A Life of Witness
preached by the Rev. Carol Pinkham Oak, 11 December 2005, Christ Church (Episcopal), Alexandria, Virginia
Third Sunday in Advent, year B
John 1.6-8, 19-28
Text: John 1.7
Theme: He came as a witness to the light.
Subject: Witness is to shine with the light of Christ
I invite you to join me in prayer—
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen
“Preach the Gospel always … use words if necessary.”
This way of life is attributed to St. Francis, known as one of the most beloved witnesses to the Christ faith.
Clearly preaching takes many forms for St. Francis. It extends beyond erudite words and interpretation of texts. It sinks deeper than prayers and hymns into the very life fabric of daily life. Preach the Gospel always—use words if necessary speaks of a life that at every moment shines with the light of Christ. This is a life where Christ is both known and made known to others. This is a life where the fabric of being is woven by threads of experience of Christ’s light. This is a life of witness.
A life of witness more often than not it has negative connotations. There is the ardent preacher on a street corner, or even TV, with a bible in one outstretched hand, screaming about God’s judgment and wrath. Not a life of witness that I feel I would want to emulate.
Then, perhaps you have an experience similar to mine. Some time ago, I attended a friend’s wedding. As I sat down at the assigned table and placed my napkin in my lap, the man next to me, who was about my age, turned to me and said, “Is Jesus Christ your personal Lord and Savior?” Given that he hadn’t asked my name, given that the earnest tone of his voice meant that I was being put to the test, given that I realized that if I didn’t respond with the accepted formulated answer it was going to be a long evening, I simply said, “Yes.” Asking his name and fighting to find a place in the conversation to give him mine, I listened for the rest of the evening about his activities in campus ministry. I wanted to ask him how Christ changed his life and perhaps share how Christ had changed mine. We never got there. For him, I am sure he thought he was witnessing to me, showing me a life of witness. I, at least, didn’t see the light of Christ in him.
Yet, a life of witness is not about public talk that is imposed on the audience, or, a challenge to test right belief, or, a description of God to instruct. A life of witness is the experience of Christ, the experience of Christ’s light shining through us; the experience of always turning toward that light; the experience of love, compassion, joy, sorrow from separation, and gratitude for restoration. A life of witness begins from what we have received from God so that is that experience that we want to pass on to others. Instead of looking inward, a life of witness focuses outward—touches every moment of every day, spoken or unspoken. Like a stained glass window, a life of witness lets the light of Christ shine through. Christ’s light finds each distinctive color and shape and it is his light that illuminates the world.
In this morning’s Gospel passage, John the Baptist comes to bear witness to Christ’s Light. The opening line tells us that he was sent from God. John was a prophet, and, in the passionate way of prophets, compelled to share his experience. We remember that now, stands before us, the adult, who as a child still in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy when Mary entered the room. We remember that, as an adult, this man’s passion and energy attracted hundreds to his side to prepare for Jesus’ entrance. Of his time, John was Bono, he was Martin Luther King, Jr., he was Reinhold Neibuhr and Dag Hammarskjold. Both his words and his deeds explode with the message that Jesus is about to walk through the door! John’s life of witness is to point to the light of Jesus Christ. In John the light of Christ shines through with distinctive color and shape yet, and, as John repeatedly declares, it is not his own light that creates the pattern but the light of Christ shining through him.
As one step in our journey to our own life of witness, I would like to share with you another life of witness, a life that shone with the light of Christ. This man was born around the year 280 in the land now known as Turkey. As a child, he was known as being pious and religious. He became bishop of the city of Myra and his many acts of unusual kindness were remembered and retold. The most common story about the kindly bishop recounts his saving the virtue of three sisters who were about to be sold into slavery since their poverty stricken father could not offer the dowry necessary for marriage. The good bishop snuck by the house one night and threw in three bags of gold. Later legends claim he threw the bags down the chimney, and that they landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry.
Stories of the bishop calming raging seas, saving seamen and children are many. All of these stories have the common theme of rescue, kindness and caring. When the good Bishop was declared a saint, he gained a great following simply because he had been kind and approachable during his life. Students, sailors, marriageable young women, vagabonds and crooks, those who had less status in the eyes of the church, felt more comfortable calling upon him as a saint than the more austere and venerated figures. By the end of the Middle Ages his veneration spread from Turkey into major portions of the European population.
People dressed the Bishop of Myra according to their own traditions. In Russia he is an icon, with a long flowing white beard and dressed in shimmering gold and white vestments. He is known there as a Wonder Worker as well as the protector of the weak against the strong; in Ireland his supposed grave is decorated with Celtic designs. In the predominately Muslim country of Turkey, an international peace conference is held every year in his name. In Dutch, his name was pronounced Sinte Klass. The Dutch immigrants brought him to this country but he remained the kind and benevolent bishop who shone with the light of Christ. The Dutch brought their custom to place a shoe at the door on the eve of the Saints’ celebration. The bishop would leave, especially for children, fruit, maybe candy and maybe even a toy.
To the Germanic people he is known as “Christkind” which means a witness of Christ. Their Christkind, or has it became in the New World, Kris Kringle, had a series of pagan elves who lived underground. They would appear driving a sled pulled by two goats know as Cracker and Gnasher.
In 1823, the Rector of St. Luke’s in the Field, a then prominent Episcopal parish in lower Manhattan, published a poem about this beloved Bishop of Myra. Clement Moore’s poem, entitled then, “A visit from Saint Nicholas,” translated the image of a saint into that of a loving old man. The once bishop ‘… was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he hand flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar just opening is pack.”
Still kind and approachable, still caring for children, still secretly doing good deeds, yet with this poem, the St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, was forever changed for us into Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas’s life of witness has shone since the Christian year 280. The day set aside in the church calendar to remember this life of witness is December 6. His connection with people from generation to generation is that we experience in his life the light of Christ. His energy is not explosive, but persistent and pervasive. It goes beyond kind and gentle. His witness brings the light of Christ to us so that we can experience it too. It may be a moment when an act of kindness in our time of great need so profoundly gives comfort that we were changed. It may be that we were rescued from danger—the life threatening danger of our own poor choices or danger of being swept away by causes beyond our control. It may be that we were restored to our lives by an act of generosity that grabs us just on the edge of the abyss. Comfort, rescue, restoration, love, these are the colors of a life of witness.
In my life, others have shared their life of witness so that I experienced the light of Christ. At a time when by actions and words others around me told me that I did not matter, that I did not fit in, when I was feeling abandoned and insignificant, there was one other person who told me I was loved both by him and by God. That experience with my mentor restored me. It gave me the assurance and confidence to move forward. Comfort, rescue, restoration, love, are the colors that make up the light of Christ and that shine through a life of witness.
I would hazard a guess that many, if not most of you, are here today because of a life of witness. Someone offered comfort in a time of need; rescue when you where overwhelmed; restoration when you felt lost. Once receiving that gift of Christ’s light, it generates within us the yearning to do the same for others. And, more often than not it magnifies within us so that we turn not just to the people we know, but, the ones we don’t know.
In this parish, we live a life of witness in the streets of Alexandria through the Christ Child Project, Carpenter Shelter, the winter shelter at St. Clements and our Lazarus ministry. We live a life of witness through the trips Shirley and Pierce will make to the Sudan. We commission Shirley today as she prepares to leave on December 27 to teach in Sudan. Once we turn to the light so that it shines through us, we then turn so that light sheds its witness on others.
As Christians, our lives are to be lives of witness that shine with the many colors of Christ’s light, comfort, rescue, restoration and love. It is a life orientation so that we turn toward His light. It is a focus outward to share our experience of Christ’s light. It is words to describe how our lives are changed and deeds that bring that experience to change to others. Our lives are to be like St. Nicholas, a life of witness shines with our experience of Christ’s light out to others. Preach the gospel always, use words if necessary. Amen.
By the Rev. Carol Pinkham Oak, Christ Church (Episcopal), Alexandria, Virginia. Used by permission.