PRAYER: Holy God, enter into this space today as we share our stories and listen for how you are acting in and through us. Teach us to prepare ourselves by recognizing the stories of others as sacred and beloved by you. Enable us to show through our own stories how we are all playing a part in your grand story. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
I was at work one day when everyone in my department was suddenly called into my manager’s office. Big news was coming. Our manager was breathless as she announced that some big boss was coming. I remember that this guy was one of the chief executive officers – not the top guy, but one of them – and he was going to be coming for a day or two of meetings and we all had to be ready. We had a week to prepare.
Everything in our day-to-day operation became focused on the big boss coming for meetings. If I sound unimpressed now, imagine how I felt then. But we had to be ready for this guy coming… now you might think that this preparation might involve cleaning up our desks, making sure that the counter tops were free of clutter, or that the office was tidy… and you would only be partly right. My manager’s main focus in us being ready for the visiting muckety-muck was that we had to be armed with questions to ask. Important questions, questions that demonstrated how fully we were invested in the future of the company and questions that showed how dedicated we were to the stock position of the company. We literally had more than one meeting to plan out the questions we were going to be asking this guy.
One problem… the questions we were supposed to be asking had absolutely nothing to do with the jobs that we did every day. I couldn’t care less about this visiting VIP because I had work to do and anything he had to say was more-than-likely not going to change any of that.
I was in that corporate world for over 30 years and believe me, I saw more than my share of this kind of behavior where people are constantly trying to impress the people above them on the corporate ladder. It’s not for me. I believed then, and I believe now that the best way to impress people (the people you need to impress at least) is to just do your job to the best of your ability. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted this visitor to come in and see me working, not listening ti me brown-nosing him with some questions that had no impact on my life.
The world tries to tell us how to identify ourselves and many times that doesn’t align with who we really are. We are often asked to label ourselves in ways that allow others to categorize us (and assume they understand us). My manager went out of her way to ensure that the visiting boss would not see and meet the real people who worked for him. As we prepare for Jesus this Advent, we are called to live into our identity in Christ and to testify to the light – the true light of Christ in our lives.
Throughout Advent, we have been talking about “preparing”. But here, John is showing us that the part of preparing for Jesus that comes to each and every one of us is to testify or bear witness to the ways we have already experienced Jesus. Think about what “testify” means legally – it is saying what we have seen. To testify is to tell our stories of what God has done in our lives. To testify is to tell how our story is part of God’s story.
Testifying is not an easy thing to do. In fact, it can be downright hard for most of us – especially when people are not receptive. And for John, he certainly met with many who were receptive, but the Pharisees, many of the people in authority – certainly were not among the receptive. For him to do what he did, it took a great deal of courage. Verse 20 says, “He confessed and did not deny it.” Regardless of what the Pharisees might have thought of him, he confessed and did not deny who and whose he was. So often, in conversations about faith, we sugarcoat or fear what others will think. What does it look like to push through and confess who Jesus is for us?
“I am not the Messiah,” he said. John the Baptist was very clear. He puts God first. This does not mean putting ourselves down, but it is a reminder to us and others that God is first. It is a call to authenticity. I appreciate how John is honest about who he is. The Pharisees are asking John who he is; they’re practically inviting him to claim a higher status for himself. They probably expect him to claim the kind of role/power/identity for himself that they do for themselves. They want him to play their game. How often does the world ask us to be a certain way, to achieve, to make a name for ourselves? But God is not asking John – or us – to do anything more than say who he is and where God interceded. Our faith calls for the kind of authenticity and witness that the world does not promote or want to hear.
To testify is to tell how our story is part of God’s story. But our story need not be glossed up and polished. We don’t have to have a bunch of meetings to prepare what questions we will ask or how our story will be navigated. Our story doesn’t have to be shiny; it’s better that our story simply be authentic. It is in those honest, perhaps even gritty parts of our story in which God breaks in.
All those years ago when that chief executive whatever came to our office and we all had to be on our best behavior, he wasn’t hearing our stories. He wasn’t seeing our authentic selves that consistently did their best day after day. He saw theatre. He saw a production performed by us to make him think we were something that we were not. It was fake. And I suspect that deep down, he knew that. For our Christian walk, we don’t need to put on theatre to share our testimony. Not to say that we can’t, but we don’t have to.
For some people – a lot of people actually – being coerced or pressured to be someone they’re not has become all consuming. Sometimes it’s literally a matter of life or death. I’m sorry to say that the Church (Capital C) has been – and continues to be – complicit in trying to force people to be that which they are not. There are many stories of churches who have forced narrow visions of humanity upon others, making them fearful to be their true authentic selves.
That’s why I’m grateful to people like Hannah who is a United Methodist person pursuing ordination and fearlessly sharing their story of what it means to be a queer person in today’s church. Hannah says that their mission is working to fulfill the faithful promise of their baptismal vow to accept the power that God gave them to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves – especially in the church they call home. They say that bringing their true selves to the table, sharing their own story and testimony involves “knowing that the love and grace of God is our hope, and that everything else is sinking sand”.
Our testimonies – our stories – are vitally important because they help to expand the narrative and broaden our vision of what the church can and should be. Author Mark Yaconelli, who some of us met through the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference Bridges program, writes, “Stories are designed to move us, to inspire us to act. Stories transmit emotions.” He continues to explain that the very word emotion comes from the words “to move out”. Stories move us.
Our testimonies tell how our story is part of God’s story. Yaconelli continues to say that the purpose of the moral stories we love is to get us moving, to stir up our deepest and most sacred impulses to love, to care, to right the wrongs. And the more we turn away from or ignore those stories, our spiritual impulses become atrophied, and we become less alive, less awake, less ourselves.
Sharing our testimony is a risk. It makes us vulnerable. But it is that vulnerability that allows others to see what God is doing in our lives. It also helps us to break free of the fear that holds us back. When we hear other people share their stories of overcoming obstacles and how that informs our faith, we find the strength and courage within us to break free of the bonds that have held us back for however many years or decades they have.
So as we continue to prepare for the arrival of Jesus in our world, I want to challenge you to be honest about who you are and whose you are, and to be unafraid to take that risk. What is it in your life that points to the light?
What would it look like for us to take this church and focus on the testimony we have to offer? The biggest gift God has given us allows us to use our voice not as a barrier to others, but as an invitation that we may become the community that God has always intended. This is not new. This is not reinventing anything. It’s about using our story to recover the light that has been growing increasingly dim. It’s about more than just having open doors and open hearts; it’s about offering hope in a God who loves; it’s about hearing and seeing others for the beauty they bring to the table and sharing our testimony while at the same time, hearing theirs. It’s about discerning how we can testify to the light in our community in this season.
The Psalmist says that we are wonderfully and fearfully made. As the community of God, we need to embrace that truth. We need to live that truth. We need to testify to that truth.
To God be the glory.