March 10, 2010

“Telling It The Way It Is”
Numbers 13:17-27
Luke 13:18-21

In the Christian Century blogs this week, the Bishop of the United Methodist Church in Alabama, William Willimon wondered out loud if we have made too much of Christian practices. Willimon is concerned that by emphasizing practices, we have somehow left out the idea that these are disciplines which (to one degree or another) God calls us to participate in; we do so, not to improve our lives, or to make our life easier, but to be faithful. Faithfulness is not all about the easy way to do things.

I believe this is particularly true when we speak about the Discipline I have lifted up this evening: Testimony. Testimony is not always easy, nor does it always improve things. Testimony is speaking about or professing your faith.

Antoinette Brown First Ordained Woman Congregational Church (UCC)

The word ‘testimonies’ is also used to describe the Decalogue in the Hebrew Bible. These ten commandments have been a testimony of sorts but in this way are more about God’s love for God’s people than the people’s love for God. Here in this text from Numbers, what we have is the telling of stories about God. This kind of speech is, as Diana Butler Bass said, “God is still Speaking” through God’s people.

Let me tell you why I think that I am so horrified by the idea of Testimony. Part of the reason is that pastors must give up control of the ‘God’ talk if they are to encourage testimony.

The bigger reason is that I am thoroughly, drenched to the bone, Reformed in my faith perspective. I find great spiritual connections with the Mercersburg Theology which by definition is the prescribed theology of the “Frozen Chosen,” we are swaying to the hymn, but it isn’t visible to the naked eye. Mercersburg railed against Finney’s “new measures,” and the emotional excitement that the Great Awakening furthered throughout New England. Education, not some moment of emotional ecstasy was the source of true faith, said John Nevin, one of Mercersburg’s founders. Nevin and Schaff railed against a practice called the Anxious Bench whereby those needing conversion were brought down front to this bench where their sins and errors might be weigh down upon them. Exhortations were laid upon the shoulders of these people until such time that they were beaten down to a point of submission to the grace of God. This isn’t really testimony. Testimony is never coerced.

Another one of my problems with Testimony is that I have at times heard rousing ‘testimonies’ to the power of the Spirit of God, but have witnessed painfully little action of the same high voltage energy. That is to say that sometimes the best testimony is by our deeds. I suppose that idea is consistent with the old saw, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one.” Testimony, at its best is performative utterance (From J. L. Austin’s use of the term in the 1955 William James lecture: “Doing Things with Words.” “The uttering of a performative is, or is part of, the doing of a certain kind of action.”). It creates a reality and relationship by its utterance. It is not empty, but active.

Empty words or coerced witness is not what Lilian Daniel, nor Diana Butler Bass, nor I mean when we say Testimony. What I mean is the ability to describe how you have experienced God, and in particular, how God has been revealed to you through this community called St. John’s (Hain’s). This kind of story telling is not about God fixing people. “Rather, it speaks of God making wholeness out of human woundedness, human incompleteness.” (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, p. 141.) Testimony is not the story of our arrival; our kind of testimony is a way of describing a part of the journey, it is not a formula for salvation.

You still may be wondering why I associated this text from Numbers with the idea of Testimony. I’ll tell you why, because as an old teacher of mine pointed out, “…when Israel encounters God, it does so as God’s partner.” So, when we read a text like this we are not reading some history about the people whose wanderings are almost over and are nearly in the promised land. We are reading a story of their encounter with God.

We are the same kind of people. Nobody should be surprised when God shows up. And, no one can expect us to be impartial when we talk about God. Partners have a strange way of knowing about one another, the good, the bad, and the ugly; they feel intensely about each other, and are always hungry for the next encounter. This same teacher suggests that if we quit speaking about God, well then God basically ceases to exist for us. It isn’t that God ceases to exist, but that in our silence, our partnership is suspended. (Anna Carter Florence, “Preaching As Testimony,” Westminster John Knox, 2007, p. 79)

Testimony, in the sense of this text from Numbers, and in much of our lives, is “the act of testifying to an event and reporting on what was seen or understood. The crucial point here, is that testimony is not about perception; it is the report itself, or the narration of what has happened. We focus on what was said, not what was seen. (ibid, p. 62)
In a world where bad news gets more attention than good, testimony tells it the way it is. It recognizes the difficulties, but lifts up God’s presence and power. I hope from time to time we can share some testimony, in words personal and biblical; but lets remind ourselves that every time the peace is passed, every time we receive the bread and cup, every act of service in Christ’s name testimony is offered. The practice of testimony requires that we commit voice and body to telling the truth about God.