Summit Presbyterian Church
October 18, 2009
You Are My Witnesses
(Preached on the 125th Anniversary Celebration of Summit Presbyterian Church)
Halloween is just around the corner, the season for witches, goblins -- and ghosts. Since the children have gone to Sunday School I can say this: ghosts are not those white, amoeba-like creatures we see in cartoons. That's a fiction adults have created so they can have a fall-back Halloween costume when Spiderman or Princess Leia is sold out. Ghosts also are not - and it's important to say this since All Saints Day follows Halloween -- ghosts are not loved ones who've passed on that we still talk to, whose presence we feel: when the man in the song says, "Good night, Irene," he's not talking to a ghost, but to his wife whom he loves and misses. Ghosts are dead people who have come back, usually with unfinished business, to haunt houses and graveyards. If we catch a glimpse of them - in a mirror, perhaps - they usually look like themselves, fully clothed but softer, and transparent. We don't often see them, though. They prefer to remain invisible so they can do those things that ghosts do: slam a door in another part of the house; type invisibly on a computer screen; move the salt shaker from one side of the table to the other. Ghosts usually spook people, but they can be friendly or come with messages. . . Sometimes, when I'm giving a children's sermon and trying to explain Jesus - always a bad idea - I'll say something like Jesus died, but then he was alive again and came back to his friends. He's still with us now, even though we can't see him or touch him. And I think to myself: I'm describing a ghost. A kind and gentle ghost who may comfort them when they're scared, but a ghost, nonetheless.
The disciples knew that the resurrected Jesus was not a ghost. He did some of the things that ghosts do: He would appear suddenly to them while they were talking, and just as suddenly disappear. They couldn't hold onto him and show him to other people - like Pontius Pilate or King Herod - and say, see? He's back. But they knew he was alive, for he presented himself to them by many convincing proofs. He ate with them -- and we all know that ghosts don't need to eat or have any interest in food. He showed them his hands and feet and told them to touch him -- for, as Jesus pointed out, "a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." He was alive! Luke tells us that the resurrected Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures, talked about the Kingdom of God, and enjoyed broiled fish and bread.
It was amazing. But as day followed day of Bible study, theological discussion, and eating the disciples must have wondered: is this it? It was lovely to have Jesus with them again, but did God raise him from the dead only to spend more time with his friends? Wasn't he going to do more than talk? So as the 40th day of his return approached, they gathered up their courage. Forty was an important number in God's time: it rained 40 days and 40 nights on the ark. The people of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus spent 40 days fasting before he began to preach and heal. If anything more was going to happen, it would happen then. So they gathered up their courage to ask the question: their most fervent hope, the question that mattered to the whole people of God, not just their small circle: Was this the time he would restore the kingdom to Israel? Was this the time when he who rose from the dead would throw off the Roman yoke and liberate his people, restoring the reign of David? This question mattered not only to the people of Israel but to the whole world. For it was with the restoration of Israel that all the nations would come to worship on God's Holy Mountain. It was with the restoration of Israel that nations would beat their swords into plowshares and the wolf would lie with the lamb. "Lord," they asked, "is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"
And then Jesus said something that must have disappointed them: "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority." In other words: no. This was not the time. But before they could fully take that in, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven - their jaws undoubtedly dropped - two men in white robes suddenly appeared. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." Then they got it. He had gone in a cloud and would come in the clouds. We think that's odd and primitive: we know there are hundreds of billions of galaxies so we search for the metaphorical meaning. But the disciples didn't need to search. They knew the vision of the prophet Daniel. They knew what coming on the clouds meant: that one like a human being would come in power and glory and everlasting dominion. That the arrogant and evil empires of the world would fall away under the reign of God. And they remembered what Jesus had said: that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them, power to be his witnesses. Witnesses in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Witnesses to all he had done and taught. Witnesses to the power of God who raised him from the dead and lifted him into heaven. Witnesses that the risen Christ was no ghost, limited to talking with his friends or moving the salt shaker, ready to return to the abode of the dead when he tired of those games. Witnesses that in the Risen Christ, at a time that was not for us to know, the glory and power of God would triumph.
Two thousand years later, we are a world in peril. A peril those first disciples could not have imagined, even in their perilous world. Thousands of nuclear weapons are on hair-trigger alert around the globe. Weapons much bigger than those dropped on Hiroshima, weapons our presidents and generals have considered using in nearly every war: the next one may well be the war to end all wars. The arctic ice is melting and as the earth warms even conservative scientists worry about a tipping point that could start a chain of unstoppable catastrophes, possibly ending human life on this earth. And always, neighbors near and far are in peril: from hunger, homelessness, car bombs and guns. And I wonder: why aren't we in the streets? Why aren't we meeting in each other's homes every night planning ways to stop the madness. Why aren't we all rappelling from bridges with signs that say "Danger, Climate Destruction Ahead!" or chaining ourselves to fences?
There are many reasons, but surely one of them is that it all just seems too much. The danger is so great, the scenarios mind-boggling; the solutions so complex and hard to agree on; the powerful so strong and rich, our resolve so weak. We feel powerless. And it's no wonder we feel powerless over the fate of the earth: we're powerless over alcohol! We're powerless in the face of our grief, our depression, our busy schedules. We're powerless over that piece of chocolate cake on the second shelf in the fridge. Making it through our life with some decency and order may seem all we can manage. So for many of us, signing an online petition or writing a modest check to the peacemaking fund is the limit of our activism.
But we, the church, have been given power: power through the Holy Spirit. Power to be witnesses. Witnesses to all that Jesus did and taught about loving our neighbor and our enemy, healing the sick, bringing down the mighty from their thrones and raising up the lowly. Witnesses to the Risen Christ, who overcame death with life and ascended into heaven; witnesses to the power of Christ that assures us the biggest stockpile of fully-loaded, radioactive, longest-range missles can be turned into plowshares. Witnesses to the power of Christ that assures us the wolf can lie down with the lamb and be led by a child; that human beings aren't destined to extract every drop of oil from the sea or burn every piece of coal in the ground, choking the planet and life on it. Witnesses to the power of God that assures us that in a world of billionaires and bailouts the hungry can be filled with good things. Witnesses that in a time and period that is not ours to know, love will finally win over indifference, peace over violence, wisdom over folly.
And so we're called to witness. To turn to the work of proclaiming the Risen Christ, until he comes again. By cooking a meal or bringing cans of food to church. By offering hospitality to homeless families, calling on someone who is sick, welcoming a visitor, teaching children. By upping the ante, and joining with others inside and outside the church for a little street action -- and Summit has done that, I read about it in the history! It doesn't mean telling people not to worry about nuclear catastrophe because God will intervene before it's too late. It doesn't mean telling people that even if the world descends into chaos, Christ will come at the 11th hour to rescue Christians. It means proclaiming that the good we do will not be in vain, the justice we achieve will stand in eternity, the love we share will endure.
And when such a witness seems daunting we can remember that we've been given power as the church, not as Cheryl or Charles, Anne or Don. We've been given this power as the church so that together we can be nourished by the Holy Spirit, scripture, tradition and reason. We've been given this power as the church so we can comfort and encourage one another, rejoicing in our diversity and joining together in service to others. We've been given this power as the church, so we can be fearless. We've been given this power as Summit Church, 125 years strong, here at Westview and Greene, but also as the holy, catholic church, stretching across time and space.
And when the Spirit feels weak, the power lacking; when the necessary work of repairing the roof, organizing the coffee hour, dealing with L & I inspectors and finding teachers for the Sunday School threatens to overwhelm us, we know what to do: start praying. Pray like Peter and John, and James and Andrew and Philip and Thomas and Simon the Zealot and Judas son of James and those certain women including Mary the mother of Jesus. Start praying joining our prayers with P'Nai Or, the congregations around us, with the holy catholic church, with people of hope everywhere: start praying and keep on praying, so we may be witnesses to the power, and love, of God.