Monday, February 23, 2015

The Libyan Martyrs: A Call to Martyrdom and Witness.

1 Cor 1:17-31

The Libyan Martyrs: A Call to Martyrdom and Witness.
A Homily Delivered at Evensong for Lent 1, 22 February, 2015

This month 21 men were martyred for the church.  

Their names were: 
Milad Makeen Zaky
Abanub Ayad Atiya
Maged Solaiman Shehata
Yusuf Shukry Yunan
Kirollos Shokry Fawzy
Bishoy Astafanus Kamel
Somaily Astafanus Kamel
Malak Ibrahim Sinweet
Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros
Girgis Milad Sinweet
Mina Fayez Aziz
Hany Abdelmesih Salib
Bishoy Adel Khalaf
Samuel Alham Wilson
Ezat Bishri Naseef
Loqa Nagaty
Gaber Munir Adly
Esam Badir Samir
Malak Farag Abram
Sameh Salah Faruq
and a worker from Awr village whose name remains unknown. 

These men were known Christians who had gone to Libya for work.  The so called Islamic State targeted them because they were Christians.  Their names were on a list because they were Christians. IS went and snatched them from their homes because they were Christians.  They took them to a beach on the Mediterranean Coast and then decapitated them because they were Christians.  The last words of many of them were Ya Rabbi Yasou “… O Lord Jesus.  

“For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we
preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness…But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence.” (1 Cor 1:22-3, 27-9)

As I stand here in this beautiful stone pulpit, worked diligently and faithfully by the hands of skilled artisans, in vestments wrought by the handiwork of deeply faith Christians from South Philadelphia and England to Toungoo in Myanmar, in a gorgeous brick church with Tiffany stained glass and beautiful Marianne Sloane murals, with a painstakingly carved limestone altar under a beautiful slate roof that so many here gave graciously of their hard earned livelihood to install I can’t help but feel as if I am woefully, painfully unworthy to stand here and confess the Gospel of Christ. 

Unworthy though I am, I can hope only channel the words of St. Paul, and point to those who have witnessed to Christ in far greater and braver ways than I. 

We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to jews, and foolishness to the Greek.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to confound the wise.

Truth be told, I don’t know what is more foolish than proclaiming one’s faith in Christ as Lord just before execution.  It isn’t as though that was going to stop the demons from IS from going through with their grim mission.  It isn’t as though saying that was going to grant them some reprieve.  It isn’t as if they thought that would spare them from their fate. 

And yet cry out they did.  And we now have 21 new saints of the church, to shame the wise, to reduce to nothing things that are.  

IS is many things, evil springs to mind, awful, heinous, demonic in the most literal sense… But they are powerful.  They control a great deal of land, oil, money, and weapons.  They are quite mighty.  But God chose what is weak in the world to confound the mighty, God chose what is foolish to confound the wise. 

It isn’t as if we didn’t know prior to these martyrings that IS was evil.  But God chose what was weak not only to confound the mighty, but to inspire others.  The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, says Tertullian, and the witness these men provided, proclaiming Christ even to the point of death, strengthens me in my own considerable weakness.  If those men, regular men, people who left their homes in search of work and a better life, if those weak, powerless, expatriated men can heap shame and scorn upon those who are strong and mighty, then why can’t I?

For all the mysticism around martyrdom, it is simply the Greek word for witness.  We may not all be called to take up our cross in a way quite so literal as these men did, but we are all, each and every single person here, called to be a martyr, to be a witness to Christ in the world.  We are called to proclaim a God who lowered himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.  We are called to name sins, both our own and those of society around us.  We are called to be visibly Christian in the world.

If these men can stand for something for Christ in the face of death itself, why am I so reluctant to cause myself discomfort or inconvenience?  If these men are willing to be proudly Christian in a land where being Christian is risky, why do I catch myself referring to “graduate school” instead of seminary?  If these men are willing to die for their faith in a hostile land, why do I not shout from the rooftops the salvation of Christ in a land more friendly to the Christian faith than nearly any on earth? 

More than that, why do I not call to account the mighty, and the “wise” when they defy the laws of God?  Why do I not struggle mightily to hold to account our community and our nation when we fail to keep God’s commandments  to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God… to feed the poor, welcome the foreigner, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoners.”  My government will not kill me for being Christian, and yet I do not take the risks I know I should take. 

We need no more proof than this to know that St. Paul is speaking the truth when he says God chooses the weak and the foolish to confound and shame the mighty and wise.  Civis Romanus Sum, I am an American citizen, able to traverse the world knowing that my government and its most considerable might protect me. I live in the richest country on the planet, the most powerful state in history, and even my relatively humble life, by American Standards, would be a life of near unimaginable luxury to these men who went to Libya, a country torn by civil war and violence seeking work because their prospects at home were so bleak.  I am mighty, I am strong, and I stand here confounded and shamed by the witness of these men, these martyrs of the church. 

And what is even more shaming is the fact that it takes the martyrdom of these men to shame me when I know full well that there is one who has already been put to torture and martyred in ransom for my life, that it took this reminder to humble me when I celebrate at the altar each week the death and resurrection of our Lord.  That truth written nearly two thousand years ago is no less true today than it was when blessed Paul put his hand to that papyrus telling the church in Corinth that God will cast down the haughty so that those who glory may glory not in their own special, privileged place, not in their wealth, their power, their might, their wisdom, but in the Lord only.

Wednesday we began Lent by marking our heads with ashes, a symbol of repentance and of our own mortality.  To repent is to re-orient yourself towards God, to turn away from sin and temptation and to live more fully in the life into which God is calling you.  That there are people still dying for our faith is a reminder to me that there are many, many ways in which I need to repent, to reorient my life towards God, and I suspect the same is true for most people here.  I invite you therefore into a Holy Lent, that together we may confess and repent of all of our sins, that we may align ourselves with those who, in the name of God, confound the wise and the strong, and that, through our repentance and prayer, we may celebrate with joy the resurrection of our Lord and God’s final victory over sin and death. 

During this period of prayer and fasting, may we also give thanks to God for the lives and deaths of these 21 martyrs, these saints of the church, may we pray for their families, friends and loved ones, and may we pray for ourselves that we may better come to know Christ in order that we too may shame the wise and confound the mighty. 

And may their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.


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