Sermon: Opportunity to Testify
Texts: Haggai 1:2-8; Acts 15:1-2, 6-11; Luke 21:5-13; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Date: November 13, 2016
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
I was desperately trying to retain my sense of humor on Election Night, in a humor-as-a-life-preserver sort of way, when the image of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy bubbled up from somewhere in the labyrinth cellar of memory. Why? Because that fictional book in a work of fiction has the words DON’T PANIC “inscribed in large, friendly letters on its cover.”
This would be an excellent cover design for the Bible, which—unless it’s a fancy, specialized version marketed to skateboarders or girly girls or something–usually just has Holy Bible inscribed on its cover. Maybe future Bibles could be published with the subtitle-after-the-colon reading “DON’T PANIC” in large, friendly letters. When Arthur Dent was handed a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy after being whisked away from the destruction of planet Earth, his response was, “I like the cover. ‘Don’t panic.’ It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.” Though still stunned by the destruction of his world, a slightly calmer Arthur is able to avoid panic and begin to learn what he needs to know about the universe from the Guide.
We have our Guide as well in the Bible. While it won’t tell us everything we need to know about the universe, it’s a good place to turn when we are overwhelmed, as many of us have been in the wake of this bitter election season. Even if it’s not on the cover, it has “don’t panic” written all over its pages. Like in Luke 21:9: “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Do not be terrified—another way of saying “Don’t panic.” I saw among hundreds of posts on Facebook this week a form of the “I voted” sticker that had been re-made to read “I’m terrified” in red, white, and blue with a flag waving over it. We can relate to that, I expect. But the very moment our hearts cry out “I’m terrified” we can tune in again to the voice of the One to whom we are discipled, who answers, “Do not be terrified.” You can hear it as soothing; and you can hear it as a commandment to the faithful. You can hear it both ways.
I believe there is a difference between being afraid and being terrified. Afraid is natural; fear serves to keep us from running headlong into destruction. Recalling Rumi’s poem “The Guest House” which counsels entertaining all our feelings as visitors who are to be invited in that they might be our guides, we can take account of fear and ask what it has to teach us. Fear can warn and motivate, up to a point. Terrified, on the other hand, is immobilized. Terrified is letting fear in and allowing it to chain you to the wall and put a gag over your mouth. It’s not only unhelpful, it’s unseemly for Christians. People of the Resurrection have no business being terrified.
One of the commentaries I read on this text from Luke says that what is essential in potentially terrifying times is where we put our focus. Where and on what your gaze is fixed means everything. The temporary things we see with our eyes are not the only things worthy of our attention. “As for these things that you see,” Jesus said, referring to the beautiful temple before them, “the day will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” The people to whom he was speaking were soon to experience the siege and destruction of this temple and city they loved. Jesus is trying to prepare them to endure when things get rough. In order to do that, the disciples’ focus needs to shift from what is temporary to what is eternal. As biblical scholar Karoline Lewis puts it, “If your eyes are locked on only that which is temporary, you might miss observing the permanency of those things that last. If you only see obvious grandeur and splendor, you may overlook beauty in that which first appeared unattractive, even repulsive. If you focus only on the damaging, the destructive, the deleterious, you just might miss what is affirming, constructive, and encouraging.” What you see is partly determined by what you have chosen to see. And this gives us hope even in the midst temporary change. “This is not an intentional optimism or a glass half full kind of philosophy. It is the true claim of the true hope we have in God — our God who is still present and powerful when it looks like the church is powerless in the face of all that seems to be working against the Kingdom of God.”
What we see shapes what we say. We have an opportunity to testify when things are shaken up. Even amid real and anticipated disasters, dreadful portents and plagues of all kinds, Jesus challenges the disciples to see an opportunity to testify—in houses of worship, in prisons, before kings and governors, whether you go voluntarily or are hauled before the authorities against your will. An opportunity to testify.
Let’s shift to the testimony of Peter among the apostles and elders of the early church. This text was suggested by the author of the worship series we’re using this season—a series titled “Moving Out of Scare City.” This week’s particular theme was to be “The Other Side of the Tracks,” focusing on how we treat neighbors on the other side of whatever characteristic divides us. The Acts text focuses on a time of “no small dissention and debate” in the early church. The debate was about the expansion of the church into Gentile territory; the conservative faction in the church believed that all the newcomers should follow the ancient Jewish practices, especially circumcision and keeping kosher dietary laws. In other words, you can be In if you become like Us. The whole book of Acts to this point has the reader following the story of how the Holy Spirit kept leading the early church into uncharted territories and kept blessing people who didn’t adhere to the old patterns with the unmistakable mark of the Spirit’s presence and power. The Spirit was dragging the leadership where they did not particularly want to go, insisting on drawing the circle wider and wider.
Peter’s testimony before the assembly includes these words: “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.” [Acts 15:8-9]. Setting aside the historical context of our forbears’ dissention and debate for now, let’s contemplate this idea of God making no distinction between them and us. This presidential election has been so much about Them and Us, hasn’t it? The language of Them and Us has been all over the rhetoric, all over the fear-mongering, and all over the results. The urban/rural divide in this nation, for instance, has been exposed at an unprecedented level. There are lots of other ways to break down the divisions among us, but this one—urban/rural—is particularly striking.
There have already been calls—some tongue-in-cheek, some more serious, to create a Cascadia nation. One image I saw online had a big green line along the Washington, Oregon, and California borders with an arrow and a caption reading “Build the Wall Here.” The accompanying offer to pay for the wall after seceding from the union bespeaks a deep level of frustration and anger rooted in division. There are probably rural folk in eastern Washington who would like to see that wall built along the spine of the Cascade Mountains. Us. Them. You stay on your side, and we’ll stay on our side.
This fleeting fantasy disregards the challenging truth that God has made no such distinction between Them and Us. The movement of the Holy Spirit as the church was being built was all about transcending barriers, to the great discomfort but eventual assent of the church. Healing a nation is not the same project as growing a religious movement. But I believe there is timeless wisdom here for our divided country.
It is imperative that we resist the Us-and-Themming of our people. We must resist all the racist, misogynist, xenophobic speech and action that seeks to divide and defeat. Division of our American people into Us and Them is not holy and it’s not helpful, especially when such division is based in fear. Already we see incidents of violence rising out of violent and proto-violent speech. We must resist.
We must resist Us-and-Themming in ourselves as well. Now is the time to seek to understand how and why we have become so divided. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy dreamed up a tool I really wish we had at our disposal right now. It’s a “Point of View Gun.” You aim this bazooka-like weapon at your opponent and fire, and he immediately understands your perspective on the issue at hand. Then he reports it to you so that you can hear that he understands. Both sides of the urban/rural divide could use an arsenal of POV guns at this moment.
Absent the hardware, we have to use the software we have been given: namely our minds and our will to understand. We know we will never form a more perfect union by lobbing opinions at each other from our trenches. Therefore, we must emerge from our trenches. Come out from our “paneled houses,” to use the language of the prophet Haggai. This is no time to retreat into insulated self-indulgence. We cannot wait, like petulant children, for Them to make the first move. We are capable of venturing out of our own news and information silos, and capable of risking difficult conversations with relatives, neighbors, friends and strangers. We can come to conversations with curiosity and compassion, repeating back what we hear, and asking questions such as, “What in your life experience led you to believe that?”
I am not talking here about some kind of facile call for unity that trips lightly off the tongues of those who have done nothing but divide for months or years on end. We have a right and a duty to call B.S. on that! Calling B.S. on a veneer of unity one aspect of our testimony. Martin Luther King Jr. once noted, “Any plan for the future, which seeks to calm troubled waters will have to sweep barriers away, rather than pour oil over turbulent tides.” I’m talking about sweeping barriers away, not pouring oil on turbulent waters. This is our mission as members of a United and Uniting Church in a divided nation and world.
Glory hallelujah, we are members of a United and Uniting Church! I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I had reuniting with my beloved community to look forward to this week. I am so glad to have a loving community to embrace and be embraced by—that the strand of my life is woven together with the strands of your lives and the lives of the UCC and the universal church. I chose the “Consider This” quote because the image of the sympathetic thread appealed to me. “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with others; and along those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” (Henry Melvill, though misattributed frequently to Herman Mellville).
This brings me to one more image from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The towel. Hitchhikers in the galaxy are counseled to have a towel with them at all times. Here’s a brief clip that explains some of its myriad uses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xs3V_20oD4A
It’s not a perfect analogy, but what if we considered the church as indispensable to the galactic traveler as the towel? A faith community is a source of warmth in cold-hearted times; a place to bask and enjoy the Son [of God]; a filter for the noxious fumes of consumer culture; a comforting source of companions for our wondering under the stars; a cadre of co-workers to be deployed in an emergency. Further, being in a church can serve as a bridge in the urban/rural divide, since the heartland is much engaged in religious communities. We can share stories with each other about what our church means to us and how it shapes our lives.
We are preparing to receive our pledges next week, and in some ways the last thing I want to talk about and you want to hear about is money and pledging. Even so, we need to consider how we have fared, as the prophet Haggai suggests. We’ve all had the experience Haggai talked about: eating but never having enough; drinking but never having our fill; clothing ourselves but not having wardrobe lead to genuine warmth; and putting our wages into a bag with holes—pointing to the thousand unsatisfying ways we spend our money. Haggai proposes building up the Lord’s house as an alternative. Build the house so God can take pleasure in it and be honored.
We are weaving the threads of community, so that we can be encouraged and God can be honored. We are building up a church that can be a courageous force for harmony in a discordant season. A church that can testify to and take part in the UCC’s articulated mission: “United in Spirit, and inspired by God’s grace, we love all, welcome all, and seek justice for all.”
Just as the galactic hitchhiker should always know where her towel is, we need to know where our church is, THAT our church is. Whether we are here physically or not, we carry the church with us wherever we roam. I hope you find being woven into the strands of this community as comforting and strengthening as I have, especially in difficult days. I am confident that the “cause” of supporting the church will have the “effect” of all of us feeling supported, feeling warmed, feeling challenged, feeling sent.
Church, we have a remarkable opportunity before us to testify. True to our God, true to our native land, may we be agents of healing between Us and Them, and may we be signs of panic-free peace in and of ourselves.
 Adams, Douglas TheHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,