February 24, 2013

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

“Take Courage!”

What does it take to be a Christian? Some might say that Christians need to be loving and kind. Some might say that Christians need to be open and friendly. Some might say that Christians just need to have the faith to believe. But our scripture passages today suggest that the most important characteristic of a Christian is courage.

When God is speaking to his people in the Bible, it’s not unusual for God’s introductory words to be “Be not afraid.” I suppose that standing face to face with God, or even just hearing God’s voice speaking to you directly was perhaps a rather scary experience. But I think that, more generally, God was often calling his people to do some rather risky and scary stuff. They had good reason to be feeling nervous or afraid.

In the case of Abram, whom we read about this morning, God has led him away from his homeland and sent him on a journey towards a new place to found a new nation. God has promised him good land, and many descendants, and God’s own blessing. But at this point in the story, Abram is starting to get worried. He hasn’t even had a child yet, let alone a son to continue his family line. And why should Abram believe that the land that he had come to would be his? Others might come and try to take it from him. Without a family and a nation to follow him, how would the land be protected?

And so God says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Yes, you will have descendants… as many as the stars in the sky. Yes, you will have the land… you and your descendants will live here in safety… I make that promise, that covenant with you today. And Abram believed God, and he was filled with courage, and eventually the promises were fulfilled.

In New Testament times, the followers of God needed courage also. The Apostle Paul, writing from his prison cell, encourages the Christians at Philippi to follow his example – an example of courage. He warns them that many people live as enemies of the cross of Christ. If that were not the case, Paul probably wouldn’t have been thrown in prison for preaching and teaching about Jesus.

But Paul encourages his Christian friends not to be discouraged. The threat of these enemies is real and dangerous, but the victory will go to those who set their minds of heavenly things and who seek to follow Jesus Christ. The enemies of Paul and the Christians may have a lot of earthly power… the power to throw the Christians in jail, the power even to have them killed… but the final victory will be God’s victory.

No matter what may happen to the Christians during their earthly lives… whatever humiliations they may suffer, whatever pain they may endure… their final destination will be heaven. Their Saviour, Jesus Christ, has prepared a place for them. As Paul wrote, “our citizenship is in heaven,” and this assurance is what gives them the courage to “stand firm in the Lord.”

The early Christians, like Paul, who suffered so much hardship and persecution for their faith, must have taken every opportunity to gather for worship and prayer, to sing the psalms and to grab a hold of the courage they needed to keep on following the difficult way of Christ. With the author of Psalm 27, they would have repeated: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh – my adversaries and foes – they shall stumble and fall… [God] will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble… Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

I think it’s fair to say that Christians in Canada today don’t experience much in the way of persecution for our faith. Our society has become a culture of tolerance in which people are free to believe whatever we want to believe. We can say “Jesus is Lord” or “Merry Christmas” or whatever we want really, as long as our beliefs and our proclamations don’t impinge on the freedom of anyone else believing and proclaiming their own religious convictions or lack thereof.

But the problem is that our Christian faith is not just about believing certain things. It’s not just about the faith that we have that there is a God, and that God loves us, that we have experienced God’s presence in Jesus Christ, and that Christ has given us the promise and assurance of everlasting life through God’s amazing grace. But indeed, our faith calls us to change the way we live, to change our relationships with our neighbours, and even to change – to transform – the society and the world in which we live. And that is, I think, where we need to stand firm with the courage of God.

I was reminded this week about a good example from American history: On December 1, 1955, an African-American department store worker was asked to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, so that a white person could have her seat. She refused. When the driver asked why she didn’t move, Rosa Parks simply replied: “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” The bus driver called the police and an officer responded. As she was led away to jail, Ms. Parks asked the officer: “Why do you push us around?” Her arrest sparked a bus boycott organized by a 26-year-old named Martin Luther King Jr. Within a year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s state and local laws establishing segregation on buses were unconstitutional.

I had the opportunity to begin reflecting on this morning’s scripture texts a few weeks ago when I was invited to write a short reflection for the KAIROS website. As many of you know, KAIROS is our Canadian Ecumenical organization for social justice work. Let me remind you of the mission statement of KAIROS:

In a time such as ours…
KAIROS unites Canadian churches and religious organizations in a faithful ecumenical response to the call to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Informed by biblical teaching, KAIROS deliberates on issues of common concern, striving to be a prophetic voice in the public sphere. Inspired by a vision of God’s compassionate justice, KAIROS advocates for social change, amplifying and strengthening the public witness of its members. Responding to Christ by engaging in social transformation, KAIROS empowers the people of God and is empowered by them to live out our faith in action for justice and peace, joining with those of goodwill in Canada and around the world.

As I reflected on the lectionary texts for this Sunday, and as I thought about the call for Christians to work together for justice and peace for all the people of the earth, I realized that justice work is one area in which Christians and Churches truly need the courage that comes from God – not just to believe what Christians believe, but to live out our faith and transform the world into a place where the dignity of every person is protected and the earth itself is cherished and preserved.

When our faith moves beyond just our beliefs to a commitment to work for justice and peace, it’s then that we start to get into trouble with our neighbours because we’re calling for change. We’re calling for transformation in the lives of individuals and societies, in policies and practices. And the power structures of our world don’t often respond well to those kinds of calls.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus sounds frustrated to the point of giving up on Jerusalem. The Pharisees are hounding him again and warning him to stay away from the great city, and Jesus laments the lack of response – indeed, the evil response – of the people of Jerusalem to his prophetic message. He cries, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

As Jesus’ ministry began, he preached in the synagogues of Judea and gathered disciples to learn from him and join in his work. He used his healing power to help rejected people, and called outsiders to be among his inner circle of followers. He taught that we must love our enemies, and demonstrated that love by helping foreigners and forgiving sinners. At times, Jesus’ message was rejected, but his mission grew and grew as he gathered more and more followers and sent them out to do the same.

But the opposition was great. Jesus’ ministry was impeded again and again by those who seemed to have the power and authority to put a stop to his progress. Just as Jesus prophesied that the day was coming when the first would be last and the last would be first, and the kingdom of God would be filled with outcasts and nobodies coming from east and west to share in the great feast, the authorities show up and attempt to put him off.

The Pharisees warn him: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” But Jesus cannot be stopped with death threats. He says to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’” As frustrated as Jesus may be by the negative response of Jerusalem and the established powers, and as disappointed and heartbroken as he may be that some are not willing to be gathered into the household of God, he will continue his work.

There are demons to be cast out, cures to be performed, and children to be gathered today and tomorrow, and on the third day Jesus will finish his work. Did you notice the language there – “on the third day”? Jesus goes about the work of healing, helping, and gathering God’s children – enduring the challenges and taking the risks – with the sure and certain hope that in the end God will accomplish the final victory.

After my little reflection was posted on the KAIROS website, I received a nice email from Stephen Allen who works in the Justice Ministries department of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and who represents the Presbyterians on the governing Board of KAIROS. Stephen said, “Your reflection gave me a lift.”

You see, people like Stephen and other Christians who work day in and day out in Justice Ministries can sometimes get frustrated and discouraged. They can get frustrated by the lack of response, by the barriers that they encounter, and by the outright opposition from governments, leaders, and people in positions of power. Sometimes they may also get frustrated because other Christians and Churches seem to be content to gather together to worship and to believe what we believe, and we do not respond as wholeheartedly as they would like to the call and commitment to justice and peace.

The Season of Lent is a time of turning and returning to God and to the way of Jesus that we are called to follow. As we continue to spend time in prayer and reflection this season, I pray that God will fill our hearts with the kind of longing that Jesus felt for all the people of Jerusalem, for all the people of the earth. For he lamented the injustice and the suffering and the evil that continued to rule in the world, and he “desired to gather [the] children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

And when we meet with the challenges and obstacles that come with the risky work of seeking justice, may we receive the courage that comes from God and share in Jesus’ determination to continue the work of seeking justice today and tomorrow, trusting that on the third day God will finish the work. Amen.