Scripture -- Luke 21:4-19
On a first read, this may feel like a bad-news text. In fact, it may feel like a bad-news text on a second, and a third, and a fourth read. Jesus has entered into Jerusalem – he is provoking the authorities – we know what’s coming – and he stands with his disciples in the Temple, and he tells them what to expect, “You see this Temple? Not one stone will be left on another. They will all be thrown down. You are going to hear of wars and insurrections. Nation warring against nation; kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes and famines and plagues and dreadful portents. And they are going to come for you – the religious leaders, and the Roman imperial ones. They’re going to arrest you, put you in prison, and you’re going to have to testify. So brace yourselves.”
It’s a lot to take in. And the disciples are left standing with the question – and us with them – “What are we supposed to do with all this bad news? With all this upheaval in the world?”
And there are several ways to come at that question. The disciples say, “Is this a sign that the end times are near? The fulfillment of everything you say, Jesus? When? How can we tell?” And remember, we’ve been talking about how in a world that feels like it is being turned upside down, Jesus is turning the world rightside up. It’s a legitimate question. Is all this somehow leading us to a better day?
Let’s also remember that Jesus is talking here – not only about a possible future – but about something that we know actually happened. The Gospel of Luke and this story were probably written down somewhere around 90 AD. The story takes place somewhere around 30 AD, just before Jesus’s crucifixion – and he says these things will happen – the Temple will be torn down. And then, in 70 AD Rome levels the Temple – burns it down. So in 90 AD, in the Gospel of Luke, they look back and tell this story – not a stone left on stone – just like Jesus said. In the Book of Acts, they will tell of the times when they were arrested, and jailed, and had to testify. This is simultaneously a story of upheaval yet to come, and a memory of upheaval that has already taken place. They have seen this upheaval in their world, and they know what it’s like.
AND, here’s the thing, I think we know it too. I mean seriously, we could take this list – and name where we see it in our world.
“Not a stone will be left on stone; they all we be thrown down” – We see our institutions – institutions we thought sturdy and strong – swaying, and creaking, and crumbling under the weight of the chaos of our day.
“Some will come saying ‘I am he’.. watch what they say” – All around us fake news; Russian bots creating an alternate reality; so many places in our world where plain and palpable lies pass for truth every day.
“Wars and insurrections; nation against nation” – Syria and Iraq (and the superpowers who contend there); Afghanistan; Turkey’s genocide of the Kurds; Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohyinga; Kashmir; the apartheid state in Israel/Palestine; and in recent days, political turmoil in Bolivia, just to name some.
“Earthquakes, famines, and dreadful portents” – well, wildfires, blackouts, floods, the growing chaos of our climate emergency.
We can see all this in our day.
And – I think people anywhere, at any time – could have looked around their world and said, yes, we see this upheaval too. Jesus is talking here about upheaval that has actually happened – the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome. Not only that – Jesus is talking about upheaval that came long before that, and that has persisted ever since. And, Jesus is saying something, something about how in the midst of all this – God is turning the world rightside up – somehow, someday.
But it sure feels like a lot of bad news. In this morning’s Scripture – in the midst of all this – here’s the best that can be said – here’s the morsel of good news that Jesus can muster: “All this upheaval in the world, the lives you live in this world, all this will open up the opportunity for you to testify. You will be hauled in before the authorities. Don’t worry what you will say, for God will give you wisdom and the words. And in your endurance, you will find and claim your life.” All this will open up for you an opportunity to testify.
That’s the good news.
So let’s talk about testimony.
What a week to talk about testimony! This past week, as a nation, we’ve watched the testimony from the impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill. I’ve heard a number of folks say how overwhelming this moment feels, and I feel that too. I was surprised to hear one commentator say that he found it all kind of boring – or as he said, “These hearings really don’t make for good television.”
Now, while I don’t think that is at allthe relevant standard, it did make me think – the witnesses we are hearing from are all civil servants –ordinary folks – doing their jobs. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s no splash or sizzle. They’re not celebrities – they’re not even folks who have in any way sought popular approval, or even public attention.
They are civil servants, public servants. They get up every morning – and they go to work – and they do their jobs -- like we have done in our lives. They do their jobs – the work that’s in front of them – they try their best to do it well, and they hope that the work they do is part of something bigger, something worthy. These civil servants – they’re being asked to tell the stories of what they have seen and heard in their work –in their lives. And their testimony may not make for “good television,” but that doesn’t make the truth that they are telling any less important. It just so happens that their stories – of what they have seen in their work, in their lives – their stories are laying bare truth about the use and misuse of power at the highest levels of government – a truth that would have been hidden away, if they had not spoken up.
Now, most of us will not be asked to testify on Capitol Hill. (God help us if we are.) Our stories take place in a more local space – in our lives and in our communities. This Scripture’s call to testify has me thinking of a community of testimony that I’ve encountered in my neighborhood. Several of us in the congregation live up in Terra Linda in San Rafael – in a school district that – up until a few months ago was named “Dixie.” The Dixie School District in Marin County California. I’m still baffled by that. Not long after we bought our house, we received some tax notice, and Jeff asked me, “Did you know that our school district is named Dixie?” I just stared at him for a while, and then in my best Alabama bewilderment, I asked him, “Do you think they know what that means?”
What I didn’t know then is that there were neighbors who had been trying for years to get the name changed. About a year ago, a friend put me in touch with those folks, and the next thing I knew, I was signed up to help with a holiday cookie party – where neighborhood families gathered to exchange cookies – and to offer families and kids the opportunity come up with ideas for new and better names for our school district. By the end of the party, we had petitions that we presented to the School Superintendent – offering 15 new and better names – names that did not invoke and honor the Confederate South.
What I also didn’t know is how controversial all this would be. It felt to me like a no-brainer. But what followed was about six months of hotly contested public school board hearings, sometimes two in a week – where at each meeting – these “Change the Name” neighbors testified, urging the School Board to change the name – and in response other neighbors argued to “Keep Dixie Dixie.” Now in a public hearing you don’t get much time – at these school board meetings, each of us got only 2 minutes. So each of us would think carefully about the word we could bring, from our perspective, what felt the most important – what hadn’t been said yet – or enough. And each of us had a different bit of the story to share:
Bruce Anderson, one of the first to raise the issue, could tell of what it was like – the pain – of having to drop his son and then his grandson – students of color – off at a school that boasted the name “Dixie” over the front door.
Marnie Glickman, spoke from her position as a Trustee on the Board.
Kerry Peirson could talk about the years that he had raised the issue, and the racism he had encountered in public meetings and private conversation.
T’Ni, David, LaLa, Tina and others could talk about what it was like to be the parent of a student of color in the Dixie Schools, and the harm that was being done to their kids in Dixie; and Terri, and Alex, and other parents would speak in support
Yavar -- one of the youngest among us – in his 20s – he gathered an alumni group – alumni of these elementary schools, who told their story in vocal protest on the doorsteps of the School Board meetings – keeping the pressure up on the Board
I could say that I’m from Alabama – and I know that Dixie has one meaning – a particular meaning linked to a particular history of racism, slavery, and segregation
Debra and Lisa and others from SURJ – Showing up for Racial Justice – could remind the Board of the responsibility of white people to listen to people of color when they say they are being harmed, and to do the work of dismantling racism
And Noah Griffin, could connect the work in our little neighborhood to broader statewide and national efforts
In this season of testimony, each neighbor showed up to tell their story. No one of us had the whole story. But each of us had a piece – a story from our lives. Spoken together – our stories became a testimony – 2 minutes at a time – that was persistent – and that at some point became inevitable. And we now live in the Miller Creek School District – only formerly known as Dixie.
And this has me thinking of the ways that the power of storytelling and testifying is at work in the First Pres community – how I’ve seen that so powerfully just in my first few weeks here.
We have here a group called the Life Story Group that gathers to tell and write and share stories from their lives.
On Facebook, I’ve loved to hear Mary Kathryn describe how each time the Women’s Breakfast Group gathers, one of them shares her story – and how the power of those real stories builds connection and community.
And even in our social justice work. Today, we’ll hear the latest from Najibullah Sediqi, with the latest stories from Kabul, Afghanistan – stories from which the Bare Roots Project has grown. You’re commitment to advocacy in Israel /Palestine, has grown from listening to the stories of Palestinian suffering. And right now, several of us have been listening to the stories of residents in Golden Gate Village in Marin City, and are trying to support their resistance to gentrification and displacement.
The quote on the bulletin cover is from a commencement speech that Rebecca Solnit gave to graduating journalism students. In it, she reminds them (and us) that there are so many powerful false narratives at work in the world – narratives from the dominant culture that prop up systems of dominance – the false narratives of climate-change denial, of racism and white supremacy, of nationalism and xenophobia, and so on. Solnit reminds those young journalists (and us) – of our responsibility to “break the story” – to break those stories – and to tell new stories – our stories – stories that “emerge from the margins and the edges” – collaboratively. And we do that by telling the truth that we have seen and lived in our lives.
Do you remember the Story Corps project? It’s an NPR project that sets up space for people to tell their stories to each other. It’s based on 3 principles:
1. The stories of everyday people are as interesting as “the celebrity stories that we are bombarded with every day.”
2. If we take time to listen to each other, we’ll find wisdom, wonder, poetry and power, in the lives and stories of the people around us.
3. “Listening is an act of love.”
Our stories -- the stories of our lives – do more than just convey information. They convey not only the facts of the lives we have lived, but the emotions, the sorrows, the challenges, and the joys. They convey something of the integrity of our lives – of the mistakes we have made, the things we have learned –where we have encountered God along the way. They connect our lives with the lives of others – across the room, and around the world, and on down through time.
This is what Jesus knew. And so he could say, do you see all the upheaval in the world? It’s real. Get to work. And all this will open up for you the opportunity to testify. Don’t worry about what you’ll say. Tell your story, and tell it true. God will give you wisdom and the words, and in your endurance, you will find and claim your life.
And so I want to ask you: What is your story? What has been your biggest challenge? Your greatest joy? Your deepest sorrow? Where have you experienced God at work in the world – in the life you have led? Your story – your testimony – matters.
Now, I wish I had some rhetorical flourish here at the end of this sermon that could lift us up out of all the upheaval in our world, even for a moment. But here’s how I think this all works. And it may not make for good television, but I believe it changes the world.
Every morning, we wake up, and we say our prayers, and we live our lives, and we do our best to live out God’s love in the world, and we tell our stories about where we have encountered God at work in the world. And then hopefully, after all that, we get a good night’s rest.
And then the next morning, we wake up, and we say our prayers, and we live our lives, and we do our best, and we tell our stories.
And then the next day. And then the next. And then the next.
And somehow in all that, in the lives we live and the stories we tell – somehow in all that, bit by bit, day by day, story by story, God is at work turning the world rightside up.
Jesus stands with his disciples in the midst of a Temple, telling them of the upheaval in the world, always and all the time, and he says to them – All of this, will open up for you the opportunity to testify. Don’t worry about what you’ll say, because I will give you words and wisdom that no one can stand against.
Jesus says to them (and to us):
In all this, in the upheaval of your day,
in your endurance, in your perseverance,
in the lives you live, in the stories you tell,
claim your life.
© Scott Clark, 2019. All rights reserved.
For general background on the text, and particularly for a detailed explanation of how the events predicted were actually experienced by the disciples, as reflected in Luke and Acts, see Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible (NIB), vol. ix, pp. 397-403.
For background on the name-change effort, see “Dixie No More: A California School Board Votes to Change System’s Name,” Washington Post, April 17, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dixie-no-more-california-school-board-votes-to-change-systems-name/2019/04/17/4a785750-5fb9-11e9-9ff2-abc984dc9eec_story.html
See “Break the Story,” an essay in Rebecca Solnit, Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays), Haymarket Books, Chicago: 2018.
David Isay, Listening is an Act of Love, Penguin Press: New York, 2007