Can I Get a Witness?

Sermon by the Rev. Lisa Smith Fry
Advent 3: Sunday, December 17, 2017

“John came as a witness to testify to the light.”

Witnessing.  Even the word fills you with dread, doesn’t it?

In the summer of 2006, my family and I journeyed to Columbus, OH from Florida where I attended my very first General Convention, the national convention of the Episcopal Church. We loved it and had a lot of fun there, but one of the biggest highlights was getting to hear the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry preach.

He’s now the MOST Rt. Rev. Bishop Curry—and is our presiding Bishop, but then he was the highly respected, African American bishop serving the diocese of North Carolina, and I had been told by quite a few people at the convention that we needed to go to the Eucharist when he was preaching. He had quite the reputation for wonderful, lively, rousing sermons. He still does.

He preached on witnessing, and I sat there enthralled by his message, but even more so by his kind of “floppy bible” style preaching, which I—with my New England upbringing—had rarely witnessed.

At the end, after several minutes of riveting, dramatic oratory, he said, “Can I get a witness?  Who’ll be a witness for the Lord?’

People were responding right and left.. “I’ll be a witness!” He preached a couple more minutes and then said again. “Can I get a witness? Who will be a witness for my Lord?”, and much to my amazement, I found myself–along with several others–saying, “I’ll be a witness!”

My family turned and looked at me like I had lost my mind.

Witnessing. It strikes fear into all good Episcopalians.

The writer of the Gospel of John tells us about a man “sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”

John was to be a witness for my Lord. Bishop Curry would be proud.

Did you know that they teach seminars on the techniques of witnessing?

They really do.

It probably would surprise you to learn that one of the things they teach, is that witnessing is less about talking and more about listening.  It’s less about telling everything you know, and more about listening for what people need.

Here’s a quote from one of those seminars to illustrate what I mean:

“You don’t throw a drowning man a sandwich, no matter how good the sandwich might be.”

What they are saying is that you need to listen for what a person needs, not just give them a lovely, delicious, bit of something you might have to offer, but which doesn’t keep them from drowning.

Witnessing is about listening. Witnessing is about responding to a need. Witnessing is about bearing the Light of God, like a lamp bears a flame, or like a flashlight aims it’s light into the darkness. Witnesses are people who stand with others, and who can point the way along the road.

When did witnessing become more about what we could do, and tell and share, and less about being a conduit for the light of Christ?

While I working and training to be a chaplain in a hospital, and while learning about pastoral care, our supervisor would constantly tell us that what we said in hospital rooms had less to do with ministry than just being a WITNESS to a patient’s suffering. To be present in their suffering. Ministry of presence, is often what this is called.

That sounded a little counterintuitive to some of us. One man couldn’t get his head around the fact that we weren’t there to bring Christ to the patients, that we weren’t there to tell patients that they would be all right, they just needed to have faith, that we would pray for healing.

Our supervisor taught us chaplains that there are very few people in the world that have the ability to be truly present and to witness another’s pain without having the need to give advice, or to rescue the patient, or the opposite— to look away from the truth and the pain of the patient.

People in pain, she said, need to know that others recognize and see their pain, whether it’s in mind, body or spirit. To be present with them in their pain, to witness their pain, is one of the greatest gifts we can give one another.

To drive this point home, our supervisor asked our group of chaplains, “When was the last time in your life you felt the most heard? That someone really listened to what you had to say, without judgement?”

Most of us sat there and thought about it, and I shared with the class a time in seminary when a friend sat with me late into the night, and listened to me as I poured out my sadness about my nephew’s health issues, and the irrational guilt I had about things done and left undone.  She cried with me as I cried, and held my hand in support.

My teacher looked at me, and asked me what the person who had sat with me had said that made me feel “heard”? I looked up at her in astonishment. “Nothing. She didn’t say one word. Not one.” And I’ve never forgotten her being a witness to my pain.

Witnessing is less about talking than about listening. When did we forget that?

Christ did a lot of listening in his ministry, he witnessed by being present with people, by asking them what THEY needed, and by responding to those needs. We are to be witnesses too, bearing the light of Christ to our world.

Christ showed us how to be a witness.

Can I get a witness? Who’ll be a witness for my Lord?