The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
April 24, 2022
Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and founder of an organization dedicated to freeing the wrongly incarcerated, was yet again working to overturn the conviction of an innocent man. To prove the man’s innocence, Stevenson had lined up a credible witness who’d swear under oath she’d seen him miles away when the crime occurred.
The witness was an elderly woman named Mrs. Williams. The only problem in her giving testimony was that she was deathly afraid of dogs and a huge German shepherd guarded the door into the courthouse. In that Jim Crow South, a court would give no special accommodation to a Black woman like Mrs. Williams.
When she showed up at court, she meant to muster the courage to walk past the dog; but she froze in terror, started shaking like a leaf, and soon had to turn back in defeat. She apologized to Stevenson, saying, “I feel so bad. I let you down. I should have been in that courtroom. And I wanted to so bad. But, when I saw that dog, all I could think about was Selma, Alabama, 1965. I remembered how they beat us and the dogs mauled us. I wanted to do the right thing, but I just couldn’t.” She burst into tears.
The next day, Mrs. Williams’ sister, with whose family she lived, called Stevenson and told him that Mrs. Williams was now ready to testify in court. That night at home she hadn’t eaten or talked with anyone, but locked herself in her room where she prayed loud and long until morning. When she finally came out, she announced that the Spirit had come upon her and had made her bold and brave. And, sure enough, she marched right past that fierce German shepherd and testified loud and clear.
At the birth of the Christian faith, the religious establishment tried to stifle the apostles’ testifying to Christ by arresting them and throwing them in jail. But an angel came in the night and liberated them. And they immediately resumed doing what the religious leaders had ordered them never to do again: They testified to the good news of Jesus! These former cowards, by the strength of the risen Savior’s Spirit, had become men of undaunted courage!
When they were brought again before the authorities for discipline and punishment, they boldly preached to the authorities! They preached how God had “exalted” Jesus to His “right hand” by His resurrection and ascension, and how Jesus was now employing His exalted position to be extravagantly expansive in helping those who “obeyed Him”. With unrestrained generosity He was giving folks “repentance”, “forgiveness of sin” and, best of all, His own Spirit.
This still-living Jesus remains exalted in glory and expansive in blessing the weak with His strength and the cowardly with His courage.
So what can we do to make the most of this grace?
First, we can align our priorities with Christ’s. We can, for example, put witnessing to the good news too good to keep to ourselves ahead of sparing ourselves the criticism and ostracism doing so might bring.
Second, we can keep challenging ourselves to grow in courage.
In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Poet Maya Angelou said she became a woman of courage by means of her mother who both exemplified courage and exhorted her daughter to develop it herself. Her mother told her that no one is born brave, but that we can build that strength of heart in ourselves by sustained practice, continually making sure we do whatever small, courageous things we at the present moment can and then continually challenging ourselves to do still greater courageous things in the future. Just as, her mother said, we don’t start out with the capacity to lift a 100 pound bag of rice, but must first lift a 5 pound bag, then a 10 pound, then a 20 pound, and so forth, until we’ve developed the muscle to lift the heaviest bag, so we develop the inner muscle to lift heavy bags of bravery by a long steadfast perseverance in a process of ever-increasing risk-taking for Christ. As we faithfully enact what courage for Christ we already have, we gain still more courage. As we do the modest things we can – such as telling others how we like to spend some of our Sunday at church or refusing to laugh at racist jokes – we increase our capacity to do braver things in bearing witness to Christ and fighting racism.
To expedite our making the most of the expansive generosity of the exalted Christ, we do well to get our priorities straight and to keep challenging ourselves. Finally, we do well to appreciate and collect friends who bring out of us courage we didn’t know we had.
Richard Dahlstrom, in his book The Colors of Hope, tells how his friend Kevin helped him “raise his game” in rock climbing. Picture this scene: Kevin is the belayer, that climber who, while securely planted higher up the rock, manages the ropes that prevent the one below, in this case Richard, from plummeting to the ground. Richard describes the event in real-time: “I’m exhausted and ready to quit the climb. So I politely ask Kevin to lower me down to the ground. He refuses and tells me to keep pushing. Moaning, I make a half-hearted effort, but in my tiredness I slip and fall. He immediately puts on the rope brakes, and I drop just a few feet – though I end up hanging in the air 40 feet from the ground spinning at the end of a rope. Now I really yell up to Kevin to lower me. In my mind, this is where the belayer is supposed to gently let out the rope and congratulate me on a good try. But Kevin yells down, ‘Nope! You can do this.’ ‘Lower me,’ I repeat. ‘No,’ he replies, ‘You. Can. Climb. This.’ I’m thinking, ‘Who is this guy, telling me what I can and can’t do. Friends don’t let friends dangle in midair, do they? What did I ever like about this guy?” But Kevin insists I give it another go, and sure enough I fall again. Yet, he won’t stop insisting that I can make it and that I give it another try. At this point I’ve decided I need new friends, but I make one last attempt. I hug the rock, Kevin tightens the rope, and this time, for reasons still unknown to me, I succeed, I finish the climb, and I exult in my triumph!”
Richard says that Kevin believed in him when he couldn’t believe at all, called forth his courage and raised his game. That’s what true friends do. That’s also what the exalted Christ, so expansive in His grace, does. He actually puts His Spirit in us and raises our game. He makes us brave and triumphant in the end!