Monday, March 28, 2016

“I Will Be Your Witness” (Acts 10:34-43)

Well, we all know why we are gathered here this morning.  We all know the stories of the various encounters . . . the women discovering the empty tomb . . . the appearance with the disciples in an isolated and locked room . . . the encounter along the road . . . and, the revelation as he broke the bread at the fireside.  Jesus is alive.  Jesus is not dead.  And, we are here this morning to celebrate this victory over death and all that it means for us as the followers of Jesus.  It is Easter!

With that being the case, then why in the world did the pastor read a scripture passage that had absolutely nothing to do with the stories of Easter that all of us are so familiar with?  Why are we hearing about some encounter that Peter has at the home of some Gentile—actually a Roman centurion?  Why aren’t we dancing in the aisles, shouting “hosannas”, and getting down with the Easter story we all know and love?

I’ll tell you.

One of the reasons why is because I do not want someone coming up to me after the worship service and saying to be me, “You know, Pastor, every year you preach the same thing.”  And, true, every year pastors and preachers everywhere preach the same thing when it comes to Easter . . . same with Christmas.  It is a familiar story we all know and love . . . it is the crux of our faith; and, we never get tired of it.  But, the story does not end there.  The story does not end with the resurrection of Jesus.  No, the story is just beginning.

One of the ministries . . . or jobs . . . of being a pastor is officiating at funerals.  Over the thirty-some years that I have been a pastor I have officiated at hundreds of funerals.  I have stood before countless people who have gathered to celebrate and remember a loved one.  Together we have lifted up the deceased individual and remembered them.  It is a part of the job of being a minister, and one that I enjoy doing; but, one funeral many years ago, a thought passed through my mind.  It was a simple thought, and one that probably every minister has thought at least once in his or her ministry, but it is one that has stuck in the back reaches of my mind over the years.  Every so often it pops its head up, nudges me, and makes me wonder.

What is that thought?  Well, as the individual who does all the burying . . . all of the officiating over the funerals . . . I wondered, who is going to officiate over my funeral when that day comes? 

One of my favorite Appalachian or bluegrass songs, often credited to the Stanley brothers, is Who Will Sing for Me.  The singer apparently is the individual who sings at all the community funerals.  Someone dies; this is the guy who is singing at the funeral.  One day it dawns on the singer, if I die who will sing at my funeral?  The lyrics are:

Oft I sing for my friends
When death's cold hand I see
When I reach my journey's end
Who will sing one song for me

I wonder (I wonder) who
Will sing (will sing) for me
When I'm called to cross that silent sea
Who will sing for me

When friends shall gather round
And look down on me
Will they turn and walk away
Or will they sing one song for me

The truth is, if I die, someone will officiate at my funeral.  The underlying question or concern is actually a little deeper than that . . . a little more profound . . . maybe even a little selfish.  That underlying question has to do with something I think we all wander into at various points in our lives, and that is: will anyone remember me?

In the movie Shall We Dance, Richard Gere plays a bored, overworked lawyer who one night on the commuter train sees out the window a beautiful dance instructor teaching a dancing class.  Enchanted with the beauty he decides that he wants to meet this woman, so he signs up for dance lessons.  Unfortunately, the dance classes he signs up for are not the ones that this beautiful instructor is teaching; no, he ends up with the older and plainer owner of the dance studio.  Instead of falling in love with the beautiful instructor, he falls in love with dancing.

In the meantime, his wife, played by Susan Sarandon, is bewildered with what is going on.  She knows that their relationship seems to be waning and that he comes home later and later from work.  She assumes the worse, but she loves him . . . she trusts him.  She is in the marriage through thick and thin. 

One evening she is talking to a friend about the importance of marriage . . . about her commitment to marriage and to her husband.  She says:  “We need a witness to our lives. There's a billion people on the planet... I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you're promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things... all of it, all of the time, every day. You're saying 'Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness'."

Pretty powerful statement.  One I often share with couples before they get married.  In those words is the promise . . . you will not be forgotten.  “Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it.  Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.”  You will be remembered.

Peter states: “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.”  Peter and all the disciples . . . all those who followed Jesus . . . were witnesses to everything that had happened.  They were there to hear the stories, listen to the teaching and preaching . . . to see the miracles.  They were there from the beginning . . . they were witnesses to it all.  Because they were witnesses the life of Jesus . . . the ministry of Jesus . . . the purpose of Jesus . . . will not go unnoticed or unwitnessed because they will be his witness.  They will tell the stories.  They will keep him remembered.  They will keep him alive.

The story we heard this morning in our scripture reading takes place well after the encounters of the risen Jesus . . . by now he has ascended into heaven.  The story we hear takes place after that fateful day in Jerusalem in which the Spirit is delivered and flows through the people . . . the day of Pentecost.  Life is slowly getting back to normal, but the faithful continue to gather, tell the stories, and keep the mission alive . . . to keep Jesus alive.  Among them is Peter.  Peter who is the more-or-less leader of this faithful group . . . who receives an invitation to the home of a Roman centurion who is curious about Jesus and his purpose.

So, Peter goes.  Along the way he has vision of food . . . yeah, food.  Food that Jewish people are not allowed to eat.  In the vision God tells him that food doesn’t determine faith and who is saved.  Thus he enters into the Roman centurion’s home with a new understanding . . . that the message of God is for everyone . . . God accepts everyone.  This is exactly what he tells those who are gathered in the centurion’s house . . . that this love and grace, this gift, is for everyone.  Then he tells the story . . . he tells the story of Jesus.  He is a witness.

“He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.  He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one who God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Peter is a witness.  He is a witness to the Easter story.  He is a witness to Jesus.  Nothing will be forgotten . . . nothing will go unwitnessed.

Thus it is for us . . . the followers of Jesus.  We are called upon to be witness of the love and grace of Jesus . . . the love and grace of God . . . through the story of Jesus . . . through the power of Easter.  Yes, as we gather this morning to celebrate and remember, we are called out from our celebrating to be witnesses to the greatest story ever told . . . we are called to share the “Good News”.  Easter is not a stagnant story . . . once told and never shared.

No, we are here this morning because someone, somewhere, shared the story . . . someone witnessed.  And, if the body of Christ is to survive and thrive into the future, we must become witnesses of the story of Jesus in our lives . . . we must share it with other.  We must tell the story.  That is the hope that carries us through each day into the future . . . ever closer to the Kingdom of God.  We must be witnesses.

Now, I assure you that when I die someone will officiate at my funeral. Yet, none of us ever want to be forgotten.  That singer who worried about who would sing at his funeral . . . well, he had hope.  He had hope that someone would sing for him when he died.  The last verse of the song goes:

So I'll sing til the end
Contented I will be
Assured that some friends
Will sing one song for me

On this Easter Sunday we celebrate a living Christ . . . he lives!  He lives with us and in us . . . in relationship with us.  Each of our stories of the encountered Jesus are powerful stories . . . stories of faith, stories of love, and stories of grace.  We stand as witnesses to the story.  It is up to us to share those stories.  Up to us to proclaim to Jesus: “Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.”

We are called to be witnesses on this Easter Sunday.  That is why we are not hearing the familiar stories of Easter . . . we know them.  The time has come to share them.  The time has come to step up and be witnesses.  Amen.

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