Lent is a time to remember what God was doing in the life of Jesus, the death of Jesus, and the ultimate victory of resurrection. And to that end, this Lent we are working our way through some of the elements of being a vital congregation. We have talked about spending our lives forming ourselves by following Jesus. We have talked about the radical call of God—to move out of our comfort zone, and into the life as Christ showed us. We have talked about how relationship wins over rules, even as we know God wants us to order our lives.
So today we come to a part that might make us a little squeamish. We come to the element “intentional, authentic evangelism.” Now no matter how many times I tell myself that evangelism—euangelian (the greek) is all about sharing the good news-- my mind immediately goes to the guy standing on the corner, yelling how everyone else in the world is going to hell. I’m afraid that Christians everywhere, and at many times, including our own, have basically played into this stereotype.
But we cannot be stopped by a falsehood. Jesus and Jesus’ message of God’s love is so powerful it should be something that we want to “witness” to. The question is HOW. How do we go about proclaiming in our words and our lives the “good news” we know about—how God’s love has changed our lives, so much so, that we can’t help but move into the world, wanting to change it for the better.
As the Brief Statement of Faith, our latest American “confession” says (in part),
“We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life. In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”
I like the fact that this “witnessing” comes under the auspices of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t something that we do alone—as if we had all the answers. It is something done in conjunction with the Spirit of God. And it says nothing about standing on street corners, or telling other people how to live their lives. It does talk in action words—pray, witness, unmask, hear, work with others. Those actions require courage, and effort, and allies. Not only are we not supposed to be lone ranger witnesses, but filled with the Spirit of God, we are supposed to do this in community—just as forming ourselves happens in community, just as outward focus is best in community, just as relationship require community.
And so, I’m taking the extraordinary step of making this a sermon in community. This week I ran into the words of Rev. Dr. William Barber II (president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival)—published in Sojourners magazine, but adapted from a sermon he delivered last fall at Howard University.
I think William Barber is a giant in being able to teach us about how to witness. From the Moral Monday movement he started in North Carolina, to his speeches and sermons, to his participation in marches even though he has been seriously crippled from an arthritic spine condition since his 20’s. As I thought about how to talk about witnessing, Rev. Dr. Barber’s words moved me, and made me want to share them with you. So in keeping with the community of voices, especially the voices of those often silenced, especially those willing to unmask idolatries in church and culture, especially those that extend a hand to work together towards justice, freedom, and peace—here is some of what Dr. Barber had to say.
I will set the scene. His article/sermon is focused on the text from the prophet Daniel, where Nabuchadnezzar, “a narcissistic manic,” insists that everyone bow down to him. And Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three young Hebrew men, were asked to bow. As Barber put it, they were asked to “forget their heritage, forget their legacy, forget their journey, forget their God, forget their rights, and bow down.” And they wouldn’t. “The could not accept the religion of the king, the religion of greed, the religion of racism, the religion of hate. They could not go through the motions of bowing to the statue while still maintaining their belief in God. They knew that ere are times you must stand your ground because bowing down is not an option.”
Barber goes on “Right now, we need this word in our political reality. This is a political text. It is a text about the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors, between the high and might and the least of these. We need to hear it again because we’re living in a time with people and political system and personalities who are absorbed with themselves… We live in a moment when millions desperately need a government and a society with a heart. Millions of Americans need health care and living wages and protection from xenophobies, homophobis, systemic racism, religious bigotry, immigration resentment, and climate destruction. This moments we’re in is about whether a government of the people and by the people will, in fact, serve the people…I hope the change comes. I hope hearts are changed. But the Bible says what comes out of your mouth is a reflection of your heart. Somehow we’re got to get it in our spirit. Even if it doesn’t [change], this text says we must stand our ground because bowing down is not an option.
Back to the story from Daniel—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo refused to bow. So Nebuchadnezzer had them thrown into a fiery furnace—as a warning to anyone else who might defy him. And then he hung around to see them burn. But suddenly there were not just three people in the fire, a fourth figure was there as well. And Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego survived.
Barber muses “Whenever we take a stand and choose not to bow…it moves God. God doesn’t keep them from being thrown into the fiery furnace. God decides instead to go in with them. God was the fourth on in the fire. God didn’t save them by keeping them out of the fire. God saved them in the fire…”
“So it might look like that narcissistic Nebuchadnezzar and all of his nasty is going to nullify us. But stand, and the Lord will make a way somehow. God can bring power out of pain, mercy out of meanness, love out of hate. God can bring joy out of sorrow, good out of evil, hope out of despair. God can bring deliverance out of depression, and life out of death…
“We’re in some fiery times right now. But bowing down is not an option. If Harriet Tubman didn’t bow, if Medgar Evers didn’t bow, if Frederick Douglas didn’t bow, if Rosa Parks didn’t bow, bowing down is not an option.”
I serve one who was born in the time of another narcissistic maniac named Caesar. They hung him high, they stretched him wide, but that brown-skinned Palestinian Jew, that revolutionary, didn’t bow and neither can we.
One day, we’ll be able to bow—when we stand before the Lord. When the lion lays down with the lamb. When the rough places are made smooth, the crooked places are made straight, the mountains are made low, and the glory of the Lord is revealed. We can bow then.
But until then, stand. When there’s nothing left to do, stand. Watch the Lord see you through. And after you’ve done all you can, stand. Because bowing down is not an option.”(Sojourners, March 2018, pp. 16-20 adapted).
And we all say, “Amen.”
May God grant us the courage to find our own way of telling the world about God’s justice, God’s freedom, and God’s love. For truly, it is “good news.”
Amen and Amen.