Margaret Hofheinz-Doring, Endless Road
In my faith journey, I've had the privilege of going on a number of international mission trips. These trips are, in part, about bearing witness to what God is doing in the communities that we visit. But witness isn't just something we do, it's who we are.
Bearing Witness (4/15/18)
Good morning. I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at my calendar over the last couple weeks. It makes me more than a little bit sad to know that I won’t have many more Sundays with you. I have known, since the first day I stood in this pulpit, that I would be leaving you. That was always the plan, yet it’s still hard to believe that our journey together is about to come to an end.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my journey over the last several years. Eight years ago, I was working for a consulting company in Wexford. It was the best job I ever had in the secular world. For what it’s worth, ministry isn’t a job, it’s a calling. I do many things in ministry that are like things I’ve done in my jobs in the secular world, but it’s not the same—there’s a depth to the experience of ministry that I have never found in the secular world. When you have a regular job, it’s all about the work. And if you work with nice people and your supervisor is kind and decent, then it’s a good job. And if you form some really good relationships with your coworkers, that’s great! Ministry is a set of relationships—the “job” is about being in relationship with an entire congregation, plus all of your colleagues in ministry. For me, that’s a qualitatively different experience from a job.
So, there I was, eight years ago, getting ready for my trip to Nicaragua, the trip that would change my life. I loved the life I had constructed. My job was great. My friendships were great. And the most important and satisfying part of my life was my participation in my church community, which led me on that trip to Nicaragua, that trip that would upset the life that I had constructed.
I know I’ve talked about this trip before, but in case you weren’t here on one of those Sundays, let me give you a quick recap. The church I belonged to at the time has a relationship with a coffee farm in Nicaragua. The church buys about half of the coffee crop each year and sells it for fundraising purposes. The church also provides monetary support for the farm. Our mission team spent five days on the farm. We were there to meet the people we supported, learn more about them and their lives, and cultivate the relationship between our congregation and the community on the farm. We lived among them for five days—with no electricity or running water.
Before we went out to the coffee farm, we spent our first two nights in Managua, the capital city. Our first morning there, we were met by a man named Doug Orbaker. Doug is a pastor, and at the time he was a PCUSA mission co-worker, assigned to Nicaragua.
Doug briefed us on what was going on in Nicaragua and he told us a lot about the work that the Presbyterian Church was doing in Central America. He told us that mission work had changed over the years. The old model was to send young clergy to far away countries to convert the natives to Christianity. It was spiritual colonization—and it seemed like a great idea 120 years ago! But most mission work has moved away from that model, and for good reasons.
In the 1960s and 70s, people started doing short-term mission trips, service projects. The church youth group, along with a bunch of skilled adults, would load up a couple of vans with kids, luggage, and power tools, and then head off to Appalachia and work with Habitat for Humanity, building or repairing homes for poor people.
I went on a bunch of those trips in the 1980s. They were great! But Doug cautioned us not to think about our trip in that way. He said that there was nothing we could do, no physical labor that we could perform, that the people of Nicaragua couldn’t do for themselves—unless we had doctor or a nurse or a dentist in the group, and we didn’t. Any manual labor that we could do, the Nicaraguans could do better and faster than we could.
Finally, after Doug told us, a bunch of well-educated, well-meaning white people from Pittsburgh, that we couldn’t do all that much for the people we were going to meet, one of the guys in our group stood up and said: “Doug, I spent $1,800 to come on this trip, plus another $200 for a new passport, about $200 for vaccinations, and maybe another hundred or so for new clothes for the tropical heat. Are you telling me that I should have just written a check instead of coming down here?”
“That depends,” Doug said, “on why you came here in the first place. If you came here to bring the light of Western civilization to these people, if you came to preach to these folks, if you came to do things for them, then by all means: Write. A. Check.”
Wow! He just exploded our understanding. I thought we were going down there to do some kind of work. My jaw dropped. I think most of our group had the same reaction.
After a few moments of silence, Doug continued: “However. If you’re here to meet these people, to learn about their lives, to understand their reality, and to build relationships, then by all means, come on down. If you’re here to engage in an ongoing relationship, it’s worth every penny you spend because you’ll do more good for these people if you share their story.” Doug told us to bear witness.
Our Gospel lesson ends with Jesus telling the disciples that they are witnesses to the resurrection. Now if you’re thinking, “wait, didn’t we hear this story last week?” You’re right. We heard the version of this story from the Gospel of John. So, if we’re hearing it two Sundays in a row, it must be really, really important. And it is.
Both versions of this story speak to the disciples’ fears in the wake of Jesus’ death. Both versions speak to the disciples’ need to know that they are not alone, they have not been abandoned. And that’s what Jesus does. He comes into their room and stands among them. In Luke’s version, he eats a piece of broiled fish. He tells them and shows them that they are not alone. He gives them peace, by his words and by his presence.
What’s different about Luke’s version is the ending. Before Jesus entered the room, the disciples’ minds were still focused on the crucifixion—the visible symbol of the might of the Roman Empire and its ability to shape the world according to its vision.
But God’s vision is different, and the disciples can see and know that difference when the risen Christ walks in the room. Their minds were opened. Jesus tells them that, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” And then Jesus drops the bomb; he tells the disciples, “You are witnesses of these things.” You. Are. Witnesses.
What’s true of the disciples is true of us, too. “You are witnesses” is an identity statement. Witnessing is not a job or even a calling. It’s a state of being. I used to work as a consultant; that was a job. I now serve as your pastor; that’s a calling. As followers of Christ, we are all witnesses to God’s love and God’s presence in our lives. We are all witnesses to the resurrection and renewal and reconciliation that we have in and through Christ. That is a state of being.
Which begs the question: How are we doing? Are we living into our identity as witnesses to the resurrection? Are we busy giving testimony about our faith, our love for God, or our love for this community of believers here at Rehoboth Church? Are we content to let others do that for us? Are we afraid of what might happen if you try to give testimony? Are we afraid of being a witnesses?
To be fair, there are lots of ways to be a witness. You don’t have to jump up on a bench and shout, “Have you been saved?” In fact, please don’t do that. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never hear me doing that. It’s not my style and I don’t think it’s particularly effective.
Also, if you’re afraid, that’s understandable. Our identity as Christians, as witnesses to the risen Christ, is a little bit scary. It used to be that we made all of this less scary by making witness into something other than identity. We used to make witnessing a task, and then we delegated that task to pastors and foreign missionaries. I think this is part of the decline we’ve seen in the church over the last couple decades; we’ve forgotten that we’re all witnesses.
This is why Jesus enters the room with the disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” They are about to be sent out into the world as witnesses. They’re afraid because Jesus was crucified and they fear that they might be next. And they ought to be afraid of their identities as witnesses to the resurrected Christ. But they are not afraid, because Jesus has given them peace—the same peace that he offers to each and every one of us.
Before I went to Nicaragua, people would ask me if I was afraid to go. Honestly, I didn’t think about it. Two years earlier, the church’s youth group went there. The. Youth. Group! Everyone raved about the experience. I saw people whose lives were transformed by that experience. I wanted to participate in that. Fear never entered into the picture.
When I was in seminary I had the opportunity to go on several international mission trips. I went to Israel and Palestine. Before I went, everyone asked me, “Aren’t you afraid?” I went to the US-Mexico border. Before I went, everyone asked me, “Aren’t you afraid?” Even now, several years later, people still ask me, “Weren’t you afraid?” No. I always trusted that God was watching over us and I trusted that the people who organized the trips knew what they were doing.
At this point, I need to pause and say that my ability to participate in those trips without any great deal of fear was not about me. I don’t possess any special virtue or talent that put me in that place of peace. The peace didn’t come from me. The peace came from Christ, through the Holy Spirit. It took three years of seminary, a battery of ordination exams, and years of reflection to understand it.
Seminary gave me the language to explain my experiences, but my identity has always been as a witness, long before I was ordained to the office of Minister of the Word and Sacrament. My public journey toward ministry began with a big step, a leap of faith. I began my journey to seminary and eventually into the pulpit when I signed up for that trip. It was a big, visible step on the way.
I’m not telling you to set aside your fears and be like me. I’m telling you that you’re already like me. You are also witnesses. Your witness is different from mine, but it’s just as valid. Share your witness!
Is that scary? Sure! But remember, witness is who you are. While it may seem like you don’t have the tools for the task, that’s not how it works. You’re already equipped to share your witnesses with the rest of the world, starting with your family, your friends, and your neighbors.
It occurs to me that my pastorate here is yet another short-term mission trip. There are few things that I can do for you that you can’t already do for yourselves. I’m the only one who has the privilege and training to celebrate the sacraments of communion and baptism. I’m the only one who is authorized to moderate a Session meeting. I’m trained to get up here and preach. Those are tasks, not identities. Our identity as Christians—our identity as witnesses—is the same. Let us dwell in, let us abide in that identity and share our witness with as many people as we can. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Go forth and be witnesses to the resurrection. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!