Saturday, August 30, 2008

16 Pentecost

August 31, 2008
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church

Matthew 16.21-28

What do you think of when you think of a martyr? No doubt we think of brave, almost legendary saints from other times who went to their deaths valiantly. We think of those stained glass windows of people like St. Stephen the first Martyr who, as the Book of Acts tells us, was stoned to death for praying to Jesus. We then think of overly dramatic paintings and drawings of early Christian martyrs bravely meeting the lions in stadiums as they sing hymns and gaze off longingly toward heaven.

And those are all valid images of martyrs. But that seems like some other time and place for most of us. Very few of us could imagine martyrs in this day and age. And even fewer of us could imagine ourselves dying as martyrs.

But the fact is, martyrs are not all from some other legendary time in history. And they are not all from some distant land. In fact, we have had martyrs from our own area. This summer I randomly picked up a book called China’s Christian Martyrs. I was surprised to find an account of a young man named Wilhelm Vatne. Vatne was born in 1890 to Norwegian-American parents, Mr. and Mrs. Tonnes Vatne, in, of all places, Cooperstown, North Dakota. At an early age, Wilhelm became a very committed Christian. He graduated from school early and became a school teacher at the age of 18 (they could do that in those days). On September 10, 1910, Wilhelm left Cooperstown and went to Sianfu, Shensi, China, where he taught the children of missionaries serving there. In 1911, there was a fury of anti-foreign and especially anti-Christian protest in China. On October 23, 1911, a mob rushed the school Vatne taught in. The mob killed all the missionaries in it, including Vatne. He was only 21 years old.

The story is pretty typical to who and what martyrs are. They are ordinary people who are called to give the ultimate sacrifice for their faith in Christ. Martyrs are truly a unique lot among us Christians. In the early Church they were viewed as heroes, similar in many ways to sports stars or movie stars in our own day.

The word martyr actually means “witness” and they really were true witnesses to Christ, witnessing to Christ by their very deaths, by the actual blood they shed for Christ. Martyrs also challenge the rest of us Christians, as well. They challenge us, by their deaths, to ask ourselves that very important question: would we, under similar circumstances, be willing to give up our lives for our Christian faith? Would we be willing to die for Christ? If, for some reason, we were forced to either give up our faith in Christ and live or profess our faith in the face of danger and certain death, would we? Or, just as importantly, would we be able to stand up to the forces in the world that are in such direct opposition to our Christian faith, even if standing up in such a way would mean death? Would we be able to take to heart the words of today’s Gospel, when Jesus says, “those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.” It might be easier to answer if we are talking only about our own deaths. But would we be so ready if the deaths involved our children or other loved ones?

I think it’s occasionally a good thing to ask ourselves these questions, because the fact is, as we’ve seen with people like Wilhelm Vatne, martyrs are not just fabled personages from the far past. There are martyrs even in our own day and age. We all know about the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his stand against Hitler. Many of us can remember hearing about people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Americans like Jean Donovan and the three American nuns who were brutally murdered with her in El Salvador in 1980. What fewer people remember were the seven French Trappist monks who were kidnapped in March, 1996 in Algeria by extremist Muslims, who then preceded to behead each one of them. By one estimation, about 465 Christians are killed worldwide for their faith every few months.

So, there are, no doubt, people dying for Christ and Christ’s message of love in our world even as we gather together this morning. There are people today in this world who are dying for Christ or are watching their loved ones die for Christ. And suffering for Christ doesn’t just mean dying for Christ either. There are many people who are living with persecution and other forms of abuse for their faith.

So, it is important to remember the martyrs of our faith. It is important to heed their witness to us. Our Church has truly found its identity and spirit with those who, throughout two thousand years of Christianity, have suffered and died for their faith. There is a well-known motto of the Church: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Hopefully, though, few of us here this morning are being called to die as martyrs. For us who are maybe not led to die for Christ, we still have our own burden to bear. And that burden, of course, is the Cross.

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying to us: “If any want to become my followers, le them take up their cross and follow me.” Picking up our cross might seem like a vague image for us. For the people of Jesus’s day, they knew exactly what he was talking about. For them, the taking up the cross meant taking up an instrument of execution and facing humiliation and a bloody death. For us, who take the Cross for granted for the most part, it doesn’t mean the same thing now.

What Jesus is saying to us is that, being a Christian, as wonderful as it is, isn’t a rose garden. Being a Christian means facing bravely the ugly things that life sometimes throws at us. I don’t think I have to tell anyone here what those ugly things in life are. Each of us has had to deal with our own personal forms of the world’s ugliness. As we look around at those who are with us this morning, most of us here this morning have carried our share of crosses in this life.

Most of us have shouldered the difficult and ugly things of this life—whether it be illness, death, loss, despair, disappointment, frustration—you name it. The fact is: these things are going to happen to us whether we are Christians or not. It’s simply our lot as human beings that life is going to be difficult at times. It is a simple fact of life that we are going to have feasts in this life, as well as famines. There will be gloriously wonderful days and horribly, nightmarish days. We, as human beings, cannot escape this fact.

But, we, as Christians, are being told this morning by Jesus that we can not deal with those things like everyone else does. When the bad things of this life happen, our first reaction is often to run away from them. Our first reaction is numb our emotions, to curl up into a defensive ball and protect ourselves and our emotions. But Jesus is telling us that, as Christians, what we must do in those moments is to embrace those things—to embrace the crosses of this life—to shoulder them and to continue on in our following of Jesus.

Now, I can tell you, in all honesty, that there have been many times in my life when I have not done that. There have many times when I certainly have emotionally curled up when the difficult things happened and tried to protect myself. When I was diagnosed with cancer six and a half years ago, I would love to tell you this morning that I bravely faced the diagnosis and simply shouldered that illness and bravely slogged on after Jesus. The fact is, I didn’t. I found myself shutting down emotionally. For a few days I simply walked around in a blank-eyed daze. I didn’t want to feel anything during that time. And I can tell you right now—I did not want to embrace the cross that was laid upon my back. Rather, I just wanted shrug it off and run as far away from it as I could get. But when I did so, I found that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t shrug it off. It was there, lashed to me. And before I could face it and accept it, I found myself often bitter and angry about what I perceived to be the unfairness of this illness. Only when I finally bore my cross and looked to Jesus was I able to realize that, although bad things do happen to Christians, as a Christian I could not let the illness win.

By facing it, by bearing it, by taking it and following Jesus, I was able to realize that what wins out in the end is Jesus, not the illness. What triumphs in the end is not any of the other ugly things this life throws at us. Rather, what triumphs is the integrity and the strength we gain from being a Christian. What triumphs is Jesus’s promise that a life unending awaits us. What triumphs is Jesus’s triumph over death and the ugly things of this life. What we judge to be the way we think it should be is sometimes judged differently by God. We don’t see this world from the same perspective God does. And as a result, we are often disappointed.

Maybe we are not called to give our lives for Christ in the same way people like Wilhelm Vatne did. But we are all called, as Christians to take up our crosses and to follow Jesus. And in that way, maybe we are called to follow people like Wilhelm Vatne’s father. Tonnes Vatne wrote the following words on hearing of his son’s death. He wrote:

“You can hardly believe how we feel these days. It was a hard stroke when we heard that our beloved Wilhelm has already been taken away from us. How strange that his day of work should be so short! Oh, Wilhelm was a dear son to us! I am weak and weary, and this heavy sorrow is weighing me down, but sweeter will be the rest when I reach [my heavenly] Home. I could have written this letter with tears! Yet, the Lord had the great claim to him: He gave him to us, and He took him. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

Like Tonnes Vatne, our burdens are just another form of martyrdom—another albeit bloodless form of witnessing to Christ. And, like a martyr, in the midst of our toil, in the midst of shouldering our burden and plodding along toward Jesus, we are able to say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

That is what it means to be a martyr. That is what it means to deny one’s self, to take up one’s cross and to follow Jesus. That is what it means to find one’s life, even when everyone else in the world thinks you’ve lost your life.

So, take up whatever cross you’re bearing and carry it with strength and purpose. Take it up and follow Jesus. And, in doing so, gain for yourself the glory of God that Jesus promises to those who do so.

1 comment:

The River Road Rambler said...

On google books you can read more about Vatne and my great Uncle Edwin Paulson and the China Inland Mission. Look for the book by Beckman "The Massacre at Sianfu" Vatne took over for my great uncle who, after teaching for 7 years in the school, came back to America a year before the revolution killed Vatne.