You are Witnesses
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
In her Book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents Isabel Wilkerson shares the following story.
It was a sunny day in Youngstown Ohio in 1951. A little league team had won the city championship. The coaches, unthinkingly, decided to celebrate the team picnic at a public pool. When the team arrived at the gate, a lifeguard stopped one of the Little Leaguers from entering. It was Al Bright, the only black player on the team. His parents had not been able to attend the picnic, and the coaches and some of the other parents tried to persuade the pool officials to let the little boy in, to no avail. The only thing the lifeguards were willing to do was to let them set a blanket for him outside the fence and to let people bring him food. He was given little choice and had to watch his teammates splash in the water and chase each other on the pool deck, while he sat alone on the outside.
From time to time, one or another of the players or adults came out and sat with him before returning to join the others. It took an hour or so for a team official to finally convince the lifeguards that they should at least allow the child into the pool for a few minutes. The supervisor agreed to let the Little Leaguer in, but only if everyone else got out of the water, and only if Al followed the rules they set for him.
First, everyone, meaning his teammates, the parents, and everyone else that had come to the pool that day, had to get out of the water. Once everyone cleared out, Al was led to the pool and placed in a small rubber raft. A lifeguard got into the water and pushed the raft with Al in it for a single turn around the pool, as a hundred or so teammates, coaches, parents, and onlookers watched from the sidelines.
After the agonizing few minutes that it took to complete the circle, Al was then escorted to his assigned spot on the other side of the fence. During his short time in the raft, as it glided the surface, the lifeguard warned him over and over again. “Just don’t touch the water. Whatever you do, don’t touch the water.” A little part of Al died that afternoon. One of the coaches offered him a ride home, and he declined. With a championship trophy in hand, Al walked the mile or so back home. He was never the same.
Our New Testament text today is very similar to the resurrection appearance we read last week from the book of John, but the emphasis is a little different. On the previous page, two of the disciples have just walked the Emmaus road with Jesus and they have returned to tell the disciples that the Lord had risen, that he had opened the scriptures to him. When suddenly Jesus appears among them. There is again this question of doubt in Luke’s interpretation. The doubt centers mostly on the question “Is Jesus a ghost?” Jesus invites them to touch him and see that he is not a ghost, to touch and feel his flesh and bones. As if to make his point even further, Jesus then asks for something to eat. He wants to prove to them that he is alive and well. This is not to show that God can resuscitate the dead, but to validate the ways in which God performs redemption among us in Jesus. These are the hands that reached out to raise a widow’s dead son, that lifted Jairus’s daughter from death to life, the hands that blessed the little children. His feet were those kissed and anointed by one looking for acceptance. His feet were the feet that carried him from village to village and then to the cross. This is a validation of Jesus, of Jesus’ ministry and the way in which we as people of faith are called to embody the good news to world. To be the hands and feet of Christ in our community.
The passage transitions into a moment of commissioning, where Jesus reminds those gathered that what was written about him has been fulfilled; that everything in the law of Moses, the prophets, and psalms has been fulfilled. Because these words have been fulfilled, Jesus sends them into the world. They are sent in the world not as soldiers, not as revolutionaries, not as celebrities. They are sent into the world as witnesses. No weapons, no credentials, no powerful friends, just being sent out with what they have seen and heard in Jesus. They are called to be truth tellers. But Jesus does one more thing before the close of the chapter — he blesses them. It is the reminder that we are called to be witnesses who bless God’s world. Truth tellers who bless the world. Truth tellers who bear witness to the world around them.
In his sermon “Love in Action,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes how the blindness of humanity is often what perpetuates injustice, evil, and oppression. Good people who were blind to the realities around them. “Good people who were anchored in the religious faith of their mothers and fathers.” Good people who used this religion and positions of power “as instruments to crystalize the status quo.” He goes on to say that if our community and nation fails it will fail it will be due to “its undeniable sinfulness, but also it’s appalling blindness.” “The call is for open-mindedness, sound judgement, and love for truth. A call to rise above the stagnation and the paralysis…. “
Seventy years ago, we might never have heard Al’s story. We have all seen the results — all across this country, thousands of city and township run pools were closed simply to avoid Al getting in the water. Yet Jesus calls us to be witnesses, to tell the truth and to bless the world this day. Witnesses to what is happening in our in our world today, witnesses to yet another mass shooting, witnesses to the death of a 13-year-old at the hands of a police officer….
We are living in a day and age, in which we can pick and choose our own media ecosphere, an ecosphere which reinforces whatever opinion we would like to have reinforced. I have already read the victim blaming stories that say a 13-year-old shouldn’t have been out at 2:30 in the morning, implying and sometimes outright stating that Adam’s mother was somehow uncaring or absent. The truth is, she put him to bed.  As a youth pastor I got a few of those calls from exasperated parents, and on few occasions from a teenager who got in more trouble than they expected in the middle of the night. I can assure you the results were not the same. I have also read the narratives blaming all police officers. The truth is, they have an insanely hard job and we ask too much of them. This same ecosystem would pretend that you can’t affirm both of these ideas, that you can’t advocate for police reform and support your community, that you can’t have freedom and advocate for gun control to end these mass shootings. This is simply not true.
Yet into this mess Jesus is calling; calling us to be witnesses to bless God’s world. Calling us to open-mindedness, sound judgement, and love for truth. Calling us to rise above the stagnation and the paralysis. Calling us as witnesses to bless God’s world. How will you respond to Jesus’ charge?
 Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, pg 120.
 Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 2 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Kindle Location 7381). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.