witnessing to truth

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Isaiah 49.1-7 and John 1.29-42, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2016

isaiah-1896-1902-james-tissot

Over 2500 years ago, Isaiah spoke to the people Israel exiled in Babylon. Defeated, dispirited, they needed no prophetic word of correction, but rather consolation. In God’s name, Isaiah proclaimed, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

God recommissioned the people to be “a light to the nations,” the whole world, to witness to the truth that the quest for salvation, for prosperity and peace involved suffering and survival.

History, biblical, modern, and post-modern, confirms that our Jewish sisters and brothers – from their exodus from Egypt, through their sojourn in the Sinai wilderness, in the horror of the Holocaust, and unto this day when the bigotry of anti-Semitism still cries, “Christ-killers” – know the cost in suffering and the promise in survival of their witness to the world.

st-john-the-baptist-preaching-anastasio-fontebuoni-1571-1626-palatine-gallery-florence-italy

Over 2000 years ago, John the baptizer declared to the people around the River Jordan near Jerusalem what God was doing in Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John witnessed to the truth that the quest for salvation, for healing and wholeness involved sacrifice.

Jesus, through his life and ministry, seeking the least, last, and lost, proclaiming a radical return to the heart of the law of life – love God, love neighbor – and challenging the status quo of the selfish and unshared privilege of secular and religious powers and principalities, charted a course that wended its way to Calvary, ending on a sacrificial cross of crucifixion and death.

Today, we read the prophecies of Isaiah and John. Prophecies of witness. A witness to truth. A truth involving suffering and sacrifice.

“Witness” is derived from the Greek martus, bearing the same root of the word “martyr.” For to witness does not mean to behold a truth with physical sight, but to testify to it, always being prepared to walk toward and, if necessary, through death’s door.

Today, we read the prophecies of Isaiah and John in this weekend when we remember Martin Luther King, Jr.; celebrating his life, commemorating his legacy. Nearly fifty years ago, Martin prophesied, testifying to the truth that the American dream of universal equality and the opportunity to enjoy the Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”[1] was unfulfilled.[2] In bearing, in being that witness, Martin was murdered, martyred.

That prophecy, that dream remains unfulfilled. Today, America is a land where all cannot say, “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”[3] Where people still are judged not by the content of their character, but by their skin’s color, class status, sexual orientation, gender, or chosen creed; any, all of which able to determine the access or lack to the fullest range of life’s opportunities. Where abiding poverty in a land of abundant plenty still daily crushes the heart of hope. Where presidential candidates still play the “pokered cards” of race, class, and creed hoping to amass the winning number of electoral chips.

Yes, we have made progress. Speaking personally, I will be 65 this year and, in my lifetime, there was a time when I, as an African American cleric, would not have been the priest-in-charge of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina; such was the reigning and restrictive racial divide in our society and in our church. Yet, as there remains much progress to be made, to paraphrase Robert Frost, there are promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.[4]

The bright beacon of Epiphany’s declaration that Jesus’ life and ministry of love and justice are for all people, for the whole world casts its searing, scathing light on the reality that the prophecy, the dream of the universality of equality remains unfulfilled.

ronald-stuart-thomas-photograph-by-christopher-barker

The late, great Ronald Stuart Thomas,[5] a Welsh Anglican cleric, is one of my favorite poets. His lucid, austere verse speaks deeply of common human emotions and experiences. In his poem, Judgment Day, Thomas expresses the regret of one who, like the rich man of Jesus’ parable, dead and entombed in Hades, looks up, too late recognizing those who in life were beneath him and thus he never saw:[6]

In health happy, (I was)

Careless of the claim

Of the world’s sick

Or the world’s poor.”[7]

The dream of the world’s least, last, and lost remains unfulfilled. In 2017, how will I, you, we respond so that the regret of Judgment Day never is ours?

 

Photographs:

me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006, by Walt Calahan

Ronald Stuart Thomas by Christopher Barker

Illustrations:

Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot

St. John the Baptist Preaching, Anastasio Fontebuoni (1571-1626), Palatine Gallery, Florence, Italy

Footnotes:

[1] From The Declaration of Independence

[2] See The American Dream, Dr. King’s commencement address delivered at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania on June 6, 1961.

[3] The closing words of King’s I Have a Dream speech, delivered on August 28, 1963 as the keynote address of the March on Washington for Civil Rights.

[4] From the poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

[5] Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913-2000)

[6] See Luke 16.19-31

[7] From “Judgment Day” (my emendation), R. S. Thomas – Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix Giant, Orion Publishing Group, London, 1993), page 105

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3 thoughts on “witnessing to truth

  1. Dear Paul,
    It would be so easy to be dismayed that even after all of these years, MLK’s dream is still unfulfilled. It’s sad, BUT it’s also a call to action for us, to ensure that he didn’t do all that work, and die in vain. Thank you for reminding us of the many miles we need to go before we sleep. I am encouraged by all of the African-Americans who have made incredible strides in my lifetime, which allow me to do all of the things I’ve been able to do both in my career and in my fight against Alzheimer’s disease. You mentioned that the strides made make it possible for you to be the Priest-in-Charge at Epiphany, Laurens. I too know that I certainly wouldn’t be able to be the keynote speaker in several major conferences this year were it not for the blood, sweat and tears of MLK and many others. I know that I must continue to press on, and to carry on so that we don’t move even further away from the dream than we are right now. I believe the folks at Epiphany know how lucky they are to have you and are glad to enough work has been done in SC and other places that make that so. I love being a follower of yours, both as my family and my mentor, which gives me constant access to your powerful voice of love and justice. Keep it going, and I’ll be there with you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate your being with me as I am with you…

      It occurs to me that also in my lifetime I could not have been rector at St. Mark’s. So, again I acknowledge, progress has been made. In that acknowledgment I also give voice to a lament. What I said this past Sunday at Epiphany, Laurens, SC, I also said on occasion at St. Mark’s. And in neither case – at St. Mark’s or Epiphany – did or has anyone acknowledged or affirmed the truth of that assertion. This tells me – and I am open to alternate interpretations – that many white folk do not know how to speak or give voice to the ramifications of race. Sometimes I think that their silence is a paradoxically loud expression of their desire that “it” go away…

      In this regard, I had an experience this past Sunday afternoon at the cathedral in Columbia, SC, when I was mistaken for someone else (read: African American cleric). When I shared my encounter with another cleric (white), she immediately shared her concern and sadness that I had been misidentified because of my race. It was a painful acknowledgment, yet one I welcomed and for which I was and am grateful, for it meant that a white person had recognized and claimed AND confessed a historic blindness and insensitivity on. Whale of her race. In that moment I felt whole – though I hadn’t expected or required her to do anything for me.

      As Frost saith, we have miles to go before we sleep.

      Love and “a luta continua” (the struggle continues)…

      Liked by 1 person

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