Can I Get a Witness?

St. Luke, Evangelist 10-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It happened so quickly. We were sleeping with the windows open. It was early May of last year. I woke up to a scratchy metal-on-metal sound, like someone dragging a file cabinet across the sidewalk. Then, more awake, I heard it again. I stumbled onto the balcony in time to see Russell’s 2008 Prius being lowered to the ground. Two men dressed in black had just stolen the catalytic converter. Catalytic converter thefts are on the rise and have nearly tripled in Chicago this year!

What happened next was like an episode of the Keystone Cops. I yelled and they rushed to get away. 10 or 12 stolen converters spilled out of their van onto the road. As they raced to pick them up, I fumbled with my phone, still half asleep without my glasses and took a video. Later, talking to the police, I realized I was just another eyewitness with a fuzzy story and a blurry video not helpful at all to the police.

At his Ascension Jesus told the disciples to go and tell what they had seen and heard, “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus said (Luke 24:48). As eyewitnesses to criminal activity, we often get the facts wrong. But there is another way to witness that we are often right. Our lived experience is more reliable, and even, invaluable. This type of witness goes by another name we call wisdom. Wisdom stories, from people who gave witness to what life has taught them fill the pages of scripture and are to be treasured. This is the kind of witness Jesus to which Jesus calls us today.

I am such a witness. I tell you, some of the most alive people I have known have been people living near death. I can attest that hospitals rooms are as good a place to encounter the living God as church sanctuaries. In a hospital room I helped a man dying of AIDS plan his funeral. In the hospital I spent an unforgettable night with my grandmother before she died. In intensive care, I spent the last 20 minutes of a man’s life with his family gathered around him to say goodbye while he slowly and irreversibly bled to death.

Each of these sad events (and with many others I could recount) are engraved upon my memory in a way I think I will never forget, yet, not in the way that you might think. Each of these occasions is memorable to me—not for their horror– but for their gracefulness. I am a witness. These events stand out for me as moments filled with the presence of God. Each was an occasion to glean wisdom—no about death or dying, but about life and living.

On this, the festival of St. Luke, we remember the traditional author of the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, who is identified with the Church’s ministry of healing. In Jesus Christ, the dominion of God has broken into our world, bringing wholeness, and peace. One-fifth of the gospels relate to Jesus’ ministry of healing. It is a misconception to say that Jesus came to save “sin-sick” souls. Jesus didn’t stop there. Jesus brought both physical and mental health to those he healed. He restored balance and vitality to the wider community. His mission was to defeat the powers of evil that permeate our world and our lives. Health is not the absence of illness. It is the presence of God reaching into every aspect of our community, joining our lives with all life in the universe.

This Spirit of Life is upon you. It is the Spirit of God’s shalom. We bear the mark of health and healing upon our foreheads in the sign of the cross from baptism. Where there is any weariness, we are called and strengthened to be bear witness in solidarity. Wherever people are hungry, we are called and strengthened to be food. Where there is bitterness and strife, we are called and strengthened to be agents of reconciliation. Where there is illness and despair, we are called and strengthened to be gospel medicine. We acknowledge and repent that so much disease is not caused by viruses or infections but by poverty, which, so often, is the result of human oppression, exploitation, and war.

How can we do this? Is it by an act of will? Shall we set personal goals or make resolutions? No. So often, we hear this default advice on growing in Christ and making change, It can be summed up in five words: ‘Try harder to be better.’ “It’s a form of growth-by-management that uniquely appeals to people living in Western culture, where ‘pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps’ is the 11th Commandment” (Rick Lawrence, Friday Thoughts, Vibrant Faith, 10/14/22). It’s not only a failed strategy, but also it is not biblically true. It does not build us up; but rather, only wears us down.

Our ancestors in faith offer us wisdom. They tell of a road less traveled. “Jesus did not promote a “try harder to be better” approach to growth, or as a response to sin. Instead, He urged us to “abide in Him,” so that the life that emanates from Him would flow through us.” That’s it. “Jesus’ invitation is not a call from the boss to up our production; it’s a call from our Lover, who wants us to come to bed. Our lives are really about drawing ever nearer to Jesus, the source of ‘living water’—not trying ever harder to be a better Christian” (Lawrence).

Upon his death, the curtain in the Temple was torn in two (Luke 23:45). The kingdom of heaven is nigh. Salvation and healing in the bible, often go by the same word, ‘sozo.’ Both are at hand. ‘The world, the universe, is the “body of God:” all matter, all flesh, all myriad beings, things, and processes that constitute physical reality are in and of God’ (Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology). See, the world is heaven adjacent. Wellness and peace are restored in us as we step across the threshold of faith and into the embrace of Christ our savior.

The renewal of our lives and communities is not something we achieve all by ourselves. Shalom –a balance of mind, body, spirit and community—is a product of healthy communities with Christ in the center. With God as our companion, the prophet Isaiah testifies, ‘the waters shall appear over the burning sand and the thirsty ground shall become a pool. The tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy and the lame shall leap like a deer’ (Isaiah 35:6-7).