Sunday, October 28, 2018

"Courage for Troubling Times." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

Candlelight vigil to mourn massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue.

"Courage for Troubling Times"

Mark 4:35-41

During the dark days of World War II, the World Council of Churches adopted a symbol which had been important to the early church during times of danger, hardship, and persecution:  the church is depicted as a storm-tossed boat, with a cross for a mast.
            Over the centuries, the ship has been a prominent symbol for the church in Christian art and architecture.  This part of the church building is called the “nave,” which is the Latin name for “ship.”  If you look up, you can see how the designers of this building evoked the symbolism.
            When the early Christians tried to describe what it was like to be a Christian and to be a member of the church, they said it was like being on a ship with Christ in a storm.     The story we just heard from Mark's gospel seemed descriptive of the early church’s experience.  
            In the Gospel lesson, we find the disciples on a journey.  The journey is not one of their own choosing, but one they've been commanded to take.  
            It must have been a long day.  Jesus had been teaching beside the sea.  There had been a huge crowd gathered on the shore, while he sat in the boat and spoke in parables about the Reign of God.
            When evening came, Jesus said to the disciples, "Let us go across to the other side of the sea."  So, leaving the crowd behind, they set off across the sea. 
            The time I sailed across the Sea of Galilee, it was on a beautiful, calm, sunny day.  It was smooth sailing.  But Peter and the other fishermen among Jesus' inner circle of disciples knew from experience the danger of sudden storms on the Sea of Galilee.  As the wind and the waves fill the boat with water, the disciples are filled with fear.  They're sinking, and they’re afraid they might drown! 
            In terror, they turn to Jesus, who is calmly asleep in the stern of the boat.  The disciples woke Jesus with words we may use to address God when things get scary:    "Don't you care?"
            Mark tells us that Jesus had been sleeping through the storm.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, the ability to sleep peacefully is a sign of perfect trust in God's providential care.  So, when Jesus was sleeping through the storm it didn't mean that he didn't care about his disciples.  It showed that he had perfect trust in God to keep them all safe.
            Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace!  Be still!"
            The words Jesus addressed to the wind and the waves are exactly the same words he used in the exorcism of the demon-possessed man in the first chapter of Mark.   It's a forceful rebuke, as he commands the forces of the storm, saying,  "Be still.  Be calm!"
            And the wind ceased--   just like that.  There was a dead calm.
            Then Jesus said to them, "Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?"
            When you read through a gospel from beginning to end, you get a much better feel for what the evangelist means when he uses particular words and symbols that you miss if you read little parts of the gospel in isolation.  For Mark, faith isn't about holding correct, orthodox beliefs or living an upstanding moral life.  Faith is trust.  Fearfulness is the lack of faith.
            Mark tells us that disciples are sometimes called to do things that are risky or scary to us--  things that require that we trust in the power of God to sustain us, in spite of our fears.
            Mark wrote his gospel in a time of great persecution, under the emperor Nero.  Peter and Paul had in all likelihood been put to death by that time.  The young church was in danger of being wiped out.  So, Mark included stories in his gospel that would encourage the people in the church.

            We might like to think that if we follow Jesus, he'll keep us out of the storm.   But, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we're not promised a safe, successful, long, or trouble-free life.  He never promised it would be easy.  
I'm convinced that the storms and the struggles of life--  both on a personal level and as a church-- are part of how Christ teaches us to trust in God's love and power to save us.     If we're going to travel with Jesus, we have to weather some storms. 
            The good news is that--  when we begin to trust in God's love and saving power, we can overcome some of our fears.  We can begin to have faith we can weather the storms of life--  because Christ is with us. 

            We live in a tumultuous time—a time of great change and polarization and anxiety— in the world and in the church. But it isn’t the first time. 
            Today is Reformation Sunday, which is a good time to celebrate our history and be inspired by our ancestors in the faith.
            The outspoken Scottish reformer John Knox felt compelled to leave the British Isles after the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor rose to the English throne in 1553.  Eventually he joined a fellowship of religious refugees from across Europe who had thronged to Geneva, Switzerland.
            Geneva’s most famous resident, the French lawyer and humanist John Calvin, was himself a Geneva immigrant.  Calvin helped create an atmosphere in Geneva that was welcoming to outsiders. They established a hospital for refugees, as well as an academy for their education. Knox ministered to a congregation of English-speaking refugees.
            John Knox marveled at his time in Geneva, calling it ‘the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles.’”[1]
            Calvin’s emphasis on placing full trust in God, as opposed to any earthly ruler, aimed to infuse life in the city with gratitude and faith.  He hoped that the doctrine of salvation through election would ease the anxieties of a people living in an age of plague, war, and dislocation. For Calvin and for Knox, growing in trust of God and love for God enlarged a community’s ability to respond to God’s call to love and service--  no matter where its residents came from.[2]

            Writing in the Baptist News, Alan Bean tells about a time a woman in his congregation called him in tears, insisting that he visit her without delay. When he got there, she told him how, in the middle of the night, a repressed memory from her childhood had worked its way to the surface of consciousness. She had remembered the boxcars crammed with desperate people passing through her German community and the hollow-eyed horror etched onto the faces.
            “Maybe I was too young to understand,” she told him, “but my parents and grandparents had to have known. Those people were Jews headed for the camps, weren’t they? Who else could they have been? And we said nothing. We did nothing.”[3]
             Bean writes that the Holocaust, or Shoah, has always haunted him.  “If I thought Nazi-era Germany was an aberration, I could probably move on,”  he writes. But in view of what is happening in our nation and the world today, who can think that?  Bean declares that  “the Church of Jesus Christ is confronted by an anti-Gospel once again. And once again we either celebrate effusively or lapse into pitiful silence.”

            In 1933, on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth, 20,000 German Christians flocked to a rally in which tenets of German Christianity were celebrated.  Many German Christians happily proclaimed their support for Hitler and what he stood for.
            Even some of those involved in the Confessing Church movement initially welcomed the rise of Hitler’s National Socialists. But they came to understand they were obligated to challenge state-sponsored evil, to minister to the oppressed (regardless of race or religion), and that they might even be required to sacrifice themselves.
            In 1934, the Theological Declaration of Barmen was adopted by Christians in Nazi Germany who opposed the heresies of the German Christian movement.
I believe God continues over time to work in people of faith, and is working to do a new thing in our time.  I believe that this is a time of new reformation--  re-formation,  and that God is working to create a new church,  in and through us.   I believe that God wants to use us as instruments of justice and reconciliation in the world. 
Luther’s reformation came out of a righteous anger against injustices and corruption. I think many of us are struggling with a kind of righteous anger about things we see happening in our world.
Yesterday, on the Jewish Sabbath, a shooter walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  He killed eleven people and wounded others, including four police officers.  His social media accounts included repeated attacks on Jews, references to white supremacist and neo-Nazi symbols, and attacks on the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, known as HIAS, which works with the federal government to resettle refugees in American communities.
The people at Tree of Life synagogue were carrying out the demands scripture placed on their consciences, scriptures that command Jews and Christians to care for the “stranger” or “alien,” and to love the stranger and remember that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)   The killer who decided that they should die for their support for immigrants was carrying out a mission based on fear and hatred.
The synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh is yet another example of the fury and bigotry on the fringes of our society. It reminds us of other active shooter incidents--some of them in houses of worship--that have horrified many of us in recent years.  It challenges us to consider the troubling frequency of mass shooting events in our nation in comparison to almost every other nation in the world.
The Pittsburgh massacre came days after the arrest of a Florida man, who allegedly sent more than a dozen pipe bombs to two former presidents, a former Secretary of State, and prominent Democratic elected officials and leaders, as well as a wealthy Jewish philanthropist-- all of whom have been singled out and named as evil and enemies, as well as CNN.  These pipe bombs put at risk the intended recipients, postal employees, and everyone who came near the packages.
We’ve heard very little about an apparently racially motivated shooting near Louisville, Kentucky a few days ago. A white supremacist tried unsuccessfully to enter a predominantly African-American church before he entered a Kroger market nearby and killed Maurice Stallard, who was there buying poster board for his 12-year-old grandson’s school project-- shooting him in front of the grandson. Then he went out in the parking lot and shot Vickie Lee Jones.
Friends, our thoughts and prayers are not enough.
So, on this Reformation Sunday, what do we hear the Spirit saying to us?
            In a blog entry a few years ago, Diana Butler Bass wrote of the Protestant Reformation movement:  “It strikes me as interesting that those who followed the teaching of the new reform movement did not come to be known as “Reformists.”  Rather, the moniker that stuck was “Protestant.”  Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression.
            These religious protesters accused the church of their day of being too rich, too political, in thrall to kings and princes, having sold its soul to the powerful.   The original Protestants preached, taught, and argued for freedom—spiritual, economic, and political—and for God’s justice to be embodied in the church and the world.” 
The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church--  but that they were creating a new world,  one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity.  They weren’t content with the status quo.   They felt a deep discomfort within.  They knew things were not right.  And they set out to change the world.”[4]        
Long ago God spoke through the prophet Isaiah:  “I am about to do a new thing.   Now it springs forth.  Don’t you perceive it?”[5]
I believe God is working to do a new thing in our time.  I believe that this is a time of new reformation--  re-formation,  and that God is working to create a new church,  in and through us.   I believe that God wants to use us as instruments of justice and reconciliation in the world.
So—on this Reformation Sunday, as we look around at the world we live in and see things that are not right, we can be glad that we are freed for a great adventure of faith.”
            For some of us, this might mean writing letters to our elected officials, demanding they stop using divisive language, and work for civility and unity. For some of us it might mean contacting local synagogues to offer condolences and support. For some of us it might mean committing to work with a local interfaith or anti-violence or anti-racism group. For some of us it might mean organizing supper conversation groups that bring people with diverse views together to bridge differences and promote understanding.  Some of you may have other ideas.
            There are ways to disrupt and dismantle racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, Islamaphobia, ableism-- all the systems that divide us and distort our life in community and as a society.
            In the words of our Presbyterian “Brief Statement of Faith:”   In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”[6]            
            In this ship we call the Christian life, we will go through some storms.  But we don't need to be afraid, because we know that Jesus is with us.  
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 28, 2018

[2] Ibid.
[3] Alan Bean, “Silence in the face of evil: learning from an obscure schoolteacher who urged Karl Barth and other theologians to stand in solidarity with the Jews in Nazi Germany.”

[4] Diana Butler Bass, “Putting the Protest Back in Protestant” (October 28, 2011).

[5] Isaiah 43:9

[6] “A Brief Statement of Faith” of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1990.

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