A Church Anniversary Sermon
Luke 17: 5-10
Some are saying the monks of Myanmar are no more. The saffron revolution is over. The dream of these peace-loving clerics was that they might act as a conciliatory go-between for the impoverished population and the brutal military junta that has reigned for over a decade.
Today monasteries are empty, international communications are severed and most of what we now hear comes from anecdotes told by the occasional refugee that stumbles out of the jungle on the Thai border.
See a report here
Why did these monks, in their thousands, believe they could make a difference? Was it faith? Many are now dead or disappeared. Did it work?
“Increase our faith!” the disciples said to Jesus.
On Feb. 12, 2005, Sr. Dorothy Stang walked along a dirt road deep in the heart of Brazil’s Amazon, on her way to meet a handful of poor farmers bearing up under harassment from illegal loggers and ranchers. She trudged along, until two hired assassins blocked her way. In response to their challenge, she produced maps and documents proving that the government had designated the land as a reserve for the landless poor.
“Do you have a weapon?” they asked.
Yes, she answered, showing them the Bible she carried for decades.
She opened it and began to read aloud: “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the peacemakers …” Then, she said, “God bless you, my sons.”
The two shot her six times and ran. Her body lay on the dirt road all day, nearby witnesses later said, because they were afraid they would be shot if they moved it. As it rained, her blood mixed with the dirt.
Was Dorothy Stang foolhardy? Was her faith fruitful? Did it make any difference to the poor that she served? Did it change her killers in any way?
“Increase our faith!” the disciples said to Jesus.
ONE year ago last Tuesday, a man entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, dismissed all but 10 girls, and fired at them execution-style, killing five before shooting himself.
Donald B. Kraybill, coauthor of the book, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy writes:
Within hours, the Amish community forgave the killer and his family. News of the instant forgiveness stunned the outside world – almost as much as the incident itself did. Many pundits lauded the Amish, but others worried that hasty forgiveness was emotionally unhealthy.
In dozens of interviews with Amish people since the tragedy, I discovered that the Amish approach to forgiveness is indeed quick and unconventional – but also inspirational to the rest of us.
Members of the Amish community began offering words and hugs of forgiveness when the blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor. A grandmother laughed when I asked if the forgiveness was orchestrated. “You mean that some people actually thought we had a meeting to plan forgiveness?”
As the father of a slain daughter explained, “Our forgiveness was not our words, it was what we did.” Members of the community visited the gunman’s widow at her home with food and flowers and hugged members of his family. There were a few words, but it was primarily their hugs, gifts, and mere presence – acts of grace – that communicated Amish forgiveness. Of the 75 people at the killer’s burial, about half were Amish, including parents who had buried their own children a day or so before. Amish people also contributed to a fund for the shooter’s family.
For most people, a decision to forgive comes – if ever – at the end of a long emotional journey that may stretch over months if not years. The Amish invert the process. Their religious tradition predisposes them to forgive even before an injustice occurs.
Amish faith is grounded in the teachings of Jesus to love enemies, reject revenge, and leave vengeance in the hands of God. As a father who lost a daughter in the schoolhouse said, “Forgiveness means giving up the right to revenge.”
Unlike those who hire lawyers at every turn to protect their rights, the Amish yield to divine providence in the case of an unspeakable tragedy such as the one at Nickel Mines – believing that God’s long arm of justice removes that need for human retaliation.
In the Amish view, forgiveness is a religious duty. As a young Amish carpenter said, “It’s just standard forgiveness,” but he was wrong. Conventional Christian forgiveness posits a God who forgives sinners and urges them to forgive others – to pass the grace on to those who wrong them. The Amish refrain – “If we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven” – shows a different impetus. Their salvation hinges on their willingness to forgive, a powerful motivation to extend grace to others. They cite the Lord’s Prayer, and Jesus’ story about an unforgiving servant as their motivation. One bishop, pointing to verses following the Lord’s Prayer, said emphatically, “Forgiveness is the only thing that Jesus underscored in the Lord’s Prayer.”
“Forgiveness was a decided issue,” one bishop explained – decided, that is, by Amish history and practice over the centuries. When the religious ancestors of the Amish were torched at the stake for their faith in 16th-century Europe, many of them, echoing Jesus on the cross, prayed aloud that God would forgive their executioners.
Despite their front-loaded commitment, the Amish still find forgiveness to be a long emotional process. Though there were no expressions of outright rage or hopes that the gunman would burn in hell, the wanton slaughter of their children did bring deep pain, tears, and raw grief.
While forgiveness means not holding a grudge – “the acid of bitterness eats the container that holds it,” one farmer explained – the Amish are clear that it does not free the offender from punishment. Had the gunman survived, they would have wanted him locked up, not for revenge but to protect other children.
In mainstream society, retribution is a taken-for-granted right. Around the world, names of deities are often invoked to fuel cycles of revenge generation after generation.
In refreshing contrast, rather than using religion to bless and legitimize revenge, the Amish believe that God smiles on acts of grace that open doors for reconciliation.
Is the Amish perspective realistic? Has their unusual and isolated lifestyle resulted in a Pollyanna response to deep tragedy? Or are they simply modelling the way of Jesus?
“Increase our faith!” the disciples said to Jesus.
Here we are again celebrating a church anniversary. 42 years of faith finding expression through our worship, witness and mission here. We have stories to tell. Perhaps not as extreme as those I’ve just relayed – nevertheless, we have our stories of faith that we have collected from our experiences together in this place.
In spite of all, and particularly when confronted with stories like those we have just heard, we find ourselves at times confronted with uncertainty and doubt.
We stand with those first leaders of Christ’s church making our plea – “Increase our faith!” the disciples said to Jesus.
If ever there was an icon for magnificent focused saintly faith during the 20th century, it was Mother Teresa. In surrendering her life to working and living among the poor and the dying of Calcutta, her name has been a household word for decades.
“What faith, what tenacity, what focus,” we whisper admiringly. “If only that kind of faith was possible in my circumstances.”
A recent biography (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light) that makes heavy use of Mother Teresa’s 50 years of private correspondence with her confessors and spiritual directors reveals that Mother Teresa continuously hungered for this kind of faith that eluded her all her life.
Her correspondence reveals an agonising lack of the experience of the presence of Jesus and an excruciating darkness of the soul that convinced her of his absence.
(see Time magazine article )
Even to her later years, much of her dealings with her counsellors focus on this crisis of faith.
So what are we, in our humble strivings, to make of all this talk of faith, the faith that if we had just a small inkling, just a poppy-seed size amount of, we could make trees jump into lakes?
The monks of Myanmar tried it – they were stamped out.
Sr Dorothy Stang tried it – she was murdered.
The Amish community of Pennsylvania practice it and remain a curiosity, an oddity to be stared at by many but emulated by few.
What then can we expect from our plea, “Increase out faith?”
We can expect exactly what Jesus replied. Hear it in Nathan Nettleton’s dynamic translation.
Think about this: If you employed a full-time servant, you expect him to do what you pay him for, don’t you? If he comes in from a day working your land or shearing your sheep, you are not going to tell him to put his feet up while you run his bath and fix his dinner are you? Instead you will tell him to take his boots off, fix your supper, and wait on your table until your meal is over. After that, you’ll let him knock off and fix his own meal. You don’t pin a medal on him for just doing what he’s paid for, do you? So remember that it is the same with you. When you have done what is required of you, don’t go expecting anyone to put your name up in lights. Instead say, “We are nothing special; we were just doing our job,” and leave it at that. ©2001 Nathan Nettleton www.laughingbird.net
There’s our timely marching orders, folks, as we launch out in faith into our 43rd year in this place. Don’t squeeze yourself trying to get a few extra drops faith out for what we are meant to be doing or being here anway.
You are simply called to do the task that Jesus has called you to do – follow him – and don’t expect fanfare or reward.
That’s all the monks of Myanmar were doing – knowingly or not, they were treading the path of Jesus.
That’s all Sr Dorothy Stang did.
And it’s the path of obedience that the Amish of Pennsylvania follow.
And Mother Teresa? Her life speaks for itself.
And her biography reveals an even greater gift – an insight to the human and Jesus-like struggles of the most faithful in the Church’s long 2000 year old story.
In the 1950s, she drew great comfort from the advice of one of her spiritual directors, Fr Joseph Neuner,
When she turned to him with her “darkness,” he told her three things
– that there was no human remedy for it (thus alleviating her feeling of being responsible for what she was experiencing)
– that “feeling” Jesus is not the only proof of his being present
– and that the felt absence was in fact part of the “spiritual side” of her work or Jesus.
So Mr Teresa continued the work of the faithful servant in Jesus’ illustration to his disciples, saying in the end, “I am nothing special, I was just doing my job.”
Now here’s an idea. See if it works for you.
Try the word “focus” in place of the word “faith.”
“Lord, increase our focus”
“If you had focus as sharp as a needle, you could be the disciple I am calling you to be.”