Time to Testify
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2016, five days after the 2016 election.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
I am tempted to sit down right now and simply let Jesus’ words work on us, on you and me. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, when the world around you seems to be coming to an end, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Yes, there will be “dreadful portents,” but before the end the faithful will be brought before the powers that be as an opportunity to testify. So the end is not here yet, and our only call is to persevere in speaking out on behalf of love, light, caring, and sacrifice. The church must rise every morning, pray for strength, and continue to believe in and speak of the God who is Love.
Jesus’ easily distracted disciples are all too impressed with the large stones of their civilization, but Jesus can imagine a day when those stones will no longer stand. The Temple was, truly, a sight to behold, one of architectural wonders of the ancient world. It was constructed by Herod (yes, that Herod) over the course of a century as both a temple and a tourist site to compete with other glories of the Roman World. The stones that awed the disciples were seven feet by nine feet by sixty feet long! They would have been covered with gold, polished so that when the sun shone upon them at dawn one would be forced to look away as if one were trying to look upon the sun itself. From a distance, the unadorned stone shone white like a beacon, the original a city on a hill. It was a symbol of hope and achievement and worship (and commerce). But Jesus could imagine a time when it would all be gone. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, it was gone, along with all Jerusalem, systematically destroyed and dismantled, stone by stone, by Imperial Rome. This is the trauma that every Gospel writer remembers, the event in light of which they remember Jesus, the end of one world and its replacement by another.
But if the disciples’ question about the destruction of the temple was the occasion for Jesus’ thinking about the future, this question quickly drops away as Jesus’ subject becomes the future of Jerusalem, which in turn becomes a symbol of the future time when God’s kingdom will be truly established. Jesus words are unsettling, “all this will be thrown down,” and the disciples ask for a sign so that they may know when these things are to take place.
Every generation wants a sign, doesn’t it? A key for reading historical events that tell us what time it is. What is demanded of us. Who or what we are called be and do. To understand ‘What’s going on?’ “We seek signs to get a sense of security about our lives, a sense of control over the precarity of life in the same way that [Jesus disciples sought signs of the coming Reign of God] to help them feel less unsettled about all the turmoil going on around them with the Roman occupation of their land.”
Jesus doesn’t offer one.
Instead, all he promises is that “this is not the end.” He warns his disciples about would be prophets and messiahs, those who promise the easy fulfillment of all their dreams. He cautions them about “false hopes and expectations arising out of events that might reasonably have been seen as signs that the final days were at hand – leading to intense disillusionment and loss of faith when these expectations were not fulfilled.” No, before God’s reign comes Jesus foresees persecution, protest, prison, and what he calls dreadful portents – wars and rumors of wars, ecological breakdown, hunger and health crisis. Families and neighbors will turn on one another, and some will die. But, my friends, as long as those things are happening, we know the end has not come. This time, he says, this present time, is given to you, that you may testify. And by your endurance, you will gain your souls.
Gee, thanks Jesus.
I have been, like many of you, profoundly, even physically sad, since Tuesday evening. I have found it hard to concentrate. I’ve cried reading the newspaper, and I have read it obsessively. I have had no words to describe my feelings, and then far too many. While I hope and pray that I am wrong, I resonate with the worst fears and predictions for our nation, that the American experiment in democracy is over; that the global order painstakingly constructed over the last century, flawed as it is, will unravel as the U.S. threatens to pull out of NATO, our United Nations obligations, and international treaties; it is certain that four years of new and unregulated fossil-fuel infrastructure will be an absolute death sentence for the planet. And closer to home and more immediately, a rash of racist and hateful attacks has swept across the country this week, displaying the vilest kind of hatred that we always knew was there but which now shows itself proudly in the light of day. “After Brexit and this election, everything is now possible,” tweeted the French ambassador to the United States on Wednesday. “A world is collapsing before our eyes.”
What’s going on? What time is it?
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, when the world around you seems to be coming to an end, do not be terrified; these things will take place, but the end will not follow immediately.” As long as we can stand before the powers that be and speak out on behalf of love, light, caring, and sacrifice, we have not come to the end. This is the time given to us. Time to testify.
I want to share with you a pastoral letter I received from our Synod Executive, The Rev. Harold Delhagen, earlier this week. He writes
While we may have differing positions on some issues, we find a powerful consensus upon the Gospel values that form our Christian witness. We stand in whole-hearted solidarity with those who have been marginalized in the past and for whom the current political environment offers only a greater threat of hatred, violence and further marginalization.
We will stand together with our siblings of color, of those within our LGBTQ community, for those who have immigrated into our country and for those who still dream of finding a home among us. We will stand arm in arm with people of all faiths and will especially stand with our siblings within the Muslim community. We will remain passionate in our commitment to gender equality. We recognize the need to begin with common lament and that words will just not be enough.
We will renew our commitment to a greater vision that embraces these Gospel values. We will intentionally create ways to listen carefully to one another’s stories, our fears and our deep hope for our future. [May our] congregations [be] places of sanctuary and lighthouses of justice reflecting the reign of God.
I am reminded of the words of the Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed for standing on the side of those made poor and those persecuted by their own government: “Try not to depend on hope, because unfulfilled hope leads to despair, and we have no need of a despairing people. Try instead to be faithful… to get up each day and do that which needs to be done.”
Friends, I am exceedingly grateful that within this community, when we say the things that must be said to confront this new era of mainstreamed bigotry and mainstreaming of white supremacist violence, when we stand up and speak out against the racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and Islamophobia unleashed by our President-elect, it will not be for the first time. We have some practice in this, and we have made some amazing partners and relationships along the way. Many of us, by color or gender or sexuality or nationality or immigration status or income have experience we can draw on as we seek to speak and act faithfully. And we have a particular task as Christians as we confront the white fundamentalist Christians who, as Carmen has said so many times, seem to be reading from a different bible than we do.
We must re-commit ourselves to the work of justice, love and peace, within and without, so that we may be not be found wanting when God’s reign comes. Which means deepening our prayer lives, sinking ourselves in our scriptures, keeping this time of worship together a priority in our lives so that we can experience and share the love and grace of our amazing God with a deeply hurting, and rightfully fearful world. Only then will our lives be so trained and disciplined that we will not need to prepare our words, as Jesus said, but will be always ready to say what needs to be said, for this is the task of our time – to testify.
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 I thank my colleague Rev. Martin McGeachy, with whom I spoke about my hopes and fears on Monday, for capturing my reading of this text and writing it out in this way.
 Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. Liturgical Press, 2015.
 Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, “Luke” in True to Our native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Fortress Press, 2007. p. 181.
 The phrase “mainstreamed bigotry and mainstreaming white supremacist violence” appeared earlier this week in an article by Sarah Kendzior about Presbyterian publisher and martyr Elijah Lovejoy. https://thecorrespondent.com/5575/our-fate-was-sealed-long-before-november-8-and-not-because-the-elections-rigged/1576889402275-7591b019
 This quotation was shared online earlier this week by Rick Ufford-Chase, Member of the intentionally interfaith Community of Living Traditions, and Co-Director of the Stony Point Center.