When I was in elementary school, the church children’s choir put on the musical Jonah! Those of you who heard in a previous sermon about my tomboyish childhood may not be surprised to learn that yours truly had the title role.
In this charming musical, a group of adorable angels stands in for God and calls to Jonah: “Jonaaah! Jonaaah! O Jonah, Jonah, Jonah, Jonah, Jonaaah!”
What follows is the part of the story that most of us would find familiar—God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah; Jonah heads off in the opposite direction; a great storm nearly capsizes the boat he stows away on until the rest of the passengers throw him overboard; Jonah is swallowed by a whale; after three days and three nights, the whale vomits Jonah back up on land; and Jonah finally does what God asked him to do in the first place. He goes to Ninevah, the people repent of their sin, and all is right in the world.
The book of Jonah has for centuries been part of the Biblical case for international missions. Jonah wasn’t just sent one town over; he was sent to an entirely different land to share God’s message. Countless other witnesses have followed this example, though they generally avoid the getting swallowed by a whale bit.
At the 2008 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, a decision was made to change the vows that new members take when they join the church. Pastors had been accustomed to asking if they would support the church “by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, and their service.” But starting in 2009, there was one more means of support added to the list: new members now pledge “their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness.”
But what does it mean to be a witness? Last week, we talked about the first witness to the resurrection, Mary Magdalene. Mary witnesses the risen Christ in that she sees him; but she witnesses to the resurrection by telling other what she has seen. When we talk about witness in the church, we are usually talking about evangelism—a word that does not itself appear in the Bible but which comes from the Greek word for “good news.”
A month from now, we will be joined here at Roots Revival by some special guests. The Pinkerton Raid is a band from Durham who has played here before, but this time they will be bringing a unique fusion of music and storytelling to our worship time.
Jesse James DeConto, the band’s frontman, recently released a memoir called This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World. The Pinkerton Raid has been touring and presenting a program that includes the reading of excerpts from the book as well as music that ties in with the themes in Jesse’s memoir.
As you might have guessed from the book’s title, one of the songs they use is the one we’ll close our service with tonight, the well-loved “This Little Light of Mine.” In Jesse’s evangelical upbringing, this song was an anthem of how to be a witness. In his words, “The little light was our faith in Jesus, and letting it shine was sharing it with others, who didn't know him.”
Years later, Jesse saw the song used in a very different context, this time by protestors marching on Bank of America during the subprime mortgage crisis. They marched and they sang, “Even in my bank, I’m gonna let it shine!” It was then that Jesse learned that “This Little Light” had been an anthem of the Civil Rights movement.
Maybe letting it shine was sharing your faith in Jesus, but maybe it was also being a part of bringing about justice in this world.
You see, Jesse had learned something that many of us believe whether we know it or not: that witness is all about words. If you ask a group of kids what it means to be a witness, they will almost always say that it means telling other people about Jesus and about your faith. Adults will say this, too.
Now, this is not wrong—telling others about your faith is witnessing. But that’s not all that it is.
One of my favorite quotes is from Saint Francis of Assisi. He is credited with saying this: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”
I once heard this quoted to a congregation that actually laughed when they heard it. They thought it was a joke because they had come to believe that you could not preach the gospel without words.
But words are not all there is to witness. This is what Jesse slowly came to realize. He said this about how his thinking changed on shining his little light:
“I thought I had to use words. I thought lots of people had to hear those words. I thought I had to live up to those words. And I thought I had to do it alone. I thought the salvation of the world, at least some of it, depended on me.”
What Jesse came to see was that when his understanding of witness was all about words, it was incomplete. When he preached the gospel with words alone, he fell into self-righteousness and a Messiah complex. And he set an impossible standard for his own life and behavior that only led to shame and failure—which, in his old way of thinking, could cost another person his or her salvation.
That is a heavy cross to bear, and only one person ever has born it and ever could bear it.
Being a witness is about more than just words. It is about how we live.
And I’m not even talking about setting a good example. To say that our witness is dependent on us acting in perfect accord with our beliefs is to declare it dead on arrival.
One of the biggest complaints against the church these days is that it is full of hypocrites. When I hear this, my response is simple: “Absolutely it is.” The problem is not that Christian are hypocrites. The problem is that Christians lie about being hypocrites.
Having inconsistencies between what you say and believe does not make you a hypocrite; it makes you human. Lying about those inconsistencies makes you a hypocrite.
When our witness is all about our words or even all about setting a good example, it misses the point. Because our witness is not about us at all. It is about God.
This is where we get back to Jonah. Why didn’t Jonah want to go to Ninevah? Was it because he was afraid the people there would hurt him? Was he worried he would be rejected? Did he think that God would strike him dead if he failed on his mission?
No. Jonah tells us exactly why he didn’t want to go. He says, “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Jonah didn’t want to go because he knew the God he witnessed to was merciful. He knew that God would show mercy, and the idea of that literally made Jonah want to die.
That is why words are not enough and why being a good example is not enough. Because sometimes when we witness, those most in need of conversion are not other people, but ourselves. Jonah was not sent to convert another nation, but to call Israel itself to repentance.
When our witness becomes all about other people hearing our words and seeing our example, we fool ourselves into believing that we have earned something that we now can share out of the goodness of our hearts. But that possessiveness gets us into trouble. It makes us think that our little lights should be bigger than the other little lights. We aren’t sure there’s enough light to go around in the first place.
We see this in other places in the Bible. When the prodigal son returns home, his older brother is indignant that he is welcomed back into the family. In Matthew 20, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard tells of workers who grow jealous when those who come later in the day receive better pay than them. We see it in our own lives when we can’t stand to see someone who doesn’t deserve it get what we have, even when it doesn’t take anything away from us.
The good news is that there is one big light that never goes out. Our light comes from that and is not diminished in the sharing, and none of us deserve it. The call is not for us to convert others; it is to shine the light of God’s mercy wherever there is darkness—and that includes our own failings, our own wounds, and our own hypocrisy.
For ultimately, it is not we who are witnesses of God; it is God who is our witness. God sees us, hypocrites that we are, and God offers us a spark. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Sarah S. Howell