A Witness

This sermon was first preached at an online service for St. John’s Wilmette on April 18, 2021.

Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.

Photo by AP

It had only been about three days since they arrested Jesus. At least I think it was three days. Four? Time moves so differently now. And these last few days…they were the worst days of my life. I have never been more terrified, more angry, more numb.

They had waited until dark on Thursday night to come for him. I can’t believe we didn’t see it coming. He did, though. He kept telling us. I don’t know why we didn’t believe him. We all saw the way that his cousin John had been targeted, snatched away, imprisoned, executed. And throughout our whole childhoods we had grown up hearing stories of uprisings all around us, rebellions that had been squashed, radicals who had been snuffed out.

This Empire is ruthless.

They had turned us against each other using counter-intelligence programs, creating infighting in our movement, planting an informant in our midst. 

The cops came with torches and their usual show of excessive force against our people.  They cuffed him and beat him, screaming, “Stop resisting!” as they hit him, laughing and noting “assaulting an officer” to add to his charges.

They dragged him from kangaroo court to kangaroo court, from one sham trial to the next. But they had profiled him as guilty the moment they laid eyes on his brown skin and wooly hair.

They decided to make an example of him.  They couldn’t let any of the rest of us get the same idea, disturbing the peace. 

They hung him high, lynched him on the Place of the Skull for everyone to see, to remind us all – Know your place. Or else.

His body wasn’t even cold in the tomb before the smear campaign began. They brought up his record, old warrants, saying “You heard about his criminal background, right? Vandalism earlier that week, turning over tables in the Temple and everything, probably gang related.”  

They blamed his parents, said it was a lack of discipline. They said, “Its a tragedy of course but what could you expect, really, with a family like that, a teen mother and a blue collar father (was that even his father)?”

They empathized with the police, said they were just doing their job. And besides, they said, “If he had just complied with the Roman law, this wouldn’t have happened.” 

Every time I heard these lies about him it was like a knife in my heart. I wanted to defend him but I didn’t even know how to fight. I was so weak, so tired and afraid. Every time I closed my eyes all I saw was the blood, the nails through his hands, the gash in his side. He didn’t even look like.. himself anymore. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat, the memories made me nauseous.

So when he came into the room I thought, I must be hallucinating. I thought, the lack of sleep, the lack of food, the trauma… I must be losing my mind, like those other women who had gone to bring spices to the tomb and came running back to us hysterical. Or like Cleopas, saying he had seen him on the road to Emmaus. I thought, if the Empire wanted us to all go mad from the terror of it all, if that was their goal, then….

We were in the room, talking about these wild tales from the women and Cleopas and then he was just there. He was there. In the room we had gone to hide.  He was there.

But I had seen him on that cross. I had seen the blood and water come out of his side. I had seen him breathe that last breath. I had held his mother as she sobbed. He was dead. Dead people don’t just come into rooms unless…

“A ghost!” one of the other disciples vocalized my thoughts out loud. It must be his spirit. Was he here to haunt us, was he disappointed in us, locked away in this room in fear instead of continuing the revolution he had died for?

He gave us this look and then said, “Fam….its me,” and reached out his hand. It looked different and the hole was there but it wasn’t transparent or anything. One of the younger disciples touched him gingerly, as if he might * poof * and disappear at any minute, and he said, “Yeah, see? How many ghosts do you know with flesh and bones like this?”

I didn’t know any ghosts, actually. So I guess I didn’t really know. But I looked at his feet. They were firm on the ground, not floating. In his sandals, dusty. Normal. Except for those holes.

We all started talking at once until we heard his stomach growling. Do ghosts have stomachs that growl? And he asked for something to eat. I guess it had been a few days since that last supper. I just didn’t really think of it, that he might need food. I didn’t know how his body worked now. He was so familiar and yet changed. He was healed and alive and yet marked with those fatal wounds.

Someone handed him some fish and we all stared at him as he ate it. Mouth still opened like before, teeth still chomped, throat still swallowed.

Not a ghost then, I guess. A miracle. He had done miracles before but this…

He explained everything to us, he connected all the dots. He reminded us of the stories of our ancestors of Moses and Miriam and the Psalms and prophets. He told us that these stories were not just something long ago and far away but that they could be true for us, here, now, too. That’s why he was back.

Cleopas and Mary and the rest of the other women didn’t even say, “I told you so.” A story like this…maybe they needed to see him again too to be completely sure.

He looked at us. So seriously. And told us, “You. You are the witnesses now to these things.”

I felt uneasy. I didn’t believe those first witnesses, when they told us. I didn’t believe Cleopas either. I barely believed this myself, right now, with him standing there. It all felt like such an out of body experience. Or the opposite, really, like the trauma of the past week had left me totally dissociated, and now seeing him here with flesh and bones and dusty feet on the ground and breath that smelled like broiled fish…it was like my soul slammed right back into my body when his body showed up alive. It was dizzying. It was… amazing.

So. Here I am. Witnessing. To you. About the time that we were numb with shock and grief and Jesus came to us and reminded us who we are by showing us who God is.

I’m here, witnessing, to remind you too, that these stories from long ago aren’t just for 1st century Palestine. They are true for you, here, now.

And so I’m here to ask you to believe the crucified ones in your midst, too. The ones who were killed by the cops, by the Empire, the ones that didn’t come back. The ones who have been showing you their wounds on body cams and cellphone footage, on your nightly news, in your Twitter feed. The ones with stomachs rumbling, hungry for fish or daily bread, hungry for justice.

I am here witnessing to you. Because if you can’t recognize Jesus in them? If you can’t recognize Jesus in Daunte? In Adam? In Breonna? In George? Renisha? Michael? Freddie? Terence? Philando? Laquan? Jamar? Eric?

If you can’t recognize Jesus in them?

Then you can’t recognize Jesus.

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