St. Stephen – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim WoodrumOne of the most memorable family Christmas presents when I was growing up was that marvel of home entertainment called ‘the VCR.’  After heeding some advice from the clerk at the store about this new technology and strange words like “Beta” and “VHS” my parents purchased a video membership and our first VCR.   This machine included cutting edge technology like a remote control that had a long wire that stretched a few feet and plugged into the front so you wouldn’t have to get up from your seat to fast forward or rewind.  And on that Christmas Eve in the mid-1980’s by the light of the Christmas tree and a bowl full of popcorn we all sat down and watched the first of about 6 movies we had rented.

The title of the movie “Witness,” starring Harrison Ford, was effectively encapsulated on the box cover with a snapshot of a young Amish boy, in a round, large brimmed hat, eyes widely gazing at what you presume is something incredulous.  The plot centers on the word ‘witness’ as both verb and noun.  The boy travelling with his mother in Philadelphia is the sole witness to a murder and therefore has to bear witness to this fact to his Mom, then detectives, and eventually the court of law.  (As an aside, if you haven’t seen the movie, I will admit that this is an overly simplified synopsis of the plot and highly recommend you rent it).

Today we see this theme of ‘witness’ as noun and verb in our readings from both Jeremiah and the Acts of the Apostles.  Jeremiah as prophet is a witness of divine revelation from God who instructs him to bear witness of the impending judgment of Judah in hopes of averting a disaster among its people.  Jeremiah’s message incenses the people and they grab him and threaten his life.  Jeremiah replies “I am innocent or wrong-doing, I have simply been a witness to the truth I’ve received from God.”

In the Acts of the Apostles we see another horrific scene of witness.  Stephen, whose feast day we celebrate today, was out among the people working signs and wonders when he was falsely accused of saying disparaging words against the synagogue.  When he was brought before the high priest and questioned, Stephen, who was known as an eloquent speaker with a sharp tongue, calls his accusers stubborn hypocrites for not keeping the very law given to them by God.  This enrages them and they stone him to death.  Before he dies he intercedes to God for forgiveness on their behalf.

In the crowd watching this dramatic spectacle is a man named Saul from Tarsus.  Saul, a Pharisaic Jew, will take part in the merciless persecution of many Christians before he has a dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus.  Saul changes his name to Paul and we have a record of his bearing witness to Jesus entering his life with his letters to the churches of Corinth, Philippi, Rome, and others.

Most of us here today have not come to know the power of Jesus healing and redemption through the beautifully decorated trees and neatly wrapped presents of the Christmas season, but rather through something that has brought us to our knees.  God rarely enters our hearts through doors we have left open invitingly but through the cracks rendered to hearts through some hardship, or difficult relationship, or a traumatic experience.  Like Stephen and Paul, who were martyred (martyr coming from the Greek meaning witness), we are all called to bear witness to the healing power of Christ, maybe not through our deaths, but by the giving of our lives.

The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer states that Confirmation is the rite in which we express a mature commitment to Christ, and receive strength from the Holy Spirit through prayer and the laying on of hands by a bishop.  The requirements of those being confirmed are that they have been baptized, are sufficiently instructed in the Christian Faith, are penitent for their sins, and are ready to affirm their confession of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; indeed to bear witness to the Gospel in their lives.[i]

Ruben we are so happy to be celebrating your Confirmation with you this morning.  Please be assured of all of our prayers for you at this point in your Christian journey and know that we all stand with you as witnesses to the Gospel of Christ.  Amen.

[i] Book of Common Prayer, p. 860

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  1. Elizabeth Hardy on August 26, 2016 at 09:54

    Br.Jim: Thank you for this thoughtful study on the meaning of “witness”. It took me in entirely a different direction, causing me to think about possibly opening up a few cracks in my ironclad always doubting demeanour to let the advice of others penetrate and leaven my lumpishness!!! I’ve always enjoyed your preaching and this was no exception. Blessings.

  2. Hardship | The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana on August 26, 2016 at 00:06

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  3. Barbara M on December 27, 2015 at 22:22

    Thank you for this beautiful essay on Witness, (as noun and verb) on St Stephens Day!

  4. Ruth West on December 27, 2015 at 09:11

    Br. Jim, thank you for this good message. I, too, loved the movie “Witness” to which you referred.
    I like your statement that it involved witness as both noun and verb. In the same way, we, too, stand as both in our relationship to Christ. I pray that the Holy Spirit can enable me to be a witness and to witness to His Love and mercy. Thanks.

  5. Annette Foisie OSL on December 26, 2015 at 11:46

    I have been blessed to witness many healings by Jesus through the ministry of the Order of St. Luke. People come forward with critical needs: physical, emotional, and spiritual, and together we pray to Jesus for His mercy and compassion to alleviate their suffering. We continue to pray, and in His time, God responds with wholeness and wellness, healing many. It is a powerful awesome witness to His love for us. We are blessed, and speak to Him with prayers of gratitude.

  6. Polly Chatfield on December 26, 2015 at 11:46

    Dera Jim,

    Thank you so much for your wise thoughts. It is one of the paradoxes of life that the amazing and all-beautiful God comes to us in moments of loss and pain, and that we don’t know God even then, but find him later in our gratitude for being able to endure and “come round right.” May you and all your Brothers be blessed this Christmastide!

    • David Cranmer on September 15, 2016 at 22:28

      Hi Polly,
      Thanks for this insight. I already knew it was true, but until I read your posting I had not really recognized it. DavC

  7. Marta E on December 26, 2015 at 08:25

    I loved the “Receive” theme of Christmas. Our Vicar included the theme of “vulnerability” within the Christmas sermon on which I hope she expands throughout Christmas Tide. This year Christmas seemed much more mystical as I walked about the small, rural church clearing the Altar and small table after the evening (5 p.m.) service. Our church is nestled under Carter’s Mountain and ajacent to vineyards, formerly Jefferson’s Monticello vineyards, so filled with the sense of abundance of the land and protection by the mountains.

    I liked the sense of “witness” for today’s theme, but I much prefer the former format that is not filled with so many confusing images, etc.

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