Lament...and Beyond

Lamentations 1:1-6, John 11:1-16

World Communion Sunday, October 6, 2013

Back in the 1930s a Presbyterian minister named Hugh Kerr persuaded American Christians to designate one Sunday when Christians in this country would recognize and celebrate our unity in Christ with brothers and sisters around the globe. The idea caught on and this is one of many, many reasons that I am proud of being a Presbyterian. In years past we have marked this day by using a wide variety of bread as we celebrate the Lord's Supper. Some years have had heard words from the communion liturgy in multiple languages.  This year as usual we are hearing and singing music from many different countries. I remember once celebrating communion in Mexico on a mission trip and not understanding any of the spoken words except "Jesus" and "amen." and still feeling a closeness and unity with people who worshiped the same Lord and Savior that I do. All this unity and kinship was conveyed in bread and wine.

This year I want to make a very different point on World Communion Sunday. In many countries Christians suffer for following Christ. They are persecuted, threatened, discriminated against, harassed and even killed for doing what Christians do, gathering for worship, feeding th hungry, comforting the sick and educating the next generation. As a lifelong resident of the United States (I have only spent about 10 weeks of my life outside this country.) I can only begin to imagine what it is like to suffer for following Christ.

Suffering is real and everybody knows difficulty, struggle, pain and sadness. This is not unique to followers of the Living God. The lesson from Lamentations makes that very clear. But there's something else we need to understand about lamenting—"[It] is the sound suffering makes when it receives its voice," according to a South African theologian [Denise Ackerman] To express sadness and despair to God—as Jeremiah did in Lamentations--because your country has been overrun, defeated and occupied by a foreign power, because your people's spirit has been crushed is a sign of deep, strong faith.  Really. The faithless response would be to give up, to not give expression to your misery because God either doesn't care, or isn't able to do anything about it. The faithful response is to seek God when things are at their worst, to continue to have faith in the midst of the pain. With that in mind, I going to lead us a tour of the world this morning, visiting Christians in three countries that have been in the news recently. Countries where Christians are a persecuted, yet faithful presence, and an example to all of us. 

First is dispatch from Africa, an instructor at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt. His [?] name is being withheld for security reasons. He writes of some of his former students who are pastors of churches throughout Egypt. I have summarized this message substantially.

Warm greetings to all of you in the grace and peace of Christ. While circumstances continue to be difficult for both Egypt and the larger region, we are very grateful for the opportunity to be here with so many dear friends, colleagues and students.

Many of you have read about the violence in Egypt in August. The significant loss of life and the brutal conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters on the one side and the Army on the other has polarized the country. Sadly, August also marked a dramatic rise in attacks on Christians. Most of the burned churches belonged to the Coptic Orthodox Church and five of them were Egyptian Presbyterian churches. Of these five, four were led by my former students.  I focus on these four with the hope that the details of their particulars will put a personal face on the news you are reading."

Two students he mentions by name are Sameh & Ekram

I am amazed at the maturity, wisdom and courage of my former students. Sameh held worship in the charred remains of the sanctuary just four days after the attack. As he addressed the congregation, his words were of hope rather than revenge.  He confidently assured his congregation, "This will make us better Christians."

Stories like this are important because each person and community is important. I share them with you because I am inspired by these people and grateful that they are a part of my life.

But I would also be doing a disservice if I did not convey some of the other stories I have heard in recent days. In many and even most communities, Muslim neighbors rose up in solidarity and love to protect the churches in their neighborhoods.  For every burned church, there are many stories of churches that were protected by communities that refuse to spiral into the violence.

Ekram wrote this in a Facebook post "I would like to give a very special thanks to our Muslim and Christian neighbors who defended the church today and protected it from abuse. I give special thanks to Professor Hosny for his balanced [Islamic] sermon that was filled with love. Thank you, Hamadeh Ahmed, Mustafa Sayed, Eid Kamal, Amr Mostafa, Hamada Nagah, and Girgis Joseph."

Diego Higuita, general secretary of both the Presbyterian Church of Colombia and the country's Uraba Presbytery, has visited our Presbytery. One of his colleagues, The Reverend Milton Meija has been to this church and even rung our bell! [I'm taking this from the PC (U.S.A.)'s Peacemaking website.]

Diego describes what Presbyterians in Colombia have faced for a long time, "Those of us under 50 can only imagine a life without conflict," he said.  The conflict has affected Higuita's small mountain hometown of Dabeiba, to which he returned after completing seminary studies in 1997 to serve as both a pastor and an ambulance driver. "I was facing every day very painful, very difficult things in addition to my own fear."

He spoke of a woman living next door to him who had fled paramilitary forces that killed her husband and sons in front of her and her daughters, falsely claiming that she had cooperated with guerrillas aligned with the Colombian government. The assassins found her in Dabeiba and threatened her again, ordering her to leave town. "She had no money, no clothes, nothing, and she said to me, 'When you're driving the ambulance and going to Medellín (the regional capital), please take me,'" Higuita said. Though it was illegal and life-threatening for him to do so, Higuita granted her request, secretly transporting her and her children, along with a patient, to the capital city, a five-hour drive that the party completed that night in only three hours.

Shaken by the plight of this neighbor, Higuita thereafter involved himself in sheltering displaced persons and denouncing human rights violations in Colombia. "We organized with other churches in Colombia, asking, 'How can we make this problem visible?'" he said.

I find this extraordinary! Rather than cowering in fear, Colombian Presbyterians, who are facing violence because they are offering shelter and support to those whom the government has targeted as enemies, are seeking to join with other Christians to make this problem more visible! Our Presbytery has been in partnership with Uraba Presbytery for more than ten years.  So we are helping them tell this story and make it visible to the world!

"They said, 'We are not alone. We have friends in other places. We can build something,'" Higuita said. "The vision of the people of Uraba has changed dramatically. They said, 'We are a church and we have a testimony and we have a chance to give it.'"

There have been a number of recent violent attacks on Christians in Pakistan in the last month. Christians make up about 2% of Pakistan's population. Most Christians a re descendants of people who were converted to Christianity by missionaries, some more than 100 years ago. Because of this legacy Christians are associated with Pakistan's colonial past and are often targets of extremists because of their connection to the West, rather than their faith.

Pakistan is a hard place to be a Christian. Archbishop Joseph Coutts says, "We feel most of the time we are not equal...the growing feeling is that we are not even wanted.  Still, Fred de Sam Lazaro points out "Christian schools remain strong and open to all. Many of the country's elite attended Christian schools." In spite of the persecution, Christians cannot emigrate because they are so poor. They continue to strive to be faithful in the face of discrimination and violence. [This information came from pbs.org/newshour 9/30/13]

I will conclude with some thoughts on the passage from John's gospel. Jesus knew persecution. Just before this morning's reading, Jesus had left Judea because he was going to be attacked.  After he heard that Lazarus was sick—and waited a few days—he told his disciples he was going back to Judea.  They knew this was a dangerous decision. Still, out of loyalty to his friend Lazarus, Jesus resolved to go to Judea in spite of the danger. Thomas boldly says to the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." And it's unclear whether Thomas means that they should die with Lazarus, or with Jesus.  I believe Thomas understood that following Jesus would lead to death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

Those are stark, bracing words. Words from a man who did indeed die living out his faith in Christ. I doubt that anyone here today will ever be in a position to suffer death for witnessing to the risen Christ. So I have held up some examples of this kind of faith this morning. We need to be grateful for our security here in this country—and we need also to be inspired and challenged by the faith of our sisters and brothers in Christ in other countries, on this day when we celebrate the global reach of the church of Jesus Christ. Amen.