Spirit of Witness


This weekend we call to mind the memory of the men and women who have fought to secure our freedoms.  From the first shots fired on Lexington Green to the soldiers, sailors, and Marines on the front lines today.  They fought and fight to secure the most cherished freedoms that we have including the freedom to worship as we each see fit.  Freedom of religion, or the freedom to worship and practice our religion, not forcing someone else to believe the way we believe, is counted among the first of our freedoms.

But this was not always the case. In 1620 a group of people, who were decenters from what would be called the Church of England, left Leyden England for the New World.  They wanted to worship in a much simpler style, a style they believed the early church practiced.  They felt that the reforms of the Church of England did not go far enough.  They had been separated and even jailed by the government for their beliefs.  So they left England and sailed to what would be called the Plymouth Colony.

Not long after, more would follow, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be established North of Plymouth.  Freedom to worship, or worship the way the leaders of the Colony wanted you to worship, was part of the laws of the new Colony.  In 1638 a young girl named Anne Hutchinson would come up against this freedom.  Anne’s father has a minister, and she had learned theology at her home with her father.  Anne had a strong belief, and so she started preaching and soon crowds were gathering at her home.

Word had spread about Anne, and there was a rumor that she was criticizing the Puritan ministers in town.  She was arrested and brought before the Governor, John Winthrop.  She was charged with preaching against the teaching of the established Church.  You see Anne was a woman, and women were not allowed to preach.  She was exiled to Providence Rhode Island and in after she moved to what is now New York, she and her children were killed in an Indian Raid in 1643.  When Governor Winthrop heard about her death, he said that it was justification that she had displeased God.  There is a statue of Anne on the grounds of the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston.

None of us sitting here today will face the same kind of persecution that our ancestors in the faith had to endure nor will we face the same sort of persecution as Christians in other parts of the world.  We all traveled here today without any difficulty.  No one shot at us, the doors of the Church were open when we arrived.  No one has told me what I can or cannot preach about when I stand here.  No one is going to be arrested if they have a different belief than the person sitting next to them.  So what is the relevance of this passage of Scripture that we heard read today from the First Letter of Peter?

We have to turn to the 9th verse of the 5th chapter to find the answer:

Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.

Whether referring to persecution or to the more common distresses and frustrations we all feel every day, the point is that as Christians we are not flying solo.  The Christian faith is not individualistic, it is not just about my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we are part of the one body of Christ, and although a personal relationship is important, we are part of a much larger family when we make the decision to become followers of Christ.

Today’s text, especially the 9th verse of Chapter 5, reminds us that as Christians we are part of the whole and we do not exist only for our needs.  This awareness is critical, dare I say essential, to our ability to relate to others and the troubles they face.  If we understand ourselves as part of the whole, and not just on an island all alone, then we will be able to achieve solidarity and common ground, and understanding with others not only as part of the Christian family but in the context of the world family.  We cannot save our prayers and concern only for those of the Christian faith, but we must show care and concern for people of all faiths and seek to protect their right to worship as much as we strive to protect ours.

The further we separate ourselves from others the less we can engage the world in Christ-like love, the very essence of which is love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

I mentioned before the disaster chaplain training that I attended.  One of the roles of the chaplain in an emergency situation is to be the liaison between the elements of the government and the religious institutions in the affected area.  Houses of worship are usually the largest buildings in town and usually, for the most part, survive the disaster.  There is also a built-in network of communication.  We have the ability to establish contact with church members in a variety of ways, and if we have an already established relationship, we know the vulnerable populations in the place we live.

The disaster chaplain is called upon to be that bridge between the government and the houses of worship because we speak the same language.  It is amazing to me how fast the things we disagree on seem to disappear when we are talking about the restoration of essential services like food, clothing, and shelter.  We work with everyone and support everyone regardless of the house they chose, or not chose, to worship in.

But what of our relationships with others, people right here in our community and by that I mean the person sitting next to you.  All of us are at a different place in our faith journey.  All of us are in a different place when it comes to our understanding of Scripture and how that should be applied to our lives.  If I actually care for the one sitting next to me, then I need to meet them where they are and love them no matter what they believe.  During his earthly ministry, Jesus met people where they were and just loved them as they were.

When Jesus would meet with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, beggars, all of the dregs of society, he was chastised by the church leaders of the day.  Someone like Jesus should not meet with folks like that.  He was breaking down the cultural norms of his day to bring the love and acceptance that they so desperately needed.  All of those people had been shunned by the church, and along comes Jesus who held out his hand and said: “I love you as you are, come, follow me.”  It was a simple message that would transform their lives.  No screaming, no legislation to force them to follow him, just a simple invitation from a simple man.

We are in troubling times for sure as people of faith argue over all sorts of issues.  As I mentioned already, we are all in a different place on our journey and as much as we might disagree with the person sitting next to us, or the person standing here before you, it is an imperative that the differences we have and that exists between Christians, not be allowed to sever the connectionaltiy that we have and that this text we heard today urges us never to abandon.

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