May 24, 2020 ~ Ascension Sunday ~ Pastor Teressa Sivers
Ephesians 1:15-23 & Luke 24:44-53 (Acts 1:1-11)
“CAN I GET A WITNESS?!” The pastor shouted from the raised platform at the front of the sanctuary. “CAN I GET A WITNESS?!” He repeated the phrase over and over, hands raised over his head, head back, eyes closed. He raised up on his toes with each repetition. “CAN IT GET A WITNESS?!” His powerful, hour-long sermon had been slowly building to this moment and the congregation responded in kind—calling out, raising hands, ‘Hallelujah!’, ‘Praise Jesus!” Most of them had been on their feet for at least 20 minutes now. “CAN I GET A WITNESS?!” And he did! The people began to testify! “Praise Jesus! He held me up when my mama died!” “Hallelujah! When I lost my job, God sustained me!” Some of the congregation had moved out into the center aisle, dancing to the energy of the congregation, lifting their voices in praise. One women was overcome with the Spirit, and as she fell backwards, was gently caught by the ushers and lowered safely to the ground. The ushers stood over her as the testimonies continued. “CAN I GET A WITNESS?!” And the Missional Baptist congregation erupted in the Spirit. And then there was me…polite, reserved, little, Northern United Methodist sitting toward the back, petrified in place. I was not in Kansas anymore.
The Missional Baptist, African American congregation in Durham, North Carolina was where my preaching professor from seminary served as senior pastor. He required those of us in his class to attend different denominations and experience a diversity of worship and preaching styles. I had heard the Rev. Dr. William Turner, Jr. preach before, in York Chapel of Duke Divinity School…but I had never heard him preach like this! In York Chapel he was certainly passionate, and brilliant, and showcased why he was a preaching professor at a great school of theology. But there, in his home congregation, surrounded by his church family, Dr. Turner preached us right up to the very throne of God! “CAN I GET A WITNESS?!” He shouted one final time. The band started playing, a syncopated rhythm at first, slowly driving into a solid beat that united the ‘on fire’ congregation. And I found my feet. Standing, I raised my hands in the air and gave the only witness I could find in my inexperienced soul. “Amen!” I shouted to the best of my ability…and this elderly woman sitting nearby took my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “Amen, sister!”
That was a significant moment in my formation as a pastor…(chuckle) that was a significant moment in my journey as a disciples of Jesus! “Witness” was NOT a word we used in my small town, northern United Methodist Church growing up. It was a term I only heard in courtroom dramas on television. But after Dr. Turner’s sermon, and after witnessing worship with my Missional Baptist siblings in faith, I began to ask myself, “What does ‘witnessing’ look like for me?” And I continue to ask myself that question. What does witnessing look like for United Methodists? It is part of our membership vows. What does witnessing look like for Northern, Progressive United Methodists? Experiencing the very Pentecostal-style of witness of the Missional Baptist Church was beautiful and powerful and terrifying and chaotic. I witnessed their spirits connecting with the Spirit in a unique and passionate way that erupted into a dance with God. That is what witnessing in worship looked like for them. What does it look like for ME to surrender to the Spirit? What does it look like for US to surrender to the Spirit? How am I called to witness? How are we called to witness?
In the Ascension story that Luke shares with us, both at the close of his gospel that Allison read for us and in the expanded story at the opening of Acts, the word ‘witness’ comes up several times. It is key to the transition from Jesus’ ministry where the disciples follow, to the disciples (now apostles) ministry where they lead. “You are my witnesses.” You have seen and now you must share. It is time for the disciples to testify. I bet those first disciples felt much like I did in that pew as Dr. Turner called me to witness over and over again. “What?! Who? …Me!!!? What???!!!” However, a comment from New Testament theologian and storyteller Richard Swanson opened Jesus’ statement even further for me this week. As Luke states in the opening chapter to the gospel, he is composing this ‘orderly account’ of Jesus’ life and teaching, but not for those first disciples. They had ‘been there, done that.’ Luke is sharing their story, wrapped up in the story of Jesus, for his own home congregation. Luke writes Jesus’ narrative, and the story of the early church, for a congregation struggling to live Jesus’ way in a hostile world. Luke’s congregation seeks to live and worship in a world where Rome has ransacked Jerusalem, killing around a million people, and razed the Holy Temple of God to the ground—a tremendously traumatic event leaving deep scars. Luke records Jesus’ words for this new group of followers: “You are my witnesses of these things… so stay here in the city—in Jerusalem(!)—until you are clothed with power from on high.
These early followers of Luke’s congregation are to testify to resurrection, testify to suffering and death giving way to abundant life and forgiveness and transformation…they are to give witness to all this and to do it in the Jerusalems of the world. Jesus calls, through Luke’s gospel, all followers of Jesus to witness to resurrection life where worldly powers try to dominate and destroy. They are to witness where hope is needed most.
That is the heart of witnessing, the essentials of testimony:
- to speak hope into places of despair,
- to embody love where hate has tried to rule,
- to offer restoration and reconciliation where the world (and the church) seeks to inflict retribution,
- to be the hands, heart, and voice of Christ—the risen Jesus—where death has sought to dominate.
Our letter to the Ephesians from today’s reading says this, “so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which Jesus has called you!” With the eyes of our hearts opened to witness life and love and hope in unexpected places, we may share that life and love and hope with a hurting world.
That Sunday eruption of the Spirit, all those years ago in Durham, NC, was powerful and transformative, but I wish I could have witnessed that beautiful community giving witness OUTSIDE of their beautiful sanctuary walls. We have been outside of our sanctuary walls for months now, and we know that coming back together will need to be very carefully done at the right time. But outside of our church walls is EXACTLY where our witness is most needed!
*Speak hope wherever you encounter despair;
*Embody love always for hate lurks in surprising places, lashing out unexpectedly;
*Offer forgiveness, offer reconciliation always;
*Be Christ-like in ALL your interactions in these difficult days.
Embody Christ in your emails and Zoom meetings and phone calls. Embody Christ in your Facebook posts, Instagram pictures and Tweets, that tend to go amok. Embody Christ as you pass neighbors and strangers on the sidewalk or on nature trails or as you are carefully buying essentials in the story—lovingly and respectfully wearing your masks and keeping six feet apart!
Let us be who I know all of us to be—beloved embodiments of Christ’s love for the whole world! The author of Ephesians catches the joy I feel when I consider the love you all share with the world. Hear a few words from today’s reading, now in The Message paraphrase:
15-19 That’s why, when I heard of the solid trust you have in the Master Jesus and your outpouring of love to all the followers of Jesus, I couldn’t stop thanking God for you—every time I prayed, I’d think of you and give thanks. But I do more than thank. I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength!
Endless energy! Boundless strength! Can I get a witness? Can I get a witness!