I notice that, as a congregation, we’re ambivalent about the ancient Christian practice of testimony. We’re reluctant to speak publicly about our faith. We’re allergic to fervor and fanaticism. We don’t want to be viewed as pushing Jesus on anyone. We want no part of the versions of Christianity that our ancestors used to exploit, dominate and enslave. This sensitivity comes from a good and loving place. At the same time, I wonder how we can nurture a different kind of testimony, how we can bear witness to a different sort of Jesus.
As I received the testimony of Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs and Rev. Dr. Dwayne Davis beside those trees at B’dote, worn by the ropes of river boats, I felt the tug to share in the joy of imagining freedom. I pondered how I might also bear witness . . . as they painted the picture of those vessels that carried food, arms, and human cargo to the prison at Ft. Snelling; as they named the struggles and triumphs of Rachel and Courtney, Dred and Harriet; as they celebrated the 75 newly emancipated folks who came to Minnesota in the Spring of 1863 to found Black churches, build Black businesses, and create Black neighborhoods.
The truth is, those of us formed by whiteness have a particular sort of testimony to offer. We have a responsibility to speak publicly about the ways enslavement in all forms has benefitted and harmed us and about our commitment to resist this continuing evil. Jim Bear said, “Nothing can be created if it doesn’t first live in the human imagination.” What is it that white folks can’t yet imagine that we must imagine, for freedom to be fully realized? What must awaken in us, what must be ignited in us, for joy unbounded to rise from this night of weeping?
“John came as a witness to testify to the light,” our Gospel passage declares. In this text, John the Baptist points forward to Jesus and he also points backward to the roots they share in the prophetic tradition of Israel. When the prophet Isaiah testifies to the possibility of a new future, he begins by declaring, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”
The Spirit is the breath of God, the same breath that gives life to creation. Isaiah understands that the work of imagining and enacting freedom is a new chapter in the story of creation. The work of creation is not all up to God and it’s not all up to us. It is shared work. Creation happens a collaborative space. Together with God, we do the work of rebuilding the ruins and repairing the devastations. Together with people of different experiences, cultures and stakes in the work, we bring good news to the oppressed, we bind up the broken-hearted, and we proclaim liberty to the captives. Together with the earth and our more than human companions, we do the work of comforting, celebrating, and praising, the work of planting oaks of righteousness and tending new shoots of joy and hope.
It strikes me we, as progressive Christian community, are called to be a John the Baptist of sorts. I realize that when it comes to speaking about Jesus, we’re uncertain and uneasy, skeptical and wary. And we should be in a world that constantly co-opts Christianity in service of hatred, greed and violence. At the same time, we know how to do this work, how to point toward Jesus. We know how to share with the world a new and liberating version of our faith. We do it all the time. During stewardship season, the testimony we share with each other is something we cherish, for the ways it makes us laugh and cry and think. We remind each other how this community rooted in the stories and teachings of Jesus sustains and shapes us. In moments of welcome, and Advent video reflections, we invite one another into our homes and lives, into those daily ways we practice discipleship. In the kitchen (the community kitchen), at the pantry, Lexington Commons, and the food shelf, we speak to one another and to those we serve about Jesus with our work more than our words. When we listen deeply to other voices, when we make calls, sign petitions, and show up with our bodies and spirits in protest, we follow the way of Christ.
Friends, let us bear witness.
Let us testify to the signs within us and around us, of the presence of the God who is revealed in Jesus’ incarnation a creative and collaborative God who breathes life into creation again and again, a God of justice who partners with us to rebuild our ruins to imagine and enact a new future. Amen.