THE BOOK OF HEBREWS: WITNESSES
In our world there are times when we need witnesses. There are witnesses in criminal trials, and whenever there has been a shooting or a robbery, police are quick to canvas the area to see if there are any witnesses that saw anything. Of course when it comes to crimes, some will come forward while others will not. Many children, on the other hand, will voluntarily point out what they saw their brother or their sister do. The name that the accused pins on the brother or sister is “tattletale!” But that is another kind of witness. For every wedding I perform there is an official marriage license. And in the corner of the license there are two lines that say “witnesses.” This is where a best man, a maid of honor, a parent or another person signs the document, declaring that it happened. It is often done with some ceremony, positioning the photographer on the paused pen of the signer. And the witnesses could indeed give testimony that they saw the wedding ceremony. But many people don’t know that witnesses on a license in Florida are just for ceremony. The only signature (and printed name) that is the legal witness is the officiant! Similarly a notary swears that he or she has watched people put their signature to paper and has checked their identification. Witnesses have been part of our legal system all the way back to Biblical times and before. Do you recall the line that is read in every one of our Maundy Thursday services? With the reading of Mark’s gospel, we recall the time when Jesus was brought before the High Priest Caiaphas. The Bible mentions witnesses twice in this section. The first time was with these words: “Now the chief priests and the whole council sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. But many bore false witness against him, and their witness did not agree.” [Mark 14:55-56.] The second time was when the high priest asked Jesus: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ And Jesus said: ‘I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven!’ And the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ Witnessing has been done for proof in religious settings, and at other times simply to say what one has seen.
This week I asked our secretary Kristin to write down at story that she related to me. This is another form witnessing:
On Friday afternoon after I left the office, I headed to St. Augustine to pick up my daughter. As I was driving, my best friend from back home in Michigan popped in my head. Her mother, a second mother to me growing up, had been fighting cancer for years and had finally decided to stop chemo only a month before. I usually didn’t call her during the day because we both worked and she has children she cares for in the afternoons, but something told me to call at 3:25 in the afternoon. I called and left her a voicemail letting her know I was thinking of her and hoped her mom was doing well.
The next morning she texted me to let me know her mom had passed away that morning, Saturday at about 6 am. She also told me that in the minute leading up to her mom’s death the most amazing thing happened. She had been in the hallway outside her mom’s nursing home room catching a breather. It had now been about 28 hours since she had slept, but she did not want to miss her mom’s last moments. In the hallway sitting alone, watching random residents stroll by, she heard her mother’s voice say “Amanda, I’m going to leave now.” She thought the lack of sleep had caused her to go crazy. She then went back into the room followed closely by two nurses who were also friends of the family. As they stood a few feet away from the bed watching Kathy, Amanda’s mom, with her breathing dramatically slowing down, Amanda felt chills go from the top of her head all the way to her toes. She also felt a comforting silence and tranquility fill the room. She had been praying for months to let her mother feel a little Heaven on earth in her final time. This is exactly what she imagined that would feel like. A complete peace fell over the room. She no longer felt sad. After she watched her mom take her final breath she said she witnessed the best thing ever. A huge smile broke out on her mom’s face! She hadn’t wakened up and she had already stopped breathing. Whatever she saw in that moment, Amanda is sure it was that everything we’ve believed all these years was true: that God was waiting for her with open arms, a bright light, pearly gates, mansions in the sky, or many of the other things we imagine Heaven like. The nurses said they hadn’t seen her smile like in a very long time.
Kristin finished her story by saying the exact time that she felt the urge to call her friend that fateful afternoon was the time when her friend was walking into the nursing home in Michigan to see her mother for the last time. Miles away, Kristin got a strange urge to call her friend and she did so. Astoundingly, her timing was perfect.
Those are witnesses. But some people, understandably, don’t like another kind of witnesses because they have had religious persons on their doorstep trying to convince them to convert or repent. But all witnessing is not cold-call witnessing. Some of the best witnessing is done friend to friend, where a relationship has already been established. Several church members have told me about amazing things that have happened in their lives that they attribute to God: prayers have been answered, loved ones who have died have been seen or their presence has been felt; and others have shared times when the Holy Spirit, or an angel, touched them and chills went up and down their body. Witnessing is not about proof; it is about what someone has seen, or heard, or smelled or touched, or experienced. To make witnessing most meaningful it is offered from one friend to another.
But there is one other kind of witnesses that I think Hebrews 12: 1 addresses: witnesses who have gone before us in our faith. As I showed the children the letterhead with pictures of some in this congregation who have gone before us, I picture a great cloud of witnesses; not ones that particularly saw what you did or what I did, but ones who lived as witnessed to others, demonstrating how Christians live. Those people were conduits for God’s work that moved our congregation to this point. When I begin every funeral, I say these words: We are gathered here to praise God, and to witness to our faith.” That means we show the world that we believe in life beyond this life, and that it matters how we live while we are here! And with absolute certainly I tell you today we are not just surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us; we are surrounded by great witnesses who are here even today! They are in these very pews. Around you are people who have lived their faith, loved their Lord, and have been good and faithful servants of our Lord. Around you are younger people whose decisions are still being recorded in the book of Life. And your life is not over yet! Your story is still being written too. God is watching us; our Savior is watching us; people in our everyday lives are watching us; and, most importantly, little eyes of children and discerning eyes of teenagers are watching us. What kind of witnesses are we to them?
Witnesses; they are not just people who see things; they are also people who do things; who decide; and who act. They are people who love. Jesus had so many metaphors for how his followers were supposed to change the world: he said “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its flavor how can it be salty again?” He said “You are the light of the world; but if you hide your light under a bushel, how can the light shine?” Jesus needs us to be his witnesses; Jesus counts on us to be his witnesses to change the world and to respond to his call “follow me.” He has no other plan!
Can Jesus count on you?
Jeffrey A. Sumner August 18, 2013