Where I grew up, the practice of sharing a “testimony” was commonplace. In fact, many of my friends had no problem asking what my testimony was. Usually what someone meant when they asked, “What’s your testimony?” was they wanted to know the story of when you were “saved.” Now, just because I grew up in the culture did not mean that I felt comfortable with that question. In fact, I can tell you that the question usually led me to lots of stammers and fidgeting. Once I actually asked, “What exactly do you mean when you say ‘saved’?” But the answer made me even more uncomfortable. The basic assumption seemed to be that being “saved” was like having an epiphany moment – a moment of clarity when you heard the voice of God, and you made an active decision to accept Jesus as your “personal Lord and Savior.”
So you can imagine how profoundly grateful I was to stumble into the Episcopal Church as an adult and find that no one ever asked me about my testimony or being saved. In fact, I am not even sure most Episcopalians have that kind of language around their faith. If you asked an Episcopalian when they were saved, they might tell you about a near miss with a car or a time when doctors had to administer CPR. Once I realized most Episcopalians were not going to demand to hear my testimony of how I came to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior, I realized I might have actually found my people.
Of course, I am not sure either tradition really has it right. In fact, I think the two cultures represent two extremes – the culture I grew up in believed being saved and being able to retell the story was crucial to membership; and the culture I chose to stay in believed that asking anyone about their faith life was way too personal of a conversation that should be avoided at all costs – we are just glad you are here. Of course, I lean toward the Episcopal extreme, but I do see some of the dangers of our extreme. You see, in our efforts to be polite and unobtrusive, we forget something very important about testimonies: testimonies help us grow together.
Perhaps I should back up and talk about what testimonies are.[i] Now, my childhood friends would define a testimony as the story of how you were saved. I would actually describe a testimony as the story of how you came to know Jesus – whether you came to know Jesus through all the Sunday School stories you learned, whether you found the church as an adult and slowly felt yourself more and more drawn in by the story of Jesus, or whether you are still figuring out your journey and you are not really sure what you are doing but you know you want to be here. The cool thing about a testimony is that there is no right or wrong testimony. Your testimony is unique to you, and your testimony is not only good, but is compelling.
That is what I love about our gospel lesson today. Today’s story sets the stage for a lot of testimonies. On this day three women go to the tomb to tend to Jesus’ body and instead have an incredible experience. On this day the disciples listen to some crazy story by the women of their group – believing that clearly the women are either seeing things, are suffering from sleep-deprivation, or are just out of their minds with grief. On this day, Peter cannot resist the temptation to check out the scene in the tomb himself – and he is rewarded by being amazed at what he sees.
But those are just the facts of the story as we read them. Those details are not their testimonies. No, I imagine the testimonies are quite different. I imagine Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James’ testimony would go something like this, “You are right. Sometimes people will think you are crazy when you tell your story. I remember back when Jesus first died, we had this amazing encounter at his tomb. We were overwhelmed and overjoyed, but do you think the men would believe us? They eventually came around, but those first few weeks were hard.”
I imagine the disciples’ testimony came from a different angle. Their testimony might have gone something like this, “I totally get what you mean. The story really is crazy. Even I, one of his closest disciples, did not believe the story when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James told me. In fact, I wondered if their grief had not left them mentally unstable. But slowly my heart warmed.”
And I imagine Peter’s testimony was even more different. “Trust me,” he might have said. “I totally understand what you mean about not feeling worthy. I felt like I behaved even worse that Judas. I did not betray Jesus for money, but I did deny him three times in public. When that cock crowed, my heart shattered. I never thought God would forgive me. But when I stood in that empty tomb, and remembered what Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James told me, a spark of hope lit in my heart. Suddenly I understood that Jesus could redeem me – even me – the worst friend and disciple you could be.”
Testimonies are not stories about how pious we are. Testimonies do not fit into a formula or even make us look particularly good. Testimonies are stories – our stories – of how we have encountered God. They are not meant to be perfect stories. In fact, the more imperfect the story, the better, because testimonies are meant to be shared. I do not know about you, but I find imperfect stories much more compelling than perfect ones. When Mary Magdalene tells me people thought her story was crazy, I feel like I can be more honest about my own story – no matter how crazy my story may sound. When Peter tells me about how unfaithful he was, I feel like I can be more honest about my own unfaithfulness. When the disciples tell me how dismissive they were, I can be more honest about how I am not always a good listener for God.
On this Easter Sunday, the Church shares her testimony. We wake up this morning as if from a bad dream. Lingering in our subconscious are stories of betrayal, unfaithfulness, brutality, and death. The sting of grief and the sobriety created from deep failure still tingles. But on this day, something utterly unexpected, confusing, and amazing happens. Jesus warned us this would happen, but we did not really understand him at the time. But in the empty tomb hope bursts forward. Our hearts are filled with joy at the possibility that Jesus’ death changes things. In the coming weeks, we will hear the rest of the Church’s testimony about how, in fact, Jesus resurrection does change things – stories of eternal life, of the kingdom made present, of sins washed away, of forgiveness and a New Covenant. The story is admittedly a bit crazy. But the story, the Church’s testimony, is full of hope, love, and grace.
St. Margaret’s has its own unique testimony. The St. Margaret’s testimony begins with the stale stench of cigarettes in the Plainview American Legion Hall and journeys through baptisms in a church that was still under construction. The testimony is full of bowling leagues, choirs, progressive dinners, and youth groups. The testimony is full of leaders – both lay and ordained – who shaped the different eras of our life together. No single part of our story is perfect, and no single part of our story is without redemption. And our testimony is still unfolding, year after year, even when some questioned whether we could keep going.
Our individual testimonies are the same. Some of them are circuitous, as we took a winding path to get to know our Lord. Some of them are strange, involving odd encounters and sacred moments. Some of them have yet to be articulated or understood. Whatever our testimony may be, our testimonies are not meant to be kept to ourselves. They are meant to be shared. Just like the Church models for us today as we shout our long awaited alleluias, we too are meant to share our imperfect, strange, quirky testimonies. We share them with one another and out in the world because our stories have had a tremendous impact on our lives. Those stories, in all their glorious imperfection, are also the stories that help us connect with others, to share the Good News, and to grow the body of faith.[ii] My testimony will now include the stories of my time here at St. Margaret’s, as your testimony and the testimony of St. Margaret’s will also include parts of these last four-plus years. The joy of this day, the comfort of the Church’s story, and the satisfaction of the Holy Meal are all meant to empower us to go out in the world and share our imperfect, beautiful testimonies. The world is waiting – and Jesus goes with us. A
[i] Martin E. Marty, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 350.
[ii] Marty, 350.