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Sermon April 20: Suffering Church
May 5, 2008, 10:47 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , , ,

Acts 7:55–60
Psalm 31:1–5, 15–16
Into your hands, O LORD, I commend my spirit. (Ps. 31:5)
1 Peter 2:2–10
John 14:1–14

O God of mercy, hear our prayer, bring peace to earth again. Amen.

          Unless we sit alone in the corner of our house, staring at a blank wall, we cannot go a day without recognizing our desperate need for peace. And even then, as our hymn pointed out, homes are not always the safe harbors of love that they should be. A few minutes on CNN will remind us of wars in foreign places. And sometimes that hits a little closer to home. One of my college friends wrote to me Friday, asking for prayer. She had just received a letter last weekend from a friend and fellow teacher, serving in Iraq. And then in the middle of last week, she had been told that he had been killed in by roadside bomb. Opening our local newspaper reveals headlines of violence: murder, burglaries, drugs. It really can be overwhelming and lead us to despair. Where is God in all this?

          Our God, “whose heart compassionate bears every human pain”, is present and experiences our pain and our fear. Suffering is not a sign that God has abandoned us, nor is it something that necessarily separates us from God. God, who knows suffering and abandonment through Jesus’ own suffering on the cross, is fully present among those who suffer.

          Suffering often accompanies those who seek to follow God and proclaim God among the people of this world. I invite you to take some time today to go back into your Bibles and read the whole of chapter 7 in Acts. Stephen doesn’t get stoned because he’s walking down the street to pick up groceries! He is witnessing to God. He recounts the foundational storyline of Judaism, of God giving the promise to Abraham, sending Joseph and then his brothers to Egypt during the famine, working through Moses to liberate the people from bondage in Egypt. This is a story the people know and hold central to their faith. But Stephen doesn’t just give the glossy parts. Stephen condemns the Israelites, who after being led from slavery, reject God in favor of a golden calf they have made with their own hands. He continues to declare how Israel has always rejected God’s prophets, sent by God to make God’s will known to the people. Then he goes on to declare how these people have rejected God’s Messiah, Jesus. The people have heard enough. They kill him.

          Throughout the Scriptures it is often the case that those who declare God’s will for our way of life meet rejection and death. Through Lent, we followed Jesus to the cross. People didn’t want a guy like Jesus hanging around! He challenged them! He broke the law! He revealed a God who wasn’t so concerned with correct rituals as right practice, right relationship. He declared forgiveness in the face of condemnation! He spoke to and healed people who were the outcasts and outsiders.

          He embodied the Kingdom of God, in the present of this world. A kingdom which would break social barriers, declare God most present among the outsiders, demand that there be justice and mercy.

          In Jesus’ speech from John, just before his betrayal to the Roman and Hebrew authorities, he declares, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these”. Those who believe in Jesus continue his work of declaring God’s kingdom, God’s love for the outcast as well as the privileged.

          People who die because of their witness, like Stephen, are called martyrs. They do not back down from the message God has put on their lips, even when it means they will face ridicule, danger, persecution, or even death.

          In our modern world, there are those whose following Jesus has led to martyrdom. As Jesus chose to follow through with his Gospel, even when it was likely to lead to death, Christians continue to choose to follow through with their solidarity with the oppressed, even when cries for their death echo around them. In early April, we commemorate the deaths of two such saints.

          German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer died April 9th, 1945. He was a pastor and professor in Germany before and during the 2nd World War. As other church leaders aligned themselves with Hitler’s government, Bonhoeffer was among those who would not. He and others formed the “Confessing Church”. He would not sell out Christianity for his own safety. His God was the God who was in covenantal relationship with the Jews; he could not allow the Jews to be systematically removed from home and business and killed. Through his own ethical deliberation, he decided to become a co-conspirator in failed plots to assassinate Hitler. He was imprisoned in 1943 and hanged right before the end of the war.

          Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, died April 4th, 1968. He was inspired with God’s message of justice and solidarity with the oppressed. He dared to speak his dream of racial equality and integration. He had the audacity to question the status quo, to recognize God present among the shoved aside and pushed behind communities. He had the ability to lead a nation into steps for change. Despite being threatened, imprisoned, and bombed, he continued to work for justice. The day he was assassinated, he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. He saw his calling through to the end, recognizing his identity as a Christian called him to be present with those who suffer, working to end their suffering.


          We, gathered here at Zion this morning, are also called to follow Jesus. Not called to be martyrs for the sake of being martyrs. But, we must recognize that following Jesus can have its real costs. It has real costs because there is real suffering in our world. To come face to face with suffering, in our own lives, or in the lives of others, can be dangerous. When we stand with Jesus, present in, and working against, the suffering in our world, we just might be moved to action, or to a new understanding of the world and ourselves.

          However we find ourselves following Jesus, or struggling to do so, Jesus is with us. Jesus has prepared a place for all of us to be with him. Because of Jesus’ love and sacrifice- not our own.

          We do not seek to be a suffering community, a people who call martyrdom upon us, for the sake of some present or future glory. Our nation celebrates Earth Day this Tuesday, and it is good that we should celebrate God’s creation and recognize our responsibility to care for it. The life played out on this earth is not simply a testing ground to determine our eligibility into heaven. We don’t seek lives of suffering or death, afraid of the joys life brings, so that we can call ourselves pious people, well-deserving of riches in heaven.

          But there is suffering in our world. We who have been captivated by God’s love are called to live as God’s people. Jesus shows us what that means. It means to be present in love with those who are suffering. It means bringing reconciliation and healing. It means clothing the naked and visiting the imprisoned. And it also means being open to God revealing Godself in ways that break open the box into which we have locked God.

          When the world around cries out for peace, God hears. Do not let your hearts be troubled, thinking that God has abandoned us. God does not run from the pain of the world, but runs to embrace it, knowing it. We gather around the Lord’s table today, remembering that God, through Jesus, feels our suffering. We gather, receiving grace and forgiveness from the suffering one, Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

May the peace of God which breaks into all unrest, be present to you this week.

 

 

 

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