Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
I love my life; and I hope that you can say the same thing. I am grateful every day for all the love that surrounds me, the food on our table, a home, choices. So I question: in a world of so much need, so much struggle, what does it mean to wear this, my life, lightly?
Today’s readings require us to live with that tension: To hold fast to the covenant of our faith, and lightly to our life – even as we live it with gratitude and joy.
Stories of Abraham remind us to trust in the unfathomable faithfulness that the God of our ancestors, the living God, shows to us. In every age.
Mark’s gospel emphasizes the need to be alert to the signs of the times. Jesus’ and his disciples are committed to making way in their day for the unfolding of God’s Kingdom. Demanding the justice of God’s home will come at a cost, and Jesus asks for followers who can carry their cross to be sure they understand. There is no mistaking that line in the contract!
It’s good that we take some quiet around that, not only in our homes, but here, together.
The world news hurled at us this Lent will require all the quiet we can find.
I’m still reeling at news of the beheading of 20 Coptic Egyptians and a Ghanian in Libya. Young men, supporting families they’d had to leave behind. Some were reported to be invoking the name of Jesus just prior to execution. How first century: their blood turning the Mediterranean red along the shore. When I was young, lives of the saints and martyrs depicted a time and spirituality too remote to conjure – and provided more gruesome images of death than television. Martyrdom was a topic I never expected to be prominent in the news 50 years on.
These 21 men were immediately declared martyrs by Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Church. Some of their family members have spoken out about the joy they feel in knowing that their sons and brothers’ lives were honored with a death that witnessed their faith. The history of the early martyrs was not forgotten by this community over 2 millennia, and has been refreshed over the past few years with renewed persecution. This is news we have to ponder.
(See http://www.nationalreview.com/article/414400/what-martyrdom-looks-interview for artist’s invitation to share but not sell this icon)
An Egyptian born Copt created this digital icon, to honor the group. It has quickly been adopted as a memorial and inspired an online collection to provide for the men’s families. In an interview digital artist Tony Rezk quoted Tertullian of the 2nd century “The blood of the martyr is the seed of the church”. So may it be that their blood strengthens our witness for the peace of Christ, and against war.
Then in the immediate wake of the slaughter on the beach, we learned that about 262 Assyrian Christians, mostly speakers of Aramaic, the language of Jesus, have been kidnapped by the self-proclaimed Islamic state. Men, women and a few children from the homeland of St. Peter the apostle, where the first few centuries after Jesus had the largest number of Christians on earth. Our sisters and brothers in Jesus, with whom we share one baptism. Let us pray for their improbable safety and an end to this violence. Hoping against hope.
But I also learned that only now, in recent weeks, have any number of Assirian Christians begrudgingly begun to fight back in earnest. Long Pacifists -perhaps by necessity- the defenders of this now Christian minority have begun to attract even some expatriates to help them resist those who murder in the name of Islam.
And we hear of the continued destruction of villages, and on our side of the world the drumbeat for more war.
Pope Francis said recently of the grisly death of journalist James Foley that “it was, really, martyrdom.” Foley had often told of the importance his Christian faith and prayer had for him during his captivity.
Others have raised that term in speaking of Kayla Mueller, the humanitarian aid worker. Francis also indicated that he wanted the church to consider whether those who are killed “for performing the works that Jesus commands us to do for our neighbor” are martyrs just as those who are killed for professing the creed. +“
“I will always seek God,” Kayla wrote in a letter to her family in 2011, before she was kidnapped in Syria. “Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”
Sounds like the real deal!
I would note that Christian use of the term martyr is quite distinct from that of Islam. Islamic tradition describes 7 categories of martyrs, which correspond to how a person dies. These are: plague, abdominal disease, drowning, debris, intestinal ulcers, fire and childbirth. Yes bombs cause debris and fire, but Since suicide is against the Qu’ran, most Muslim scholars do not consider suicide bombers to die as martyrs.
Early Christians began using the Greek word Martyr, “witness” to describe someone who died for their faith. And whether these were drawn to expose unpopular truth through journalism, venturing beyond the secure zone to touch those wounded by war, or facing persecution by terrorists simply for being a minority Christian presence, we have been blest with the clear witness of too many new martyrs in recent years.
And yet more courageous people reach out each day. Maybe you also know Kathy Kelly, who has devoted her entire adult life to witnessing for peace, protesting at the Federal building since at least 1980 while a Catholic school teacher in Chicago. She has made a life of peacemaking presence months at a time, over decades in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza. She has led marches across the Midwest and punched her passport in endless county jails and a few federal prisons. At times a voice in the wilderness, she puts her faith to work and makes sure never to earn enough to pay federal taxes. She owns nothing of value.
Kathy sheds a truth-revealing light that inspires people over the world. She has spent months of U.S. intense bombing in the Middle East in the belly of the beast, escorting children to school, sewing blankets with their mothers, being present- and then telling their stories. Amid her many awards and 3 Nobel Peace prize nominations, what I think is the coolest is her face in the roster of Americans who Tell the Truth. There’s a website, and a book. What a singular accolade!!
Spreading truth is also what it will take to put and end to excessive imprisonment and solitary confinement in Dane county. It is time to shed light on the truth about the racial disparity in sentencing, the ware-housing of the mentally ill and addicted, and the unconscionable use of solitary confinement in our jail system.
As a community maybe we can reach a bit further across the racial divide and befriend a smaller congregation from MOSES, maybe join them for a meal and conversation
We will continue our long-term presence at Luke House, and in Vera Court, and maybe the stories we learn there can be shared in further advocating for the social and educational needs of the people we meet.
Importantly, we can be open to the hopes and gifts of new members and join them in ministries we haven’t yet imagined. Hoping against hope, with St. Paul, calling forth new things that hadn’t existed.
Jesus tells us that if we are to follow him, we must deny ourselves, take up a cross, and be prepared to lose our lives for his sake. That is pretty clear, and so we should. Be prepared. We prepare ourselves, good scouts, by living always in a way that would ring true to our faith if we died in the midst of it.
If we live in the light of the Gospel, we can see our own implication in the suffering around us. Mark’s Gospel shows us how political this life is. If we bring that light to a world threatened by poverty, injustice, violence, we step further into the reign, the home of our Just God.
Then, whether we meet death on a highway or in our beds, or even if our discipleship should lead to our own head being dropped to the sand, our blood will ring out with truth and there will be joy among the saints.
For the courage of faith communities everywhere to speak out against war, and commit to ending the racism, greed and injustice that make it more common. Let us pray
For all who seek truth and justice in our communities and nations, that they will grow in number, in cooperation, and in witness, Let us pray.
For Christians and the enemies of Christians, for Muslims and the enemies of Muslims, for Jews and the enemies of Jews, that we all seek truth and peace in our faith and end persecution of one another based on religion, nation, and ideology. Let us pray
That we will find Joy in the Gospel this week, and that we will share that Joy with others. Let us pray.