Thursday, May 1, 2008

Can I Get a Witness?

This sermon was enhanced by the use of a vintage recording of the Perry Mason theme song. You'll have to use your imagination.

Sixth Sunday of Easter
John 14:15-21
I Peter 3: 13-20
Acts 17: 22-31

(Perry Mason theme up)
What’s that music bring to mind? That’s right! Perry Mason!
Perry Mason. Movies and TV shows like Perry Mason: 12 Angry Men. To Kill a Mockingbird. Witness for the Prosecution. Anatomy of a Murder. Kramer vs. Kramer. Law and Order. Ironsides. LA Law. The O.J. Trial. The People’s Court. Judge Judy.
Courtroom dramas are a staple part of American arts and entertainment. There is something innately engaging about the justice system and how it works. I’m not sure what makes it so fascinating, but it must have something to do with the fact that every case is a contest, two sides, opposing interests, the tension of figuring out who will come out on top.
And though we love to watch trials and lawyers and courtrooms on TV and in the movies, most of us do our best to avoid being part of the drama. We say, “Who am I to judge?” We don’t want to be a plaintiff. We REALLY hope to avoid being a defendant. We don’t even like to get the letter calling us to come to the courthouse and serve as jurors.
But there is one courtroom role that, as Christians, we cannot avoid – we cannot avoid being a witness. Sure, we may not have to go to the courthouse and take the stand. We may not have to put our hand in the air (witnesses don’t actually swear on the Bible any more, so the picture on the bulletin is sort of anachronistic, but never mind that!) and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But, just by virtue of being a follower of Jesus Christ, we will be called upon to witness to our faith.
The acoustics in this sanctuary are phenomenal. And I think the sound I just heard was a whole lot of folks pointing the remote at me and hitting the mute button. I’m aware that very few people are interested in “witnessing” in the way we usually use that term. Am I right?
When we think of witnessing, we think of those people who ring our doorbells to try to give us a Watchtower or a Book of Morman. Or times when we’ve seen someone passing out tracts with the Four Spiritual Laws.
So – when I say that all Christians, including those in this room, are going to have to “witness” to our faith, that’s not what I mean. So “unmute” me and hear what the scriptures we read this morning have to say about witnessing. I want to do the Calvinist thing, and look to what scriptures says about witnessing. One of the reasons I’m Presbyterian is because I believe that when I look at things through the lense of the Bible, God shows me things I couldn’t figure out about life. Like why and how to be a good witness.
The “why?” of good witnessing is plain when we look at the whole scope of the Bible. There are over 100 references to witnesses of various kinds in the Old Testament:
The death penalty could only be given if there were two witnesses.
One of the 10 Commandments is the COMMANDMENT to be a truthful witness.
When we turn to the New Testament, we find:
The Gospel of John says that there was a witness to God’s Word becoming flesh.
Acts talks about the early church witnessing. So does Paul. So does Revelation.
We’d all agree that when everybody agrees on everything, there is no need for a witness. But when things are in dispute, when a shared understanding of what has happened has not been reached, when one party says X occurred, and someone else says, No, it was Y. Then a witness - someone who has seen the action first hand - can play an important role in clarifying the situation. The question of a life with God is a case that many people have not decided yet. They are still weighing the evidence.
That’s why every Christian is called to be a witness – because the world does not yet agree that God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. That’s the situation. But not everyone has rendered a verdict. So witnesses are still being called to take the stand. Your testimony may be vital in important cases!
I Peter puts it this way, “always be ready to give a good account of the hope that you have within you.” One thing about Peter and the church he was writing to: They were being tried themselves in ways that we probably cannot fathom. The Christian faith was actually illegal and people who practiced that faith were detained, questioned, tortured, and killed.
The church suffered then, as it suffers still in many parts of the world. We have very little experience of that. Yet, even in the midst of persecution, it is worth noting that Peter counsels his church to witness to the HOPE that they have within them. They are hopeful, even while suffering. And he tells them to do it with gentleness and respect. Make your witness with gentleness and respect.
Want a fuller picture of what that kind of witness might look like? Look at how Paul witnesses to the Athenians at the Areopagus.
Before Paul ever opened his mouth, he took the time to get to know the Athenian culture. For day, he walked around the marketplace, observed the religious places, talked to the Athenians about the significance of their beliefs. He was laying the groundwork for making a connection to them.
I think we teach our children well when we take a Sunday School trip to synagogue, studied what Islamic people believe, even had a unit on Hinduism and Buddhism. How much do we know about our Muslim neighbors? How much do we know about our neighbors who practice no formal religion at all? The more we know, the better position we put ourselves in to be able to deliver a true word about God is a way the person hearing us understands.
Paul’s example shows us that Christianity can be proclaimed in a pluralistic, diverse, heterogeneous world. In stark contrast to that openness to others, look at another religion that has been in the news all week – the Fundamentalist sect in Texas, where everyone was separated from the world, outsiders were demonized, and fear of the world was inculcated in every child.
In contrast, Paul studied the alien culture in which he found himself. He saw the commonalities – and presumed that Athenians wanted to know God and live good lives, just as he did. So he opened his witness by saying, “I can tell that you are very spiritual people. And he described how they shared in the human quest he calls “groping for God”.”
I challenge you to look around at the people you know, and the real people you read about, or meet out “in the world” – wherever that is for you – and look at your own life, too – and understand some of the puzzling things people say or do as “Groping for God”. Blindly, perhaps, without a clear idea what to grasp, but groping for God. See if you don’t agree that it’s a surprisingly gentle and generous way to understand what people are about.
Paul took, as an article of faith, that a loving, universal God would be working among strangers as well as friends. So Paul witnessed without condemnation or fear, to the way God, who is groped after by all humans, had become human in order to reach out to our groping hands and lead us to God’s own self.
He didn’t even mention Jesus by name. But Jesus’ Spirit is in every word that he speaks. It is as if the Advocate – the Lawyer – the Counselor that Jesus promised is right there, whispering into Paul’s ear. -
Can we do what Paul did? Enter the world of people groping after God, point out that they, too, are children of the God who we know and love? And help them to understand that, in Jesus Christ, God has shown us perfectly what He is like and what our lives can be like as well? With a little help from “the Advocate” – of course we can.
And then, can we just back off and let God take it from there? I’m thinking that the author of Acts was surprisingly candid and helpful when he tells us the response of the crowd at the Areopagus to Paul’s witness. Acts says that, of the people who heard Paul’s witness that day at the Areopagus, some sneered, some said, “Interesting. Maybe later I’ll hear you again.” And a few believed.
Even with this incredibly well prepared, well delivered, gentle and respectful, there wasn’t an overwhelming instantaneous response. Paul’s witness was good. The results . . . so so. But the result is not up to us. We are not responsible for saving people’s souls with our witness. God will take care of that. All we are responsible for is truthfully telling what a relationship to God has meant for us. God will take it from there, if we will simply be prepared to account for the hope that is in us, gently and with respect.
(Perry Mason theme up)
That is what makes being a witness. . . fun . . . like watching an old episode of Perry Mason. Because, when you watched Perry Mason, you knew that, in the end, no matter what it took, Perry was going to make things come out right. On a more profound level, it’s the same way with God.
We can trust that God will take care of the other person, just as He takes care of us. We are not called to judge or jury. Our call is to be a witness.

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