224 1.3.15 Martyrs Morland Lent 2
May the words of my lips ..
We've been hearing quite a bit lately about heresies and heretics. I think we now have it firmly established that heretics are not nasty people who deserve a gruesome end, but rather they are deep-thinking people, often senior church people, past or present, who try to figure out their understanding of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Their ideas might not be accepted in the canon of orthodoxy, but it is absolutely right that they should go through these thought processes. And it is absolutely right that we should, in our turn and our time, go through the same processes. We believe that we have freewill, that we are not robots or puppets. We have the freedom and the duty to work out our own theology in our particular time and place.
And that freedom and duty applies to another word which is currently misunderstood and misused: 'martyrs' and, with it, 'martyrdom'. We hear about suicide bombers who believe, or are brainwashed into believing, that by their action they are ensuring a short-cut to heaven. What happens to those around them, of whatever faith or none, doesn't seem to matter.
We heard some pretty forthright statements from this pulpit last Sunday. Here is another. This sort of activity is not martyrdom.
The word 'martyr' comes from the Greek, and means 'witness'. There's no question that, over the centuries, many have preferred death to renouncing their faith. That is quite different from the 'suicide bomber' mentality. Many others, probably the majority, have gone on witnessing in their own way, and in their own time and place, without having to go to their death for their faith.
In our Gospel reading just now we heard Jesus say: 'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me'.
What that means for each of us is for each of us to work out. Jesus goes on to say: 'What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul'.
For many, and for some we know personally, it has meant giving up some lucrative employment and live on a minimum wage, serving God as full-time priests or lay-witnesses of one sort or another. Indeed there are others who do not draw a stipend, but make a minimal living in whatever way they can in order to follow their calling. Many will shake their collective heads and think them mad. Others will be thoughtful enough to wonder what it is that draws them to this way of life, and perhaps want to know more. Who knows? They in turn might find themselves drawn the same way.
For us, here in our comfortable way of life, 'taking up our cross' must mean, as an absolute minimum, caring for our neighbours, ones we don't know as well as ones we do. That means praying for them, contributing to financial appeals and using our own talents and gifts to help. There are those who put their own happiness and welfare on the line by fostering or adopting children who would otherwise have a very poor future. There are those who take relief convoys to disadvantaged places or even war zones - and sometimes pay the ultimate price. You can think of lots more examples.
We will be asked in various ways to give up something of our comfortable way of life - whether in time, talents or money - to witness to our faith. Lent is not a time for giving things up for the sake of giving them up. The idea of some extra self-discipline in Lent is that it should in some way improve our witness, that we should be martyrs, in the correct sense of the word.
I consider myself to be favoured indeed to be able to exercise a ministry of music. That is a talent I have been given and I enjoy exercising, and I believe that some have been drawn to faith through that witness. I'm thankful for that, but I certainly must not expect even to know that such an outcome has happened.
And there are so many ways - caring for each other, caring for our community, caring for our environment, caring for this place of worship - in which we can all witness to our love of God and to God's love for us.
We don't always know what God is calling us to do. We don't always know that He is calling us. I quoted recently the contrasting cases of two people, one of whom had grown gradually and steadily in his faith, but only came to Confirmation after he had retired from work; and the other a young man who had walked out of a Bible Class seeing little in it for him and then came back to the next session having had a 'Damascus Road' conversion experience. Something said at that first meeting must have been a seed planted, and somehow God made it grow, explosively!
We read of people who go off with aid convoys, quite ordinary people who might not claim to be Christians. I believe that the Christian ethic in which we were (most of us) brought up must contribute to drawing these people to take such risks.
However, others might disagree. They might say that in a village community we will all look after each other, Christianity or no Christianity. I can't argue with that: I can say only what I believe.
But what about people in parts of the world where there is active opposition to Christianity, for political reasons or because a different faith is dominant? You have only to look at the publications of Release International - you'll find the magazine at the back of the church, and you can look them up on the Internet - to discover the scale of discrimination, torture, murder, you name it, that is going on, and yet people are willing to stand up for what they believe. These people are 'martyrs' in the proper sense of the word. They are willing to accept whatever is thrown at them rather than recant their faith. They are 'witnesses'. And the church is often strongest in these places.
Perhaps we have it too easy. Perhaps our lives are too soft. In wartime, a community pulls together, and then when the war is over, people retreat into their own private selfish worlds. Everybody acknowledges that the community spirit was wonderful, but 'I'm too busy to bother with all that now'.
A few people stand out as having 'community spirit'. The latest thing in Morland is the pub choir. The person who said after the pub carol-singing at Christmas 'We must do this again' is not somebody we regularly see here, but the people who picked up the idea are people we do see. OK, it's only had 2 sessions so far, attended by about 20 people, but I'm pleased to see a goodly number of church people among those 20.
And the same goes for the pub quiz, now well-established. A good number of church people are found there, including Stewart. There are subtle opportunities for witness in any event like this, partly in our own behaviour - we must ensure that the word 'hypocrite' can never be thrown at us - but also in being ready to answer any questions or gently bring a Christian perspective into any conversation.
Remember the experience of the man who walked out of the Bible Class. You never know what word or action of yours will be the seed that was waiting to be planted.
There is another thought here. How would you, how would I, stand up if the pressure were really on? Stewart's sermons and some of mine are on the website. Just suppose that somebody picked up a phrase or an idea and took exception to it. Just suppose that they chose to come and throw a brick through our window - or worse. How would we stand up to that? (Such a thing did happen in Temple Sowerby not too many years ago.) How would it affect our nearest and dearest? Would we have the strength to stand up to it? Who knows?
And one more thing, for those who missed the first Lent Group last Monday. Stewart spoke about us walking a tightrope (and showed a picture of a tightrope walker above Niagara Falls). Our faith, our thinking, our heresies and our witness are all matters of balance. We can so easily be swayed from the middle ground (and fall off our tightrope). Perhaps this week's news about the young man who became 'Jihadi John' is a warning. How readily we can be persuaded! How readily we can be misled!
Perhaps we should heed Jesus teaching in Matthew chapter 10. 'If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.' Or the opposite of that: if you feel that somebody is trying to sell you an idea that you feel is wrong, you should say so, and if you are getting nowhere, go away and try somewhere else!
'Take up thy Cross/the Saviour said/if thou wouldst my disciple be'.