ours found herself thrown into an arena with the bears or the moose to be mauled and trampled. Our challenges are different. The early followers of Jesus believed he would soon return, but we have to find a way to live in anticipation after almost 2000 years of no return at all. We are asked to be witnesses to a faith that others increasingly find quaint or mysterious.

Yesterday I took my daughter to a Harry Potter-themed birthday party. I wanted to stop in and meet the birthday girl’s mother, since the family was new to me. I also needed to arrange for a pick-up time after church today. As I began to explain why I wouldn’t be available until later in the morning, I saw an odd look cross her face. There she was dressed as a fortuneteller, with a friend dressed as a witch and a house dressed up like scenes from Diagon Alley and Hogwarts School for Witches and Warlocks. I might as well have been speaking Portuguese when I told her I am a minister and would be preaching today.

Ever tell someone you go to church and see a reaction like that? Can I get a witness?

It’s tempting to say something else entirely. After all, I could have claimed a prior commitment, without specifying. I frequently talk about what I do to people I meet all over the place, but even I felt odd in that moment. It’s strange to think that witnessing to God might be as simple as mentioning church.

How do we act as witnesses? We have many opportunities. Sometimes it feels simple. We go to church. We give money and time to worthy causes. But we’re being called to more. We’re being called to the possibility of loss and separation and sacrifice. We’re being called to burn with the fire of Christ.

To burn with the fire of Christ: it sounds both beautiful and terrifying. Yet we know that throughout history the faithful have done it, enlarging the crowd of witnesses. It shakes me out of complacency and encourages me to persevere, no matter how the world cries that God does not matter anymore.

We are part of a community stretching back to Jesus and beyond, and we are not alone. When God calls, may we find courage in that cloud of witnesses, in their passion and strength. When God asks, “Can I get a Witness,” may we stand up and say, “Yes!”

5 thoughts on “Can I Get a Witness?”

  1. I think it happened to me for the first time this past week-end. Out to dinner with brother and his wife and friends of theirs we had run into, much drinking (not my thing, but they are all into wine-tasting) and frivolity, and at one point my brother, who is so excited about the whole thing said, “Guess what my sister’s about to do — she’s going to seminary!” Astonished and Very Polite Silence from the friends. I mentioned how excited I was, made the usual small talk fun of myself for moving into a dorm, and then went back to the conversation I had been having with the gentleman about the activities of their young adult children. I hope I conveyed that church and pastoring were activities engaged in by perfectly normal people who enjoy a lighthearted evening out, just like other people.

  2. I paused after saying “Marvin Gaye,” and got a sustained chuckle, and when we got to the question about getting a reaction from others about going to church, people responded audibly, so I would say they were with me!

  3. I too sometimes ponder my words before I tell folks what I do. Sometimes, especially if I am talking to my son’s teachers at the High School I may just say “I work at a church.” Working at a church would be ok in this conservative evangelical area, but a woman minister…their eyes say it all. So. Sometimes, to spare my son, I just tell the simple version.It took me several years and a few sad experiences to learn that. Isn’t is sad…
    I really like how you developed the theme of this sermon using Marvin Gaye to connect us to witness. I also like how you unpack the complexity of witnessing…with even the most minimal statment. I hope it was energizing to preach!

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