How Do We Witness

January 7, 2018
Reverend Meghan Gage-Finn

Isaiah 55:1-13; Mark 1:4-11

Gage-Finn:  It is an honor to be sharing in preaching this morning with one of our 2017 Meisel Scholars, Michaela Tucker. Michaela has traveled three times to Cuba, twice through the Meisel program. She is currently serving as a Fulbright Scholar in Northern Spain, teaching high school English. When we first hatched this plan we thought we would both be present in the sanctuary this morning, and I am grateful for our folks up in the balcony who are making the technology work today so that Michaela’s recorded contributions can be included. Michaela happens to be a journalist and radio producer, having graduated last spring from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, so I will do my best to try to hold my own to her professionalism!

As Michaela and I prepared for today, we both gravitated toward a theme of witness, wondering how the church acts as a witness to the world, and how we as individuals attest to what we know to be true in the Gospel message in the face of injustice and inequality. As we talked about what this dialogue might look like, Michaela hoped to share stories of her time listening to our Cuban friends during her travels, and I found myself reflecting on this season we find ourselves in, both as the church as an institution in our country and as a congregation in the life of this city.

This brought us to Isaiah 55. Our verses for today offer a prophetic voice that is one of consolation, not judgment, a prophet who speaks to a people displaced and exiled in Babylon. Many of them are no longer rooted to their homeland, but have been born into Babylonian exile. From this time of banishment, the prophetic voice speaks of an everlasting sign, all the earth rejoicing and clapping, as God’s Word is fulfilled, a sign from a God who provides and protects, who has the power to bring the Israelites back to their own country. Here the prophet witnesses to a God who can do all things, telling the people to seek and call upon God and that they play a critical role in what God has prepared for them. God calls them to witness, “to nations you do not know and nations who do not know you will run to you.”

It all must have sounded absurd, thinking about what they were up against!

In the midst of such hardship and so many challenges, how could this announcement not sound like false hope and empty promises? As one commentator puts it, “How could these scruffy exiles play any sort of role as ‘light’ for the nations? They could barely light their own homes, let alone offer light to other nations, those nations that had witnessed their decimation at the hands of the Babylonians some fifty years before.”[1]

This invitation to radical witness probably made about as much sense as coming to the market to buy food and to drink milk and wine that has no price and requires no money.

And this idea of radical witness may sound just as strange to us in our day, in the midst of destructive storms, both cultural and environmental, bitter partisan divides, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements that call to the urgent need for systemic change in the face of harassment, victimization and deeply ingrained sexism and racism. Do we believe God is near in these times and that God calls upon us to play a critical role in what God is preparing to do? If so, how do we enter into that work?

Michaela, I remember you saying when we met last fall that in your time in Cuba you saw a very different experience of church, in contrast to an American one. You said that in Cuba, church is “a ton of work,” and you talked about pastor Maria, who travels all over the island just to “get it done for the church.” What can you tell us about how you saw the church in Cuba witnessing in ways that support the daily lives of Cubans? Did the church in Holguin offer that repeated invitation of “Come,” as we hear in Isaiah 55, that sends the people forth as witnesses?

Tucker: La Iglesia de Los Amigos – the Quaker Church – is in the center of Holguín and almost every day friends from all over the city find a way to make it there, whether it’s on a bus, motorbike or braving the heat on foot.

The invitation to come is always there – there are four services every week on top of classes, meetings, concerts and birthday parties. Los cuaqueros in Holguín have made the church the center of their lives.  And if you can’t make it to church pastor, Maria will bring it to you –  in a prayer group or a home visit.

I saw the way the church supported Cubans’ lives through the roles of prayer and physical support. Almost everyone I interviewed spoke about power of praying for health and healing. One family I interviewed, the mom CiCi told me about how when she was a new mom and new to the church prayer was what helped her. Her daughter Maggie was born with many allergies and health conditions. And she says prayer kept Maggie alive.

And besides prayer people come to the church to receive basic necessities – clean water or medicine. In my interviews about the Living Waters for the World clean water system every person told me that the water was blessing. Saulo, a member of the Friend’s church said,

SAULO: Esto ha sido una bendeción que nos ayudado en el sentido material pero en espiritualmente también. Porque descansamos e esto que tenemos esta facilidad, esta posibilidad que tener agua gratizada

This has been a blessing that has helped us in the material sense, but also spiritually. Because we can rest now that we have this ease and guarantee of clean water.

The Church offers an invitation to experience the security of drinking clean water and the assurance of having a community to rely upon. I saw how this small building cobbled together with cinder blocks Is a conduit for so many things in Holguin. So that got me thinking about Westminster in what ways do we use this building – parts old and new- to witness the struggles and successes of our community?

Gage-Finn: Well, we aren’t exactly a small building cobbled together with cinder blocks, but hopefully we are a conduit for God’s light in this city. We find ourselves in this liminal moment this morning, the last Sunday before we officially walk through Open Doors and into an Open Future. It has been five years in the making to get to this point and the gifts and resources of countless individuals have brought to life an incredible structure (with on-site parking!) as we offer a sanctuary to the city. But despite the light-filled spaces, and beautiful new rooms for worship and music, learning and fellowship and play- it is not all about the building. At least it is not about worshiping a building or witnessing to what a new and shiny structure means for Westminster’s status in the city or denomination. The building may witness to the concept of the church being agile on its feet and responsive, open and inviting; it may witness to a God who is continually calling the community of God forward, out of the exilic spaces of our day, but the building can’t witness on its own- it is what we do in it and who we welcome into it, and what we do and say when we leave it, that really matters. We hope our building will offer that invitation, as Isaiah does, to “Come!” But we must also be willing to hear God’s invitation to “Go!” and “Witness!”

Philosopher Martin Heidegger developed a theology and philosophy on space and place that is interesting to consider in our context. In discussing space and boundaries, he wrote, “A space is something that has been made room for, something that has been freed, namely, within a boundary. A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its essential unfolding.”[2] Something essential is unfolding within our community, and it is our witness to that which calls us forward as witnesses.

How do we become more prophetic in our witness? And how does opening a new building strengthen our prophetic witness? Our thoughts and ways are not God’s, as Isaiah tells us. If we spend time with God each day growing into a vision, over time we will see ourselves and our world through God’s eyes a little more clearly. And as we grow more with God and into that vision, we can advocate more passionately, act with greater kindness, seek wider justice and walk more humbly with God and God’s people.

To use Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, the church needs to be more a headlight than a taillight, more a voice than an echo. Hopefully our witness can be light and voice, but a light that illumines the dark and forgotten places, rather than one that blindly leads toward our own agenda; a voice that knows to listen as much as to speak.

This morning feels significant for another reason, not just because we are so close to the completion of construction. In a few moments we will celebrate both the Reaffirmation of our Baptismal Covenant and Communion. It is rare that we come together as church, to witness to our faith our two sacraments in one service, as we acknowledge both what is old and traditional, and what is hopeful and possible. We will come to this table to receive food and drink we cannot buy and we could never earn, still wet from the waters of baptism, professing our faith in Jesus Christ, and confessing the faith of the church in which we were baptized.

Sarah has prepared a beautiful liturgy we will move through together in a few minutes, and she offers us this: “Every time we baptize, and every time we reaffirm our baptism, we ask questions. God’s love for us is not dependent on our answers, but in asking these questions, and answering, we acknowledge that we are active participants in the community and, as one body, we confess what is true about God, we proclaim God’s power, and resist the sin of the world.”

How do we witness? We ask questions, we seek after God. We reaffirm and give thanks, we come to a table in need of being fed, and leave strengthened and led by the Holy Spirit to actively participate in God’s work in the world, the good, hard, and uncomfortable work that needs to be done in the full knowledge of God’s love and grace.

Michaela and I have both been rereading James Baldwin’s book of two essays, The Fire Next Time, as part of our sermon preparation. He did, in his time, the good, hard, and uncomfortable work that needed to be done. Baldwin, as an American writer and social critic, wrote extensively and offered witness to the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and cast light on systemic racism and the far-reaching consequences of racial injustice. In fact, it was his awareness of his own fear, his devaluation by white society, and as he would describe it, the “unrecognizable pain” and “unspeakable waste” of being black in America, that drove him into the church.[3]

Michaela, one of the quotes you shared as being significant to you from Baldwin’s writings is this: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of [God].” Can you say how this declaration has informed your understanding of the church in Cuba, and your own witness as a person of faith?

Tucker: Baldwin helped frame what I experience in Cuba – which is a level of generosity that has not been matched anywhere in the world. Despite the struggles Cubans experience on a daily basis the push for openness and love in my relationships there is a constant.

The church in Cuba offers a kind of radical challenge to love and serve without abandon. On the Island there is no option to say this is too hard – when there’s a problem you have to deal with it. They use their hope and dedication to survive. One of the things they dealt with this summer was an outbreak of health problems – especially the Zika virus. Due to the lack of access to medications and bug repellent there was no way to avoid the risk of the virus.

But still, they continued to care for one another. That challenge of being larger, loving and more free has always been part of the Quaker Church in Holguin. One of the members – Myrna unraveled the history of the Quakers on the island for me and she told me about one of the church’s first initiatives.

Myrna QUOTE: Ella propusó como objetivo de la sociedad trabajar por la mejoramieto del hogar, la familia y los hijos. Y el trabaja dirigido fundamentalmente a ensenar a la mujer cubana las normas de higena para preservar la salud… es muy importante…

Even in the Quakers’ early days on the island, they addressed the health and safety of the community – regardless of their neighbors’ beliefs. They began in the ‘20s with lessons on caring for infants and washing food – and now their initiatives have grown to education about ending violence against women and children and offering clean water.

To me these Cubans are living out Baldwin’s challenge in the best way they can. They are faithful witnesses through immense difficulties, in a world that does not offer much support.

Off the island, I witness injustices, too. They are different – but the stakes are just as high. We live in a world that is frustrating and frightening – so that declaration from Baldwin: is Faith helping me make this world larger, freer and more loving? I carry that with me. I ask myself, am I doing as much as I can to bear witness to the injustices of my community, country, and world? I use it as a challenge, because I’ve learned from my time in Cuba the dedication to hope and community makes many things possible. If you open your eyes a little wider and listen a little bit harder, you can create a love and an openness that you couldn’t have imagined.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/gospel-isaiah-john-holbert-02-25-2013#IR8BaB1IS5wTQU0J.99

[2] Ibid., 356.

[3] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Random House, 1962, 1963)

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