I’d like to tell you a story this morning; a personal story. When I was in the ninth grade, I attended a Methodist youth camp that ended up being my first direct experience with evangelism. I was at a point in my life where things weren’t going very well. My parents were building up to a divorce, so it wasn’t much fun at home. Looking back, I remember being a moody and confused teenager who was forever asking deep questions about the meaning of life. Come to think of it, that part hasn’t changed all that much. A friend of mine suggested I go off to this camp for the weekend. I had no idea what I was in for.
My own youth group wasn’t all that religious. We were very much lined up with the philosophy of the 60’s. We talked all the time about love and friendship and freedom. But God and the Bible were mostly in the background. At the camp though, the whole purpose of the weekend was to save our young souls. It was an entirely new experience for me. For most of the weekend, I felt like I was on the outside looking in, rather than being a part of it. But everyone else seemed to be having a good time. There was a lot of singing and dancing, arts & crafts, Bible study and prayer, all choreographed around opening us up to Jesus.
By Saturday afternoon, the whole rest of the camp just seemed to catch fire. Everywhere I looked people were “filled with the love of the Lord.” But the more ecstatic they became, the more alone I felt. It was like Scrooge looking in the window at his family’s Christmas party, but not being able to join in. Finally, with a sense of almost desperation, I went to the minister who was directing the camp. I explained how I was feeling and asked him what he thought I should do. Without missing a beat, he said, “It’s because you haven’t accepted Jesus into your life.”
Right at that point something in me just snapped. I mumbled out something like, “O.K. fine. I give. If that’s what it takes, let’s do it. Give me Jesus!” My great conversion experience. All I really wanted was to not be left out in the cold anymore. But the minister didn’t seem to mind. He prayed over me and gave me to Jesus, then went on his merry way, after which I sat there with a very funny taste in my mouth. In my teenage idealism, I had come to think of myself as a person of high integrity. But this whole “conversion to Jesus” felt very hypocritical.
Still, for the last few hours of the camp I was able to put aside my doubts and join in with the crowd a little. And, of course, once we had all been converted, the minister’s closing message was crystal clear: “Now that you have received the grace of salvation, your job is to witness; to share your testimony and save others.” The camp ended in a moment approaching rapture, and we all went off to spread the gospel. Personally, I went off trying to figure out what on earth had just happened. I had second thoughts all the way home.
But I knew I had to at least try to share my newfound faith with someone, and the best place to start seemed to be with my current girlfriend, Laurie. A few days later, I got her alone at church and began trying to tell her about my camp experience. Now, I’m not normally a “beat around the bush” kind of guy. But that day I hemmed and hawed and stammered around for I don’t know how long. All the while Laurie stood there with a confused look on her face, trying to work out what I was getting at. Then, all at once, a look of understanding washed over Laurie’s face. She threw her hands into the air, laughed out loud and shouted, “YOU’VE BEEN SAVED!! HALLELUJAH!!” And that was the end my brief but illustrious career as an evangelist. It didn’t really help when a few weeks later, Laurie found Jesus herself, and dumped me. I think I’ve told you that part of the story. The upshot of all this was that, for a long time, Jesus and I were not really on speaking terms.
But, to my surprise and chagrin, I couldn’t quite let him go either. Much as I was embarrassed by my “conversion,” there was something that genuinely hooked me that day. I’ve never really gotten over it. Jesus keeps drawing me back. I would never have believed at the time that I would go on to be a minister, but, now, well, it’s been almost 50 years since I attended that camp. And here I am, serving the Lord in the best way I know how.
The title of my sermon this morning, “Can I Get a Witness?!” is a line that would be familiar in a Pentecostal or Fundamentalist church. In our tradition, preaching is more intellectual and quiet. But in a lot of conservative preaching, there’s an interactive quality to it all. Ministers more or less expect and encourage their congregations to join them in the energy of the sermon. When the energy really gets going, he or she might call out, “Can I get an Amen,” or “Can I get a witness.” And the people in the pews who are moved by the experience might call out, “Amen!” or “Preach it Sister!” Back when I was in my worship class in seminary, I learned that this is sometimes called “helping the preacher.” The next Sunday, I was telling that to my own church in the worship service. Right in the middle of my sermon, someone spontaneously called out “Amen.” It completely threw me off. I wasn’t expecting it.
But this business of witnessing is not just about helping the preacher. It’s about telling our own stories about how we have come to faith, how we have found God in our lives. And it goes all the way back to the beginning. When Peter wrote his letter to the early church, he made a point of saying, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Peter was talking about when he, and James and John, went up what we call the mountain of transfiguration with Jesus. When they got there, they had this powerful experience, a vision of Jesus, and Moses, and Elijah all transfigured by the light of God, and God’s voice saying to them, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The experience threw the disciples into a dither. Peter started babbling on about creating booths, some kind of permanent shrine, right then and there, in order to hold on to this sacred moment. But then the vision ended, normality returned, and Jesus led them all back down the mountain. But years later, Peter’s letter makes it clear that this powerful vision had been a driving force behind his whole ministry. He spent the rest of his life testifying to the glory of God, to which he had been an eyewitness.
In our worship life together, we often talk about telling “the old, old story,” of Jesus and his love. And that certainly is part of why we’re here. To remember the stories of Jesus, the parables, the healings, the teachings. It’s a good thing that we set aside a day for Gospel Sunday, so we can all remember together the good news in which our faith rests. But, witnessing is not just about passing on someone else’s stories. It is about telling the stories of how the stories of our own lives fit into the larger story of faith.
When we talk about being a witness, the first image that would come to most of our minds is not the church at all. The first image would most likely be the courtroom. Being called as a witness, in a trial, comes with an expectation that we will tell the story of what we have seen with our own eyes. In fact, if we start wandering off into someone else’s story, that’s called hearsay, and it isn’t allowed. Sombody would be quick to object. We can only witness to what we have experienced personally.
The same thing is true here. We can, and do, tell the old, old stories of Jesus. But we can only truly witness to how we have experienced God in our own lives. We can only tell the gospel we have been an eyewitness to. That’s why I started with my own story this morning, of being dragged almost kicking and screaming into faith; my feelings of reluctance, and even hypocrisy. I don’t share that story because because it’s particularly inspiring, and not because anyone would call it especially good preaching. But simply because it was the story of coming to faith that I actually lived, the story to which I can authentically be called an eyewitness. Of course, it’s only part of the story. Jesus and I did manage to make amends eventually. But it is, to me, that part of my story that says God can use anybody. The we don’t have to be a Saint Francis or Mother Theresa in order for God to put us to good use. My story reminds me that God is happy to take our resistance, our loneliness, even our cynicism, and begin to shape us into people of faith.
Of course, this isn’t just about me. What are the experiences that have shaped your faith? Why are you here today? What connects you to God, this church and these people? For most of us, the times in our lives where we have encountered the Spirit of God––or felt the touch of the Devine, or been overwhelmed by awe, however you want to say it––are among the most meaningful and beautiful moments we’ve ever known. And it’s an incredibly beautiful gift we can give, to share those moments with others. It empowers us to deepen our faith, to see God more clearly, love God more dearly, and follow God more nearly, as the old song from Godspel put it.
But, having said all that. I know full well that, in our tradition, we are not quick to share these very intimately details of our lives. And along those lines, there is a wonderful story I can tell you about my father-in-law. He was preaching one Sunday morning to his church in Hartford on the subject of witnessing and testimony. He said he knew that he was talking to a gathering of staid New Englanders, just like I am here today. He said that if he had been preaching at an old tent revival meeting or Pentecostal gathering, that he would invite them all to come down that old sawdust trial and commit their lives to Jesus right there in front of God and everybody. He also knew that it was unlikely that a traditional New England congregation would respond to that kind of appeal, but that didn’t mean they didn’t love Jesus in their own way. And so he said, as he leaned out over the pulpit, “If you love Jesus, if you really love Jesus deep down in your heart and soul …Wiggle your toes!!”
My friends, we are here, for the love of Christ. And don’t you ever forget it! Can I Get a Witness?!