Timeless Witness

The text of the sermon, based on Isaiah 49.1-7 and John 1.29-42, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2023.


Over 2500 years ago, the people Israel were exiled, held captive by the Babylonian Empire. Defeated and dispirited, they cried out for a word of consolation. Thus, Isaiah prophesied, “The Lord said, you are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

God recommissioned the people to be “a light to the nations.” To witness to the whole world that the quest for salvation, for prosperity and peace, was no easy thing, but rather involved suffering and survival.

And history, ancient and present, confirms that our Jewish brothers and sisters – from their enslavement, and then exodus from Egypt through the journey in the Sinai wilderness to the struggle to inhabit the Promised Land through countless oppressions by foreign nations through the horror of the Holocaust, and unto this day when the bigotry of anti-Semitism still rages – know the cost in suffering and the promise in survival of their witness to the world.

Nearly 2000 years ago, John the baptizer was a witness to what God was doing in Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God!” John declared that the quest for salvation, healing, wholeness would involve sacrifice.

And Jesus, through his ministry, seeking the least, last, and lost, proclaiming a radical return to the heart of the law of life – love God, love neighbor – and challenging the status quo of selfish, unshared privilege of secular and religious powers and principalities, charted a course that led to his crucifixion and death.

Isaiah. John. Prophets who witnessed to this hard truth: Salvation involves suffering and sacrifice.

Hardly coincidentally, the word “witness” is derived from the Greek martus, which bears the same root that produces the word “martyr.” For to witness demands more than beholding a truth with the physical eye, but rather to testify to it, always being prepared to walk up to and, if must be, through death’s door.

I digress…

In our liturgies of Holy Baptism and Holy Matrimony, there is a similar question involving witnessing. In the former, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support (the baptized) in their life in Christ?”[1] In the latter, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?”[2] In each case, we answer, “We will.”

May we understand that we are being asked not merely to witness these events with our eyes, but rather to be prepared to lay down our lives for the sake of the baptized and those joined in marriage. (So, if we are not prepared to do that, the next time the question is asked, let’s not answer!)

Today, reading and reflecting on the prophecies of Isaiah and John, we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. We celebrate his life. We commemorate his legacy.

Over 50 years ago, Martin prophesied, testified to the truth that our American dream of universal equality and opportunity to enjoy the Creator-endowed “certain unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”[3] was as yet unfulfilled.[4] Martin, bearing that witness, was murdered. Martyred.

That prophecy, that dream remains unfulfilled. In America, everyone is not yet able to say, “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”[5] In America, we still can be judged not by the content of our character, but by our skin’s color, class status, sexual orientation, gender identification, age, perceived ability or disability, or chosen creed. In America, everything but one’s character still can determine whether one has access to the fullest range of opportunities.

Yes, we have made progress. Yet, to paraphrase Robert Frost, we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.[6]

We are in the season of Epiphany, which declares that Jesus is “the light of the world.”[7] That his ministry of love and justice are for all people. This truth continues to shine, seeking to dispel the darkness of the dreadful reality that the prophecy, the dream of the universality of equality remains unfulfilled.

Nearly 70 years ago, the downtown Spartanburg Episcopal Church of the Advent envisioned establishing a mission congregation on the westside of our city. St. Matthew’s is…we are the fruit of that prophetic imagination.

Yet none then could have known what we know now. That we are a community, a people who, in following Jesus, seek to serve all; caring for our sisters and brothers who are hungry and thirsty, ministering to the sick, welcoming the stranger,[8] sharing God with everyone we meet.[9]

Do we do this perfectly? No. We’re human (and it is our intrinsic human consistency to be inconsistent!). Yet, as human, we always return to our everlasting source, asking God to “empower us to live the mission of Christ, to preach, teach, heal, and make disciples.”[10]

Nearly three years ago,[11] I came among you…among us as the assistant to our rector. In 45½ years of ordained ministry, of all the places I’ve been and of all the people whom I’ve sought to serve, ‘tis my privilege to be with you as a witness to Jesus.

I thank you. I thank God for you.

© 2023 PRA

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, page 303

[2] Ibid., page 425

[3] From The Declaration of Independence

[4] See The American Dream, Dr. King’s commencement address delivered at Lincoln University, Chester County, Pennsylvania, on June 6, 1961.

[5] The closing words of King’s I Have a Dream speech, delivered on August 28, 1963 as the keynote address of the March on Washington, DC, for Civil Rights.

[6] From the poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

[7] The Collect for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (full text; my emphasis): Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

[8] A reference the Matthew 25.35-36

[9] A reference to the Prayer for Spiritual Growth (full text; my emphases): O God, we ask spiritual growth for ourselves, our families and friends, and especially for our family St. Matthew’s. Grant us growth in understanding and willingness to be your body in this world. Empower us to live the mission of Christ, to preach, teach, heal, and make disciples. In joyful thanksgiving for the blessing of your presence in our lives, compel us to share you with everyone we meet. May our numbers increase, our commitment deepen, our lives be joyfully yours. Make us a God centered people. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

[10] See the Prayer for Spiritual Growth.

[11] March 1, 2020

2 thoughts on “Timeless Witness

  1. Great sermon Paul!! I keep wishing and waiting for the sermon that celebrate MLK’s dream coming true BUT I don’t think it will happen in our lifetime!!

    I didn’t know how St Matthews was created, what a great story!! We all fall short of things we want and need to do but I think the good news is that we keep trying and we don’t give up hope!

    Your years of ministry is really incredible and I can’t believe you’ve been there 3 years already! They are blessed to have you!



  2. Hope and not giving up. Amen.

    Your comment, Loretta — “I keep wishing and waiting for the sermon that celebrate MLK’s dream coming true BUT I don’t think it will happen in our lifetime!!” — gives me pause to ponder. For it occurs to me anew that we — whoever we are, meaning that our human desires and wishes differ from group to group, individual to individual — never may see or can see the fulfillment of our every hope…

    In part, I think, because we humans are different. Thus, thinking of my hopes and dreams, someone, somewhere, and at some time, following her/his/their hopes and dreams, is working against whatever it is that I desire. And the same is true, then, for me working against their hopes and dreams.

    Also in part because if and when our hopes and dreams are big — as in universal equality, world peace, or the end to poverty — there is so much, too much working against us. For example, the macroeconomic and macro socio-political realms that exist and, thus, favor and profit from the reality of impoverished masses of people.

    If I think of this too long, I despair. So, I continue to fall back on all that I have. That is, I do what I can where I am with what I have to make a difference; to bring to life the hope and dream that already has been brought to light in my imagination.



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