Testimony and Hope

Professor Stephanie PaulsellSermon by Stephaine Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, February 7, 2021. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



Last week, our Associate Minister Alanna Sullivan wrote a piece for our daily newsletter on a speech of the theologian Howard Thurman that I have been thinking about ever since. In a 1980 Baccalaureate talk at Spelman College, the well-known historically Black college for women in Atlanta, Thurman urged the graduates to listen for what he called “the sound of the genuine” within themselves. It’s there, he said, waiting for you to hear it, and it’s worth everything to learn to listen for it. Because if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine within you, he said, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.


Our theme for our life together this year at the Memorial Church is Practicing Hope. And this month we are focusing on practices of Testimony and Protest. At their best, these practices flow from the sound of the genuine within us, within others, within our world. Testimony — bearing witness to the truth of our lives in language and in action — is often a practice of protest as well. When Jesus stood up in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah that “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed,” his testimony was not only an account of his vocation but a protest against poverty, incarceration, and oppression, a protest against the way things are.


Howard Thurman, raised by his grandmother who had been enslaved in Florida before the Civil War, first learned to hear the sound of the genuine in the dignity of his grandmother’s humanity. And he drew from the testimony of her life his conviction that listening and responding to the sound of the genuine within us led toward freedom. Having received that wisdom from her hands, he passed it on to the Spelman graduates. And they became the lawyers, ministers, artists, scientists, teachers, scholars, politicians and activists who continue to address themselves to the sound of the genuine within all of us.


Thurman told those graduates that there’s a lot working against their ability to hear the sound of the genuine within in them. “There is so much traffic going on in your minds,” he said, “so many different kinds of signals, so many vast impulses floating through your organism that go back thousands of generations… and you are buffeted by these, and in the midst of all of this you have got to find out what your name is.” The sound of the genuine is more than these signals and impulses, he said, more even than our dreams and ambitions. It’s how we know what our dreams and ambitions truly are; it’s what we measure our dreams and ambitions by.


Living a life attuned to the sound of the genuine, Thurman seems to say, is a life that bears witness to what matters most, a life in which our words, gestures, choices and actions offer a testimony that is true. And it is a protest against anything that would silence that testimony, a form of resistance to power’s manipulations.


Easley Hamner read for us this morning a story from the gospel of Mark that offers a picture of life tuned to the sound of the genuine — a story of the early days of Jesus’s ministry.


The first scene takes places on the evening of the sabbath after Jesus and his first disciples leave the synagogue in Capernaum, where Jesus had been teaching and where he had healed a man ravaged by a tormenting spirit. Jesus enters the house of Simon and Andrew, the two brothers who, a few verses earlier, had left their fishing nets on the deck of their boat to follow him. In the house, they found Simon’s mother-in-law sick in bed. Jesus came over to her, took her hand in his, and lifted her up. At his touch, Marks writes, the fever left her, and she began to serve them.


It’s a little troubling on the face of it, this story. It sounds, as feminist readings of this passage have pointed out, like Jesus has healed Simon’s mother-in-law just in time for her to cook dinner for the men. But the gospel writer uses the same tense of the same verb — diekonei — that he used to describe the ministry of the angels who cared for Jesus when he was being tested in the desert at the very outset of his ministry. Simon’s mother-in-law’s actions not only look back to the ministry of those angels but also anticipate what comes next — that Jesus will now serve the people of Capernaum who gather, the whole city, outside the door of the house, bringing to him everyone in the community who needs healing.


The sound of the genuine flows through this story, like a healing power itself. It flows between Jesus and the woman he heals, illuminating the ministry of care to which they are both called, clearing space for their testimony to the nearness of the kingdom of God. The still point of this story, the moment that is silent enough for the sound of the genuine to be heard is the moment when Jesus takes her hand. It is a moment saturated with presence, a healing moment that opens space for even more care, even more healing. Having healed Simon’s mother-in-law and received the ministry of her care, Jesus draws strength to turn in love and compassion to the whole city. Uniquely among the four gospels, Mark’s Jesus forbids the demons he casts out to offer testimony about him. The testimony Jesus makes in Capernaum is not that he is the son of God; it is that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Rather than letting the demons define him, he lets the healing itself — offered to all — testify to that nearness.


Early the next morning, Mark tells us, Jesus rises in the dark, leaves the house, and finds a deserted place to pray. This is a second still point in this story, a place where we can hear Jesus listening for the sound of the genuine, without which we remain easily manipulated, living at the end of a string, as Thurman says, that someone else pulls. As Thurman’s contemporary, the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, once wrote, “In an age when totalitarianism has striven…to devaluate and degrade the human person,” seeking spaces to cultivate our interior life is both testimony to the freedom God offers and protest of anything that would inhibit it. Jesus finds such a space alone, in prayer. Like the moment in which he took the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law in his own, the moment of Jesus stepping into the darkness to pray stills the forward motion of the story for a moment, revealing eternity furled up in time. These moments, so saturated with presence, ring with the sound of the genuine and invite us to explore more deeply the possibilities — for healing, for community, for new ways of living--that our shared humanity contains. From that second still point, Jesus moves out with his disciples into the rest of Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the nearness of God’s kingdom and healing those who are suffering.


If Mark is teaching us to listen for the sound of the genuine in the life we live with others, Isaiah urges us to listen for it in the vastness of the universe itself. In the passage Suzanne Hamner read for us, the prophet urges us to lift our eyes to the stars and listen to the testimony of creation. From God’s perspective, Isaiah says, the rulers of the earth are like the stubble of the field, soon carried off by the wind. But the God who created the ends of the earth “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” Have you not known? Isaiah asks repeatedly in this passage. Have you not heard? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? Trust the sound of the genuine within you, Isaiah seems to say. It is your inheritance, passed down to you in creation, born of the testimony of the universe itself.


The practice of testimony is made up of all of our attempts to put the sound of the genuine into language or into action in our lives. St. Augustine once wrote that when he was teaching or preaching, he had an interior, almost wordless, understanding of what he wanted to say, but when he tried to say it out loud, his words could not suffice to his heart. It is the work of a lifetime to put the sound of the genuine into speech and action — we try and fail and try and fail but in the trying a little more truth gets told, and the connections between our story and the stories of others become more visible and more audible. If I can learn to listen to the sound of the genuine in myself, Thurman told the Spelman graduates, then I can learn to hear the sound of the genuine in you. And when that happens, Thurman said, we will know what it means to be made in the image of God. Amen.