- The Rev. Arianne Rice
Give Your Witness
Perhaps the most interesting thing about John the Baptist in the Gospel of John (different John) is that he doesn’t actually baptize Jesus. He does in all the other gospels – but not in this telling of the story.
John’s gospel is also referred to as the book of signs. There aren’t miracles – there are signs. Water into wine – sign. Healing blind Bartimaeus – sign. Because signs point you to something else. Signs get your attention – to direct your attention. And that’s what John the Baptist does in this gospel – he points to the one coming into the world.
Literally he does so, a little later in this chapter – perhaps you’ve seen the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci – or another great piece of art – showing John pointing at Jesus. But first, as we just heard – the gospel describes the more important way John directs our gaze to the light coming into our world. John is a witness – a witness who shares his testimony.
Can I get a witness? Have you been to that style of worship? There is nothing better than being in a house of God – filled with the frozen chosen – when our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is preaching! Go watch his Christmas message – Google him preaching (you will be inspired) – he’s the first priest I heard in a sermon say – Can I get a witness?
Witnessing, testimony – that’s not something we’re used to doing in “traditional” worship? It’s personal and revealing. It’s a willingness to risk telling a personal story – something that shaped and formed and moved your heart with the hope that it might move the heart of another. With the hope that it might connect you to the heart of another – that it might direct both of your attention to that sense of belonging that is bigger than all our differences.
John the Baptist asks us - Are you willing to be a witness – not for a religion or a doctrine – that doesn’t move hearts. Are you willing to be a witness and give your testimony for when the light overcame the darkness in your life?
Could you share a story of healing? Of a journey of struggle that led you to reconcile parts of who you are, accept all of who you are? Could you give testimony to a time when you were moved to ridiculous act of generosity for someone undeserving – but that is what ultimately taught you what grace actually means?
Could you give witness to a time in your life that stretched your sense of trust to its limit because – even though you were scared – or unsure – or felt completely not up to the task at hand – somehow – with a strength you did not even know you possessed – you were able to keep putting one foot in front of the other – trusting, trusting, trusting – that somehow all would be well – and years later you came to see – yes, indeed God was working God’s purpose out.
There is power – healing power – in having the courage to risk giving witness and sharing your testimony. Do not quench the Spirit – Paul writes – for the one who calls you is faithful – and people come know about the love of God breaking into the world – when there are faith-full people who will risk breaking open their hearts to share their witness.
One of the most important classes I took in seminary was only for a semester – and it had nothing to do with worship or doctrine or theology. It was called – the pastor’s role in addiction and recovery. It was taught by the Rev. Stuart Hoke – who shared his personal story of recovery – over the course of over 25 years in ordained ministry. There was a practical aspect to the class – how you handle issues of substance abuse, how you find resources in your community. But mostly our syllabus was reading – from the Big Book – the bible of Alcoholics Anonymous. Where we learned for instance the 3-fold disease of alcoholism: mental, spiritual and physical. Or, the 3-fold disease of alcoholism: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.
Homework was watching movies. Classics like “The Lost Weekend” from 1945. Or “Days of Wine and Roses” from 1962. And more contemporary ones “When a Man Loves a Woman” – Meg Ryan plays a woman who realizes she’s suffering from alcoholism. “28 Days” – Sandra Bullock in rehab.
And we watched movies so we could come back to class and talk about the stories – and how they connected to our experiences. Because everyone in that class had a story, a testimony from their life connected to addiction – a onetime experience – or a lifetime experience – (like everyone here does too) – and most of us were still working through our stories – which was exactly what Rev. Hoke in his wisdom knew. There is no way you can go out into the world and attempt to be an effectual pastor – if you are avoiding parts of your own story.
The same is true for anyone who wants to bear God’s love in this life – You grow in the ability to have compassion, forgiveness and care for others – if you are honest about where and when you’ve broken down and needed and been shown compassion, care and forgiveness – for your self.
So one night we had a guest lecturer – it was a woman whose son had struggled with and lost his battle with alcoholism. And she told her story – and she wept and wept – I don’t remember the story – I remember crying right along with her, feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed and thinking – how can she sit in front of this whole class of people and let herself fall apart like that?
And the minute I had that thought – she said, “And you know what? I used to care that I could never tell this story of my son without crying. I’d feel embarrassed and ashamed – but now – I don’t care that I cry. I love that I cry - because I love him – and I never want to tell his story and not feel that love.”
And that vulnerability bore witness. Her testimony of experience, strength and hope – moved her heart which moved mine, I’m sure others there. Her story of restoration – Her story of loss and love – her story was a sign that pointed to light and hope.
One of the things that is happening in this community in the new year – is that the Hatchery group- the Monday AA meeting that has happened every week for 43 years is moving. Our parking lot and neighborhood streets can no longer handle the volume.
43 years of people sharing their testimony of light breaking through their darkness.
43 years of people giving witness to how relying on a higher power changed the course of their life.
43 years of hearts being healed through the courage of people unafraid to tell it like it is – because that’s the truth that won’t quench – but strengthens - the Spirit.
One cannot help but notice that in those same 43 years – the Sunday morning meetings at Good Shepherd have not experienced the same consistent increase in attendance. Which is true for AA meetings in churches around the world. Hmmm – we both offer fellowship – we both offer healing – we both offer food for the soul. But at the center of one gathering – is testimony and witness – by everyone.
So as we continue to prepare for the one coming into the world – the one who brings strength and hope – the one who brings grace upon grace – and an abundance of forgiveness and love to anyone who seeks it – may we, may you, have the courage to share your witness – to tell your story – give your testimony – when you feel the Spirit move or nudge you to do so. For that is the will of God in Christ Jesus as you make a way. Cry out in the wilderness, wherever that might be – and share the gift of your witness - which only you can. Amen.
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