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The Making of Witnesses

The Making of Witnesses

Margaret LaMotte Torrence

Sixth Sunday after Easter

May 6, 2016

 

Today, we hear the final words of the gospel of Luke. Jesus’ disciples are gathered together, and have just heard a report that Jesus is alive.

 

Luke 24:36-53

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

 

When my older sister was fifteen she was working one muggy Florida evening in our neighborhood drugstore when a man came in, approached her counter, pointed a gun at her, and demanded all the money in her register.

For Kathy, everything froze: her muscles, and her sense of time. But she recalls thinking through the fog of her fear: I need to remember what he looks like. The police will want to know. If I’m going be a good witness, I need to pay attention; I need to remember this man.

It wasn’t enough, though. Nothing in her life had prepared her for that encounter. In spite of her determination, later she could not describe the man’s face.

It’s a story that makes me wonder: What does it mean to be a good witness? What prepares us for that task? And what is Jesus thinking when, just before he ascends into heaven: he announces to his followers: “You will be my witnesses.” If a reliable witness is someone who can accurately and courageously report what he or she has seen and heard, what qualifications does this fearful and confused bunch bring to the task?

Think about it: Jesus’ friends are not very good even at recognizing him after he’s risen from the dead: there’s Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, Mary Magdalene at the grave, the eleven and their companions in today’s story from Luke. They’re all blinded by their grief and disappointment—and so they are able to see only what they expect to see: a stranger, a gardener, a ghost.

But Jesus never seems put off by his friends’ confusion. Each time, he encourages them to come close, to examine the evidence—to see and to touch, to hear and to taste. He knows that’s how we make sense of things. Jesus is willing to prepare his followers to be good witnesses; his kingdom project depends upon it.

In the novel Peace Like A River, the character Swede says “No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.”[1]  On this confirmation Sunday, we are reminded that new witnesses must be equipped in each generation.

If this text is any guide, the essential first step to being a witness to Jesus’ life and ministry is to spend time with others who are drawn to him and who want to follow where he leads. This is not work that any of us can do alone.

The next step is to receive the gift of his forgiveness.

Jesus’ first word to his followers, post-crucifixion, is “Peace.” Jesus does not ask for apologies or explanations from his friends, even after they betrayed him—he just speaks wholeness and reconciliation into the room.

We cannot be his witnesses until we have come to know ourselves as both broken and beloved.

But some of us wrestle with these ideas for a very long time. In the words of David Lose, “resurrection takes time to sink in.”[1] Luke insists that joy, disbelief, and wonder can coexist in the hearts of witnesses at the very same moment. God does not wait for us to have everything figured out before asking us to serve. God will work with whatever we bring to the table.

But come to the table we must. Did you notice that Jesus’ response to his friends’ confusion, is to ask for something to eat? The fish they offer their teacher must call to mind teeming nets, and a simple lunch that stretched to feed thousands—the way they learned to share and celebrate with all the sinners who gathered around Jesus. Eating with Jesus shapes his friends.

It still happens today. People come to this table knowing that they will receive an ordinary bread, ordinary juice, except that God knows how to show the most extraordinary love through ordinary things. I have seen new mothers coming forward for communion take a drip of juice and smear it on the lips of infants. And I have shared communion with elderly saints whose memories are ravaged, who have no way to articulate their faith, but whose faces become radiant in that moment of connection.

I once sat with someone so riddled with cancer she could not stomach food. Ultimately, she asked if I would eat what she craved but could not swallow—if I would just eat it on her behalf. Taking those morsels into my mouth was one of the most profound experience of communion I ever expect to know.

To experience the radical nature of this table, is to know that we belong to each other in a way that is beyond our choosing, and beyond death’s reach.

According to Luke’s account once Jesus’ followers have come together, touched the wounds of his broken body, experienced his forgiveness and shared his meal, they begin to see the world with new eyes.

Then, like a patient teacher going over the material one more time, Jesus takes them step-by-step through the scriptures until the light dawns in each of their faces, and they begin to glimpse how those ancient promises have now been fulfilled. In effect, Jesus says to them, understand everything you’ve ever been told in light of my story, see everything through the light of a love that is stronger than death.

They are almost ready to be witnesses now, but not quite. They must wait for one more promise to find fulfillment.

Jesus takes them out to Bethany, and raises those wounded hands again. The same hands that touched lepers and held children, that steadied Peter on the waves, and broke bread to feed the hungry—those same hands are raised one more time in blessing.

This is where I would like to pause. I want to freeze this moment, but as much as I want Luke to linger here, he will not do it. Without missing a beat, he tells us that while Jesus is in the act of blessing his followers, he departs—I think that Luke wants us to understand by that particular formulation that Jesus’ departure itself is part of the blessing. But how can that be? How can it be a blessing for them, for us, to lose the touch of his hand, the sound of his voice, his peculiar way of drawing in the dust?

I don’t think it’s an idle question. I think that Luke places the story of the Ascension at the end of his gospel–and then again at the beginning of his second volume, the book of Acts–not because it is a convenient literary device, but because it is a key to his witness. In Luke’s hands, Jesus’ withdrawal into heaven is the beginning of a deep Trinitarian breath.

As those still wounded, but now living hands go to clasp the right hand of the one who created us in love, somehow the son’s breath will mingle with the father’s and then be released with a power charged by the fulfillment of an eternity of promises. It is for this holy tempest that the disciples must wait.  It is the storm that will bring Jesus’ spirit as close as their own breath— it is what we will ponder in two weeks as we gather to welcome again the miracle of Pentecost.

Learning to bless others with the gifts of our lives may be the ultimate indication that we have been commissioned as witnesses.

Many years ago, when my father was a teacher in Congo, he remembers asking some of his theology students what they understood about the concept of blessing. One of the young men raised his hand and offered his own experience by way of explanation. He was from downriver. In precarious times he had left his tribe and family behind to come and study, to prepare for ministry. His explanation of blessing was something like this: “When the time came for me to leave, my father took me out into the yard and had me kneel on the ground. My father put his hand in his mouth until it was wet with his own saliva. He held that hand high in the gathering wind and then he placed that hand on my head as he prayed that I would carry both the force of his life and power of God’s Spirit, as I went from that place. That, to me, is blessing.”

To participate in blessing is to offer all that we are and have, in the service of God, for the sake of others. It is to acknowledge the vulnerability and mutuality of life. It is to receive from others as well as to extend our hands in offering. God’s blessing is not something that can be contained or secured or carefully measured. Blessing isn’t static—it can’t be held. It has to pass through us. Like electricity, the power of blessing is in transmission.

I got to see that come alive on Friday night, when an annual tradition was honored in the fellowship hall. The members of this year’s confirmation class, along with their families, mentors, the session, and staff gathered to share our faith, to eat together, and then to witness the blessing of each youth by his or her parents. That is how this congregation ritualizes the decision to join Christ’s church.

Each member of the class wrote a statement of faith. They are beautifully particular; metaphors derive from theoretical physics, and everyday routines. Their celebrated cloud of witnesses includes many of you, as well as Pascal and LeBron James. The voices in their statements are authentic; raising questions and doubts as well as offering convictions. Your youth are grateful for the ways that this community has loved and mentored them. Increasingly, they are assuming their own leadership roles: reaching out to those who are marginalized, listening and speaking and walking out on behalf of those whose voices cannot be heard. They are ready to claim membership in this body; they know that there is work to be done. And we need not to disappoint them.

At the end of the evening, each member of the class was given a framed copy of verses from Isaiah 43, which reads: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. You are my witnesses.”

Beloved of God, hear again the words of Swede:

“No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare,

‘Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.’”

 

[1] David Lose, Luke 24:36-43, In the Meantime, www.davidlose.net

 

[1][1] Leif Enger, Peace Like A River, New York: Grove Press, 2001.

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.