Annalena Tonelli was an Italian Roman Catholic volunteer working for 33 years in the Horn of Africa focusing on tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and special schools for hearing-impaired, blind and disabled children. In October 2003, Annalena Tonelli was killed in her hospital by Islamic Somali gunmen. (Wikipedia)
Jean Donovan was an American lay missionary, and graduate of Mary Washington College, who volunteered to do charity work during the civil war in El Salvador. Jean and three nuns were kidnapped and murdered in December 1980 by a National Guard death squad. Their deaths helped expose involvement by the U.S. government in El Salvadoran atrocities. (Wikipedia)
Jonathan Daniels was an Episcopal seminarian who answered Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for seminarians and clergy to work for civil rights for African Americans. On August 13, 1965, Daniels, in a group of 29 protesters, went to picket whites-only stores in the small town of Fort Deposit, Alabama. All of the protesters were arrested and taken to jail in the nearby town of Hayneville. On August 20, the prisoners were released without transport back to Fort Deposit. After release, the group waited by a road near the jail. Daniels with three others—a white Catholic priest and two black protesters—went down the street to get a cold soft drink at Varner's Grocery Store, one of the few local stores that would serve nonwhites. They were met at the front by Tom Coleman, an engineer for the state highway department and unpaid special deputy, who wielded a shotgun. The man threatened the group, and finally leveled his gun at sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed Sales down to the ground and caught the full blast of the gun. He was killed instantly. (Wikipedia)
Christians didn’t stop dying for their faith in the first century – they are at risk all around the world every day. You and I are blessed to live in a place where the First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of our faith – as well as that of other faiths as well. It was shocking to hear candidates in the last election who did not understand the First Amendment. To say that we are guaranteed free exercise of our faith, however, is not the same thing as saying that we will never suffer for our faith. Try telling a soccer or swim coach that you’re not going to play or practice on Sunday. Tell your boss that you’re not going to work on Sunday, or on Christmas, or Easter. Call down your friends when they use racist, sexist, xenophobic, or other hateful language or actions. Stop buying meat that comes from factory farms, or produce that isn’t organic or local. Tell your government you’re not going to pay taxes to subsidize torture. From soccer team to federal government, you’ll discover there’s a price for keeping the faith.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus overhears his disciples and others marveling at the beauty of the temple in Jerusalem. “The time is coming," Jesus says, “when not one stone of this temple will be left standing on another.” In the words of the modern prophet Bob Dylan, the times, they are a-changin’.
When the disciples ask Jesus when the revolution is coming, Jesus refuses to give them a calendar. There will be false messiahs and wars, earthquakes and plagues and signs from heaven, but those are not signs of the end, Jesus says. Somehow, all the Christian and other prophets who have become rich predicting the end of the world have missed this little point. (Well, maybe it’s all the gullible people who gave them money who missed the point.) But, Jesus says, before all this occurs, they will arrest and persecute you.
That’s the bad news. What’s the good news? Jesus continues: This will give you an opportunity to testify.
One of the few really good District Superintendents I’ve ever had was Joe Carson. For Joe, everything was divided into three classes of opportunity. The lowest on the list was a real opportunity. Real opportunities were usually something like cleaning out a septic tank. Brother Brooke, got a real opportunity for you . . . Understand, these were in the days before we had caller ID on our phones.
Second were great opportunities. Great opportunities usually had to do with accepting an appointment to a church no one else wanted: Brother Brooke, jes’ got a great opportunity for you to go to the Armpit Circuit: eight churches and a parsonage with no indoor plumbing.
The highest level were golden opportunities. These usually had to do with money: Brother Brooke, need to raise five thousand dollars for the district camp. Gonna give ten people the golden opportunity to give five hundred dollars each. Now, I know you want to give more, but if you do, gonna take away that opportunity from somebody else. Joe was so good that by the end of the call, you’d be begging him to let you give more money.
Thanks Joe – I mean, Jesus. We’re going to be arrested and persecuted and probably tortured and killed, but it’s a great opportunity to testify. Don’t do me any favors, Lord.
But Jesus goes on to say something even more remarkable: don’t prepare your defense in advance – I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to contradict. Now, Jesus goes on to say that this divine wisdom won’t save our lives – they’ll still kill us. But saving our skins is not the most important thing: what’s important is that we will testify to the glory of God and be faithful to the end. This is the only place in the gospels that Jesus directly promises us the intervention of the Holy Spirit – not to heal us or to save our lives, but to help us glorify God when we are in the greatest danger.
Now, most of us are not going to be stood up against a wall and threatened with being killed unless we renounce Jesus. We might lose some friends, or lose a promotion, or lose some popularity because of our faith. But every day you and I are threatened with crises great and small, and we are being watched to see whether we are fair-weather Christians or people who hold on when the storms are raging all around us.
How, for example, do you witness to your faith when you are sick or in pain? My wife will tell you that I am a really terrible patient: go away and don’t bother me. She has earned her halo many times over for tolerating me when I am in physical, mental, or emotional pain. I need God to help me learn how to glorify God in the midst of illness and discomfort.
What is your testimony when things don’t go your way? Are you a bad loser? When you don’t get that job, that grade, that place, that award, that raise, that whatever – how do you use that as an opportunity to glorify God? Do you work out your own little script, or do you trust God to speak through your mouth and your life?
What happens when you lose, or when you fail – when it’s your fault, and you’re wrong? Do you sulk, do you rage? Do you deny, and blame everyone and everything else? Or do you confess your fault, ask for mercy, and for help to do things differently? Not long ago I told a church member that perhaps the most important thing I do as a pastor is show the congregation how to be wrong right – to openly admit my mistake, ask for forgiveness, and not hold any grudges. I have a great deal of experience being wrong, and a little bit in being wrong right.
And, at the end of your world – at your death, the death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship, hope, or dream -- what is your testimony? One of the most amazing things about being a pastor is that I get to be with people who teach others how to live and how to die: with courage, with hope, with humor, and with uncompromised trust in the love of God to triumph over death. Revelation 14:13 reads, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. Yes, says the Spirit, they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them. You’ve known those people.
The end is coming for all of us, Jesus says -- the end of a dream, the end of a relationship, the end of a work, the end of a life. What will your testimony be? It’s a great opportunity.