Church the Holy Apostles, Penn Wynne
Sermon, Rev. Barbara Abbott
Sermon, Rev. Barbara Abbott
October 2, 2016
Today is the Sunday when we remember St. Faith, whose Saint’s day is October 6th. If you don’t know her story, it’s a short one – but an extremely powerful example of martyrdom in the name of Christ. End of 3rd Century under Emperor Maximilian, this beautiful young woman was apprehended by a prefect, Dacian. When she was asked her religion, she witnessed to serving Christ. Dacian demanded that she renounce her faith and worship the Roman goddess Diana. She minced no words, proclaiming the gentile gods devils. Dacian threatened her with torture and death if she didn’t instantly recant, but Faith, remembering the courage of the martyrs, prepared herself to suffer and die. Dacian bound her, took her life by burning, along with beheading anyone who also refused to sacrifice to Diana.
We remember St. Faith’s story in the context of our reading from 2 Timothy today – coincidentally, St. Timothy was also killed two hundred years before Faith because he would not yield to Diana-worship, but proclaimed the gospel instead. We’ll read most of 2nd Timothy over the next weeks, so I believe it important to give some of the background of the letter. Then, I’d like to reflect a little on these high-stakes, extreme sports versions of Christianity, our present-day world and our own lives.
In the letter to Timothy, Paul reaches the end of his life in a prison in Rome. He instructs Timothy, his travel companion, friend and loyal disciple, on whom he has laid hands to bless his future ministry. In this letter, Paul communicates in a most personal tone, handing down the essence of his strong faith which he prays will live on in Timothy. But for this to succeed, Timothy must be prepared to suffer for the path ahead is an incredibly demanding, downward one. Paul admonishes: “Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling.”
Now, by all objective criteria – what young man would choose Paul as their guide? Isn’t he sick, tired, aged, imprisoned – utterly defeated by the State? But Paul changes the narrative, rendering his predicament the most compelling possible state. Notice whose prisoner Paul is: “Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling.”
Paul speaks from the perspective of the soul teacher to the young, loyal disciple. And the words are transformative for Timothy – instead of a long, arduous descent toward death, he perceives an extraordinary victory. The difference is that it’s not a personal victory – it’s God who is winning, not Paul. Paul has completely submitted to God’s will for him.
This isn’t to say that Paul has left the concerns of the world entirely – he foresees many ministry challenges – among them false teachers and will warn Timothy that a time is coming when people won’t care about sound doctrine, but will seek out teachers who substitute lies for truth. Yet, a kind of peace settles in for this old apostle. His life-force spent, Paul now sees God carrying forward the mission, and he lets go his own tight grasp at last.
His successors, like Timothy, commit themselves to defending the faith. We still see Christians like these tested in the world today – all willing to suffer and die before they would give up their love for Christ. The Pew Research Center finds that 75% of the world’s population lives in areas with severe religious restrictions. Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution either from their governments or surrounding countries. Currently, the toll of Christians killed for their beliefs come to about 320 people monthly. Hundreds of churches and Christians’ properties are destroyed, and finally about 772 imprisonments or violence strikes Christians.
These losses pale, however, in contrast to the number of Muslims being killed in the world, particularly since the U.S.-led War on Terror in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those estimates range conservatively from 1.3 – 2 Million people. Many of these were civilian deaths – non-combatants, but counted as “collateral damage.” This doesn’t even include Syria, which now looks to be one of the greatest human catastrophes of our time. So many followers of Islam, swept away during a cataclysmic civil war with determined outside actors.
These statistics remind us that religious tolerance comes at a price – usually after long struggle. Christians should be ardent in their protection of people of all faiths having endured so much sacrifice historically ourselves. But we are witnessing the highest level of intolerance against Muslim people in the U.S. since 9-11. And the hateful words and behaviors during the current political campaign won’t end with the election as people have come to feel comfortable making gross generalizations and uttering derogatory remarks – all authorized by very public national campaign discourse.
God yearns, I believe, for peace and for us to achieve it through tolerance.
Our challenges are different than Paul’s – but still involve fierce commitment, passionate advocacy and selfless love. We are witnessing our parishes decline in members and the closing of many churches. This is a kind of persecution! The experience could cause many to lose heart. But we are called by this holy calling to teach our children to have faith and to witness our own faith by word and example. We do so by contributing to make a better world – teaching, healing, care-giving, administering to social needs. We hold up the needs of others and of our earth. None of us escapes the dark night of the soul – the wormwood and the gall or the homelessness described in our verses from Lamentations, but we seek and are sought by God. We understand our lives to be lived within the path Jesus showed us. We hold fast to our holy calling.