Commitment Sunday Sermon, 2010

Commitment Sunday Sermon, November 14 2010
Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

This morning’s lessons are not at all about
a celebration–not very party-like, or in keeping
with our theme this year, and I was very tempted to change them
for this special Sunday.
But the lessons are about commitment. And so we stayed with them.

About a week ago, someone in our congregation
whose life has been changed by this church
sent me a letter. It was a copy of
another letter sent by a young man in our community
about his experience of combat in Afghanistan
as a pilot, but more important than that,
the letter was about his faith in a time of war.
In his letter, he gave people permission to read
from it at their churches.
I want to share a little of the pilot’s testimony this morning,
because our gospel lesson today takes us
right to the place of our deepest struggles—
when faith comes up against times of cataclysm and fear,
whether it’s the persecutions of the first century church of Luke,
or the 21st century church living in a time of uncertainty.
The soldier’s name is Bruce.
His time in war did not leave him battered.
Because of his faith, he developed a deep compassion
for the peoples of Afghanistan,
especially for their situation of poverty and poor education,
and their suffering as victims of war.
And though he believes he fights in a just cause,
his “spirit is grieved,” he said,
by being a part of killing and destroying lives.
He writes, “we are fighting and killing each other now,
but I pray that this will end as soon as possible.
They are also our brothers and sisters … we are ALL God’s children … and I do not believe that God intends for the Human Race to war with itself.”

At the end of the letter he asked the following:
“Please pray for the varied Peoples of Afghanistan. Please pray for the Taliban and Al-Qaida … that they would come to know the Love of God … and be transformed by it. Please pray for the courageous men and woman … our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters … who we have placed in harm’s way, to fight for our freedom and to create the possibility of freedom for the Peoples of Afghanistan.”

Whatever we may believe about war,
this soldier’s letter is the remarkable testimony of a
Christian whose faith had taught him to love his enemies.
He doesn’t pray from a sense of self-righteousness, or triumph.
He prays with genuine compassion, and asks that God’s
transforming love come to everyone.
Here is someone, who even in the midst of war,
nevertheless continues to hold his heart open
to God’s inclusive mercy.
His letter is the kind of testimony
Jesus speaks of in the gospel this morning.
Bruce never turned his enemies into objects of hatred,
but saw their suffering and had compassion.
We’ve been hearing for years now,
every day, the kinds of things
that Jesus speaks of this morning:
nations rising against nations,
country against country, earthquakes, famines.
We’ve experienced the uncertainty
and anxiety the disciples express.
The whole time I’ve been your pastor, our nation has been at war.
Our Gospel lesson from Luke and the reading from Malachi
speak to times like ours.
They are examples of apocalyptic literature,
end-times kind of writing, but Jesus, you notice,
says very clearly to his disciples, the end isn’t near.
What he does say is that the situation of the church,
is a situation of struggle—antagonistic powers
range against the faithful.

In Jesus’ times, and in the early church,
and of course, in some places today,
the church exists in a situation of persecution.
Someone somewhere along the way has carried the faith for us,
held it out, passed it on, sometimes at great cost to themselves.
People still die to carry this faith to others.
If you want to see a role of witnesses who died for passing on
what they believed, check the book of Acts.
Or remember the remnant of Arab Christians
struggling to live in Palestine,
or the grief of the families of those killed on
All Saints in Baghdad in a church raid.

The word, in the Gospel this morning,
for persecution means several things,
it can mean to be chased after, to follow close upon the heels,
to drive out, to pursue—it’s a verb of action and attack.
And if you remember, the word persecution
in Greek is sometimes used to
describe the way the waves of the ocean beat up,
or batter against a boat.
It’s quite an image—the tossing sea
persecuting of the ship of faith.

But Jesus invites us to a particular response
to such tossing and pursuit, and it’s not the response
of anger or revenge—it’s the response of compassion,
of mercy, of a willingness to live faithfully,
to testify in word and deed to a gracious God.
Jesus asks us to disarm our hearts,
not to prepare a defense but to trust.
And it’s that trusting heart,
the heart that is willing still to be vulnerable,
to be disarmed, that takes us through times of persecution.
We respond with love and kindness no matter what.

Here, in the US,
few of us feel that we are persecuted for being Christian.
But I propose that we are, in subtle ways.
When we choose to live truly faithful lives,
we feel opposition to it from others’ reactions to
our choices about our lives, where we spend time,
how we use our money. Look at television, for example.
We live in a consumer culture that encourages
us to become pre-occupied with spending and accumulating.
We’re encouraged to tolerate injustices and inequities.
There’s a kind of violence to that.
We’re encouraged to selfishness– to put ourselves first,
to live the opposite of generosity, to live with closed hands,
tightly grasping possessions and people.
We live in an over-do culture, staying so busy
we have no time for things of faith or for our relationships.
Our culture of overdo presses our children to over-work,
and over-perform, even when it damages
their mental and physical health.
Just talk to some of our high school teachers in Rockport.
These are just a few of the pressures that shape our lives.

Christians are invited to live differently:
we’re called, in the Gospel,
to enjoy and use the gifts of time,
talent and possessions, for love’s sake.
Instead of a living lives closed in on
themselves in selfishness and accumulation,
we’re invited to live with outspread arms,
to others and to God.
We’re asked to look at the world in the light of God’s love,
to experience life as a gift,
to love others, even our enemies,
to live with disarmed and vulnerable hearts.
We’re invited by the Gospel of Jesus
to exemplify generosity and forgiveness,
and we’re invited, by Jesus,
to testify to our faith in word and deed.

This church, in Lanesville,
testifies to the goodness and grace of God
by our continued presence here for over a century.
Here, we’ve raised children in the faith,
we’ve listened to the good news of Jesus,
and been fed with Word and Sacrament;
we’ve received grace and mercy,
we’ve been embraced by God’s inclusive love.
We’ve cared for our neighbors, young and old,
near and far.
We’ve learned to disarm our hearts,
to listen for words of wisdom from the Spirit,
to endure with faith.

Both Jesus and the prophet Malachi this morning
speak of times when believers find refuge in trust.
That’s spiritual safety–trusting in God:
that’s what Jesus means when he says not a hair
of our head will be harmed.
The prophet Malachi uses another image:
in times of distress, “for those who revere God’s name,
the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”
And I’d like to close with an image of those healing wings.
If you remember, this week,
the ocean here was particularly wild.
One afternoon, I drove out to watch the sea,
on the back shore road.
While watching the troubled waters,
I remembered that word
for persecution, that tossing, and battering of waves.
But then I saw a beautiful sight:
as the waves were driving in across the Atlantic,
from Portugal, with speed and height,
there in the curl of one of the largest,
a bird was flying just under the white foam
of the breaking water.
It flew along the edge of the wave,
and just as the crest broke completely,
the gull lifted up over the top and
sailed along the edge of it, unharmed
by the force and power of the water,
it’s wings outstretched.
The wind lifted it out of harm’s way.

Faith is like that bird.

Faith gives us those wings to rise and a heart to trust.
Faith gave a soldier wings to rise above the terrors of war
and see his enemies with love.
Faith has given generations here at St. Paul
the wings to rise above the tumult of troubled times,
and stay steady on the wind of the Spirit.
When you give to this church,
you give to the possibility that someone somewhere
will one day need those wings of faith,
and because of you, they will have them.

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