1. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JULY 25, 2021

Rev. Sabrina Ingram

WORSHIPPING TOGETHER

 

Call to Worship John 15:14

Jesus said, “This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you.

This is the very best way to love:

Put your life on the line for your friends.

You are my friends when you do the things, I command you. 

 

Lighting of the Christ Candle

 

Hymn: The King of Love My Shepherd Is

 

Prayer of Adoration and Confession:

Loving God,

We praise you

You are loving.

You are merciful

You are a faithful

 

We see your love every day as the sun rises, we are filled with the breath of life and our needs are net.

We see your mercy, extended in your forgiveness as Jesus gave his life for our salvation.

We see your faithfulness as you live in us and walk with us through blessing, joy and life as well as through hardships, sorrow and death.

You never forsake us.

 

We confess that there are many times when we are faithless.  We want our own way and pursue it.  We follow after empty idols.  We deny you and betray you.    We seek your forgiveness once again.

 

More than that we seek your strength, your resilience, your resurrection power, so that we may follow you in this life in whatever we might face, and glorify you in the next life when we will see you face to face.

 

We thank you for our brothers and sisters in Christ who share our journey, hold us accountable and help us to remain faithful.  We thank you for their presence with us today.

 

In all our worship help us to lift up your holy name, honour you in our words and actions and bring you joy, through Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

 

Assurance of Pardon: Revelation 2: 10 & 11

“Don’t quit.  Even if it costs you your life, be faithful.

I have a Crown of Life, sized and ready for you.

“Listen to the Wind Words of the Spirit blowing through the churches.

Christ-conquerors will be safe from the second death.”

 

Prayer for Illumination:

Lord Jesus, you gave your life for us.  Give us strength through hearing your word so that we will be ready to face whatever trials we have, for your sake.  Amen. 

 

Scripture Readings

1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 3

Acts 6: 8 – 15 & 7: 54 – 60

Mark 13: 1 – 13

 

Message:  Being the Church – Faithful to Death

 

Afordia, a Nigerian Christian health care worker, recounts the story of her husband’s execution by Boko Haram.  After cutting off communication networks in the couple’s village, the extremists rounded up the men and asked each one if they were a Muslim or an infidel.  “My husband told them, ‘No, I am not an infidel or a Muslim, I am a Christian’.  Then he knelt down on the side of the road and prayed.”  It was the last prayer he said.

 

According to the World Watch List for 2021, every day, somewhere in the world 13 Christians are killed for their faith; 12 churches or Christian buildings are attacked or burned; 12 Christians are unjustly arrested or imprisoned; 5 Christians are abducted.  Christians are also singled out to be exploited by organized crime and corrupt government officials.  Forced marriages are imposed on them.   Christians are the most persecuted faith group in the world today. 1 in every 8 Christians around the globe face persecution for their faith.  In Africa, the number rises to 1 in 6 and in Asia 2 in 5 – almost half.

 

According to Open Doors, another global watch group for Christians, this year 50 nations scored high enough to register “very high” persecution levels on their 84-question matrix.  This is up from 45 nations in 2020.  Within these countries the predominant religions are Islam (34 countries), Buddhism (4), Hinduism (2), atheism (1), agnosticism (1) and 10 are predominantly Christian.  Although these Christians are stronger in number, they are not stronger in political clout or the ability to defend themselves.  The top 10 nations for the most intense persecution of Christians are:  North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, Nigeria, and India.  Nigeria, the nation with the largest Christian population in the world, moved up to number 9 this year.  They are number 1 for the number of Christians killed for their faith and they are second only to Pakistan in the degree of violence imposed on believers. So far this year, in Pakistan, 1000 Christians have been forced into marriages with non-Christians.   China, which had dropped down the list is once again among the top 20.

 

So far in 2021, around the globe: 3530 Christians have been martyred; 990 have been abducted; 4277 Christians have been arrested and 4488 Churches have been attacked and/or forced to close.

 

In Canada, a country that claims to uphold “freedom of religion”, devotees of all religious persuasions are too frequently targeted for their faith, to the point that special conferences were held this week to discuss anti-semitism and islamophobia with the Prime Minister – and so they should be. Christians, however, are not being given a voice even though hostility towards the Church is increasing.  Recently, people have openly expressed that hatred.  Since June, 48 churches have been vandalized, set on fire, or burned to the ground.  This rash of violations appears to be related to the Canadian Government’s Residential School system [RS]*. Yet, some of the destroyed churches were on reserves, an act which contributes to the violation the indigenous people who worshipped there. Other targeted congregations and/or their denominations were not involved in RS.  One such church was the Coptic Church in Surrey, BC which was totally destroyed by fire.  It was built by Christian refugees who fled religious persecution in their home countries, principally Egypt. To flee from religious persecution only to have your place of worship destroyed in your country of refuge no doubt reawakens the traumatic stress of constant peril these people thought they’d left behind and feelings of despair.  If Canada is not a safe place for these people, is there anywhere on Earth that is?   The burning of any property as an act of anger, vengeance or from feelings of powerlessness, is not constructive.  It’s violence, and it is not okay.

 

What’s equally disturbing as the actual crimes, has been the public reaction.   When the mosque here in Peterborough was set on fire, Christians raised money to help our Muslim neighbours rebuild – I haven’t heard of any similar responses regarding these Christian communities.  Gerald Butts, a political consultant to the PM, said the burnings were “understandable”.    Mr. Trudeau himself, took well over two weeks to declare the actions were “unacceptable”, and even then, deemed them “understandable”.  Harsha Walia, the CEO of the B.C. Social Liberties Association tweeted, “Burn them all down.”  Others agreed that the church buildings should be burnt to the ground and “the whole system completely dismantled”.  “# I stand with Harsha” speaks of the degree to which people concur with her.   A lawyer wrote, “I would help her burn it all down.  And I would help defend anyone charged with arson if they did.”   Another person was quoted as saying, “Hell.  They’re only churches.  What’s the big deal?” Others have objected to these attacks being labelled as “hate crimes” essentially because in their minds the Church deserves to be hated.   On the other side, I note that many indigenous leaders spoke against these actions, asking people to desist and saying it was not the best way to move forward.  Their words of peace are certainly appreciated.  Retired journalist, Alan Fryer, pointed out, that if these churches “…were mosques or synagogues or gurudwaras the media, would — and rightly so — be deploying every available resource to the story — keeping it alive and keeping the pressure on the cops and the politicians.”  But that has not been the case.

 

As Christians not directly affected, all of this is somewhat remote and abstract.   It gets much more real when a full, pressurized canister of lighter fluid is found behind my own church building, as it was a week or so ago.   I don’t know who left it there or if they had ill intent, but on a visceral level, it feels threatening.   The police took it quite seriously.  With so much hatred towards the church churning under the surface, one wonders how far it will go.  What lies in store for us as Christians?  Will Canada, a country that claims to support religious freedoms, one day find we are on a watch list?  We’re not far from it now.

 

From the beginning of the church, people have suffered and died for their faith.  Our own congregation is named after the first Christian martyr, Stephen.  Stephen was named a deacon in the early church by the apostles.  He used his gift of hospitality to serve people and meet their practical needs, in the name of Christ.  Stephen also had a way with words and shared the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection freely.  Like Jesus, he angered the religious authorities who, like a lynch mob, took the law into their own hands and without giving him a trial, stoned him to death in a brutal act of rage. Jesus warned his disciples of the cost of following him and spoke of a coming day of devastating persecution.

 

As Christians we’re called to remain faithful to Christ, who gave up his life for us.  It’s human nature to dislike being mocked, to be silent in the face of bullying and shaming, to be anxious when physically threatened, and to be fearful in the face of physical pain.  It’s normal to run from the possibility of a torturous death.  It is a temptation for every Christian to hide our faith or to give it up altogether to avoid being persecuted.   In Revelation 2:10, we are called to be faithful to Christ, “even if it costs you your life.”   Other scholars translate that phrase as “be faithful unto death” or “be faithful until death”.   Whether we live a long, carefree life or die a brutal, unjust death as Christians we are to be faithful to Christ.   From Stephen on down, the Holy Spirit has given every Christian martyr the strength to stay devoted to Christ through the worst imaginable deaths.   In reflecting on Christians who suffer daily for their faith, David Curry the CEO of Open Doors, USA choses to focus, not on the persecution of these brothers and sisters in Christ, but on their resilience.   Christianity is a faith built on resilience.  Jesus was not overcome by death but overcame it in the most resilient act ever – resurrection.  The body of Christ is no less resilient.   This is our hope.  Surprisingly, the number of Christians living within the countries where Christians are most persecuted has increased by 80 million people – from 260 million in 2020 to 340 million today.  This means that in these places, Christians are finding the strength and resilience to keep living for Christ, to share their faith and to invite people to church, even in the face of death.  People are converting to Christianity – dedicating their lives to Christ – at a rapid rate.

 

Being faithful to Christ is not simply about being stubborn in the face of persecution.  Faithfulness to Christ, requires us to be faithful disciples of his teaching and faithful citizens of his kingdom.  We are to live in “God’s world, God’s way”.   At the heart of our faith is the call to love and forgive.  Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 13, that we can be the most eloquent of speakers, we can have exotic gifts like tongues, we can have prophetic powers, miraculous faith, and donate lavishly to charity, but without love we fall short of Christ’s hope.  He adds, “even if I go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, if I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere” (vs. 3).   To be faithful to Christ is less about the outcome and more about the process.  That process is to love those who hate us, to stand our ground without being aggressors and to forgive those who harm us.  Like Stephen, and Christ before him, the words, ““Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7: 60) are to be on our lips throughout our lives and at our death.  This is what it is to be a faithful Christian.   It is not an easy path.

 

Sam Brownback, US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, commended the World Watch List, “The day will come when people are able to practice their faith freely, and governments will protect this right.  This day is getting nearer…”   From what I’m witnessing around the world, I don’t share his optimism.   Jesus clearly told us to expect otherwise.  It will get worse.  But we do have hope.  A hope that is rooted in the saving grace of Jesus Christ, to whom we will be faithful to the end of this life and beyond.

 

*Please see my sermon of June 6 on the accountability of the churches involved in the Residential School system.

 

Silent Prayer and Reflection

 

Offertory Prayer

Lord Jesus, in faithful love, you laid down your life for us.  May the gifts we give you in return be nothing less than our full devotion and may our lives be used to reflect your love and bring you glory.  Amen.

 

Hymn: He Leadeth Me

 

Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession

God of faithfulness and forgiveness,

We give you thanks for all the ways we have tasted your abundance,

in friendship and fellowship,

in food on our tables and safety on our doorsteps.

We thank you for choosing us to follow you.

We thank you for equipping us to speak of the hope of Christ’s death and resurrection.

We thank you for allowing us to serve as Christ served us.

We thank you for the freedom we have to worship in the name of Jesus.

We thank you for the gift of faith and the gift of fidelity.

 

Like Jesus’ disciples caught on the rocky sea, we fear the storms of life.

Anxiety rises within us when we see or hear the hatred the world has for you and your church.

We are threatened when our buildings are burned, and people call for our annihilation.

We are afraid that the commitment to follow you will bring us all the way to the cross.

Come near to us and overcome our fear.

We see the wounds of the broken,

The anger of the wounded,

The heart-ache of generations.

We pray for forgiveness from those we have harmed, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

We pray that hope would be born in the hearts and souls of those who feel undervalued and lost.

We pray that love would grow in place of hatred so that your new world, your way, would come.

 

Throughout the world and in our own communities,

we witness increased divisiveness

and hatred toward those considered a threat

We see our values eroding.

We see violence increasing.

We see the rise of self-righteousness, bullying and shaming disguised as inclusiveness.

Come again into the darkness around us and shine your light.

 

In so many countries and in our own neighbourhoods,

we witness great inequity and deep need for even the staples of life.

and who find each day unpredictable and anxious.

So many people know turmoil in war and displacement,

Living on the edge, without peace, without homes, without security.

Keep us mindful of those who lack the necessities of life.

 

In our communities, congregations, and families,

we witness uncertainty about the future

and the cost of months of pandemic isolation and lockdown.

We worry about variants.

We are anxious about returning to normal social interactions.

We are weighed down with care about what the future will hold.

Say a word Lord, and there will be peace.

 

We thank you for the body of Christ throughout the world.

We pray for the many struggling congregations in Canada

For those in our country whose buildings have been burned or vandalized

For those around the world who suffer and die for their faith, who live in fear and faith every day.

Be with us and help us to be faithful to you.

 

In our own lives and the lives of so many friends and neighbours,

we witness depression, anger, anxiety, and despair.

We lack resilience and strength.

We need others and yet relationships can be difficult.

We need your Spirit to make us whole.

 

There are many we love who are ill and in need,

who are waiting and healing.

Lay your healing hand on them and make them whole.

 

There are many we love who have moved away from you and your church,

Draw them back to your love and saving grace.

 

And now, trusting in your steadfast love and faithful presence,

we pray as Jesus taught us:

The Lord’s Prayer

 

Hymn: You Are My All in All

 

Invitation to Mission:

We go into the world

to love as Christ loved,

knowing that to live is Christ

and to die is gain. 

 

Benediction          May the Triune God bless you and keep you.  Amen.