Sunday, June 25, 2017

God of the Other


Psalm 69:7-8; Genesis 21:8-21

 

Have we become numb to pain? That is an awful, perhaps unfair question to ask. How can one become deadened to the pain of another? I have an infant grandchild who resides in Christiansburg.  If Molly Jane cries, I swear I can hear her. It doesn’t matter she lives over two hour away. Grandparents gradually lose their hearing to everything but the cry of a child. The problem is, not every child is mine.

When is the last time you heard the cry of a Syrian child? That also is an unfair question. Everyone here grieves over the deplorable situation we find in the Middle East. But how can we be expected to know each child’s name. Tomorrow there is another incident. Next week more children will be killed. Eventually, we become numb to the news, and the tragedies, that reveal the pain of another.

In all fairness, we can only be expected to take so much. Our helplessness to respond compels us to turn off the news or retreat to the sport’s page. Our live are filled with enough drama. Why must we be dragged into conflicts no one will ever resolve?

Psalm 69 might have been a lament written for those who suffer and feel they are seldom heard. It begins with the classic words, “Help me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.” A couple of years ago Amelia and Jane invited me to Kayak down the Rockfish River. After spending the entire summer paddling in Lake Monacan, I felt I was more than up to the task.   I was wrong. The Rockfish is not a fast or dangerous river, unless you don’t have a clue what you are doing. At the first sign of a ripple I flipped the boat. They gave excellent instructions, most of which were wasted on me. The harder I tried, the worse I got. Thankfully we were coming to the end of the day. But before we could pull the boats out of the water one last rapid had to be negotiated. Amelia instructing me to do exactly what she was going to do and I would be fine. She went into the rapids, made two very smart turns and popped out on the other side unharmed. I followed her line, immediately panicked, and found myself in the water pinned against a rock. With one hand I held on to the kayak, somehow thinking the boat was my only salvation. To quote the Psalms, “I could not find a foothold and the waters were sweeping over my head.” I grew weary clinging to both the rock and the boat. Then I heard the voice of Jane screaming, “Let go of the boat.” I thought to myself, she must be crazy. But since my arms were aching beyond belief I really had no choice. I let go of the boat and it floated to safety. Then she hollered, “Let go of the rock.”                           (stop)

I had not known Jane and Amelia for very long. Actually the purpose of the trip was to get to know these fine church members a little bit better. But now, as I am being flattened by rushing water, the only advice my alleged friend can render is, jump into the chaos. I would have written my last will and testimony but I didn’t have pen or paper. So I said a prayer, let go, and like the boat, floated to safety.

In the midst of my tragedy, two folks took the time to navigate me home. How often does that happen in today’s world? Usually we are spending all our time navigating through our own chaos.  It is so much easier to look away, especially when we don’t know the other person’s name? Sometimes, even name recognition is not enough.

“Call me Ishmael.” That quote is not from the book of Genesis but rather America’s greatest novel. Melville did not pick the name because of how it sounded. Melville knew the story of Abraham’s first son, a child thrown into the wilderness, surviving only because of the mercy of God. As much as we celebrate the faith of Abraham and Sarah, this incident exposes their inhumanity.

Abraham got tired of waiting for a child. Hagar, an Egyptian handmaiden was offered as a substitute for the barrenness of Sarah. Hager gives birth and the child is named Ishmael, which means “God hears”.  Abraham believes the wishes of God had been fulfilled. A son is born, the nation building will begin.  But this wasn’t God’s plan. Sarah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. 

Abraham’s loyalty is to the second son, but Ishmael cannot be ignored. He is not adopted. He is the first born of a man given a promise. The birthright should belong to Ishmael but the younger child belongs to Sarah. The child with rights is forgotten. The child who evokes laughter is celebrated. The “other” son of Abraham is forever known as the son of an Egyptian slave. He and his mother are expelled from the family of Abraham. But are Hagar and Ishmael expelled from the family of God?

In the fourth chapter of Galatians, Paul grapples with this question. The Apostle asked, “Are we bond by love or law.” Certainly the law is created to protect us but Paul wants to make the distinction that the law can also enslave us. He moves to the example of Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was born of a slave and will forever be bound to enslavement by the law. Isaac was born of love and will forever be a child of freedom. Then Paul takes a bizarre hermeneutical leap. He writes, “God drove the slave and her child into the wilderness, so Ishmael would not share the inheritance with the child of a free woman. Therefore do not submit yourself to the yoke of the law but live by grace.”

Are you kidding me? If Paul had made that leap in any Presbyterian Seminary he would have flunked.  But it gets worse. Using the same logic, Augustine, Luther, and many modern theologians I really don’t care to read have carefully distinguished between those who are treasured and those considered “The Others”. You see what this does? It pre-determines in the minds of “the blest”  there are the children of God and the children we don’t have to worry about.

On one of my trips to Guatemala I had an interesting conversation with a tour guide at the Museum of Guatemalan History. She asked where I would be taking our fine group of Presbyterians. I told her we were going into the mountains to work with Mayan families. She scoffed and said, “Why waste your time. They are not Christian.”

What a wonderful excuse to keep us from caring. For 2,000 years folks have turned to the book of Galatians to exclude anyone who does not live up to the standards set by Abraham. But are those the standards by which we are called to live. True, Abraham was told by God to send Hagar and Ishmael away. When they ran out of food God appeared with bread and water. And then these words were uttered. “I will make a great nation of Ishmael. The God remained with him and Ishmael married a wife from Egypt.”

Where in the story does it say God loved the descendents of Isaac more than God loved the descendents of Ishmael? What I read is God will not limited by old age, by barrenness, by slavery or by rejection. God is always in the business of creating something new and God expects us to be more than just witnesses. God demands we care.

We hear so many stories of folks ignoring the crisis of others because of who they are or because we predetermine the troubles were of their own making. Jane and Amelia did not have to help me out of the rapids. I got in trouble all by myself. But they risked their safety by showing me the way out of danger. Jane and Amelia believe we are not called to act like Abraham. We are called to act like God. That takes us beyond our needs, our desires, and even our pain. Perhaps it is too much to expect us to rescue all the children of Syria. But why we can speak out on behalf of the children of Nelson County? Do you know the children in Lovingston don’t have a safe park where they can play? Yet our county received over a million dollars to create a passing lane for 18 wheelers on Route 151. Is commerce more important than the children living on the other side of the county? You don’t have to go very far to witness the pain of “the others” living near us. Maybe we should listen a little more carefully. Maybe we should get to know their names. They all go by one surname; Child of God.         Amen

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Never Stop Dreaming


Genesis 18:1-15

 

        In the last couple of months we have successfully navigated our way through Lent, Holy Week, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. Now summer is upon us. Using liturgical language we have entered what the church celebrates as the Season of Ordinary Days. After hearing Jill preach last week, today we are certainly returning to the season of ordinary sermons. But there is nothing ordinary about this morning’s text. I believe it was Frederick Beuchner who said, “Sarah gave birth in the Geriatric Ward and Medicare picked up the bill.” At my age this story reads more like a Stephen King horror story than a biblical fairy tale. Do any  of us still harbor hopes for another child? The better question might be who among us has that kind of energy? Even Sarah, who wanted a child more than life itself laughed at the idea of becoming pregnant at eighty. But this text is not about getting in the Guinness Book of Records. It is about dreams and faithfulness. It is certainly about more than just wishful thinking.

        God promised Abraham and Sarah they would be the father and mother of a nation. As the couple grew older, being a typical male, Abraham looked at Sarah and decided he needed a back-up plan. Her name was Hagar and nine months later Abraham had a son. What does this say about the faithfulness of Abraham? You might think it dangerous to question the faith of an Old Testament icon. Isn’t this the guy who picked up stakes and headed across the desert looking for the Promised Land? Isn’t this the guy who passed Sarah off as his sister in order that they might receive safe passage through Egypt? Well maybe that is not such a great example. Isn’t this the guy who trusted Lot as his partner in real estate? That really doesn’t help my case either. I’ve got one more. Isn’t this the guy who was willing to prove how faithful he was by sacrificing his own son? We Christians pull the Jesus card when telling this story but honestly, how faithful is it to be willing to sacrifice someone else, particular if the sacrificial lamb is a child? We can talk all we want about the faith of Abraham and Sarah but the only one faithful in this story was God. Abraham bailed out early. Sarah laughed at the absurdity of a senior citizen giving birth.  Yet the promise was kept. Sarah became pregnant and she named the child, Isaac, which means Laughter. 

        Please don’t think I am being hard on either Abraham or Sarah. Paul Tillich suggested, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an essential element of faith.” I imagine everyone here has had a dream complicated by doubt and barrenness. If not, you need to set your imagination bar a bit higher. Having a dream take flight needs to be hard work.

In the gospel of Matthew we encounter the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus and a couple disciples take a field trip up a mountain for a religious experience. If you want to feel closer to God, take a hike up a mountain. If you are not into hiking, go to Montreat. On a weekly basis the best preachers our church has to offer deliver their top drawer stuff and we get excited. When we are on the mountain we feel like we can conquer the world. But then we come back to the valley. So it was with Jesus and the disciples. After the Moses/Elijah experience, the disciples were certain no one could stand in their way. Then coming home they encountered a sick child. The parents pleaded with the disciples to do something. These same disciples who came down the mountain as conquering heroes were left speechless. Jesus healed the child but then rebuked his  disciples by asking, “Why couldn’t you heal him?”

There is never an appropriate response to a rhetorical question, so Jesus continued. “You have such little faith. What good are dreams without actions? Don’t you realize nothing is impossible?”

If I am one of those disciples I would first sulk and then rationalize. The circumstances were not fair. Jesus had not given me lessons on healing children. Healing was his department. I signed up to be a follower. My job was to witness and record. We had been to the mountain. We had proclaimed Jesus to be Lord. Now it was his time to take care of me. Embarrassment  in front of by-standers was not a good way to continue our relationship. If Jesus picked me, why would he go out of his way to make me look so bad?

Gerhard Lohfink wrote, “Being chosen is not a privilege nor is it proof of God’s preference for us. Being chosen calls us to accept the heaviest burden of all; sacrifice for others.”

Abraham and Sarah dreamed of a child. But over time they came to the conclusion that any opportunity to be parents had passed them by. Despite being promised their heirs would sire a nation, Abraham and Sarah never dreamed beyond themselves. Truth is, few of us do.

Imagine living your life on behalf of others. Imagine your dreams expanding beyond a personal address. Imagine folks you don’t even know depending on your dreams. Imagine the amount of faithfulness needed to fulfill these dreams. No wonder Sarah laughed. She laughed to disguise her panic.

Sarah or Abraham probably signed on for nothing bigger than a new addition to their tent. They imaged a child, not a nation. When childbearing seemed impossible it led to a barrenness of both their faith and imagination. But the God who initiates dreams does not give up so easily. The God who pays little attention to the concept of years has never been fazed by our self-proclaimed limitations.

Remember the call of Jeremiah. The soon to be prophet lamented, “Not me Lord, I am only a child.”

Remember the call of Moses. The soon to be liberator gazed into the fiery bush and begged, “Choose someone else. I failed leadership 101.”

Remember the call of Paul. The soon to be missionary lay blind on the side of the road confessing, “Why me, I persecuted your followers?”

Here is a difficult concept to swallow. God’s imagination, God’s dreams and certainly God’s determination has never been limited to a specific viewpoint or audience. It is not about me. It is not about you. It is about celebrating God’s universal understanding of the pronoun “us”. My mind, my energy, my potential falls prey to my self-proclaimed limitations. But God refuses to be limited by my lack of vision. When I lose confidence, God’s faithfulness surrounds my frailty. When I lose steam, God’s faithfulness transforms my energy. When I lose hope, God’s faithfulness reminds me of Isaac. And I laugh at how special I imagined I was.

You see, in the eyes of the Lord there are no ordinary days or ordinary people. Each moment is an opportunity to lift someone up. Each moment is an opportunity to see beyond our gatepost. Each moment is an opportunity to give birth to a community or a world dedicated to justice, righteousness and the welfare of each sojourner.

Go ahead and laugh. God’s heard it before.   

Go ahead and laugh. Just prepare yourself to become pregnant with an inspiration from God’s fertile imagination. 

                                          To God be the glory.  Amen.         

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Between Easter and Pentecost


Acts 1:1-11

 

        A catch phrase often used by someone standing around is, “I’m waiting for Godot.” I have never seen the Samuel Beckett play but I have read it. It is long and tedious, something I can’t imagine anyone watching on stage.

        The play consists of two guys passing the time of day in an unfocused conversation. Much of the time they just sit silently. There is no action, just one long scene, occasionally broken when the two men speak. They have nowhere to go. They suspect life should offer a bit more, but they are not sure. So they wait for Godot to break the monotony of their lives. The play is complicated even further because they have no idea if Godot is actually coming, and if he does, they aren’t sure they will recognize him. So they sit, sometimes in silence, sometimes in awkward conversation, waiting for someone they are not even sure exists.

        The Book of Acts opens with a similar scene. Easter had come and gone. Jesus takes them up a mountain where he ascended into the clouds.  Immediately the questions started. “When is he coming back? What are we to do? Do we stay here and wait? How do we manage without him?” They stood on the hill, looking up, waiting, hardly aware that life was beginning to pass them by.  

        What is it like to wait for God? Are we like those two guys in Beckett’s play? Are we like the disciples with our heads in the clouds? Do we really believe God will make another appearance?

        On a shelf in my office, somewhere between Niebuhr and Tillich, irreverently sits Bertrand Russell. Many folks find the writings of Russell to be as invigorating and challenging as anything presented in the 20th century. He entered the academic world as a mathematician always applying logic to complicated questions. He moved from mathematics to philosophy and still approached life from the perspective of logic. Since reason and common sense often are in conflict with faith, it should surprise no one his most famous essay was titled, “Why I am not a Christian.”

        Bertrand Russell has not convinced me to give up my faith, but he draws conclusions which I am often hard-pressed to refute. Russell claims Christianity has impeded human progress by creating a narrow set of moral parameters which inflict undeserved and unnecessary suffering on the masses. Christians manipulate the general population through fear rather than logic. According to Russell the principal message of the church is believe what we teach or suffer eternal damnation. The result of this rigidity causes Christians to fear progress, fear the mysterious, fear defeat, but most of all, fear death. Bertrand Russell believed Christianity deprived humanity of the joy of pursuing knowledge, kindliness and courage. While I would love to argue with Russell, I  have witnessed far too many churches that  stand frozen in time, and if they do anything it is nothing more than looking toward heaven and repeating, “Come Lord Jesus, Come Lord Jesus.”

        I would like to think that Bertrand Russell would be a bit confused if he visited our congregation. We do not shy away from the power of knowledge. Between our small groups, Sunday School class, Pub Spirituality and the casual conversations which ruin my golf game, this is a very inquisitive and informed congregation. We do not shy away from acts of kindness. Ask anyone who has been ill. Ask the recipients of wood or mittens. Ask the increasing number of folks who receive help with electricity, medication, and rent. Ask the parents of Head Start children. Ask the folks who gather for AA meetings or those that drop by for the counseling services offered by Dwight or the recipients of the music lessons Kathleen provides. Are we courageous? It depends on who you talk to.  We can certainly agitate each other. Sometimes we just sit on our hands. I like to think we are politely vocal. Others of you might want to suggest we are politically inappropriate. The truth is everyone has a line that defines our moral consciousness. For some that line is crossed too often. For others it is not crossed enough. The amazing thing is despite our theological and political differences we get along because we really like each other.

Bertrand Russell would view us suspiciously. He would probably ask, “OK, you might be a nice group of morally motivated folks. But do you actually believe your inspiration comes from some mystical being looking down from the heavens? Are you inspired the resurrection or are you simply gentle folk compelled to do some good things?” Then Bertrand Russell would point his finger and say, “Your preacher seldom ventures beyond the moral clarity of the Old Testament. Your first service choir hates to sing songs using the words blood or cross. Your Sunday School class spends much too much time questioning what the Biblical writers really had on their mind. Your men’s luncheon finds its inspiration in old war stories. The truth is you like each other too much and bicker too little to actually qualify as an average church. So why do you really need Jesus?”

 Which is worse, being paralyzed from looking up, or breaking all the churchy rules and then wondering if you really need God at all?

So here we sit, between Easter and Pentecost. Certainly we understand Easter. A month ago we sang, “Christ has Died, Christ has Risen, Christ will Come Again”, as we hid Easter eggs and stuffed our grandchildren’s baskets with chocolate bunnies. On Monday we returned to our regular routine. We are like most folks. We don’t know what to do with the resurrection. It is so easy for Southern Baptist. They are quite comfortable saying, “Believe in Jesus or you will go to hell.” We don’t even feel comfortable sending folks to Stuart’s Draft.

So some of us wait for God, not sure what to expect. Some of us try to act like Jesus only to discover those are awful big shoes to fill. And most of us try to do a little of both and still come up short.

Beckett got it wrong. We are doing more than just waiting. Bertrand Russell got it wrong. I don’t think we are restricting or condemning free thought. But what exactly is it we are doing? If folks walk through our doors we make every effort to be neighborly. But how intentional are we to invite folks sitting at home to join us on Sunday morning? We have a lot going for us. We are nice people. We have great music. We have two services most of the year. We don’t even require visitors wear a tie. But who are we beyond the obvious? What do we have to offer to someone with a broken heart? What do we offer to someone curious about their faith? What do we offer to a family with children? The only thing that distinguishes us from a gym or social club or even the community center is Jesus.  Why does the mention of that name make us so nervous?

Next week is Pentecost. It’s the day the disciples got their heads out of the clouds and seriously went to work becoming part of God’s story. Do we need to get our heads out of the clouds? Do we need to stop waiting for Jesus? This week, revisit the story of Jesus. Remember why you got so excited in the first place.           To God be the glory. Amen.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Chaos and Creation


Acts 17:22-31

 

        A couple of months ago the folks from OLLI’s Adult Education Program asked if I might be interested in teaching a class. This invitation came in the middle of Lent and the last thing I wanted to do was take on something new. But sometimes ego overcomes common sense and I told them I might be interested. The next day I received a form asking to describe the course I would be teaching. I decided to have some fun and send in a title I was certain would be rejected. I titled my purposed  course, The influence of Babylonian Myths on the Biblical Understanding of Chaos. I submitted the title and went back to worrying about Holy Week.   A few weeks later I received a notice informing me they were excited and was I prepared to teach the course this fall. I share this to not only selfishly promote my class but share an interesting story discovered in my research.   As many of your might remember on Christmas Eve, 1968, Apollo 8 and its three astronauts were circling the moon. As they marveled at the wonders of space, they took turns reading the first chapter of Genesis which begins, “In the beginning God create the heavens and the earth.” Eugene Peterson declared, “They did what a lot of people do spontaneously when they integrate an alert mind with a reverent heart. They worship.” The problem was not everyone was thrilled by this holy moment.

        The first complaint came from Madelyn O’Hair who claimed the space program had been hijacked to advance Christianity. The battle lines were drawn. The defenders of God pulled out their Bibles. The protectors of Darwin brought out their petrified jawbones and stratified rocks. The argument was on and no one was interested in hearing anything the other group had to say. Three astronauts proclaimed amazement at the mysteries of the universe continued a raging argument between scientist and people of faith that officially began the moment Galileo peered into the night sky.  “Is there a God?” “What place does God have in creation? Humans have asked these questions the moment we evolved into a thinking species.

        So what does that have to do with today’s’ scripture? The Apostle Paul, after dazzling folks at off-Broadway stops in Corinth and Philippi decided to try Athens. Athens was considered the intellectual center of the universe. Before Paul arrived,   folks like Plato and Socrates had offered their brand of philosophical wisdom to both suspicious and hungry minds. It is true the Greeks had their temples to Zeus and Apollo, but the philosophers were more interested in exploring the possibilities of the human mind rather than figments of the human imagination.

        But to Paul, God was very real. Growing up in a Jewish household, being taught by biblical scholars and then experiencing the very power of God on the road to Damascus, Paul conquered the hearts of believers and skeptics with his keen mind and sometimes acid tongue. Paul was not to be taken lightly, but when he climbed the steps of the Areopagus, Paul was about to meet his intellectual equals. He knew it was going to take more than a story to convince the minds of folks ruled by science.

        Paul looked at the statues of Zeus and Poseidon. One ruled the heavens, the other the seas.  But beside them was a third statue dedicated to the unknown God. This inspired Paul. This statue suggested there was uncertainty. Zeus and Poseidon might have the hearts of the people, but the Athenians knew the Romans, the Egyptians, the Persians, even the Jews worshipped other gods. Intellectually they refused to limit themselves to only one possibility. This left a door open, which exposed their curiosities. It was here Paul made his frontal assault. “I looked carefully at all the names of adorning the images to your gods. I saw one erected to the unknown god. Today I will tell you of a God too great to be limited to the vision of humans. This God is the Lord of the heaven and earth. Furthermore, this God demands humanity actively pursue righteousness.

        Heads must have spun. Gods were compartmentalized. One controlled the sun and another, the sea. One was in charge of crops and another ruled human emotions. To make it even more confusing, gods actively competed against one another serving as an explanation for chaos and crisis. If the gods were angry, humans suffered. If the gods felt neglected, humans could expect times of draught. What the common folk feared most was an emotional god.

        But the philosophers, the men to whom Paul spoke, privately questioned the existence of such entities. They were raised on Plato. Their favorite story was the fable of the cave where men feared the shadow dancing on the wall, failing to realize the shadows were their own image. Then one day a man stepped outside the cave into the sun light. The philosophers, seeing themselves as the man who had escaped the shadows, imagined an existence beyond mythological chains.

        Paul was aware of all of this. His congregations in Corinth and Philippi were composed of folks fleeing the whims of cultural gods. Now he faced men who wanted to replace those gods with the splendor of the human mind. Paul the intellect understood their desire. But Paul the believer knew beyond the frailty and chaos of the human dilemma resided a life giving power.

        Paul spoke, “I bring to you the God who creates life.” The gods of the Greek culture specialized in chaos. Read the myths. The philosophers of the Greek culture desired to escape that chaos through their intellectual endeavors. Read their writings. Paul stood before them and said, “You are responsible your own chaos. My God is the author of re-creations.” No wonder Paul was rejected. Why take responsibility for our own mess when we can blame someone else, especially if that someone else is a deity.

        The challenge of Paul still rings true today. We are a people who worship multiple gods. The most obvious is the god of consumerism. On high holy days such as Easter and Christmas we used to race to the temples to make our purchases. Today shopping malls are falling into ruin as we discovered on-line shopping.  But our worship continues, as does our chaos, when once a month we send our tithes and offerings to Visa.

        We worship the gods of inexpensive fossil fuels. As an industrial nation we fell for the allure of coal and gasoline despite predictions of what both would do to the air we and creation breathes. Of course the good news is because of global warming water front property on the Outer Banks of North Carolina is going cheap. Who cares your monthly insurance premium might be more than your mortgage.

        We continue to worship Zeus, the god of power and might. We have to. The entire world is turning against us. The walls and IBM missiles we build cannot fight the chaos that resides inside and outside our own borders. Could this chaos be a product of our own making?

        Most assuredly we worship our minds. We are smart enough to realize everyone else is responsible for our chaos. If people would just listen to us the world would be a better place. We don’t need God. We need better communication.

        My job offers a unique position from which to view the human psyche. I am not a psychiatrist or even a professional counselor. I have little to offer, except a very strong belief in a God who creates in the midst of chaos. I see a lot of folks either in my office or the hospital. For many, while God remains a mystery there is a willingness to welcome me into their chaos. We sit; I listen; and then I prayer. I offer no promises of a miracle, only a gentle witness that beyond our fears, beyond our truths, beyond our realities, beyond our flawed vision, beyond our shadows, is God.

I am na├»ve enough to think most folks actually believe this. But regardless what we believe, it is still so HARD TO ADMIT that we are the created and not the CREATOR.                   

To God be the Glory.     Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Martyrdom


Acts 7:55-60

Martyrdom

 

        I am drawn to the Stephen story because many of my heroes were martyrs. Unfortunately most of these folks became my heroes after they died. Such is the fate of most martyrs. I was transitioning from high school to college the year Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed. While I was aware of each man, I can’t honestly say they reached hero status in my heart until after their assassinations. I knew nothing about Steve Biko until I read the story of his life and death. The same could be said of Bishop Oscar Romero. Only in death did he receive international status. When alive, each of these men, with the exception of Kennedy, had a small but loyal following. But in death their story became magnified. The argument could be made that what King, Biko, and Romero, accomplished in death was impossible in life. But their achievements were only possible because of the life they lived.

        The word martyr comes from the Greek word meaning witness. Without the witness of Steven Biko there is no Mandela. Without the witness of Oscar Romero I would argue there would be no Pope Francis. In death, their witness was amplified, allowing their cause to be understood on an entirely different level.

        This morning we read of the martyrdom of Stephen. Who was this guy? That is a question to which there is no answer.  We know nothing about his family or background. The book of Acts mentions that he was waiting on tables within the Christian community. For some reason he was picked out by a group of Jews who claimed he was slandering the name of Moses. This gave Stephen ample opportunity to share his faith and witness to the greater community. I invite you to read Acts 6&7 this afternoon. I am not sure if the writer of Luke placed these words on the lips of Stephen or if they were his. It hardly matters. In a polemical study of Biblical history, Stephen claimed his adversaries did not understand the path from the liberation from Egypt to the death of Jesus was orchestrated by God. It was his accusers who were slandering the name of Moses. This indictment was not taken kindly. It sealed his fate. An angry mob dragged Stephen outside the gates of the Holy City and stoned him to death. He was the first to officially die for Christ. He would not be the last. But that is all ancient history.  If I preached a sermon suggesting we become martyrs for Christ, it would fall on deaf ears. We polite, civil, mentally balanced believers aren’t going to drink the Kool-Aid. So what if I asked you to be a witness?

        The idea of being a witness is not prevalent in main-line Denominations. We have our martyrs, usually missionaries, who died in some foreign country. But if I were to say, “Can I get a witness?” from this pulpit, most of you would look at me as if I had lost my marbles.  Perhaps the closest thing we have to “Giving Witness” happens during joys and concerns. We share good news. We offer prayers for those who are going through difficult times. Then ever so often someone stands and gives witness. When this happens I begin to squirm internally and wonder if church is the proper place to raise such concerns.   Then I wonder how many churches in Nelson County regularly share concerns for refugees, the poor next door, Palestinians and Israelites, our President and the Presidents of other countries, drones, nuclear weapons in N. Korea, violence in our society, and the response to this violence. Those requests get under our skin.  We sometimes feel they are disrupting our worship. Perhaps another time would be more appropriate. But then again, when is it ever proper to exclude God from our conversations? And so we hear the witness, we squirm, often wishing their voice had remained silent.

        What was the witness of Stephen? It wasn’t the sermon. That was the reason everyone got upset. That was what led his stoning. But the witness of Stephen was expressed in his final words, “Father, forgive them.” You have to believe someone who had thrown a stone was stunned by those last words. You have to believe someone took those words home with them. You have to believe Saul, who was holding the coats of the stone throwers, never forgot those words. Perhaps later Paul shared those words with fellow Christians as they were sitting around a church home sharing joys and concerns. A witness stays with us.

        I mentioned one of my heroes was Oscar Romero. Allow me to share his story in case the name has escaped you. Romero was a priest in El Salvador. He seemed to have the gift of side stepping any difficult situation. This was fortunate because El Salvador was a dangerous place to live in the 70’s and 80’s. There was constant fighting between the government, the drug lords, the peasants and the aristocrats. Every group, except the peasants, used local henchmen to protect their investments. The position of Archbishop became open in San Salvador. The Cardinals in Rome wanted someone with an ear sympathetic to the government and the aristocrats rather than the local priests who lived among the local population. Romero seemed to be the obvious choice.

        He took office and became intent on keeping his head low. He made sure the bills were paid and baptized all the children of the aristocracy. Then one day he was approached by a priest who asked him to visit the barrio. Reluctantly Romero agreed. During that visit he observed the backbone of his church. On returning to San Salvador he announced he was leaving the safety of his house and would live among the people. Romero spent the last couple of years of his life living with and listening to the poor. This is what got him killed. But that was not his witness. In March of 1980, Romero was celebrating the Easter Mass when members of the militia broke into the back of the church. Knowing they had come for him, Oscar Romero took the bread from the table, stretched out his arms and said, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” Those were his last words.

        We are a people of a sacred witness. The word of the Lord has always been holy. To do so our voices must become confessional, sermonic, poetic, and sometimes even political. It is this witness which calls our community to be accountable and responsible in the eyes of God.

        In early April of 1945, just before Deitrich Bonhoffer was executed for crimes against the German State he wrote,        Dare to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you. Freedom comes through word and deed, not just thoughts taking flight. Faint not nor fear, but go into the storm and the action, trusting God whose commandments you faithfully follow. Freedom exultant will welcome you spirit with joy.

        I believe that is what Stephen and Martin and Robert and Steve and Oscar did.

So I ask again, “Can I get a witness?”              Amen.