Cloud of Witnesses

Testimony is natural, supernatural, human and divine, and bears witness to the transformation of the world...

Easter 7c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches.”

I want to begin my sermon today with a question: Have any of you here this morning ever had to testify in a civil or criminal matter, either in court or by deposition? I won’t ask you for details, but I will volunteer that I have been in that position in a few civil cases, including that long, drawn-out lawsuit with the former day care operator who stopped paying her rent, in addition to other violations of the lease. The less said about that the better!

But if you have ever given testimony — or if you’ve seen it being done on TV or in the movies, or as a member of a jury, and whether fictional or for real — you know what it amounts to: affirming or swearing to something that you know to be true, usually as a witness or a party to an event or action of some kind.

Witnesses come in all shapes and sizes. I was struck a few weeks ago, after that terrible bombing in Boston, by the fact that some of the “witnesses” aren’t even aware that they are witnesses at the time at all. Much of the evidence that led to identifying the bombers came from cell-phone pictures or snapshots taken of the crowd, or from surveillance cameras and monitors, without any specific intention to photograph the particular bombers. It was only after the fact that the investigators went back to review those thousands of images to piece together the evidence that led to identifying the bombers, and sealed their fate.

I raise this issue testifying because this morning’s readings all address testimony of one sort or another. Some of it appears to be almost as unexpected as the cell-phone snapshots taken by the bystanders enjoying the Boston Marathon — before those terrible explosions went off. Some of the testimony is true as far as it goes, but entirely misses the point. And some of the testimony is important enough to be memorialized for thousands of years since the events themselves.

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First comes perhaps the strangest testimony of all, and the unusual reactions to it. This is the testimony of the demon who possessed the Philippian slave-girl. That young woman had long been held captive by a demon and by those who made use of the prophetic power it bestowed. That also rings a bell in current news, doesn’t it! But unlike the women held captive in Cleveland, this young Philippian was allowed out on the streets, though she bore her demon captor with her wherever she went. She followed Paul and the other disciples through the streets of that Roman colony calling out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” It’s always interested me that Saint Paul, rather than welcoming this free advertising, is annoyed by it, and he performs a quick exorcism casting out the demon, and setting the girl free from that possession, but also rendering her of no more use to her owners, since she can no longer be a sooth-sayer. This ought to remind us of those strange incidents in the Gospels where demons proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God, and Jesus tells them to be silent and casts them out. It seems that some testimony, even if true, is not welcome from certain witnesses! God does not need devils to bear witness to him.

We then quickly see a change of scene and a real court-house testimony, as the owners of the slave-girl drag the apostles before the magistrate and offer their accusation: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and they are advocating customs that are not lawful for us Romans to adopt or observe.” Now, as much as we might not like to admit it, this testimony is also true, as far as it goes. From the perspective of the pagans of that colony, these Christians are upsetting their world — as will be said in the next chapter of Acts, when Paul and his companions have moved on to Thessalonica, where they are accused of turning the whole world upside-down.

Finally, this chapter of Acts treats us to one last bit of testimony: after the earthquake that shakes the prison open, and loosens the chains of the prisoners, Paul and Silas proclaim the Gospel in its fulness, bringing salvation even to the jailer who had kept them locked up, and freeing him as well from his own bonds of ignorance. They were locked up because they had upset the people of the colony with their un-Roman ways; but they proclaimed something universal and powerful that is beyond Jew or Gentile: the salvation that comes through Christ. And here at last the entire household rejoices in being baptized and becoming believers in that which earlier they had earlier condemned and despised. Such is the power of testimony: it liberates from captivity of all sorts — from demons, from prison, from darkness and despair.

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But there is more, one more entirely faithful and truthful witness, one who is the Truth itself, one who bears witness not only to himself, but to his heavenly Father, as the Father also bears witness to him, for they are one: for whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father too. And this witness, this Jesus, commissions and sends other witnesses to testify to his coming, and to his mission. In John’s vision, the one who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, Jesus, testifies that he has sent his angel to John, with his testimony for the churches, that he is who he claims to be: the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star of salvation.

And in the Gospel Jesus prays for those who will witness to him, who will testify to him, and also for all of those who will come to believe in him through their word, through their testimony. Jesus makes himself and his heavenly Father known to his disciples, so that they can in turn make this saving truth known to the world, the world that needs to be turned upside-down, the world that as yet does not know the truth of this testimony. Jesus prays for those who will believe through the testimony of the Apostles.

And that, my friends, is us. We have not the privilege to be eyewitnesses to the events that happened some eighty generations ago. We rely on the word passed down to us by former witnesses in their testimony, by disciples who actually heard and saw the Lord, and who passed that word down through the generations to those who had no first hand experience of the Gospel events, and on and on to us. We are called do our part too, passing along the words of that old, old story, telling it to those who know the tale already, who know it best, but also to those who have never heard it. This is our testimony, a testimony not at first hand, but a testimony of what we have heard and of what we have believed, of the fulfillment of the words spoken through the prophets, handed down to us through all those generations. We have heard the story retold to those who know it best, and to all the rest of us who hear it for the first time.

It is a story told to the farthest reaches of the universe, to all creatures, natural and supernatural — from the angels above, sent by God to proclaim the word in visions, to the devils who know the truth in their pit of damnation, and who tremble in terror because of it. This is the testimony, and the one who testifies has told us, “Surely I am coming soon.” And let all the people say, Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!+

The Idol and the Servant

What has religion to do with idols? Plenty, if you're not careful!

SJF • Easter 6c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

I want to talk to you today about idols: and by idols I don’t mean statues with five heads and a dozen arms — but the more insidious idols that can creep in around the edges of even Christian worship. These idols disguise themselves so well, that one can fall into worshiping them without knowing it.

Because we are not disembodied spirits, our worship requires physical expression: we need people, places and things. We are called, as the Collect says, to worship God in all things and above all things, so things play a part in our lives: our worship lives and our ordinary lives. In the church certain people are ordained to carry out special functions in our worship. Certain places, like this building, receive special honor, as a place where we gather to worship God. Certain physical things, such as the crucifix over the altar, serve to focus our worship. These people, places and things — the means of our worship — are not meant to be the object of our worship: God is.

Some years ago a priest friend of mine, who was wearing his clericals out on the street, was challenged by an aggressive fundamentalist. “Why do you Roman Catholics worship statues? Don’t you know that’s idolatry?” My priest friend said, “First of all, I’m Episcopalian, not Roman Catholic; but I will admit there are statues and images in my church. But before I answer your question, would you mind showing me your wallet?” Somewhat startled, perhaps expecting to be hit up for a donation, the man reluctantly took out his billfold. My friend said, “Would you open it for me, please. Ah — I see you have a picture of what I assume are your wife and children. Would you mind very much tearing it up and throwing it away?” The man said, “Are you crazy! I love my wife and family.” The priest responded, “But I’m not asking you to do anything to your wife and family. I’m just talking about a picture. It’s just a piece of paper.” The man — who still didn’t seem to get the connection, though I’m sure most of you have by now — said, “It isn’t the picture, it’s what it represents!” The priest said, “Well, it’s the same way with my church. We know the image of Mary isn’t Mary, and the one of Jesus isn’t Jesus. We don’t worship these images; we honor and respect them as reminders of the reality of which they are just representations and reminders: the real Mary whose obedience changed the world, and the real Jesus whose saving death on the cross purchased salvation for all of us sinners. And I’m no more willing to destroy these reminders than you are willing to do so to the picture of your family.”

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And that’s the truth. We know full well — or at least I hope we know — that this building on the corner of 190th and Jerome is not the New Jerusalem. For one thing, the New Jerusalem doesn’t require a new roof on the parish hall every 30 years! Also the New Jerusalem is lit by the light of the Lamb, not bu our lovely knew light-bulbs just installed this week. We know that the figure over our altar is made of brass and plaster, that the icons are painted wooden panels. We do not worship the physical things that we see, but we treat them with respect as reminders of the spiritual truths that cannot be seen.

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However, sometimes people in the church do become so attached to the people, places and things of the church — which are meant to guide us and lead us to God — that we lose sight of God himself. Have you ever received a birthday package so beautifully wrapped that you said, “Oh, I hate to open it!” Or been presented with a birthday cake so beautifully decorated that you said, “Oh, I hate to cut it!” I’ve heard people say those things many times. But did you ever actually leave the present wrapped, or the cake uncut? Anyone? I didn’t think so. But sometimes in worship, people get so caught up with the things of worship, that they stop there, just as it is, and fail to reach the reality behind them.

The pagan priest at Lystra — the priest of Zeus — and of course pagans were used to idols so perhaps this was natural — was ready to offer sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, because of what they had done, and how they spoke. But the apostles cried out, “No! Not this! We are men like you! We have come to bring you the good news... to turn you from empty idols and point you to the God who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them.” The apostles were there to get the people to worship the true and living God; they didn’t want to be set up themselves as idols of a new cult!

Yet many times since then, we Christians have “gotten stuck” on the things meant to guide us, like a car stuck in the ruts of the very road meant to aid our journey. When this happens, we make the error of traditionalism. And when we get stuck on a church leader or minister, we fall into what is called the cult of personality. And both of these are deadly to the church.

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First, a few words about traditionalism. It is not the same as tradition. Tradition is the heritage of our religious culture. Without tradition, we are like people with cultural amnesia, ignorant of our past. As I’ve said before, How can you do what Jesus would do if you don’t know what he did? Or what the Apostles did, or the other great saints and sages of the church’s history have done down through the years even to our own time? Tradition is a vehicle for our journey in faith, but it must be a living tradition, a vehicle which moves, which brings us somewhere, not becoming an end in itself. For that’s when tradition becomes traditionalism. As a wise man once said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Traditionalism reminds me of that tragic character from Dickens’ Great Expectations, Miss Havesham, who was jilted on her wedding day, and lived forever in that moment, in a musty room still dressed in her wedding-gown, with an untouched wedding cake covered with cobwebs, nourished only by her thirst for revenge.

But tradition is not such a musty museum. Tradition is a vital thread of truth passed on from generation to generation, linking us back to the time when Christ first promised that even as he went away he would send another Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would continue to teach the disciples everything, and, importantly, remind them of all he had said and taught and done. This is tradition as the gift of God himself.

So the Spirit works to help us keep tradition in focus as we learn about the road we’ve traveled since the days of Paul and Barnabas. We learn from our history by asking questions, with respect and understanding. For when we can no longer tell what greater truth something points to, it is no longer a tradition in any meaningful sense. It has become just one more thing; it has become a vehicle that goes nowhere; it has become an idol.

Sadly, the church has a long history of people getting stuck in ruts of traditionalism, so focused on the thing itself that they loose all understanding and perspective. Sometimes people get so attached to a tradition that they even resort to violence against those who disagree or sooner die than give it up!

I’m not exaggerating. In the eighth century, a monastery of English monks resisted the instructions from Rome that they begin chanting the psalms in the Roman fashion. And so the king stationed archers in the gallery of the monastery, and as the monks persisted singing their traditional English tunes, they were slaughtered in the choir where they stood.

Maybe you’ll say, Oh, but that was in the dark ages; the eight century; things have gotten a lot better. Well, things weren’t better a thousand years later! In 17th century Russia, the Patriarch of Moscow instituted changes in worship, and open warfare broke out — thousands of people died defending the “old ways.” Whole villages were destroyed, people were burnt at the stake in the hundreds. What changes so angered these traditionalists, these “Old Believers”? What earth-shattering reforms did the Patriarch insist were crucial to the faith? To make the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of two, and to say the Alleluia three times instead of once. And as those Old Believers went to the stake, they defiantly crossed themselves with two fingers instead of three. I guess they had the last word.

When people worship their worship rather than worshiping God through their worship, then worship itself has become an idol: an end in itself rather than a means to the highest end of all, which is God.

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The other side of the coin, shown in the story of Paul and Barnabas, is what happens when people start to worship the messenger instead of the one of whom the messenger speaks: this is the cult of personality I mentioned a while ago. We’ve seen this happen with televangelists who rise on the wave of popularity and then crash on the rocks of scandal. But it can also happen in more subtle ways: when ministers are seen as so central to the life of their congregation that they are valued not for what they do but for who they are.

And this is why I am glad to take this opportunity to remind you about what ministers are and what they do. This is in part a message for Sahra our seminarian who will soon be exercising ministry in the church, as an ordained minister of the church.

First of all, that word minister. People will use it with respectful tones. “Oh, she’s a minister,” they might say. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the word minister comes from the Latin word for servant. And it’s the kind of servant most of us are still familiar with: a waiter! So it’s nothing to get high and mighty about! It is about serving — about serving God and the people of God.

This is why all ordained ministers especially should take Paul and Barnabas as their model: it isn’t about us; it isn’t about who we are, but about the One whom we serve. And our primary service is to help the whole people of God to come closer to God and to each other in Christ, and then to go forth into the world in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, the same Spirit Jesus promised would come to the Apostles and guide them and lead them into all Truth.

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We as believers in the One God reject idolatry. We honor those who minister not for themselves but for the sake of the mission of God and its outreach to the ends of the world. Even as we gather in this place, we reach out towards the heavenly Jerusalem, of which this is merely a foretaste, to that place beyond where all symbols and traditions and ministries have their end and goal.

For in the New Jerusalem, there is no Temple. The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the Temple. There is no special class of ministers, for all of God’s people are kings and priests to God, a royal priesthood, and all of them also and at the same time servants of the Lamb. In the New Jerusalem there are no statues or images or icons, as reminders — for we will behold sanctity and divinity with our own eyes, lit by the lamp of the Lamb. In the heavenly city we shall no longer worship through traditions or customs, or things, or places, or with the help of ministers, but face to face with the one whom we adore, serving one another to the glory of God alone. God give us strength to persevere, that we may one day walk in the light of the Lamb, in the land in which there is no night, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+