A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
November 10, 2013
Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21; Luke 20:20-38
Did you have any trouble getting to church this morning? It was simple: I got in my car and drove myself over just like I did last week and the week before. Most of you drove as well but some of you live so close to the church you could walk to church if you wanted. Any chance you might not make it? Any chance you might be pulled over and questioned by the authorities? Any chance you might be taken away leaving the rest of us to wonder what happened to you realizing we would never see you again? No. I didn’t suppose so.
But there are places in the world that today any or all of those questions might be honest and real. In the First Amendment, among the four freedoms described, we are given the assurance that the government will not meddle in religion, that it would neither embrace it nor impose it upon its citizens. The term given that is religious liberty where our citizens have the freedom to practice their religion or to practice no religion at all. The First Amendment is perhaps the chief sign that democracy is guided by freedom.
There are places where religious liberty does not exist and the freedom to practice your faith is not allowed. Could you suffer for your faith? Could you lose your life in those places because of your faith? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
When we read the news outside our own border, we realize there are fierce struggles between faiths which become the root of tyranny, persecution, and suffering. According to the Vatican, Christians are the most persecuted group in the contemporary world as they report that over 100,000 Christians are violently killed annually because of their faith. According to the World Evangelical Alliance, over 200 million Christians are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. Every year, the Christian non-profit organization Open Doors publishes a list of the top 50 countries where persecution of Christians for religious reasons is worst. This year’s list has the following countries as its top offenders: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, and Yemen.
If one pays attention to international news sources, whether it’s the newspaper or some other communications source, one will hear stories of persecution and suffering that occur because of one’s faith.
So tell me … where do they get it? Where does the courage to face such dangers come from when all they’re trying to do is to live their faith?
Our reading from this letter to the church in Thessalonica an early news report of what we read from the hard places in the world where Christians in beleaguered countries have endured since we met just last week.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship with whom we partner for missions and other projects has intentionally focused its efforts on places in the world where the gospel of Jesus has not yet reached, in locations around the world that have come to be known simply as, “the hard places.” I traveled with a group of CBF pastors to visit one of those hard places where we visited Baptist nationals and CBF Field Personnel alike, to get a feel for what it means to be a Baptist Christian in those places.
I traveled with your blessing and support a few years ago along with eight other pastors to Beirut where we visited with a gathering of Arab Baptist pastors who had come to Beirut to attend a missional church conference at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. These were Arab-speaking Baptist pastors from Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq. My impression of them was very positive. They were bright and committed. They were chatty and interesting, full of spirit and life. They had great energy to give to their ministries and like most gatherings of Baptist pastors they were very competitive with one another.
The pastor of the Baptist church in Baghdad was just like that. He was young, probably in his early 30’s, of average build, and it was obvious he bore no grudge against this group of American Baptist clergy who eagerly wanted to talk with him. This meeting took place as the U.S. had taken full possession of Iraq and we were actively waging war in his homeland. Why did that not seem to matter to him?
We’re taught to separate personal feelings about those with whom we wage war so we might demonize them. That’s done in order to justify our actions. I found it difficult, as you might imagine, to bear down on another’s country with the vengeance of our military and not feel some guilt when brought face-to-face with a colleague in ministry who’s serving the church in that country. It’s much easier to drop bombs in a country where you don’t see them as fellow believers and share a meal together in a weeklong conference on creating a missional church in the context of where we live.
Reading these lines from the letter to the church in Thessalonica helps us remember we live in a blessed time and place in the relative safety where religious liberty is woven into the founding documents of democracy.
This letter’s written in a time of fear and anxiety. The people were afraid and their faith was shaken. At least a partial reason the letter was written was that the fear of the people had caused them to be susceptible to erroneous teaching and to those who would willingly deceive them. So the letter opens with a prayer for the church before it addresses those other concerns.
Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God
for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions
and the afflictions that you are enduring
2 Thessalonians 1:4
In this and in other places in the Bible, they are described as, “standing firm …” What an interesting phrase to describe the spiritual strength to endure! It takes character and backbone to stand firm when under pressure. When push comes to shove and one has no place to hide, one stands. When one knows who they are, they can stand. When one holds a truth deep in their hearts and believing means standing, one can muster the strength to endure.
“Standing firm” under the weight of the threats they were facing helps us understand more about what it meant for first century believers to take a stand for Christ. It’s too easy to get swept up in our own security and overlook our blessings and forget them, assuming they are assured and ours forever.
“Standing firm” is the ultimate commitment. Finding a new, easier way of living faith based on unsound teachings from fraudulent teachers who have found ways to make a living preaching these shallow lessons draws the weak. The strong stand firm. They stand on truth, as they know it, not needing that truth to be easy or self-serving. They stand on truth that is hard.
Jesuit Father Luis Espinal Camps was assassinated in La Paz, Bolivia, by paramilitary forces in March 1980 because of his stand in defense of the poor. Just prior to his violent death, he wrote this meditation on resurrection faith while living in the face of fear:
Now has begun the eternal “alleluia!” There are Christians who have hysterical reactions, as if the world would have slipped out of God’s hands. They act violently as if they were risking everything.
But we believe in history; the world is not a roll of the dice going toward chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen … Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph…with our bodies still in the breach and our souls in tension, we cry out our first “Hurrah!” till eternity unfolds itself.
Your sorrow now has passed. Your enemies have failed. You are a definitive smile for humankind. What matter the wait now for us? We accept the struggle and the death; because you, our love, will not die! We march behind you, on the road to the future. You are with us and you are our immortality!
Take away the sadness from our faces. We are not in a game of chance…You have the last word! Beyond the crushing of our bones, now has begun the eternal “alleluia!” From the thousand openings of our wounded bodies and souls there arises now a triumphal song!
So, teach us to give voice to your new life throughout all the world. Because you dry the tears from the eyes of the oppressed forever…and death will disappear…
To these sisters and brothers, we are called to stand alongside them to bear witness together of our faith in God.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).