As we conclude our series on Discipleship Covenants, we come to the final mark of a disciple of Jesus, to Witness Boldly. The challenge of this covenant is that, as we see in the Acts story, we like our comfort zones. That like the authorities, we fear change and work to clamp down on whatever threatens our status quo. The thing of it is, to follow Jesus, to be a disciple of Jesus, to witness to God’s love that Jesus shows to the world, well, frankly, one can find oneself outside their comfort zone.
It can play out like this: Some months back I accepted a positon on my neighborhood’s HOA. I’m sure many of you have done likewise over the years. It is a way of serving and caring for the community in which you live; volunteering time to ensure a good neighborhood. Of course it doesn’t take long to realize that Tip O”Neil’s dictum, “All politics are local!” has a corollary, local politics always has the highest stakes.
The other night at our board meeting I had an experience that speaks to the pressure to witness. A resident came to the board with a concern. Before the resident could fully articulate the issue another board member cut the presenter off with some rather rude comments. The board member continued for some minutes, essentially belittling the presenter’s concern.
In a justified huff, the presenter walked out of the conversation. I can’t speak for the rest of the board, but I was stunned by the callousness of the board member. I was appalled by the statements. I felt empathy for the presenter. I wanted to rise up and shout, “wait a minute. I will listen to your concern! I will take your issue seriously!” And I said nothing! Concerned about antagonizing another board member or the whole board, still feeling like a newbie who doesn’t know fully all the backstories, interactions and connections of our community, I remained silent in the face of clear bullying behavior.
And so it goes in our comfort zones of life when we can be called on to witness to God’s love for all humanity as a disciple of Jesus.
The story of Peter and John in Acts this morning, is a vignette of a larger and longer story. Following the success of Pentecost, they head into the temple to preach some more. On the way in they encounter a lame man who is pleading for alms. With no money to give, Peter instead gives him healing in the name of Jesus. The people are amazed and listen as Peter speaks to the power of Jesus.
While the people are amazed and stirred up, the authorities are threatened. Three thousand signed up after Pentecost, and here’s another two thousand about to join So they do what threatened authority will always try to do, protect their power, their comfort zone. To protect their interests they arrest Peter and John. It is the conventional response to troublesome stirrings of new ideas, shut them down. Yet what is their crime, a good deed done to someone who was sick.
Faced with only that for a crime, the authorities do the next expected action of authoritarian rule; since they can’t hold them, they order Peter and John to keep quiet. And Peter responds: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
You know, we have found ourselves in a similar time. We live in an era when control of media and the press with claims of this is fake, or that is fake, when we find ourselves questioning the veracity of what we hear, and we do not so much as ban books, as create so many competing interpretations of truth that we find ourselves seeking to hunker down in what we believe are safe spaces, comfort zones.
So we can be lulled into thinking that all we need do is post the Ten Commandments in a public space, argue for Christian prayer in school or share a pithy meme on Facebook, and think we have set a witness. That’s a fallacy. That’s a technique to build a wall around our comfort zone and keep it safe from having to witness the love of Christ in a way or place that could threaten our own status quo.
Not long ago I saw one of those pithy social media memes that tries to distillate faith into a single thought. It is really not doable, but still, this one struck a note that connects: “It doesn’t matter if you can quote the Bible if you live like you never opened it.”
In a faith that celebrates the Incarnation – the Word of God made flesh- spiritualized jargon that does not ground itself in the five senses is anathema, that is banned. That is to say, posting the Ten Commandments or mouthing God talk without demonstrating it every day, in every way, in every relationship and encounter, is falling short of the bold witness discipleship demands.
Kathleen Norris tells of wondering during her college years if Jesus would have marveled at the letters her beloved grandmother wrote to her. Ordinary family news would fill a page or two, then she would turn to faith, “and her language would ascend to a realm in which the words were full of ether.” Norris continues: “I was both fascinated and repelled by language that, while it insisted that it was telling a personal story, had almost nothing of the personal, or even the human, in it. It seemed as if my grandmother’s considerable ego had been subsumed, imperfectly, into “Jesus” this and “Jesus” that. The heavyweight theological words were a code I could not crack; evidently they spoke only to the “saved.”
What Norris is getting at, is that in order for the language of our faith to be visible in the world, our words, like the Word, must become incarnate. They must become flesh, our flesh. That is our actions of everyday life. We must make them accessible to others. We must live so that our every action witnesses to our faith so that others may taste and see, hear and smell, and most important of all, touch the witness of faith.
Norris compares a poet, Emily Dickenson and a theologian hymn writer, Isaac Watts to make her point. She notes that “Dickenson inherited a great and overbearing vocabulary which, had she used it submissively, would have forced her to express an established theology and psychology. But she would not let that vocabulary write her poems for her. And that is the difference.” In poetry that touched on the feelings of everyday living and loving, on relationships between people, Dickenson gave life, flesh, to God-talk.
She goes on to compare Dickenson and Watts use of God-talk words like Immortality and Salvation. Embodying such words in her poems, Dickenson takes such words and makes them personal, they are redefined into daily practice.
Another way to note this is from the biography of St. Francis.
“It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”
“...As for me, I desire this privilege from the Lord, that never may I have any privilege from man, except to do reverence to all, and to convert the world by obedience to the Holy Rule rather by example than by word.”
To witness boldly as a disciple, then, is not so much about getting the words right, as it is about getting our lives right. And that may just take us some place we don’t want to go. But by golly, God wants us there!
Remember, to follow Jesus, the original disciples left what they knew, the fishing industry, and what they loved, their families.
My failure to act at board meeting was the kind of common, everyday missed opportunity that face each of us every day. On the one hand it speaks to Lincoln’s famous dictum from the Lincoln-Douglas debates: “Actions speak louder than words.” For me, however, it is a poignant reminder that I must incarnate the words of my faith. It also tells me, to witness boldly in life is not really about the big moments - when life and death truly may be on the line - it is more about the little moments, the moments of each exchange with another who, and whether I like them, agree with them or not, is a child of God’s love just as I am. And to care for others not like me can be downright uncomfortable.