Show up. Pay attention. Tell the truth. Do not get too attached to the results.
This is the law and the prophets. It is today’s gospel, too.
The ninth commandment requires us not to bear false
Ten years ago the English translation of Victor Klemperer’s two volume history, memoir, and diary of Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s was published. “I Will Bear Witness”, it is titled. I encourage you to read it. A Jewish man who became a liberal Protestant, a cultural and literary historian, an esteemed professor and writer, Klemperer applied himself to a humble daily task. He quietly recorded, in his diary, the clinking sounds of the Nazi shackles slowly, gradually tightening upon the German people, and, horrifically, with tragic weight upon those of Jewish ancestry. Including Klemperer.
Little things. Rationing. Distinctions in the process of rationing. Automobile registrations. Distinctions in the manner of registration. Little things. Slight, ever so subtle shifts in social behaviors. Invitations extended without response. Dinners offered but not reciprocated. Gradual transformations in daily language, in the language of the morning newspaper. Decisions about which words would be or would not be allowed, in the common spaces of life. Little things, really. Variations in the wording of classified ads. Glances, furtive looks across the street where before there was full eye to eye contact. Just little things. But seen, revealed, transfigured in the prescient, humble diary composition of one quiet teacher.
As you know, little things became big things. Family, friends and neighbors who decide to emigrate. Positions limited. Positions trimmed. Positions eliminated. The threat of confinement to town. Then confinement. To house. Then confinement. Marches in brown shirts. Yellow stars. Captivity. War. The unimaginable. The unspeakable…
Klemperer recorded events and words both great and small, in order not to bear false witness.
To some degree, in the light of the Transfiguration, in the light of truth, the true light that enlightens everyone, we all have responsibility to bear witness. In fact, our saving possibility lies in the very challenge and calling we have to try to respond to the light, however dim, the true light, however dusky.
Your awakening to faith, your Christian reawakening as my friend put it, may occur, may arrive on the witness stand.
You are a junior in college. What have you seen? What have you heard? What have you experienced of wisdom and love?
You are a man without a job. 85% of jobs lost have been men’s in the great mancession. What have you seen? What have you heard? What have you experienced of wisdom and love?
You are a professional. Necessarily an institution has a claim on you. Adult life is invariable institutional, whether or not you are institutionalized. What have you seen? What have you heard? What have you experienced of wisdom and love?
You are an elder of many moons and many moccasins. If someone spares the time to ask your testimony, what will it be? What have you seen? What have you heard? What have you experienced of wisdom and love?
On the mountain, the baffled disciples tried to bear true witness—word, tent, accolade, mystery. What did you see? I saw…
The passage is an account developed after Easter, as a way of trying to symbolize Jesus Christ as risen Lord. It has no biographical or earthly valence, nor does it need any, nor does it claim any. It is about seeing, and being transfigured by what one sees. “During his lifetime a few of his followers were permitted a glimpse of what he was to become” (IBD, loc cit, 173).
Our witness arrives after a word and before a deed. Transfiguration precedes healing for the shrieking, convulsing foaming at the mouth demoniac, a case that stumped all disciples. Transfiguration follows the word of the cross, ‘if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow’.
A moment of witness follows a word and forecasts a deed.
You are good and sturdy gospel listeners so you know without elaboration that Moses embodies the law and Elijah the prophets. You know the revelation of wisdom from Moses, the Decalogue. Recite it with me. You know the audition of love from Elijah. Remember the still, small voice. (… the Lord was not in the wind, earthquake, fire… and after the fire a sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19)…), Sinai and Horeb, the Law and the Prophets.
Here, it is as if the Gospel of John has spilled ink upon the page of Luke. Notice the little things: law and prophets, Moses and Elijah; a prophecy of the cross, called by the term ‘departure’ (did John write this?!?) (the greek word is ‘exodos’); Andrew absent; Peter confused.
But what of his confusion? The confusion itself is confusing. ‘Not knowing what he said..’ What does that mean? Jesus confuses Peter. Peter confuses Luke. Luke confuses the preacher of the day. The preacher confuses you. There is an opacity here, a stymied utterance. To which, oddly but honestly, Peter bears witness.
There is a cloud here, a cloud of unknowing.
There is a mountain here, a mountain of unknowing
There is a voice here, a voice of unknowing.
There is a countenance here, a face of unknowing.
There is a white robe here, a robe of unknowing.
There is a silence here…
This is worship. Enchantment. Not entertainment.
1. You may be in college. Good for you. A moment in life of subsidized freedom. Has freedom led to grace? One student said he realized part of his role in school was to combat debauchery. Tartly put, that. And you? We begin Lent on Wednesday. Religious life on campus sings another song, an older song, a truer song than much of the cacophony around. Our little bands of worshippers, here and there, are oases of freedom become grace. So the Song of Solomon graces Valentines Day, and love by covenant challenges love by convenience. Our sermons this Lent involve our University Chaplains in a rendering of the meaning of Atonement. Especially if you have suffered loss, or known grief, or experienced regret, you may want to bear witness by attending worship.
2. You may know a man in search of a job. Or his wife, or daughter. You may be his neighbor. How shall you witness to the loneliness, depression, hurt of this time? Across the land, men long for jobs. Depression breeds depression. Those who have no work, who have talent and energy and will and love and experience and children and loyalty, but not work, are waiting across this land. Like the effects of war, the effects of massive recession are not known for years, for a decade or more. But there are effects. Lasting effects. We are far too complacent about the lasting societal effects of unemployment. Can you record your experience, and bear witness? Better: can you encourage someone who is looking for work? Would you not be happy if twenty years from now someone remembered you, say at a funeral, by saying, ‘Nobody knows this but when I
was out of work, John found a way to make a way for a job for me’?
3. You may be a middle aged professional, whose beloved institution is foundering. You cannot stand it. You cannot change it. You cannot leave it. Ah. You can make a difference, by bearing witness to another time, past, another possibility, future.
I attended my home conference, my spiritual home. As an itinerant preacher, a traveling elder, my church is the gathering of similarly cast about travelers, my conference. My brothers in ministry, my sisters in itinerancy. Hymns to sing. My life goes on in endless song…I drove to Clarence Center, near Buffalo, thinking about the plane crash last winter which put the little town on the map. My sad reverie was shaken as I passed a church sign which read: ‘True peace is found only through Jesus Christ’. I do not believe that. Neither do you.
I drove on, glad to be arriving at a MAGNANIMOUS METHODIST conference wherein ‘there is no east or west, wherein no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth, wherein there is broad peace, peace perfect peace, wherein Wesley is remembered.
Listen to my incipient musing: Not for you, not for us the holier than thou neo-gnostic Unitarianism of the second person of the Trinity, patronizingly triumphalistic, christofascist, exclusivist hatred of such a saying: ‘True peace is found only in Jesus Christ’. No.
But. As you probably already surmise, in the rear view mirror, and beneath the aforequoated warped proverb, I cringed and wept to read the church’s name, Harris Hill United Methodist Church. And. As you may now guess, at the conference itself the opening sermon, an atrocity, gave more than ample cover to such christomonist religious one-up-man ship.
I cannot change it. I cannot stand it. I cannot leave it. But I can bear witness, by remembering another time and another possibility, another past and another future.
I can bear witness.
I can re-read Romans 8 again about the whole creation groaning if you must.
I can read Acts 10 about all in their own way being saved if you must.
I can re-read Galatians 3:26 about the end of religious distinctions if I must.
I can channel John Wesley—“if thine heart be as mine then give me thine hand”—if I must.
I can re-read any of Huston Smiths books… Remember Abraham Heschel….Remember Anwar Sadat…. Remember Abraham Lincoln….Remember Mahatma Ghandi….Recall the Dalai Lama…
I can bear witness. To Wisdom and Love, Law and Prophets, Moses and Elijah.
We know in our bones that there are many ways of keeping faith. We know in our guts that in the Father’s house there are many rooms. We know in our hearts that the true light that enlightens EVERY ONE has come into the world.
4. You may be an elder of the tribe, many moons and many moccasins. Can you bear witness to what you have seen and heard? I know a man in his eighties who takes an hour every Sunday to send a poetic memory, a personal email page to his children and grandchildren. You can too. We children and grandchildren appreciate it.
In our School of Theology we teach students that a sermon should have a point. It should not be three points in search of a sermon, but a sermon with a point. A diamond point, we say—that sharp, that fine, that beautiful, that valuable.
A sermon could, say, have a two word point to it: bear witness. A sermon should have a point. The point today is: bear witness.
William McGuire King: ‘one’s own salvation rest(s) in the freedom God offers …to enter into his atoning activity in history’(Evans, LWI, 44).
Pray! Journal! Read! Blog! Paint!
You will bear witness. As you do, you will come awake, come to worship, come to awareness, find your tongue. Your life will sing. You will live as a song that God is singing. Our Canadian siblings sang this way:
we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.
Show up. Especially at 20. Pay attention. Especially at 40. Tell the truth. Especially at 60. Don’t get too attached to the results. Especially at 80.
In the winter, my wife’s children’s choir sang here in Boston’s Back Bay. They lifted a poem which our own Marsh choir has also sung, and beautifully. In dresses and bow ties, dark pants and paten leather shoes, fidgeting and swaying, they did bear witness, to far more than they could know.
My life goes on in endless song…
Above earth’s lamentation…
I hear the clear though far off hymn…
That hails a new creation…
Dean of Marsh Chapel