“You Will Be My Witnesses”

In my final semester of seminary, I took a class on photography and ethics. One of our assignments was to watch the documentary “Born into Brothels” about children growing up in the Red-Light District of Calcutta, India. Impoverished, under-educated, and living in a neighborhood where prostitution and violence are everyday realities, a small group of children is given 35mm cameras to chronicle the day-to-day life in the district.

Watching the film, I was exposed to the harsh living conditions the children must endure, and learned of their struggles to access quality education. I also heard the unique stories of each child about life in Calcutta, told through their photography. Some took pictures of family and friends, others photos of the bustling street life, others still pictures of architecture and nature.

Avijit, one of the photographers said, “When a camera is in my hands, I can take a picture of someone who has gone away, died, or been lost. And have something that I’ll be able to look at for the rest of my life.”

Another photographer, Gour, saw his photos exposing the reality of life in the Red-Light District to the world: “I take pictures to show how people in this city live, people live here in chaos, nobody lives as filthy as we do in our country, wherever there are dirty plates we find shoes right next to them. In no other country have I seen this, that’s why I like photography. I want to put across the behavior of man.”

What strikes me most about “Born into Brothels” is that it’s more than just a film crew going to Calcutta with cameras and a mics and shooting a documentary from their perspective. We get to hear the voices of the children too, see their stories told through their photographs. It’s sort of like a documentary of a documentary. We get to see the hardships, the joys, the family struggles, the friendships, the structural oppression, the perseverance, all through the unique lenses of their cameras. These children bear witness to life in the Red-Light District everyday and have the courage to tell their stories to the world. And we, as outsiders, are changed when we hear them.

Today’s New Testament reading speaks deeply about bearing witness to what we see and hear. As amazing and mysterious as Christ’s Ascension is, on par with the Transfiguration and the Resurrection, I’m equally intrigued by Jesus’ last words to his disciples.

After all of the tumultuous events of the past 40-some days (Palm Sunday, the last supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and all of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and miracles) I’m sure the disciples were expecting some words of comfort and consolation as Jesus left them. Perhaps a big group hug where Jesus apologizes for leaving them and tells them “I know you’ll be able to carry on without me.”

Instead, Jesus gives them instructions for a daunting task. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It is not enough that you’ve seen and heard all of these miraculous events, now I want you to go and tell the world about them.

I often forget that this was the mission of the early church. It wasn’t about debating polity and structure or capital campaigns or trying new ways to attract young families or even advocating for social justice (all of which are very important, by the way). The primary purpose of the early church was to tell the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. It was the mission of the apostles to bear witness to God’s miraculous power through Jesus Christ.

I like the phrase “bearing witness” because it implies a certain responsibility. To bear something means to hold it, to carry it, to bring it to fruition, like when a mother bears a child. When the women encountered the empty tomb that first Easter morning, though they were terrified and amazed they couldn’t keep silent about the miraculous thing they had seen. When the disciples encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, they returned to Jerusalem and immediately told the others of what they experienced.

They weren’t sure how it all happened or why it all happened, that would get debated later. What they did know is that it happened, because they witnessed it with their own eyes and ears. And they were compelled to tell others about it.

We all know that feeling we get when we have exciting news to share. Maybe it’s something amazing we’ve seen, or good news about our lives, a new job, good test results from the doctor, a new grandchild. We can’t wait to share it with those we love and if the news is good enough, with complete strangers.

Yet sometimes there is a risk in telling our good news. In the days following Jesus’ resurrection, we don’t find the disciples out in the public square proudly proclaiming that Christ is risen. No, we find them in locked rooms, scared and hiding from the religious and political authorities. The news of Jesus’ resurrection was powerful, so powerful that it got many disciples thrown in jail and others killed.

The Greek word used for “witness” in Acts is martys which can also be translated as “martyr.” The word martyr often brings up images of Christians throughout history who have died for their faith in the face of religious and political oppression: the apostle Paul, Joan of Arc, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero.

And though I believe we should celebrate the courage of those who would die witnessing to their faith, I also don’t want us to get hung up on the idea that martyrdom is only for those with super-human bravery or those who suffer under fierce political oppression. Instead, I believe martyrdom can be a daily practice of witnessing the miraculous work of God in us and around us, and having the courage to tell others, even if we risk ridicule and harm.

I think we see martyrdom quite a bit today in the United States. I think of the Moral Monday demonstrations that have been happening in North Carolina for the past three years. Organized by the NAACP and inter-faith religious leaders, those involved risk arrest, public outcry, and backlash from members of their congregations, for standing up against voter disenfranchisement and denied access to healthcare.

I think of the work of the Women’s Ordination Conference, which supports the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church. Under threats of ex-communication and harassment, for decades these women have been seeking equality in church leadership, which models the leadership of the early church.

And you don’t have to be on the frontlines of political protests to feel the sting of martyrdom either. There is always a risk involved when we live as Jesus taught us. When we forgive someone who has hurt us when others say we should seek revenge. When we choose a day of Sabbath and rest for our children instead of signing them up for more programs and activities. When we seek peace and understanding with political or religious opposites instead of engaging in the arguments and stereotyping our culture so often encourages.

I don’t believe that martyrdom requires us to die physically for our faith, but it does require that we die to ourselves in a way, and leave behind the false comfort of what the world offers us and instead, allow God to resurrect us into new life in Christ Jesus.

As most of you know, this is my last Sunday here at First Church. I have so many memories of my past four and half years here and as I was writing my sermon it was pretty tough figuring out which ones to share. Well thankfully, our reading from Acts today is a great guide, because First Church is a “witnessing” church in so many ways.

This might sound a little strange, saying First Church is a “witness for Christ,” but I hope my sermon today has helped reframe that word a bit. I’ve seen First Church risk ridicule and rejection from the outside world for the work we’ve been a part of. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to explain to fellow Christians that the welcome we offer here at First Church is our way of living out the gospel, or arguing with secular activists about whether or not faith calls us to work for justice.

I believe that you, the people of First Church have witnessed the miraculous works of God, in you and around you, in all of the creative ways that God works. And it’s been a blessing to watch you sharing your good news in your own unique ways.

I remember working alongside our confirmation kids, parents, and mentors to build a stove for a family in a rural part of Guatemala, mixing the concrete, cutting the bricks, being hand-delivered Pepsi in coffee mugs by a small boy who lived nearby. First Church was a witness for Christ that day by standing in solidarity with those on margins in all parts of the world.

I remember gathering in Pilgrim Hall every Tuesday night for two months to make phone calls for the Minnesotans United campaign to stop the anti-marriage amendment (which we did, by the way) and one night Lisa and Greg Hubinger showed up with wine and cheese to the delight of everyone. First Church was a witness for Christ that day by working for justice in our state and sharing the news of God’s love of diversity and inclusion.

I remember staying up late one night with families at Pilgrim Point, talking and laughing and watching Trevor, Jack, Malcolm, and Emily playing on the floor with little Elvie in the middle of it all, helping her put together pieces of a puzzle. First Church was a witness for Christ that day as our children modeled love and friendship.

And I remember my first Sunday here, being welcomed with a reception after worship that included root beer floats and cheese puffs, and having Louise Huebner tell me that there was one thing I needed to know, that First Church is an eating church. First Church was a witness for Christ that day by providing me a place at your table and welcoming me with open arms.

There is a saying, often attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” I have seen the gospel preached here at First Church. I’ve seen the witnesses of Christ, out doing their witnessing work here in Minneapolis and around the world.

Thank you for letting me be a part of your preaching of the gospel, of your witnessing for Jesus. I’m forever grateful.

Blessed be and Amen.