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Sermon for September 24, 2017: Testify (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

“Testifying” is not something that is particularly familiar to most Episcopalians. Although Jesus commanded all of his disciples to share the Good News of our salvation through him, individual “witness” is not a regular part of Anglican/Episcopal worship. While some churches (and other institutions) regularly ask individuals to speak about their salvation through Jesus Christ, the Episcopal Church generally does not. But I recently did.

You may or may not have recognized my call, which you can find in the last several editions of our online newsletter, “Grace Notes.” The title of the article was, “A Minute for Mission.” In it, I asked parishioners to “step up and talk about their membership in the community of Grace.” You may or may not be shocked to find out that I have had very few volunteers. I don’t think it’s because our folks have nothing to say. I know that the people of Grace love this parish. I know that our members and visitors recognize a sense of welcome and joy in our community of Christ. And I know that God is present and active in the hearts of the parishioners of Grace. I just think that we are uncomfortable talking about God’s grace and mercy. So I’m going to give you a couple of examples of how it’s done.

First example: God. In today’s Hebrew scripture we find one of our most well-known prophets, Jonah of “Jonah and the whale” fame in a temper. He is upset with God because God, after saying that the people of Nineveh would be punished for their evil ways, has relented and decided not to bring calamity on them. This makes Jonah mad. After all, God dragged him out of his home, scared him into running away, got him swallowed by a big fish, and sent him to talk to those mean Ninevites and after all that decided to show them mercy. “Just kill me now,” Jonah says. Instead, God causes a bush to grow over Jonah to make him more comfortable and, perhaps, less cranky. But the minute Jonah gets comfortable, God sends a worm to kill the bush and leave Jonah in the hot sun. And Jonah gets mad all over again. Because God is not being fair. And it’s true. God was not being fair. God was being merciful- and God gave Jonah a very simple reason why: because God cared for the people of Nineveh. God explains his own actions. God testifies to her own mercy.

Example two. Today’s psalm is attributed to David. In it, we hear that God is to be praised, because God is good. God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. David is writing from experience – because he knew a thing or two about God’s mercy, having broken at least three of the Ten Commandments himself. This psalm is David’s witness not only to God’s power and glory, but also to God’s endless forgiveness and mercy.

Example number three: St. Paul. After being blinded and converted to the Jesus movement, the former Saul spent the remainder of his life testifying to the salvation offered through belief in Jesus the Christ. In the reading we heard today, Paul was writing from prison, where he was facing the very real possibility of his death and ruminating on whether it would be better for him to live or die. Ironically, Paul considers death the more selfish option, because it is his greatest personal desire to be with Christ. For him, it is a sacrifice to continue living, but he knows that it is his call to spread the gospel – so he chooses life not for himself, but in order to give others a chance to experience the wonder and mercy of the life he has come to know through belief in Jesus Christ.

Which is what the landowner in today’s gospel parable also offers: a chance. While he agrees to pay the first group of laborers he hires, “the usual daily wage,” he does not make the same promise to those he hires later in the day. He merely tells them that he will pay them, “whatever is right.” Notice he doesn’t say, “whatever you think is right.” He doesn’t say, “what seems fair to you.” He doesn’t say, “what you earn.” He says, “whatever is right.” And for Jesus, what is right is based not on the rules of humankind, but on the nature of God. “Hard-working, ‘good’ people have always asked,” on hearing this story, “What kind of God would offer the same reward to those who have earned it and those who have not”?[1] The answer is “a merciful God,” – a God who gives everyone the same chance – the chance to know God.

God also gives them – and us – the chance to witness to God’s mercy -but somehow that is hard for us. We find it easy to testify to the effectiveness of a diet we have tried, or the value of a product we use, or the competence of our physician or contractor, but we have enormous trouble telling others about the single most important thing in our lives: the gift of our salvation, forgiveness, and new life through our most merciful triune God. Perhaps it’s because it is so important – and so personal. After all, it’s pretty difficult to talk about the presence of God in our lives without talking about ourselves – about the things that matter to us – about who we really are. No wonder we don’t want to get up in front of everyone and “testify.”

But I have asked you to do it, and so I will give you one more example: my own. This past week I attended the diocesan clergy retreat. The theme of the conference was “Clergy Health – Mind, Body, and Spirit” and Bishop Marc asked me to talk about clergy mental health. What I found in the research I did for this presentation was staggering: members of the clergy – across denominations and even countries – are extremely prone to burnout and mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression. My goal for my presentation was to provide an environment in which my fellow clerics felt comfortable talking about their own issues, and I felt that I could not do it without honestly talking about mine. So I told them, as I am telling you, that I suffer from depression. I was diagnosed with post-partum depression after my son was born and I spent several months of my life crying without being able to stop – and several years trying to rediscover the joy in my life. I feared that I could not recover from my pain – but God was with me during that dark time, and the stories of people from our scripture and history gave me comfort on my journey through it, and the testimony of my fellow believers gave me strength and hope when I needed it most. And now I am grateful and joyful to be able to witness to the mercy of God – and the power of Christian community.

I know that many of you are struggling through hard times right now, and I know how easy it would be for you to give in to the voice of despair, the voice that cries out “This is not fair.” But you don’t. You not only continue to work through your pain with faith and courage, but you also continue to give to others despite your own troubles. You show up each week and do altar guild, and buildings and grounds, and office work. You serve on committees and answer emails and wash dishes. You testify with your good works to the saving power of God and of God’s people on earth. For this and for you, I am more grateful than you can know.

Today I have to ask you to testify in one more way. This week we are beginning our fall stewardship campaign. Stewardship in the church has become associated with money, and certainly that’s part of it, but what stewardship actually means is “what we do with what we have.” It is how we demonstrate what is important to us and what we are grateful for. I would request that if this Christian community is important to you, you testify to that with your time, talent and, if possible, your treasure. Decide in your heart how you can best make your witness to God’s great mercy. And I thank you. AMEN.

[1]Kathryn D. Blanchard, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 94.

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