Quiet Witness

Acts 1:6-14

1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

 

Our passage from the Acts of the Apostles is the last words of Jesus to his disciples before he ascended into heaven. They asked him if this was the time to restore the kingdom to Israel. Now Israel wanted to be an independent nation. The disciples still held on to that notion of a “kingdom” as some sort of nation-state.

One last time Jesus pushes back. He tells them that they will not know the time when the kingdom will come. Their role is to witness to the kingdom. And to do that they needed the Holy Spirit whom Jesus was sending to them.

A lot is going on in that short passage. The disciples still can’t move beyond the past to join the future when power is displaced by love. Jesus is challenging them to live in the kingdom now as if it were already here … and by doing so make it actually happen. They were called to live in the kingdom in this life and thereby witness to it to draw more people into it.

The kingdom isn’t a nation state, or some place or some country, or the afterlife. Jesus taught that it is a way of life that speaks truth to power with love and is all inclusive. It is a state of transformative love, if it is any kind of state at all.

But they – and we – need the Holy Spirit, that spirit of transforming from the old restrictive imprisoning notion of what the world is and must be into what the world can be. The kingdom is a case of living the impossible to make it possible. The Holy Spirit is that spiritual energy given to us by God through Jesus that energizes and motivates us to live a life in this world, embracing this world, but yet not of this world.

So what is living the kingdom of God? Jesus had many ways to tell us about it. He gave us parables, such as the parable of the mustard seed and instruction such as turning the other cheek, all of which were stories and behaviors of the Kingdom of God.

In Matthew Jesus gives a list of blessings, the Beatitudes, found in the Kingdom. If we bless our neighbors with these blessings, we are living in the Kingdom of God. For example, blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. The Kingdom is not free of tragedy or sorrow. But in the Kingdom those who mourn are honored and cared for.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. In the Kingdom we live righteously, even though the world around us is destructive, hateful, and self-centered. In the Kingdom it is justice, freedom and peace that is paramount, not dominance or greed or power.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be call the children of God. Living in the kingdom is to go to war no more and is never to raise a hand of violence against anyone. War, violence and coercion is banned from the Kingdom. This maybe more than any other is a hallmark of the Kingdom of God.

 

In our passage from the Acts, Jesus calls us to witness to this Kingdom to the ends of the world. How are we to do this? We are to do it just as the Kingdom would have us do it. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.  We are not to go about bible-thumping or demanding to test all those we meet to see if they have been saved. We are not to demand that our government become an enforcer of Christian, so called, principles. We are not to exclude those who are not Christian.

Rather we are to simply live our lives as if the Kingdom is among us everywhere. And by the way we behave and live, we will witness to the Kingdom. For example:

 

There was this nurse, Martha who worked in the ICU of a high-end hospital. Her job was very intense of course. Many patients came through and most left well. A few died. Some were in the ICU for an extended period of time. She usually worked the morning shift, but sometimes worked evenings and weekends, and sometimes double shifts.

Once she was assigned to a very difficult patient. The patient was a middle-aged woman who had suffered a debilitating stroke. She could not respond to anyone to any extent other than the occasionally hand motion. Her family was with her around the clock.

And the family was difficult. They were understandably worried and upset. But they were not a particularly cohesive family. They were very demanding. Constantly it seemed they were going to the nurse’s station asking questions, demanding medicines, and at times complaining of the care. They became known on the floor as a troublesome family and the nurses were leery about getting too involved.

Martha, though, patiently listened to the family. She would fulfill their wishes when she could. And when she couldn’t she would explain why and what could be done. The family was still difficult, often not appreciating her efforts. But she didn’t give up.

One day a doctor came into the room with his students. He didn’t talk to the family. He just examined the patient talking to his students, as if the family wasn’t there and the patient was a specimen. They were livid. They headed to the nurse’s station demanding who this doctor was and that he better not bill them. The nurse on duty apologized, but went back to her work.

Later when Martha came in she talked to the family. Then she sought out another doctor on the case who was very understanding. He went in to speak with them.

Now all of Martha’s kindness took emotional effort and time. The other nurses struggled with just getting their work done and fighting off “compassion fatigue.” They didn’t like Martha. She spent too much time with this family and eventually, quietly complained to the nursing director.

The nursing director spoke with Martha praising her for her compassion, but admonished her that she needed to budget her time better and not be bogged down by a difficult family… and sometimes it was best not to encourage the family in their demands on the rest of the nursing staff. She understood … but she, though more discreetly, continue to work with the family.

 

It is by our acts and behavior that we provide quiet witness to the Kingdom. As our friend Martha went to work each day facing intense emotions and long hours, she maintained her compassionate interaction with staff and families. It wasn’t easy. She was only human, and would have off days and be irritable, even have angry moments. But she maintained her commitment to her compassion … it was who she was.

And practicing being in the Kingdom eventually will become for us who we are. Witnessing by our acts and behavior will be simply who we are. We would feel a betrayal of ourselves – and of God – should we break faith. We will be citizens of the Kingdom deeply involved in it’s culture, traditions, and mores.

But we must also understand that part of witnessing to the Kingdom is our own self-care. We are no good to ourselves, or anyone, including God if we burn out. We need to step back and find our own place of serenity, peace and reflection. Our friend, Martha for all of her dedication to her profession, insisted on taking her vacations, celebrating her religious holidays and attending family functions, even when sometimes this self-care was inconvenient for her colleagues.

Jesus went into the desert or a garden to be alone, to talk to God. He went to celebrations and visited with friends. And so God expects – indeed, requires – us to care for ourselves.

 

In the passage we read from Peter’s first letter, he warns his comrades that living in the Kingdom right now in this day and age of anxiety, fear, and division will be a risk. Many people if not most people are attached to just the way the world is now. It is always strange that though the world often resorts to violence and promotes greed and tyranny, people are afraid to make the radical change to a world of peace, love and inclusiveness.

Even when a people rise up against a tyrant, always the government they form eventually succumbs to the demands of the world. Someone is in and someone is out. Someone is rich and many are poor. Even when a group forms a people-centered business it is constantly under assault to conform to the profit and wealth ethic, not it’s ethic of serving people.

So living the Beatitudes, the parables and the many instructions of Jesus is always a challenge. Living them puts us at risk of ostracism, ridicule, and isolation. Living the way of Jesus, though, also brings us closer to God. We will find ourselves seeking out God for strength and determination and reassurance of our choices.

But maybe one of the most difficult “sufferings” is to never know if your quiet witness had any affect. You may stand up for someone and have no effect. You may quietly support someone and receive no thanks. In the end, it must be sufficient that we served God faithfully.

 

And so Martha’s career played out. She was always attentive to families often at the cost of colleagues’ anger and even promotions. Eventually she retired. On the day of her retirement, one nurse who had been working in the ICU for just a short time came up to her. She said that of all the nurses with which she worked, she wanted to follow her example: patients after all were people with families. She didn’t want to fall into the emptiness of just marking time. She thanked Martha for her example.

 

By living in the Kingdom through all of this angst, we will discover that our lives are richer, more satisfying.  In an age that is self-serving, greedy, and alienated, living in the Kingdom is an opportunity to break out of the shell that so many people have built around themselves. It is an opportunity to live a life of fullness and meaning. It is an opportunity to live within the sacred and divine each moment of our lives. It is a chance to keep the gates of the Kingdom wide open for others to step through and join in the rich meaning of life.

 

Think about it …

God’s grace and love be with you …

Amen.