I am trying to prepare my sermon for tomorrow, with our daughter and her friend watching Ratatouille, that excellent movie from Pixar that was just released on DVD. I would much rather be watching that or, really, in bed. Travel is tuckering me out. So of course I am blogging and poking around web comics instead. In fact, I have a good idea of where I am going with this sermon; I started it in Cinci last night. The readings are Genesis 28: 10-17, Romans 10: 8b-18, Matthew 4: 18-22 (which are not the usual ones for this lectionary and I am not too sure why) and my sermon will be about Jacob’s moment of revelation, within the context of his life, that here is the Lord.
For centuries the church understood someone to be a “saint” as one who not only had professed and demonstrated great faith in Christ, but also as one who had suffered greatly for that faith or who had done mighty things through their faith. In the last few centuries, since the Reformation, many have returned to a more ancient and Scriptural understanding of the body of saints as representing all those who profess Christ as Lord. We are all the body of Christ and as such we are all “saints.” The term is derived from the Latin sanctus, “holy.” We are all made holy through Christ and his sacrifice for us. Today we commemorate and remember all the saints, all those who have gone before and continue to struggle today to live into the holy calling that inherit as brothers and sisters with Christ.
When I was a child I used to read about the saints, the ones who were persecuted by the Romans and who died rather than recant their faith in Jesus as God. An odd childhood I suppose, especially for someone who grew up in a Presbyterian home, but I was fascinated and afraid of their strength and power in the face of certain death. Just last week a candidate for a position here at Penn State gave a presentation on the women martyrs of the early church. This is her field of expertise and she suggested at one point that none of the stories were likely historical. (Perpetua, etc.) It is true that the precise details as they are recorded in the annals are not likely to be first-hand accounts of the sort that we would expect from today’s reporters. Yet there is no doubt of the historicity of the actual events; men and women were set before lions and gladiators, tortured and beaten for their faith. And many many died rather than recant their belief in Christ.
So as I child I would read these stories and ask God to spare me such trials. I knew I could never bear up to such a trial. Now that I am older I realize that I will never face such challenges, or at least it is not likely. Because I also realize that many in this world continue to be tortured and killed for their faith. Just this week I heard a story on the cable news about a Palestinian Christian who is working in Gaza and has received death threats for his humanitarian work in the name of Christ. But we live in a very safe and secure environment here. We are not persecuted for our faith. Or are we?
I know that I have felt, especially when I was a student, that I would be judged harshly for my beliefs. Even as a faculty member I have known that some of my colleagues at Tulane University were not happy that a person of faith was on the faculty, let alone a Christian teaching and directing the Jewish Studies Program.
Some of you know that I was ordained to the priesthood just two short weeks ago. It was a long process and a long time coming, over eight years in process and decades in prayer. During these last few months my wife and I would talk regularly, wondering how the President and Provost would react, how my colleagues and peers would respond, what the students would think. At the time I said that whatever persecutions and hardships I might have to endure would be nothing compared to that of those in Sudan and Indonesia, let alone that of the saints such as Paul and Bishop Cranmer. We must keep our lives in historical perspective.
As it happened, when a reporter from the CDT asked to do a story on my ordination I emailed Drs. Spanier and Erickson. Their support was overwhelming and humbling. When people read the story, students, members of the community, and others, the response was completely positive.
Our church, the Episcopal Church, is going through great turmoil right now. In fact, as of tonight at least one bishop in this state, and maybe two, have been inhibited by the Presiding Bishop. That means that they will not be allowed to perform their roles and duties as ordained ministers (let alone as bishops). These two are facing different challenges and both happen to be on opposite ends of the political and theological spectrum. With all of the handwringing and talk of parishes and dioceses leaving the church, regardless of one’s position on the issues du jour, I keep thinking to myself, “Who is being persecuted? And how?” I know of no one in our church who has been persecuted, not in the true and deep sense of the term. Certainly there are those who feel that are those who feel they are not able to practice their faith as fully as they feel called and there are others who believe that they are being asked to compromise on matters that are to them central. And many have been harassed and attacked for their views. This is, I suppose, technically the definition of “persecution.” When I think of those who did not back down from their confession of faith, those who did not leave the fight or move to a safer place, just because they were called names or challenged I believe that what we are facing today in America, in the Episcopal church, is not persecution.
Yet no one is being tortured, put on a stake, throw before lions or a firing squad. These are what one friend describes as “first world problems.” Other Christians throughout history and the world do not have the sort of luxury that we do to debate and cry “persecution” because they are actually being persecuted, even unto death.
I say all of this to put ourselves and our own sainthood into perspective. I have no desire to put anyone else up on pedestals or to denigrate our own struggles and crises of faith. These are real and deep. The moment when a professor dismisses anyone who believes in God as being intellectually bankrupt, leaving you sitting in your seat wondering whether this is the moment that you stand up and shout “I believe” can challenge our faith to its roots. We stand before the procurator and the accuser. How do we respond? (“Innocent as a dove and shrewd as a serpent”) But at least we can be encouraged knowing that whatever our response we are safe.
We must be encouraged and know that it was Jesus himself who said,
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”
Stand firm in the faith, know that you are a saint and that all the saints rejoice with you as we recite the creed, declaring our faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.