Sunday, August 28, 2011

11 Pentecost

August 28, 2011

Matthew 16.21-28

+ Every Wednesday here at St. Stephen’s, we celebrate, as you know, the Eucharist at 6:00 pm. Also in that service we usually commemorate a different saint. We use, sometimes, some of the very amusing anecdotes from Fr. John-Julian, an Episcopal who is a member of the Order of Julian of Norwich, an Episcopal monastic community. Oftentimes the stories he shares are quite, shall we say, fanciful?

A few weeks we were commemorating the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I was sharing some interesting stories about the Virgin Mary—some of them quite fanciful stories. At announcement later in the service, our own Joanne Droppers was sharing about the brat supper and made a comment about inviting people to help out with brats, especially those you never want to see again. It took by such surprise that I started laughing and said, “Joanne, that is the funniest thing I have heard tonight.”

Without missing a beat, our own Thom Marubbio piped up from the back and said, “Well, it wasn’t as funny as what we heard in the sermon.”

Which also made me laugh.

But, on Wednesday nights, in addition to the fantastical stories of saints, we also very often commemorate martyrs. And I always like to ask, when we commemorate martyrs, 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, sort of like the one we have here, above the organ, of people like our very own 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.

I recently re-read 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. One hundred years ago, 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.

Just a few months ago, several of us from St. Stephen’s went to see the wonderful film, Of Gods and Men, about 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.

And among Anglicans and Episcopalians we have lost some great modern people to martyrdom, people such as Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who in August of 1965, was shot and killed in Mississippi by a white shop owner for defending a young black girl during the darkest days of Integration.

Or Archbishop Junani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganada, who was brutally murdered by dictator Idi Amin in 1977 for standing up against oppression.

And some of us no doubt see martyrs even in someone who didn’t necessarily die for sake their faith, but simply died for being who they are, such as Matthew Shepeherd, a young, gay Episcopalian.

There are people dying for their faith, even right now, this morning. 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 burdens 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, let them take up their cross and follow me.”

Picking up our cross might seem like a vague idea for us. 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. By facing our crosses, by bearing them, by taking them and following Jesus, we was able to realize that what wins out in the end is Jesus, not the cross. 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’ promise that a life unending awaits us. What triumphs is Jesus’ 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.

Yes, 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 God!”

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, let us take up whatever cross we’re bearing and carry it with strength and purpose. Let us take it up and follow Jesus. And, in doing so, we will gain for ourselves the glory of God that Jesus promises to those who do so.

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