The Power of Witness

Who in your life has been a really good role model for you? Maybe it was a parent or grandparent, a friend or teacher, someone who showed you what it meant to be kind, to help others, to live with integrity. Whoever they were—or are—they gave you something that has stayed with you through your life. Something to steer by. You witnessed some good in them and then wanted to emulate that. Most likely, that good quality that made such an impression on you back then shines consistently out of your own life, today. You might not be aware of it, but I bet your kids, grandkids, friends, and neighbors are.

My best, most loving, kindest role model was my Great-Grandma Roos. I loved so many things about her. It wasn’t just that she was fun and smart and gutsy—she participated in the suffragette marches in Kansas City, much to the chagrin of my scandalized grandmother, who was a teenager at the time. It wasn’t the wonderful stories she told me, even though she had wonderful stories: she had lived through the Oklahoma Land Rush and watched as a tiny girl as the great chiefs of the day arrived in their town—Chickasha, Oklahoma– for a huge gathering at the reservation. The thing she did that made the biggest impact on me—the thing I try to emulate in my own life to this very day—is the way she could do tiny things with great love.

Like making sure I had the warmest corner at the breakfast table. Or hand-carving bath soaps in the shape of animals when she knew I was coming for a sleepover so my bath time would be fun. Stacking phone books on my chair at dinner so I could feel big like the grown ups. Making me my own version of coffee—mostly milk and sugar—so we could sip our cups together as we talked. Or doing the same puzzle—I remember it well, it was the Munsters—over and over and over again, for years. Just because she loved me. Just because it was my favorite. Just because each tiny little thoughtful gesture was love. I never had a moment’s doubt that I was cherished by her.

We each probably have thousands and thousands of these little moments tucked away in our memories, still connected to the love and care and goodness, the model they represent. These moments help shape what we believe about the world and our place in it. I like the way Thomas Merton puts this. He wrote that,

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of [people]. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because [we] are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.”

Every moment and every event plants something in our souls. This is why the people we love and admire make such a lasting impact on us. It’s not just that we have sweet memories but that their presence in our lives planted seeds of goodness in us, seeds that, well-tended, will blossom in our own lives, as integrity, respect, peacefulness, and love.

In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah this morning, God says, “You are my witnesses…that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.” God is saying here that there is more going on than we know in God’s care for us. Yes, God gives manna in the wilderness, providing for our needs. Yes, God protects us and lead us beside still waters. But our part is important, too. When we are God’s witnesses—recognizing God’s goodness and presence and peace all around us—we are allowing those spiritual seeds of vitality and love to be planted in us. When we are awake to that, we begin to change for the better. And that’s how our world gets transformed, one changed heart at a time.

To help lift up this idea of the power of witness, Barb, Tom, and David have agreed to do a little experiment with us. They are going to read a little bit of a conversation between Jesus and the leaders of the synagogue, and I’ll be the narrator. Just listen and observe like you are part of the crowd that was there that day.

The Power of Witness: A demonstration

From Matthew 21: 23-27, 21: 42-46

NARRATOR: When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and asked…

CHIEF PRIEST: By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?

JESUS: I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

CHIEF PRIEST [to ELDER]: If we say ‘from heaven’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

ELDER [to CHIEF PRIEST]: But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.

CHIEF PRIEST and ELDER [to JESUS]: We do not know.

JESUS: Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

NARRATOR: Jesus went on to tell the large crowd that was gathered two parables, the second of which was about a wealthy landowner who leased his land to wicked tenants who abused and even killed those the landowner sent to collect his portion. In the worst part of the story, the tenants kill the landowner’s own son. This was not the first time—or the last—Jesus would use a parable to foretell his own death. After he finished the parable, Jesus said…

JESUS [To CHIEF PRIEST and ELDER]: Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.

NARRATOR: When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

This passage from Matthew is extraordinary for several reasons, first because of the indisputable authority Jesus embodies as he is talking to the chief priest and elders. It’s helpful to remember that the people had hoped for a kingly Messiah, one who would liberate them from Roman rule, and instead here is Jesus, wise, soft-spoken, compassionate, seemingly anything but powerful, strong, and kinglike. But in this exchange—where he is challenged by those who possess worldly authority—something else, something deeper, the power of truth and the truth of real power shines through.

The chief priests were used to commanding great respect; they were direct descendants in the line of Levi as required by God’s law. The elders were judges who were members of the Sanhedrin, a council of 23 rabbis who served the community in judicial matters. These were the Jewish heads of state of that time—men with considerable authority—and their challenge to Jesus was pointed and direct.

But the way Jesus responds is profound and shocking. Instead of offering an obedient answer to appease them, he turns the tables, taking control of the situation, and asking them a brilliant question of his own. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men? This is very clever way of revealing what his questioners believed about authority. Was this an act of God or an act of men? Their answer would say a lot about the faith—or lack of it—at the center of their hearts.

But they are wily and know that no matter which way they answer, it won’t bring the outcome they are hoping for. Either answer will cast them in a bad light. So they sidestep (thus revealing their dishonesty and their true motives), showing Jesus plainly that their own authority does not arise from a love of and dedication to truth.

But here’s what I found to be the most fascinating aspect of this story. There’s more going on here than a simple conversation between Jesus and the priests and elders, and I think Jesus was aware of that fact. Seeds were being planted in every person witnessing this exchange. Jesus knew the Godly qualities he was calling forth–the claim of authority, the call of freedom, the devotion to truth—weren’t lost on those listening and watching. You, too, were witnesses. What got planted in your soul? What did you see and hear and think as you looked on? Did you heart cheer just a little to hear One—One who is truth—finally speaking truth to power?

Scientists say mirror neurons are responsible for the way we “catch” ideas and inspiration from one another. Researchers first discovered mirror neurons more than 20 years ago when they were researching hand motions of monkeys. They wanted to see which areas of the brain lit up when certain actions were performed, and by accident they discovered that the area of the brain that lights up, for example, when we pick up a pen, lights up not only in my brain as I do it, but that same area lights up in all your brains too. And not only does the same area of your brain light up, but all sorts of memories of you picking up your own pen may come to mind. So when we see someone else doing something, our witnessing brains live it too, bringing supporting ideas for context so we can understand and feel the richness of the experience.

Mirroring in this way has a profound connection to our role as witnesses. As we watched and listened to Jesus claiming his authority, our brains were lighting up and on some level—maybe both a brain and soul level—we were practicing claiming our own authority too. Something was being planted in us in those moments, simply by the sheer power of our witnessing. This has implications in our daily lives when we think about what we take in, where we go, and who we are around. It’s more than just a good idea to hang out with loving people, to care about and try to live with truth and kindness and generosity. Each moment, each event plants something in our soul that may grow and blossom in our lives. It’s a good reminder to choose the good, to err on the side of gentleness, and to look for that of God in each other whenever possible. And, I would add, it’s always possible.

This is even more powerful when we think about what it means in our interactions with others. If our actions and reactions set up a mirror reflection in them, what do we hope to create in moments with our loved ones, friends, even the clerk at the grocery store? Perhaps if we are aware and intentional about it, people will see and feel our smiles, and light up with our intention for fairness and respect. Maybe they’ll be able to feel the shine of our Quaker testimonies–peace, equality, integrity, simplicity, community. Perhaps as we get intentional about living up to the highest light we possess, it will inspire in others a desire to care, to hope, and to reach.

In our New Testament reading today, Jesus is talking to the disciples on the mountainside and has just shared the Beatitudes with them. And then he says,

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

This takes on a profound new meaning when we think about it in terms of the power of witness. When we receive the light others share with us, something good is planted in our souls. When we let God’s love direct our normal daily circumstances, we are truly sharing God’s light—thanks to mirror neurons—with everyone we meet, from brain to brain to brain. It’s wired into the magnificent way we move and live and have our being. Our goodness is contagious. Our Godness is contagious. How could that one basic idea transform our lives, our meeting, our nation and our world if we live it like Jesus did? I say, let’s try it and see.



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