Monthly Archives: May 2011

Martyrs for Today

a sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter on Acts 6:1-15; 7:54b-60
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on May 22, 2011 

There have been a lot of martyrs in the news lately, people dying for a cause bigger than themselves. Men, women, and children across the Middle East have died in the uprisings for democracy in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria. Some suggest that Usama Bin Laden died as a martyr for his cause, thought the muted reaction in the weeks since suggests that few support that assumption. Others closer to home are remembering those who died in the Civil War as we observe its 150th anniversary over the next few years. Still others this month are thinking back fifty years to the Freedom Rides, where blacks and whites attempted to integrate interstate buses and bus stations in the South and were met with persecution, arrest, assault, firebombing, and practically everything but death. Martyrs seem to be all around us, but what does it mean to be a martyr today?

The best place to start out such a conversation is likely the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. According to our reading from Acts this morning, incredible things were happening in the Christian community in those days. More and more people were becoming a part of the fellowships that gathered around the apostles, and as the work got to be too much for the twelve disciples to organize on their own, they chose seven others to join in the work of caring for the people.

One of these seven, Stephen, was especially articulate and faithful, and some in his synagogue were troubled by his wise interpretation of scripture and his passion for this new sect. Without warning, some of the religious leaders of the day seized him and brought him before the council of Jewish leaders on trumped-up charges, and false witnesses accused him of blasphemy in suggesting that Jesus would change the traditions and practices handed down by Moses.

Stephen kept a level head through all this, and “his face was like the face of an angel” even as these unsubstantiated charges were leveled against him. He answered them all with an eloquent retelling of the history of Israel and a passionate plea for openness to the work of the Holy Spirit, reminding them that while these leaders now tried to defend their tradition, they and their ancestors had spent generations dismissing the law and persecuting the prophets. The council did not receive Stephen’s criticism well, and he only made matters worse when he spoke of a his sudden vision of the heavens opening and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. With that, they had had enough, and they took him out of the city to stone him. He maintained his level head even as their stones began to kill him, and his last words conveyed his attitude toward everything that had happened: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And so Stephen became the first Christian martyr, the first to die for his faith and for his actions taken in response to Jesus’ own life.

Countless other martyrs have followed in the way of Stephen over the centuries, many under various rounds of Roman persecution, others at the hands of empires around the world, and some killed by fringe groups and deranged persons near and far. The great majority of martyrs died for their faith long ago, but there are Christians still facing persecution and death around the world – in Iraq and Egypt amidst a broader outbreak of violence and attacks on historic Christian communities, and in China where overflowing churches are shut down and leaders imprisoned because they worship without proper government permission. All these martyrs in Stephen’s time and our own are incredible witnesses to the work that God is doing in our world to break down injustice, to stand up to systemic oppression and hurt, to transform broken relationships into something new, and to come into our fearful world in Jesus Christ to make all things new.

While we may not have to put our life on the line to worship or defend what we believe, martyrdom can still happen here and now. Just as Stephen and countless others over the centuries put their lives on the line for their faith, so we too are called to step out and stand up to witness to God’s work in the world. This may not look like what we think it should or what it has always looked like before. We don’t have to demand moral purity or a return to the apparent values of old but rather should seek to help the church and world be more faithful to God’s intentions for all people. We’re not just out hoping to convince others that our beliefs are right but rather should long to make what we believe clear in our actions. We shouldn’t so much want to escape the pain and trouble of this world but rather should seek to join in God’s transformation of the world so that all things might be made new.

And so I believe that we are called to be martyrs too, martyrs for today – not to hold onto life so much that we forget how to live but rather to put something on the line so that God’s new way can be seen in and through us. We don’t go into this kind of life expecting to be killed for what we believe, but we also can’t expect to live faithfully as God intends without encountering some criticism for our actions. Some things we do in our attempts to be faithful will not win us friends along the way. Some things we do as we try our best to follow the way of Jesus might even turn people away from the church. And some things we do to live out the convictions of our faith may make the way before us harder than expected as some who have joined us on the journey choose to take another path.

Even so, we still have to wonder today if we are called to join the ranks of the martyrs in some way, to be like Stephen and so many others and give up some part of our lives to live more faithfully, to take an unpopular stand when it helps to embody the fullness of life that God intends for all people and not just for a few, to stand up for justice and peace and all that is right even when it might not be in our best interest, to remain unafraid of the powers of the world that seek to quash anything and everything that is new or that threatens the status quo, and all along to get out of the way of what God is doing in our world just a little more.

Like those women and men standing up for their rights in the Middle East, those brave people celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of their rides into the South on newly-integrated buses, that faithful deacon Stephen, and so many others who have died for their faith, may we too stand up for what we believe with great confidence and hope, unfazed by the powers that threaten to undo us and empowered by the Holy Spirit to join in the new things that God is beginning in our world even now.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.


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The Faith of a Child

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter on Psalm 23 and Matthew 18:1-5
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on May 15, 2011 

Having our children lead us in worship is exciting and inspiring. This day has been a long time coming, and the fact that we have this time and space together with our children is nothing short of amazing, especially considering that just a year ago we averaged about two children per month in worship! But once we had this incredible core group together, I’m really glad that we set aside this day to have them lead us in worship. They always do an excellent job reading scripture, so why shouldn’t we ask them to do a little more?!

Once we set the date for this service, I worked with Laurie-Jean, Mary, and Julie to plan the details and pick the right text, and they pulled together most of the other pieces. But then when the time came to write the sermon, I didn’t know what to say – the fact that we can have this service in this way is an incredible proclamation of the word on its own, and I’ve wondered all week about what more I can say beyond pointing to this time together. But maybe that’s all we really need today – maybe simply to realize that the word can sometimes best be proclaimed in our actions, that God’s word can become real in our midst in the most unexpected and yet real ways, that the word can be fulfilled in our hearing and thinking and doing and being again and again and again.

So today we hear again familiar words that we can see alive and at work in our children:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Our children show us that God cares for us, takes us everyplace we need to go, and gives us everything we need.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.

Our children remind us that God gives us rest and renews us and restores us when we most need it and when we least expect it.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Our children tell us that God walks with us every day, makes things right for us, and shows others how to live through us.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

Our children give us confidence that God protects us in the most difficult times, keeps us from being afraid, comforts us when we aren’t sure what to do, and guides us when the path ahead is uncertain or even seems unsafe.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

Our children make it clear that God overcomes all our fears and makes a space for things to be okay when we least expect it.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Our children tell us that God marks us as God’s own and gives us everything we need and more, starting here when we come to be baptized and continuing each and every day.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

Our children show us that God’s love is all around us, and we can’t ever escape it.

I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Our children here certainly make it clear that we are most comfortable wherever we can be ourselves, wherever we can play and have fun, wherever we can just be ourselves – especially when that place is God’s house.

In these and countless other ways, our children show us the fruits of God’s incredible love and point us to the possibility of what God can do as the world is restored and renewed.

I think that’s what Jesus was talking about when he brought a child among the disciples and pointed to that child as a model for greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Children bring an incredible imagination, freedom to dream and hope beyond adult limitations, humility in the face of things they don’t understand, and a radical openness to the possibility of something new. All these things are at the core of the kingdom of heaven, where status and wealth just don’t matter, where dreams become real as life becomes whole, where everyone is welcomed and loved, and where all creation finally understands and lives what God intends.

I believe that our children are the best models of God’s shepherding love and God’s intentions for the kingdom of God, and yet I don’t think we always treat them as we should. We don’t always listen closely to what they have to say. We don’t always take them seriously and treat them like the human beings that they are. And we don’t always trust that they might be able to show us something new about what God is doing in our world. But if we listen closely, take them seriously, and follow their example, our children can and will show us a more complete glimpse of the kingdom of God. Their hope can give us courage for the living of these days, their love can show us God’s unlimited love for us, and their faith can show us the way to the kingdom of God.

So may God give us eyes to see and ears to hear the faith, hope, and love of our children so that all of us can know God’s shepherding love and be a part of the incredible new thing that God is doing here and now among us.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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Doubting Thomases

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter on John 20:19-31
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on May 1, 2011 

They started out very afraid, gathering almost surreptitiously, trying not to draw attention to themselves, not sure who they might run into or who might be looking for them or for Jesus. Some of the disciples had seen Jesus since the tomb had been reported empty, but others still awaited their first glimpse of their teacher who had somehow overcome death. All of the sudden Jesus appeared in the room where they had gathered. The door was still locked, no windows were open, but Jesus made his way into their midst. He spoke to them right away: “Peace be with you.” There was no reason to be afraid now – he was alive and with them again, and they could simply be present with their old friend and teacher once again. And so they rejoiced, grateful that the rumors were true and that they could see him with their own eyes. Then he spoke to them again, inviting them once again to be at peace and blowing the Holy Spirit out on them, sending them out to be his witnesses just as he had witnessed to God’s work in the world in and through his life.

Seeing is believing when it comes to the resurrection for the disciples. They weren’t quite sure what was going on, but then Jesus showed up among them and they believed. And so it often goes for us. We look around, watching for marks of the resurrection all around us, wondering where we can see Jesus, hoping that we’ll be witnesses to his great love too, trying to follow in the footsteps of the disciples, and finding him when and where we least expect to see him. Sometimes we luck out and we see the risen Jesus after all – perhaps in the gentle touch of one we love, maybe in the presence of family and friends, maybe in the gathering of the people of God across boundaries of age and place and time, maybe in some other place that we know well or can’t even begin to imagine. And so we rejoice! We sing our “Alleluias” over and over again and shout “Christ is risen!” at the top of our lungs. We tell everyone we meet about the ways we see Christ alive and at work in our world. And we do the best we can each and every day to embody the life of the risen Christ in our world.

But Thomas wasn’t there. For some reason Thomas didn’t make it to the house that Easter night, and even though the other disciples had to see Jesus alive again in order to believe it, everyone seemed to put him down a bit because he supposedly “doubted” the resurrection. Thomas’ point of view was simple: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” He had known Jesus for several years and had witnessed him die, so Thomas needed some sign of the resurrection to believe that it happened, and since he hadn’t had one yet, he questioned it all.

Our friend doubting Thomas has a point, if you ask me. What’s the point of the resurrection if you can’t see it? Why does Jesus’ rising from the grave matter if nothing changes because of it? And if you can’t see some proof of something being different after Easter morning, why should you believe that it happened at all? I find myself on Thomas’ side quite a lot these days. The incredible destruction of tornados in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee makes me wonder about the goodness of God. The pain and despair and conflict in our world that seem to keep piling on top of all the other heartache we face get in the way of the resurrection in my eyes. When one of you or one you love can’t seem to catch a break from the trials and tribulations of life, I question the resurrection because I can’t see a needed sign of God’s love breaking through. And the difficulties that we face as a congregation to live a new life together that we have struggled with so much in recent months make me cry out with Thomas: “Unless I see evidence of something new here, I will not believe.” Too often there’s just something missing in our experience of resurrection, and so we rightfully and reasonably join Thomas in questioning how or even whether God is up to something in our world, demanding visible signs and evidence of the resurrection in our midst and hoping for something new to take hold now.

The next Sunday, though, when they gathered together again, Thomas was there – still questioning what was going on, but present nonetheless! Then Jesus appeared again, breaking through the locked doors and proclaiming once again, “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus spoke up about Thomas’ “doubting” ways, inviting Thomas right away to come up to him: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” But even before he could actually do any of this, Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus offered his later listeners a word of confidence and hope, encouraging them to believe even though they have may not have seen him with their own eyes. Nonetheless, Thomas’ doubt turned to belief, for he had seen evidence of the risen Christ and had no reason to doubt what was going on any longer.

And so we are here today, maybe finding ourselves like the disciples, because we saw something last Sunday or over the course of this week that showed us evidence of the resurrection. Or maybe we are more like Thomas, present in spite of our fears and doubts and uncertainties, still looking for a sign of the resurrection to take hold and become real in our midst. All of us, though, whether or not we have seen the risen Christ over the last week, are still looking for signs of his resurrection life in our midst, wondering where we can see him at work, whether it is for the first time or for the millionth time. In the face of destruction across the South, in the harsh climate of war and strife that seems to reign around our world, we long for the presence of the risen Christ to proclaim and bring peace into our midst. And in the midst of uncertainty and potential change in our life together here in this congregation, we wonder how the risen Christ can be present and at work in our midst, how we can imagine new life in the face of uncertainty, how we can dream about something new when what we have seems to be in question. But I believe that it is precisely in times like these, in moments when we least expect it, that Jesus sneaks into the room, slipping in through the locked-down doors, showing up when we aren’t looking for him, breaking bread and revealing himself, speaking out in the midst of the quiet of fear: “Peace be with you,” confronting all the doubting Thomases in our midst to show us that the resurrection is taking hold now. It is as our last hymn puts it so well:

“Help then, O Lord, our unbelief;
And may our faith abound
To call on You when You are near
And seek where You are found:
That, when our life of faith is done,
In realms of clearer light
We may behold You as You are,
With full and endless sight.”  (Henry Alford)

So may we open our eyes to the possibility and presence of the risen Christ in our world and in our lives, transforming our uncertainty and our despair and even our doubting into the hope of new life, opening the way of resurrection to us and all doubting Thomases each and every day. Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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