Saturday, November 16, 2013

Speaking The Truth To Power...

My sources include Deutsche Welle,, and The Daily Beast. You can find your Representative here, and your Congresspeople here.

Luke 21:5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."

They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them.

"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Luke is recounting, in this part of his Gospel, the final week before Jesus will be executed by the Roman authorities. At this point in history, Herod’s Temple is still under construction, and will be for a number of years to come. As we pick up the narrative, Jerusalem is packed to bursting with families that have come to take part in the feast of the Passover. And however much people dislike, distrust, even hate whichever Herod happens to be in power at a given time, there is no denying the beauty of this structure. From about any point in the city, one can look up and see the Temple, its white marble highlighted with gold decorations, smoke from constant sacrifice wafting through the air and to the heavens.
By the time Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, the Temple has been under construction for some forty-six years. Barely anyone alive would remember the Temple as it was when King Herod I undertook its renovation in 19BC. Most folks would have heard about it: small, rather run-down despite constant repair and expansion, maybe – just maybe – when compared to the beauty of the temples the Greeks and Romans built for their gods, a little embarrassing. No matter; that building was actually torn down as part of Herod's building project. But since the daily religious activities had continued without interruption, Herod’s Temple was still considered the second Temple, first constructed by the returning exiles in 515 BC.

The magnificence of this work in progress filled the hearts of every Jewish man, woman, and child with pride. Here, at last, a building which personified the Jewish people and the Jewish God, every stone and every embellishment dedicated to the One True God, who had led them from captivity in Egypt, and had brought them back from Babylon. And right there, in that tallest structure on the innermost courts, was the Holy of Holies – and while no one would admit believing that God actually resided in the Most Holy Place, still deep down, when you looked at the glory of the structure, witnessed the solemn dedication of the army of priests, and felt in your soul the beauty of the singing of the Psalms, it was hard not to think that this was the place where God lived.

But can God be contained in a building? Of course not, it’s silly to even pretend that it’s worth discussing in a sermon. So let’s change the question: can a people’s identity, can a faith tradition’s identity, be so closely identified with an architectural creation that it is, in effect, inseparable?

The Jewish people may have thought so. Thankfully, of course, they were wrong. I say “thankfully,” because only three years after the Temple was finally completed, in AD70, it was utterly destroyed. Not one stone was left on the other. As we've talked about in past weeks, the Pharisees were able to, in effect, save the Jewish faith from obsolescence when the Temple, the focal point of their faith, ceased to exist.

Long before that time, mere days from when Jesus utters these words in our reading today, he will shout, “It is finished!” and in that tallest structure in the Temple, the heavy curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the planet will be ripped apart, torn from top to bottom like tissue paper.

Anyone who looks will be able to see that this most holy place, the chamber which once housed the Ark of the Covenant, the place where God lives... is empty.

As empty as Jesus' tomb on Resurrection Sunday.

From Easter morning on, God’s identity, God’s community, God’s activity will reside not in a building – even a beautiful building – but in people: men and women in every time and place. The Gospel isn’t a residence. It’s a journey, and since the moment the tongues of flame settled on the disciples’ heads on the Day of Pentecost, God's spirit has been loose in the world, and people have been moving.

Men and women found themselves at odds with the Roman authorities, arrested and killed for daring to refuse to worship Caesar, blamed for everything from foreign invasion to natural disaster, they knew, firsthand, what Jesus meant when he said, “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

Imprisoned, tortured, and killed, still they refused to abandon their trust in the living God, their faith in the risen Christ.

I confess that I am doubtful if anyone in the United States today has any understanding of what it’s like to undergo true persecution. Yet there are places on this planet right now, today, where men, women, and children are being imprisoned, starved, tortured and killed for the crime of believing in Christ. 

According to the German aid organization “Open Doors,” across the world some one hundred million Christians are undergoing persecution in 2013, in countries including North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. In Egypt, Coptic Christians are coming under increasing fire from the Muslim Brotherhood, which blames them for the ouster of Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi. In September, a Taliban suicide bomber killed at least 85 Christians in All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Syrian Christians continue to suffer at the hands of Islamist rebels and, according to one report, fear extinction if Bashaar Al-Assad falls.

Two thirds of Iraqi Christians have simply vanished, having fled the country or been murdered for their faith.

Yet even in environments where Christians are persecuted and killed, the faith grows. In India, despite a growing anti-Christian bias, some seventy-one million people, across all social strata, count themselves as followers of Christ, making it the eighth largest Christian nation on the planet.

Perhaps you and I don’t know what persecution is like. Perhaps it falls on us, then, to be the voice of those in countries who cannot speak up for themselves. It’s as simple as a letter or email to an elected official, calling on them to push for human rights in all areas of the globe.

It’s as simple as writing a check to a ministry or organization that works to support imprisoned and persecuted Christians, and, for that matter, any marginalized and neglected segment of the world’s population.

It is simple, but it is vital.

Kirsten Powers, a columnist for The Daily Beast, quotes Israeli author Lela Gilbert as saying that, while her Jewish neighbors are “are shocked but not entirely surprised” by the attacks on Christians in the Middle East. “They are rather puzzled, however, by what appears to be a lack of anxiety, action, or advocacy on the part of Western Christians.” Powers notes that, while American Christians are quite able to organize around issues that concern them, religious persecution appears not to have grabbed their attention, despite worldwide media coverage of the atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

In January, Republican Representative Frank Wolf penned a letter to 300 Catholic and Protestant leaders complaining about their lack of engagement. “Can you, as a leader in the church, help? Will you use your sphere of influence to raise the profile of this issue—be it through a sermon, writing or media interview?”

There have, according to Powers, been far too few takers.
Wolf and Democratic Representative Anna Eshoo sponsored legislation last year to create a special envoy at the State Department to advocate for religious minorities in the Middle East and South-Central Asia. While it passed in the House overwhelmingly, it died in the Senate. In January, it passed the House again, but the bill sits idle in the Senate, where there is no date set for it to be taken up.
Imagine the difference an outcry from constituents might have made. Is anybody listening? When American leaders meet with the Saudi government, where is the public outcry demanding they confront the Saudis for fomenting hatred of Christians, Jews, and even Muslim minorities through their tracts and textbooks? In the debate on Syria, why has the fate of Christians and other religious minorities been almost completely ignored?
Part of what Jesus speaks about in our reading today is the art of “speaking the truth to power.” He says, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

We must speak. We must write. We must act.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the authors of the “Theological Declaration of Barmen” in our Book of Confessions, wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” And Martin Luther King Jr. is quoted as saying, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Jesus has promised to give us the words to say. It is up to us to speak.

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