Faithful Witness in Times of Trial
The following sermon was preached by José David Rodriguez, Augustana Heritage Chair of Global Mission and World Christianity, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, November 11, 2010.
Today we celebrate “Veteran’s day.” This celebration can be traced back in the United States to President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation of Armistice Day on November 11th, 1919. In proclaiming the holyday he said:
"To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with lots of pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations." (The History of Veterans Day. United States Army Center of Military History. 3 August 2009. http://www.history.army.mil/html/reference/holidays/vetsday/vetshist.html.)
In 1953, an Emporia, Kansas shoe store owner named Alfred King had the idea to expand Armistice Day to celebrate all veterans, not just those who served in World War I. King had been actively involved with the American War Dads during World War II. He began a campaign to turn Armistice Day into "All" Veterans Day. With the help of then-U.S. Rep.Ed Rees, also from Emporia, a bill for the holiday was pushed through Congress. President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law on May 26, 1954. Congress amended this act on June 1, 1954, replacing "Armistice" with Veterans, and it has been known as Veterans Day since (History of Veterans Day. United States Department of Veterans Affairs. 2007-11-26. http://www1.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp.)
This morning I also want to celebrate the lives and dedication of another group of veterans that Luke the evangelist highlights in his gospel. These are “veterans” of a longer and demanding battle. A battle that began at the time of creation, and continues to be fought today, against the forces that challenge the indwelling of God’s reign among us. The remarkable contribution of these veterans as well as of those that have fought in the battles declared by this nation that we celebrate today, is their faithful witness in times of trial.
The Gospel Account
You have probably heard the gospel narrative read more than once this week, not only on Sunday, but also as the biblical foundation of several of our chapel worship homilies. This morning I will focus once again on this story, for its valuable teachings. Here we have what biblical scholars’ call Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (20-49), which in its Matthew’s parallel is more popularly known as the Sermon on the Mount (5:7). In spite of their differences, the importance of the narratives, whether in Luke or Matthew, is that they present an important lesson about the nature and demands of discipleship.
Jesus’ teaching in this section of the sermon sets in place two principles that pose stumbling blocks for most modern Christians: the repudiation of privilege based on wealth and the repudiation of retaliation that spawns violence. These principles are diametrically opposed to the assumptions of the marketplace and the media that shape American culture and most of the world today: The wealthy are privileged, and conflict requires that one show strength through retaliation. Our heroes therefore, are usually neither poor nor non-violent. As a result, the power of materialism and the quest for possessions have increased dramatically during this century, and violence in our homes, schools, streets and planet, is rampant.
Jesus’ alternative is not sheer passivity but intentional and uncompromising action to undermine hostility and violence. He taught a new attitude toward possessions and persons in need, and a new response to hostility. The juxtaposition of the first and second sections of the sermon, which deal with poverty/wealth and hostility respectively, also suggests the relationship between the two problems. Oppression of the poor, materialism, and the presumption that problems can be settled by violence and force are all related. Jesus’ teaching to his disciples, therefore, calls for imaginative, uncompromising, but non-violent responses to the problems that have borne such bitter fruit in our own time (The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. IX Luke; John, 148-9.).
A Contemporary Witness
Last year, I was invited by Martin Junge, the present Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, to participate in a “Pastoral Visit,” along with the President of the Lutheran Church in Chile, Gloria Rojas, an alumnus of our D.Min program in Mission and Leadership, and Rev. Anders Lindow, the representative of the Church of Sweden in Central America. Our task was to serve as special envoy to address a dilemma facing the Evangelical United Lutheran Church in Argentina. One of its congregations, Olaus Petri, serving a community of predominant Swedish heritage in the province of Missiones, was experiencing an excruciating impasse between the members of the church council, who also constituted the Board of Directors of their financially successful and distinguished college, the pastors and most members of the congregation.
The situation had become so difficult, that the President of the church, Alan Eldrid, had excommunicated the members of the congregation’s church council after they summarily forced out their pastors, restrained the entrance to the congregation’s building by changing the door locks, and began a process to rescind their relationship with the Evangelical United Lutheran Church in Argentina by calling a special congregational meeting. To be sure, this was a conflict in which financial interests, privilege, hostility, and violence pervaded. It appeared that the demonic power of these negative forces had held captive the will and minds of the various parties in the conflict, making it impossible to find a solution to this quandary.
Our first step was to meet with President Alan Eldrid in Buenos Aires to get a history of the conflict and an update of the current situation. Then we met with Dr. Mario Yutzis, a Lutheran professor at ISEDET, the Protestant seminary in Argentina where Lutheran and other mayor Protestant denominational candidates for the ministry attend for their theological formation.
Our meeting with Dr. Yutzis, who is also the Argentinean representative at the United Nations in the areas of Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, helped clarify the goals for our visit, suggested strategic and intentional approaches to employ, and provided continual support during our journey. Then we traveled to Missiones for a three days visit with the parties in conflict aiming at creating the conditions for a process of mediation that would positively address the variety of demands expressed by the individuals and groups engaged in the conflict.
This was a grueling and trying experience that started early every morning and lasted until late in the evening for three consecutive days. We listen attentively to the pain, antagonism, bitterness and resentment expressed by most of the people we were scheduled to meet. The passion and indignation with which the various parties expressed their grievances, was only tampered by a tenuous, but clear longing for a time in the past when they could gather together as a community to sing hymns, listen to God’s Word, and share in the sacraments.
As members of the Pastoral Visit we were committed to take notice of the hurt and distress of the parties involved in this quandary, yet we were also convinced that the most promising approach to this conflict was not just our passive listening but our intentional approach to nurture in all parties their foundational identity as a community of faith, called to join God’s ministry in response to the needs of their community. We diligently move forward with our plan by holding evening worship services with representatives of all parties for three consecutive nights reading and listening together to the Word of God, joining in confessing our faith with hymns and prayers, and providing short homiletical reflections by each member of the Pastoral Visit.
As I returned to the hotel with Gloria and Anders after our last evening service in Missiones, we gathered to assess the accomplishments of our visit. We felt that while some progress had been made, there were still a number of critical issues that needed to be address in creating the conditions for a adequate process of mediation. As members of the Pastoral Visit we committed ourselves to persuade the President and Council of the Evangelical United Lutheran Church to revoke the excommunion imposed on the members of the congregational council.
While the use of the building structures by all members of the congregation had been restored, the pastors still needed to be reinstated to their former role in the congregation, and the proposed congregational meeting to rescind their relationship with the Evangelical United Lutheran Church had to be cancelled. In addition, during all this time representatives of the opposing groups had gone to the social media appealing to their cause by caricaturing and putting down the opposing party. That night we retired to our hotel rooms with ambiguous feelings. We had tried our best, yet the conflict remained, and was far from being brought to resolution.
Early the next day, as we prepared to get back to the airport, the clerk at the hotel called us with a message from Mr. Anderson, the president of the congregation’s council. They were willing to meet the conditions established during our visit for the mediation, and move forward with the process. For the members of the “Pastoral Visit” it seemed that our willingness to engage in the process, and the spiritual discipline experienced during the days of our visit with the people struggling with this situation, had contributed in performing a type of exorcism to liberate the various parties in the conflict from their former captivity to diabolic powers that had kept them separated, in a state of hostility and resentment against each other.
On our return to Buenos Aires we spoke to President Alan Eldrid and members of the church council to share with them our experience in Missiones. We left Argentina with a renewed sense that however great the challenges confronting the people of God in their calling, God’s gracious promise of support and continuous presence may empower believers once again to respond in faithful witness in times of trial.
I have to admit that I am not a great fan of military images. However, in the 2nd letter to Timothy attributed to Paul, he concludes with a special charge to his dear follower very appropriate for the conclusion of this reflection. He writes,
“You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from
me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.
Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in
everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to serve the enlisting officer. And in the case of an athlete,
no one is crowned without competing according to the rules. (2: 1-5)
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I
have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is
reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on
that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
As we celebrate Veteran’s Day, let’s also celebrate the meaningful accomplishments of those veteran’s of our faith that throughout time and space have faithfully expressed their witness of faith in times of conflict and challenges.
To God be the glory forever and ever, amen.