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Witness - May 16, 2021

by Rev. Joan Kessler

Acts 1:15-17; 21-26

The story we just heard read from the beginning of Acts is how our season of Easter ends. For the past seven weeks we have been hearing stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his closest friends, those moments when they felt Jesus’ presence so acutely. We have also heard Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples, before his death, reminding them that Love is at the core of all he has taught and their experiences together. Now, Jesus no longer seems to be present to them in those veiled appearances that you may know of firsthand after the loss of a loved one you have spent life with. This small, post-Easter community has been hiding away in a secluded room; Jesus’ death has now become more real, and it is time to get to work. And so, the first congregational meeting in church history takes place with one agenda item: replacing Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus in revealing his identity to the Roman authorities. The criteria for the selection committee is clear: the replacement apostle must have accompanied Jesus’ throughout his ministry and death, for the one that is chosen will be a witness with them to the resurrection.

It is most interesting that the two candidates that are named are men. I wonder why women were not on the short list. It was a group of women who travelled also with Jesus and who made the dangerous journey to the tomb that first day of the week and found it empty… it was Mary Magdalene whom Jesus appeared to after his death, reminding her of what he had shared with them and what they were to do next. I wonder how church history would have unfolded differently if a woman had been part of that inner circle. And with this guiding my thoughts as I considered my reflection for today, I am thinking about what it means to be a witness and give your life to something. Just recently, I was invited to consider the question of why I follow Jesus… and it is my answer that I share with you this morning.

My first consideration as to why I follow Jesus is that he includes me. Jesus always made space for women. We know that in the ancient world, women were sidelined, marginalized, expendable. But not to Jesus. His longest conversation, documented in John’s gospel was with a woman from Samaria he met at a well one hot day. She was just going about her daily chores of collecting water for her family, and she finds herself in a deep, heart-centered conversation with Jesus over land and location, political and theological understandings of who Jesus is. He made known to this woman that she was part of something bigger that included her exactly as she was…her personal history was no deterrent to Jesus’ love for her. Jesus’ acceptance of women also saw the United Church of Canada be the first to ordain the Rev Dr. Lydia Gruchy 85 years ago this month. This milestone made way for more acts of radical inclusion. In 1988, the church made a landmark decision declaring that sexual orientation would not be a barrier to membership or eligibility to enter the order of ministry. These decisions put the United Church many decades ahead of other Christian denominations and I am so proud of our accomplishments with respect to welcome and inclusion.

The second reason I follow Jesus is that his example gives me courage to have a countercultural opinion and perhaps go against popular belief, to go near a homeless person and drop some coins in their cup. Jesus’ example of courage helps me to show up every day to those whom I called to serve and care for. I never know what my day will bring and that is one of the richest gifts to me of what I do. I strengthen this sentiment through praying with and for others, reading and reflecting not only scripture but other spiritual and sacred readings as well, and just meditating in silence and waiting for what the Spirit is showing me.

Thirdly, Jesus invites me to an adventure. I have the privilege and opportunity of living and working in a variety of places that show me the unique and varied ways of being in community with one another. I make a home for myself in these places, to meet new people and share in new experiences. We learn together about our context is and what is needed to live as followers of the Way. Following Jesus encourages me to continue to grow as a leader… I don’t always get it right but that is part of the adventure. We work together, we identify needs, we listen to one another, discuss and seek wisdom; we decide so that our decisions might chart a course forward together.

This is not a conversion story I share with you this morning, but it is one of witness. Matthias as a witness to Jesus’ life, was chosen by his peers and with the help of prayerful discernment. While his name is not mentioned again, it does not make his work any less significant. Our reading today reminds us we all face questions that require discernment at some point in our lives. We don’t create it, we don’t receive it from someone else; we could say we uncover discernment and help it to flourish; we practice it by being attentive to our experiences in prayer and reflection, through seeking the wisdom of others to help us notice what we might not see on our own and we lean into the Spirit. As a community of faith, wondering about our future path, may we too enter into a time of intentional discernment where we weigh the pros and cons of the issue before us, to pray and reflect with one another. On a personal and collective level, we all crave certainty I suspect, we can never accurately predict where each step, each decision, every fork in the road will eventually take us. We strive to make the decisions possible. We don’t cast lots at Council meetings or the kitchen table to make minute or life-changing decisions, but may these stories today alert us to the Spirit at work in each one of us and the “what comes next”.


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