When I think about the world I’ve grown up in, the unfortunate reality, going back to my sophomore year of high school, with the events of 9/11, is that it has been one where fear has been at the root of so much of what we do.
I can remember going to the airport as a young child to see my oldest sister off as she flew to one place or another, and being able to walk with her the whole way to her boarding gate along with my parents… saying our goodbyes just before she got on the plane, and watching her plane take off through the window before making our way back through the terminal and to the car… A memory my children will never have, because, as those of us who fly know all too well, today, in our post September 11, 2001 world, if you aren’t actually boarding a plane yourself, you can hardly get past the front door in most airports. Terminals are marked with security check after security check… each one adorned with the top of the line metal detectors, x-ray machines, and baggage scanners, and heavily stationed by guards, police, at times even police dogs, and of course, from wall to wall, like so much of world today, camera after camera after camera.
In a similar vein, I can remember those elementary school fire-drills that every kid looked forward to, as it meant a ten-minute break from class and a short time to get outside. Today, our daughter Gabrielle, now in kindergarten just up Straton Street at Lincoln Elementary, not only has fire drills, but too, rehearses what to do, if, God forbid, some unstable/unhealthy individual with a gun, would decide to enter the school with intent to play God… The unfortunate reality for all of us who currently have children or grandchildren of school age, as our most recent school-shooting in California has brought back to the forefront of our minds…
With news reports over the past year telling of restaurant and store massacres, and those over the course of the past two weeks on such things as “Man fatally stabbed over sandwich”, “Teenage girl charged with murder after tying down and killing animal rescue advocate”, “Chemical attack hits kindergarten in China as riots rise”, not to mention those countless unsettling reports on our world’s political climate, if I’m being honest, and my guess is you would agree, it is, at times, hard not to wonder if the world as we know it, isn’t coming to an end… Throw in the facts and figures of the decline of faith and the institutional church, well, it doesn’t get any better. I’ll come back to this later…
In our gospel for this weekend, Luke writes of Jesus warning his disciples of the end times… the apocalypse… the eschaton… Of the time to come when every stone will be overturned, when nation will rise against nation, when there will be great earthquakes, wars, famines and pestilences, of fearful events and great signs from heaven… when those who are truly faithful will be betrayed by those closest to them who do not believe… parents, brothers, relatives, and friends… events that could easily be mistaken for those that fill our news rolls today.
As with our gospel from last week, noted by Pastor Mike in his sermon, today’s gospel is part of a larger narrative.
Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem and to the cross where he will give his life for the life of the world… and as he journeys, he attempts redefine how people live in relationship to one another and to bring people to faith.
Specific to today’s gospel, he calls them to witness. To have endurance in their faith, even when the world around them appears to be coming to an end, and to witness to him, that others would come to believe in his name.
In the Greek, Luke uses the word μαρτύριον, where our English version of the text reads “witness”. A word that has, over the course of history, come to be used for martyrs… For, those people who have literally given their lives for their faith… who because of their witnessing of the Good News of Christ, were persecuted, tortured, and put to death.
When it came time to discuss worship for this weekend at our weekly staff meeting, I shared a bit about what was on my mind in terms of my sermon. After reflecting on Gabrielle’s active shooter drills at school, Tim spoke about how they reminded him of the nuclear bomb “duck and cover” drills of the past. Some of you no doubt remember these.
Following awareness of the initial flash of light, teachers and students were instructed to stop, drop to the ground facedown under a desk, close their eyes, protect any exposed skin and the back of their heads with their clothes, and wait until instructed otherwise.
So here’s the thing… The sad reality of our world, from the time of The Fall, when Sin entered the world by way of Adam and Eve eating the apple, up to this very moment… is that it is one too often made up of death and destruction… of war, natural disaster, famine and pestilences… one where our decisions for how to live are rooted in fear… where people are betrayed by those closest to them… where people kill people as if life holds no value at all… where those elected to lead too often suppress those they have sworn to protect, and where innocent children are too often stripped of their innocence by the sins of those people who should be seeking to make theirs lives better instead of destroying them…
I said earlier, that I’d come back to the state of the Church… So here ya go.
Following his Deans Meeting this past week, Pastor Mike shared some startling figures from Bishop Dunlop in regards to the ELCA. Listen closely. Over the course of last year, 1/3 of all ELCA congregations had no baptisms at all… not a single one… One-Third…
Again, over the course of last year, there was a 2.3% decline in ELCA membership… a percent, that should it continue in a straight line, would bring the ELCA out of existence by the year 2041… That’s just 21 years folks… I don’t know about you, but to me, some pretty frightening statistics…
As Jesus speaks of these sins of the world in relation to the end times, he calls those who seek to follow him to witness to him, for it is through faith in Him that life is gained.
The question before us today, as it was for those early disciples, is our faith and the church important enough to us to actually witness to Jesus and to His Good News? Are we willing to give our lives to the One who gave his life for us? Will we spread the Good News of Jesus Christ in our world? A world that is in desperate need of good news… Will we invite our neighbors, our friends, our family to come to church? Will we live lives worthy of the name given to us in baptism, seeking to make this world reflective of the kingdom to come?
For, “The time will come when not one stone will be left on another… Nation will rise against nation… There will be great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences… you will be persecuted… all on account of my name… you will be betrayed… people will hate you… This will result in your being witnesses… do not be frightened… For I will give you words and wisdom… By standing firm you will gain life…”
Will we witness…
As we find ourselves surrounded by these signs of the end of the world, Jesus calls those who seek to follow him, each of us included, to witness to him… to follow him in all that we say and in all that we do and bring others to do the same. Not just to gather here in church for worship to sing hymns, to make the sign of the cross at confession, and to receive the sacraments… but to actually go forth in peace in service to the Lord as we are sent… To flip the statistics of church decline into those of church growth by witnessing to the one who through giving his own life, gives us life even in death… To live out our baptismal promise, as we will hear in just a few moments as we wash Eleanor Rose Wertz in the waters of grace; to proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace…
We are so richly blessed here at St. James. By our building and our resources, by our ability to care for those in need locally and across the globe, and by our people… by each and every one of you here today and so many more… But most importantly we are so richly blessed by God in Christ.
As you hear those words we recite each and every week, to go in peace and serve the Lord, may you do so to the fullest extent of what it means to witness.
May you offer hope to those who feel as though there is no hope and the promise of eternal light and life to those whose lives are consumed by darkness and death. And may you yourselves hold firm to the promise proclaimed by Christ even when everything in your lives and in the world around you appears to be coming to an end, “Do not be frightened… For I will give you words and wisdom… By standing firm, you will have life!” Thanks be to God… Amen.
~Pastor Andrew Geib