Homily by The Rev. Marcia McRae
St. Francis Episcopal Church, Goldsboro, NC, 3 Sept. 2017, Proper 17
Year A RCL: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
What challenges we hear in our scriptures today!
God's words challenge Moses. Paul's words challenge the Romans & us to live differently.
Notice Jesus' perspective & expectations for the disciples.
Remember: We are his disciples.
“To deny oneself is to disown [ourselves] as the center of [our] existence,”1 as The New American Bible for Catholics notes.
Think of people who are in love: Love is bigger than the individual. Denying self opens us to God's love, which casts out fear.
Remember: Fear is Satan's tool to keep us from doing God's work. Fear argues like Peter & Moses do worrying what might happen.
We must take one step at a time to do God's work, remembering God is with us!
As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says repeatedly: “If you want to change the world, follow Jesus.”2
“If you want to change the world,
God is with us as we work to change the world & do God's work here together. Think of the good work being done together, week by week, ingredient by ingredient, as you prepare food for our annual Christmas In The Forest.
Look at the good work being done together, which we see daily in news coverage of Hurricane Harvey's aftermath. We hear the best of community, which contrasts powerfully to the worst we hear now of people looting & con-artists cheating survivors.
We hear amazing grace in a different news story of a prison community in action, a strong, grace-filled community of prisoners of war in North Vietnam*. The men in large holding cells in Hanoi during the Vietnam War know the truth of our Gospel. These men know the value of living in harmony & live to see good overcome evil.
They hold fast to what is good, are patient in suffering, & persevere in prayer, as we hear Paul tell us to do in Romans.
Without faith in God & trust in each other, how else could these American POWs overcome harsh punishments to gain freedom to pray together in the prison called the Hanoi Hilton?
The year is 1970 & just before Christmas 43 American prisoners seek to have brief worship. The guards prevent it.3 Ultimately, faith in God triumphs.
The New York Times tells this story4 of the test of their unity in community & their faith in God as they resist & endure their captors' harsh treatment:
“After worship is denied, Navy pilot Lt. Commander Edwin [Ned] A. Shuman III creates their resistance plan. He knows he will be the first to be beaten in a torture cell.
He asks the men:
"Are we really committed to having church Sunday? I want to know person by person."
One by one each man says "Yes."
At that moment [Shuman knows] he [will] end up in a torture cell.5
“That Sunday he steps up to lead the Lord's Prayer. The guards hustle him away to his beating. [He spends 17 months in solitary confinement.]
“One by one the next 4 ranking officers step up to lead the prayer & are taken away for beatings.
By then “the guards [are]...hitting P.O.W.s with gun butts & the cell [is] in chaos,”6 says one survivor.
“...[T]he 6th ranking senior officer [says], 'Gentlemen, the Lord's Prayer.'”
This time they finish the prayer.
The guards have yielded. The enemy sees love of God in action, love of community in action.
By their faith in action, these prisoners work with God to change that shameful prison block into holy ground. These men in this faith-filled community stand on holy ground.
Their faith & fearless trust overflow into other cell blocks.
In a different cell block is the 1st American pilot captured in the Vietnam War, Everett Alvarez Jr., captured in 1964, as the NYT article says. He says Shuman's defiance inspires senior officers in other cells to resist:
“It was contagious. By the time it got to the 4th or 5th cell” [the guards] gave up.”
Prisoners were praying & singing patriotic songs.
From that Sunday in 1970 until their release in 1973, the prisoners' right to pray together was established. They held church services each Sunday until their return home.
A pilot from Shuman's cell block, Air Force pilot & Medal of Honor recipient, Leo K. Thorsness says:
“42 men in prison pajamas followed
I know I will never see a better example of
pure raw leadership
or ever pray with a better sense of
the meaning of the words [of the Lord's Prayer].”7
Praying these words together sustains the POWs for years.
Praying these words together sustains us in community.
“Our Father...” God is our father, our “daddy”, “papa”. We are family. We live in community no matter what parts of our lives may be imprisoned.
One man in prison trusts God to BE with him in the harshest of times, denies himself, is patient in suffering, & does not repay evil for evil.
One man, then the next man, then the next lead many to overcome evil with good.
Look what a positive difference one person at a time makes.
Look what a positive difference one cell block community makes to the other cell blocks.
Look at the positive difference one man makes for each of us as he willingly dies on the cross before we ever say “I'm sorry”.
How can we not work to overcome evil with good? How can we possibly miss the connection between working to make the world a better place, our family better, & following Jesus?
How can we fear doing what God calls us to do?
God promises: I AM with you & I WILL BE with you no matter what. No matter how big a hurricane is in our life.
Our faith in God overcomes fear.
God's love wipes out fear.
God's love is great.
Our task is small.
The importance of our task is
Douglas-Klotz, Neil. Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections on the Original Meaning of Jesus's Words. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 1990.
Farr, Curtis. “Pivoting, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – Sept. 3, 2017”. Sermons That Work. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2017/07/31/pivoting-thirteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-a-september-3-2017/ Accessed: 28 Aug. 2017.
Goldstein, Richard. “Edwin Shuman, 82, Dies; Defied Hanoi Hilton Guards”. The New York Times.
Harper’s Bible Commentary. General Ed.: James. L. Mays. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers. 1988.
Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press. 1989.
Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.
The New American Bible for Catholics. South Bend: Greenlawn Press. 1986.
Voyles, Robert J. Restoring Hope: Appreciative Strategies to Resolve Grief and Resentment. Hillsboro, OR: The Appreciative Way. 2010.
* The 2014 news of the death of of Ned Shuman at age 82, who led fellow prisoners to defy the "Hanoi Hilton" guards, I used in my 2014 homily on the scriptures we have next Sunday [Proper 18], but found the information fitting for this week's scriptures.
1 The New American Bible for Catholics. P. 1036.
2 Farr, Curtis. “Pivoting...” Sermons That Work. Accessed: 28 Aug. 2017.
3 Goldstein, Richard. “Edwin Shuman, 82, Dies; Defied Hanoi Hilton Guards”. The New York Times. P. A15.
4 Ibid. Goldstein. New York Times.
6 Ibid. Quotation of Air Force pilot & Medal of Honor recipient, Leo K. Thorsness.
7 Ibid. NYT.