Saturday, October 4, 2014

Bearing Witness by Speaking the Truth in Love

Feast of Saint Faith
5 October 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

         More than seventeen hundred years ago a young woman was executed by the Roman imperial government in what is now southern France.  The stories associated with her death differ in some details, but one aspect of her story remains constant:  Faith was executed because she had chosen to live her life following the way of Jesus of Nazareth.  This way of life challenged the Roman imperial government because the Christian way claimed that there was a greater loyalty than loyalty to the state.  Even though in the letter to the Romans Paul exhorts Christians to pray for the state and for its leaders, our prayers for the state and for its leaders are always to be tempered by our vision of another world, a world in which all God’s children shall be free, free from oppression and violence, free from hunger and homelessness, free from any form of discrimination and prejudice, free to become who we truly are as God’s beloved.

         This vision of the world is not always welcomed by others.  Our vision is not welcome for several reasons.  One reason is that we believe in authority rather than power.  Authority relies upon mutual respect and accountability between the parties.  Those who wish to exercise authority know that conversation and dialogue are the primary means to achieve the common good.  Authority knows that it must offer a vision or hope.  Power, however, can be exercised without conversation and dialogue.  Power does not have to offer hope or a vision; power need only have the means to coerce by force, whether that force is psychological, emotional or physical.  Power’s greatest tool is fear.

         Faith ‘threatened’ her persecutors with a vision of a new world that offered hope to all who are made in the image of God.  This vision was so persuasive that the only way to combat it was with the brute force of the imperial regime:  confiscation of goods, imprisonment, exile and, in some cases, cruel tortures and death.  These punishments were meant to overcome the vision with fear, the natural fear that human beings have of death in all its forms.  What Faith did was to speak the truth in love to the Roman government, but its representatives could only see the threat to their own understanding of a world in which might makes right and in which those who have had the right to take from those who have not.

         By choosing Faith as the patron saint of this parish, our predecessors, whether knowingly or unknowingly, have bequeathed to us the same vocation as hers.

         My friends, all we need to do is to read the newspapers or listen to the radio or watch television to realize that our times are not so different from those of Saint Faith.  Throughout the world there are powers who are happy to use all the tools of coercion they possess to suppress the vision and the hope that genuine religious faith in all its diversity offers to humanity.  Every day new witnesses to genuine religious faith, people whom we call ‘martyrs’ from the Greek word for ‘witness’, are persecuted in many and various ways.  While we generally use the word ‘martyr’ for those who are killed for their faith, let me be faithful to the New Testament understanding by saying that all who share the vision of a new world and the hope that it will come to be are ‘martyrs’, witnesses to this vision and to this hope to our sisters and brothers.

         Being a witness to this new world always comes with a cost.  For some of us this cost is counted by the resources we devote to the life of our religious communities, whether by our volunteer hours, by our financial gifts and by the use of our skills and knowledge to further the mission of God.  For others of us the cost is counted by the resistance to our vision of a new world we experience from friends or neighbours, co-workers and employers, even by elected municipal, provincial and federal governments.  For those of us in North America the cost is rarely counted by actual persecution, forced migration, imprisonment and death expect by those of our neighbours who choose to leave the security of our continent to provide or facilitate direct assistance to those in need elsewhere.

         What guides Christian witness is a vision shaped by the scriptures and the example of Christians throughout the centuries.  What sustains Christian witness is a hope fueled by our experience, from time to time, of the reality of that vision in the lives of women and men.  What Christian witness must be is the persistent and confident speaking of the truth in love, even to those who are held in thrall by the forces of fear and death.

         The truth, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu prays, is this:  ‘Goodness is stronger than evil; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death; victr’y is ours, victr’y is ours, through God who loves us.  Victr’y is ours, victr’y is ours, through God who loves us.’ [1]  We who follow the Christian way know that this truth is shown to us in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  But we believe it to be a truth held in trust by people of many faiths and of none.  We speak this truth not to condemn any of our sisters and brothers nor to place ourselves above others; we speak this truth in love, a love which is described in Paul’s words to us last week in his letter to the Philippians:  “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2.3-4)  It is a truth for which we are prepared to bear witness --- even if it costs us.

         But there is something else about bearing witness.  Bearing witness to the truth that we know in the good news of God in Christ is an act of freedom and of joy.  Bearing witness to the good news frees us from bearing witness to the illusions and delusions of self-centredness and fear.  God is working out the divine purposes in us, through us and with us.  Every day, if we have eyes to see it, the signs of the coming world for which we hope are visible:  the hungry are fed, the naked clothed and the prisoners freed whether their hunger, their nakedness or their imprisonment be physical, spiritual or emotional.

         Bearing witness to the good news fills us with the joy that comes when we know that we are doing what we are called to do and to be.  It is a moment of calm centredness when we know that we are not only in God’s presence but that we are God’s presence in our homes, our neighbourhoods, our workplaces, our world.  I remember, as a boy, singing the American hymnal’s version of Luther’s great hymn, ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’. [2]  I have never forgotten the last verse:  “That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth:  The Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth:  Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill:  God’s truth abideth still, his kingdom is for ever.’  To my young mind and heart this affirmation was and has remained a constant reminder of our destination --- the kingdom of God --- and the reassurance that the joy of knowing where we are bound cannot be taken from us by anyone or anything.

         May God grant us the grace to bear witness by speaking the truth in love, in freedom and in joy.  Amen.

[1] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), Hymn #721.

[2] The Hymnal 1940, Hymn #551.

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