Text: Acts 5:27-32
Strange and unusual and interesting things happen at Pullen Church on a day-to-day basis. It is, in part, what makes my job exciting and why I look forward to coming to work. No two days are alike; and I never know from moment to moment what the new day will bring. I could tell you stories from past weeks and months and years, but then again you have already heard many of them. So I will pick up where this past week left off.
On Wednesday around 11:30 I asked Laura if she wanted to grab a sandwich before noon lectionary. We didn’t have much time so we jumped in my car and headed to the new Subway sandwich shop just a block and a half away. After inhaling our subs we jumped back in the car and arrived at the church at exactly 11:59 a.m. Jane Hutchby had just pulled into the parking lot as well, so all three of us walked swiftly to the back door. As I opened the door, Laura and Jane behind me, I heard a soft voice speak. “Is there a room here where I might sit and pray?” By the time I turned around, Jane was responding. “Sure, come on in. I’m the volunteer that let you in last Friday.” As I turned, I saw a light brown skin man with an impressive beard coming through the door. He was wearing a black turban on his head with a baseball cap sitting atop his headdress and carrying a red tote bag. I glanced at Laura who shrugged her shoulders and all four of us proceed up the hallway toward the elevator. As Laura, Jane and I turned toward the elevator, the visitor kept walking down the hallway. Laura caught up with the man and offered to show him the sanctuary. Jane and I got on the elevator and made our way to the library. Laura soon joined us along with the others who were already waiting for our group to start.
I began lectionary by introducing the Acts 5 passage. After reading the text, the group jumped right in to discussion. Someone noted that this episode in Acts 5:27-32 marked the second time that some religious leaders and Sadducees had arrested, detained and interrogated the disciples for preaching and giving witness to the resurrection of Jesus. A discussion then followed about these religious leaders and the Sadducees. We shared what we collectively knew about them: that the Sadducees were elitists who wanted to maintain the priestly caste. They tended to be wealthy and held powerful positions, including that of chief priest and high priest, and they held the majority of the 70 seats of the ruling council called the Sanhedrin. They seemed, by their actions, to be more concerned with politics than religion.
In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were mostly middle-class businessmen. They were held in much higher esteem by the common person than the Sadducees. And they also cared more about the Temple rituals. While the Sadducees ceased to exist after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Pharisees, who were more concerned with religion than politics, continued to exist.
It was about at this point that our welcomed stranger walked past the library. As he passed, from my seat, I yelled out to him (yes I yelled to our guest), “Would you like to join us? We are having a bible study.” To everyone’s surprise the stranger turned around, walked through the door (still carrying his red tote bag) and said, “Yes, I would like to join you.” At that point, a little startled, I turned to Suzanne and said, “Would you like to recap for our visitor our conversation and what we are talking about?” Thank goodness Suzanne has known me for almost 24 years, so she didn’t miss a beat. She caught our visitor up to speed and more importantly helped those of us who had been in the conversation make sense of what had been said.
As we continued to talk about the Sadducees our visitor noted, quite astutely, that the Sadducees were the ones who sat in the seats of power. Yes, yes, we all nodded grateful for his insight and naming what we had been trying to find words for. It was at that point that he began talking more—sharing with us his understanding of the problems that go with sitting in the seat of power and what it means to give witness to people in power. By now, we were all captivated. Then out of the blue he said, “I’m impressed that you are a Baptist church and you have all these books about Islam on display and pointed to the display shelf in the library.” To that, I bumbled on about how we are a church that values interfaith dialogue and learning from all faiths. Calmly and in that soft-spoken voice that I had first heard at the back door he said, “I’m not a Muslim.” I asked if he would like to share about his faith with us. He said my name is Jess and I am a Sikh, a “saint soldier.” He continued, “As a Sikh, we only pick up the sword if someone else’s honor is at stake. And then only as a last resort.” From there he continued to give witness to his faith. His spirit was gentle and kind, and his words were carefully spoken with respect. He shared that he was wrestling with a decision in his life and had been coming to our church to pray. Take all of this in for a moment: a Sikh coming to a Baptist church to pray for wisdom and guidance; a Sikh, a welcome stranger, in our weekly bible study group; a Sikh, sitting with a bunch of Baptist around a table for bible study giving witness to his faith and engaging us in ours. Strange and unusual and interesting things happen at Pullen Church on a daily basis.
The writer of Acts referring to the resurrection says: “And we are witnesses to these things…” The witness of a welcomed stranger named Jess made me think about what kind of witness I am to my faith. Like those first disciples, I began wondering, “What am I willing to risk to share the story of resurrection; of freedom over fear, of hope overcoming despair, and of life rising from the tombs of death?” What am I, what are we, giving witness to and what am I/are we willing to risk to be a witness for hope and justice-love? At school, at work, in my neighborhood, at the retirement community where I live, at the gym?
As I continued to think about being a witness and what, like Peter and the other apostles, I am willing to risk to be a witness to my faith, it dawned on me that before being asked to give witness, Jesus gave witness to my life, to my humanity, to my struggles, to my joy, to my places of hope and despair, of fear and freedom. Our faith not only asks us to be witnesses to our faith, our faith gives witness to our lives. And I couldn’t help but think how much richer our lives are when we take risks to share our witness with people who are different from us and allow our faith to give witness to our lives. My life, and the lives of those who sat around that table in the library this past Wednesday—our lives are richer because a Sikh named Jess risked giving witness to his life and faith. Our lives are richer when we gather around this table in all our diversity to give witness to our lives and God’s resurrected love that transforms us.
Our lives are richer when we sit at this table together and give witness to our elder who is struggling with health issues, losing her independence, and having to make the hard decisions about leaving the home she has lived in for 50 years because she needs a level of care beyond living independently in their home.
Our lives are richer when we sit at this table together and give witness to the family that is juggling the daily tasks of work and homework and extra-curricular activities and cooking dinner and doing the laundry and keeping up with all the house chores. Of being a family that spends time with one another when the world is pulling them in a thousand different directions.
Our lives are richer when we sit at this table together and give witness to our experiences of seeking an authentic faith, a faith that has integrity, a faith that is not diminished by our doubts and questions, a faith that we can claim as our own because we have worked out our own salvation with fear and trembling.
Our lives are richer when we sit at this table together and give witness to the teenager or the young adult or mature adult who is struggling with depression, with addiction, with self-confidence and self-esteem and who longs for peace, comfort, belonging and forgiveness. Our lives are richer when in passing the bread we reach out to each other and give witness to struggling, too, with whatever issues that have a hold on us.
Our lives are richer when we sit at this table together and give witness to sharing the journey of finding the vocation that gives our lives purpose and meaning, to finding that place where our deep desire meets the deep needs of the world.
And our lives are richer when we sit at this table with an open seat, a clear message that there is space for the other, the newcomer, the stranger.
This table is a deep symbol of our witness – both the witness we receive and the witness we give. Bearing witness always involves risk. The risk of speaking truth to power, the risk of being seen, the risk of being vulnerable to the unknown. This past Wednesday, a young Sikh gave witness to his faith by seeking out the sacred in an unfamiliar place. He risked being judged, being rejected, being misunderstood. And Jane Hutchby met that risk with one of her own – she invited him in, and we invited him to the lectionary table. And we were all blessed.