Easter Faith/Can I Get a Witness?
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, April 18th, 2021
What is left to say on the Sundays after Easter? The Easter crowds are gone. Most preachers I know are also gone, taking time off after the long march from Lent to Holy Week to Easter. What is left to play and sing on Sundays after Easter? Trumpets have sounded. The timpanist has left. The choir is exhausted and is ready for a break.
Some fill the post-Easter fatigue with conspiracy theories. They ask: What if Easter is the great cover-up of all cover-ups? What if the church invented Easter to legitimate itself? What if Easter was all an elaborate hoax, that Jesus did not die on the cross but instead was drugged and survived the torture to live a long life, marrying Mary of Magdela, having kids and then grandkids?
Some fill post-Easter fatigue with speculative questions. They want to know what the Easter afterlife will look like. They have listened long enough to preachers talk about “glory land” and now they want answers. What will it be like in heaven? Will we recognize anyone? Will anyone recognize us?
Poet Maya Angelou runs down her own post-Easter trail in her poem: “Preacher, Don’t Send Me.” The poem ends:
Preacher, please don’t
streets of gold
and milk for free.
I stopped all milk
at four years old
and once I’m dead
I won’t need gold.
I’d call a place
where families are loyal
and strangers are nice,
where music is jazz
and the season is fall.
Promise me that
or nothing at all.
(from The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, pp. 257-8)
What if the best way to learn about our Easter faith on the Sundays after Easter morning is not by spinning conspiracy theories or trying to explain the resurrection to everyone’s satisfaction or providing a chart that gives the landscape of the sweet by and by? What if the best way to learn about our Easter faith is by visiting the second part of Luke’s Gospel, what we know as The Acts of the Apostles?
The book of Acts fast forwards us beyond angels sitting in the empty tomb of Jesus and all those unnerving encounters of the risen Jesus with the disciples. It asks us to listen not to the risen Jesus preaching on a mountaintop, but to listen to Peter preaching in the market square.
But how can you and I listen to anything Peter has to say when we have watched him show far more cowardice than courage, not once, not twice, but until a rooster let out a piercing cry heard across the ages? Who does Peter think he is preaching to us? We have never denied Jesus once, much less three times at the most inopportune moment. If Peter had any decency, he would find a cave, light a fire, and spare us all his talk.
Or maybe not. Maybe Luke begins Acts with Peter because Peter is the poster boy for what Easter faith looks like. Easter faith is not about debating “what really happened to Jesus” over a cup of Starbucks extra-mocha latte. It is not about searching for the Shroud of Turin or spinning conspiracy theories of what really happened to Jesus on the cross or making promises about living in “pure paradise” one day when the roll is called up yonder.
Peter can stand confidently and preach boldly because he knows that if Easter means anything, it means that Easter faith is about leading a risen, redeemed life right here, right now. And, he, of all people, can preach about forgiveness and can call for repentance, because he has been forgiven by God and his life has been turned around by the earth-shattering grace of God.
For Peter, Easter faith means living in God’s reign today, it means that forgiveness is a gift awaiting not just colossal failures like Peter, but more modest failures like you and me. Easter faith means that not only Peter, but you and I are witnesses to what God makes possible for all who take hold of the risen life revealed in the risen Jesus.
The Greek word, martus, is often rendered “martyr” in English, one who sacrifices all for the sake of a greater truth. Another way of rendering martus in English is with the word, “witness.” A witness is someone who not only has seen and experienced certain truth, but who testifies to that truth by what they say and how they live. In his book, Can I Get A Witness, my good friend and Union Presbyterian Seminary’s President, Brian Blount, writes: “’Can I get a witness?’ I can’t imagine that there is a single black churchgoer who is unfamiliar with this sermonic plea . . . Whether the preacher is begging his audience to pay closer attention or demanding that they get up from their pews and transform their ritual attentiveness into discipleship endeavor . . . The preacher wants you not only to hear what he [or she] is saying but to understand and then to act upon it. `Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? My Lord will deliver you, too! Can I Get a Witness? (Can I Get a Witness? P. 37)”
Peter stands before a tough audience, people who knew him when he was loud and brash, clumsy and stupid. Peter preaches an Easter faith that is not a private spiritual affair for the elect few that leaves us quite content with the way things are because we are waiting to board the glory train to how things will be. Easter faith is not about debating how many angels can dance on the head of the nail. Peter is a walking example of Easter faith, a preaching example of the earth-shattering-life-restoring grace of God that strips away all the reasons why you and I can’t follow Jesus and replaces them with God searing, hope fueling energy that won’t let our mouths stay shut or our feet stay still. Brothers and sisters, Can I Get a Witness?
Bill Moyers knows that Easter faith happens when we begin to witness to the vision of Jesus by how we live. He writes, “It was in the name of Jesus that a Methodist ship caulker named Edward Rogers crusaded across New England for an eight-hour work day. It was in the name of Jesus that Francis William rose up against the sweatshop. It was in the name of Jesus that Dorothy Day marched alongside auto workers in Michigan, brewery workers in New York, and marble cutters in Vermont. It was in the name of Jesus that the young priest John Ryan – ten years before the New Deal – crusaded for child labor laws, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and decent housing for the poor. And it was in the name of Jesus that Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis to march with sanitation workers who were asking only for a living wage” (From Bill Moyers’, “A Time for Heresy”). Sisters and brothers, Can I Get a Witness?
Shame on us when we allow Easter faith to be reduced to Easter Day, an annual seasonal spectacle of spiritual curiosity rather than a life-changing rallying cry to get on with living into the vision of Jesus! Shame on us when Easter faith is something less than a call for us to repent of small dreams and lukewarm goals, as if Jesus lived and died so we can live in a decent house, have a secure retirement plan, and take nice vacations now and then. Shame on us when we behave decently and in order, never rocking the boat because we do not want to disturb our neighbors, get others angry with us, or deter our donors! Sisters and brothers, Can I Get a Witness?!
It took some nerve for Peter to stand in that pulpit. It took a nerve born of Easter faith, a nerve that awaits all who are tired of living a timid faith in a tepid church, awaits all who are tired of the terrorism of poverty, sick to death of the terrorism of economic disparity, weary of the terrorism of a global pandemic, exhausted by the terrorism of sexuality that keeps good Christians silent while their sisters and brothers are demeaned and denied leadership in the church and rights in our society. Brothers and sisters, Can I Get a Witness?!
Shame on us when we do not insist on providing welcome and hospitality to whomever walks through our church’s and our nation’s doors, when we do not insist that providing every child the best education possible should be our national practice, when we do not insist that every budget – federal, state, city, church – is a moral document. Shame on us for our silence while genocide continues in Syria and legislators across our land seek to restrict endorse voting rights. Shame on us when we do not speak with Peter’s tenacity and with his faith borne of forgiveness and love. Brothers and sisters, Can I Get a Witness?!
I want to offer a new closing for Maya Angelou’s poem, a closing born of our Easter faith:
Preacher, please don’t
To watch and to see
I didn’t come here
To sit still and seek
While so many are broken, tired, and too weak.
I’d call a church
That didn’t settle
For lives that were nice
But cried to the heavens
For justice for all
Preacher, promise me that Easter
Or no Easter at all.
Sisters and brothers, Can I Get a Witness?!