Sermon from the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | The twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, November 13, 2016
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In this Gospel lesson we just heard (Luke 21:5-19), Jesus warns his followers about trials and tribulations that will proceed the final judgment of humanity. Even the mighty stones of God’s temple will tumble down. And those who follow Jesus will endure persecution and betrayal, even by those in their own families. It’s not a hopeful picture. But Jesus says that in the midst of this, you will have an opportunity to testify, an opportunity to bear witness with words and wisdom that God will provide. In the midst of chaos, in the midst of things falling apart, there will be opportunities to testify. And God will help us bear that witness with grace.
So, on the Sunday after an election, I would not have picked this particular Gospel passage. I would have picked something about loving your neighbor or about reconciliation or something along those lines, but here (it comes around every three years in the lectionary) we have the end of the world. And there are some here today feeling, wondering, “Is it the end of the world?” And there are some who have come here today who are hopeful and excited about the results of the election. And there are some here today who are just tired of hearing about the election. And there some of you here today who had other things going on this week. You had someone sick or you, yourself, had a health crisis, or a death in the family, or a hard time at work…other priorities going on. We gather here today with whatever it is we are bringing. I was reminded, seeing stories of South Sudan, and our prayers continue for South Sudan where there is more talk of war and even of genocide. It puts our situation into perspective. Whatever concerns we bring with us today, we gather in this place with the good news that there will be opportunities, in the midst of our lives to testify. Now I will say, I did think about preaching on Isaiah, because there is that part about the lion will eat straw like the ox, and I was thinking, “maybe the elephant will eat oats like the donkey.” But it did not quite come together! There will be opportunities to testify, and this is good news.
I do not care what political party you are with, because if you are sitting in an Episcopal Church and I say the word, “testify,” it probably does not sound like good news to you! Testify? What are you talking about? Testify to whom? What is Jesus talking about? The word that is rendered, “testimony” can also be rendered as “witness.” We are called to bear witness to God’s gifts of grace and power to heal us and redeem us, even in the midst of our trials and tribulations. We are given the opportunity to share, to witness. Jesus says, “I will give you words and wisdom that your opponents will not be able to withstand or contradict, resist or refute.” Jesus says, “Don’t even prepare your defense in advance.” Now notice that he does not say, “Don’t prepare.” He says, “Don’t prepare your defense in advance.” Don’t prepare your well-reasoned, logical argument about why you’re right and someone else is wrong, ahead of time, because God is waiting to give you, give us a wisdom and speech, that is even more irresistible than the best argument we can create. But if we want to receive the gift of that wisdom, the gift of those words, it will take a great deal of preparation, preparing ourselves in heart and mind and even body to be receptive and open and listening. It means getting out of our head and into our heart.
But our society is so much in its head, isn’t it? So defensive. So many words that are not wise. So many arguments trying to refute somebody else. And we’re so tired of the arguing and the yelling back and forth…although many of us just can’t resist looking at social media one more time! God help us! The kind of testimony Jesus calls us to give is not about yelling at people who disagree with us, even when we believe truly that we are right. The kind of testimony Jesus calls us to give comes from a place of deep listening and openness of heart. It’s not defensive. It doesn’t come from that place of tension and hardness. You know how you feel when you read that thing that someone you disagree with has put up there, and you start to feel that tension in your body. That’s not where this testimony comes from. It comes from a place of being open. A place of promise.
Here’s a story about two people who became a witness, even though they probably never intended for it to be this way. They did not set out to share good news. Back in the 1970’s in Durham, North Carolina (which is where I was before I came here to St. George’s), a white man, a grand-dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, named C.P. Ellis, and an African-American woman, a community organizer named Ann Atwater, found themselves at the same school board meeting there in Durham. C.P. Ellis felt that the African-American children were taking resources away from the more deserving white children, and he said so in terms that were very offensive. He was so offensive that Ann Atwater drew a knife and went at him and had to be restrained, she was so upset and angry. So a few months later, these two found themselves asked to co-chair a “charrette,” a community listening session about the schools, and I think this was actually done on purpose by some politicians who wanted it to fail, they thought these two would never be able to work together. But as they tried to work together, they found they actually had some common ground. They both cared about adequate education for poor children, because they both came from poor communities, even though they were focused on their own communities at first. Over time, they began to see where the other one was coming from and actually started to respect one another. C.P. Ellis, the Klansman, realized that he could not continue to espouse his race hatred and divisiveness and at the same time work with Ann Atwater whom he had come to respect. So one night at a public meeting he ripped up his Klan membership card. The two developed a friendship, an unlikely friendship that continued through the rest of their lives. Twenty-five years later a book was written about them, titled The Best of Enemies. Their story is an unlikely testimony of the possibility of transformation. A testimony similar to what we heard in Isaiah who describes the new creation, where the lion would eat straw like the ox and wolf and the lamb would feed together. Did Ellis and Atwater ever imagine that they would be giving such a testimony, that they would be made into such a testimony? No, they wanted to kill each other! I believe they were given words and wisdom, a testimony that was irresistible.
I am under no illusion that we can just put aside our political differences and all just come together magically as one. We are still going to have disagreements. But I am under the hope that God will still make us witnesses of love and of transformation. We are going to gather here tomorrow night at 7:00. For anyone who wants to come, it will be a time to listen deeply to one another, to our responses to this election, regardless of how or if we voted. We need to have some honest conversation. We need to model what this looks like for the society that just wants to yell at each other. We need to have some honest conversation about the rhetoric, the defensive language of the campaign, the rhetoric from all different sides that opened painful wounds, that has given many people reason to wonder, “Is it going to be all right?” Reason to wonder if they will be safe, or if people they love will be safe. We need to have conversation, as a witness that we can set aside our defenses, maybe not our views, but our defenses, and wait for wisdom and words to be given to us. We might not be ready for that, and we might not be ready for a while. We may not be ready to be witnesses just as Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis were not ready right away to be witnesses. I am under the hope that this church can be a place where we can be gentle with each other, that this church can be a place where we are made more ready to bear a witness together, even though we bring so many points of view. I am under the hope that even though we may have cast differing votes in an election, we have all been elected by God to give a testimony. God has elected us. That is how it works in the kingdom of God. Instead of us electing the leader, the leader elects us! We have been elected to serve in this assembly. We have been elected to give a testimony. We have been elected to serve as ambassadors in this embassy of God’s kingdom to represent God. No matter who represents us in the world, we have been elected to represent God to all the nations including our own and to give a testimony with words and wisdom from God. We have been elected, and our oath of office can be found in the baptismal covenant that we say so often. It says that we promise to trust and to have faith in the God who is one and yet three, who is community in God’s self. We promise…to pray together, to have fellowship together, to break bread together, to learn together in the tradition of the apostles over the centuries. We promise…to resist evil wherever it arises, and when we go astray, to help one another repent and return to the Lord. We promise…to proclaim the Good News in word and example. We promise…to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self. We promise with God’s help…to strive for justice and peace among all people to respect the dignity of every human being. That’s our oath of office. If you ever need a testimony, I commend that one to you, about who we are and whose we are and what we are about.
May God continue to help us, not to prepare our defense, but to prepare our hearts, that we might receive the gifts of speech and wisdom that God would give us…irresistible testimony to the love and transforming power of our God.