Sunday, April 24, 2016

Today's Sermon: "Red Sunday"

Matthew 16:1-4

1 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus. In order to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 

2 But he replied, “At evening you say, ‘It will be nice weather because the sky is bright red.’ 

3 And in the morning you say, ‘There will be bad weather today because the sky is cloudy.’ You know how to make sense of the sky’s appearance. But you are unable to recognize the signs that point to what the time is. 

4 An evil and unfaithful generation searches for a sign. But it won’t receive any sign except Jonah’s sign.” Then he left them and went away.

(Common English Bible)

“Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief,” Week Four

The deep brown eyes remain seared forever on my mind.  The dark, squarely-set eyes out of which they saw their lives as they knew them crumble, topple, and fall all around them one hundred years ago as they, their families, friends, acquaintances, all who were now seen as enemies were hunted down like animals, herded across the desert like animals, and eventually slaughtered like animals.

Escape such a fate they ultimately did, first by fleeing to Russia, then all the way across Russia, from east to west across Siberia, to Vladivostok and then across the Bering Strait into Alaska, and eventually down to the lower forty-eight states of the US.  The fake passports they used to manage such an escape survived.

My family has them.  Because that is how my great-grandparents, Krikor and Satenig Mouradian, with their brown eyes, black hair, and Armenian features came to settle in the United States.  It is how I came to one day be.

Because on this day in 1915 the authorities of the Ottoman Empire—what is now Turkey—rounded up the Armenian community of Istanbul in build-up for what would become the largest holocaust prior to *the* Holocaust—the Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

My great-grandparents survived.  Not all of their family did.  Krikor’s father Sarkis and his older brother Madiros both died in 1915.

Sarkis and Madiros were two of the 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children were killed in a series of genocides committed by the Ottoman Empire against its populations of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks before the Ottoman Empire fell at the end of World War One.

That first day of the Armenian Genocide, April 24, was also a Sunday that year.  It became known as “Red Sunday” for reasons that should be self-evident.  And you may well not have walked in this morning expecting this part of my story to be my leadoff hitter for today’s sermon.  But when Jesus speaks of us being unable to recognize the signs around us, as He does to the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 16, how my family came to be here is a very, very important story to tell.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter—that’s right, a season, not just a holiday.  According to the church calendar, Easter lasts for the fifty days between the day the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene (and, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the other female disciples of Jesus) and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled followers of Jesus on Pentecost as described in Acts 2.

During the first forty of those fifty days, the newly-resurrected Jesus made several appearances to His followers so that they may know that He was well and truly brought back from the dead, and so that their belief in Him as the Son of God might be made complete.

But their belief was not—is not—enough.  Jesus commissions His followers to, in the words of His brother James in his own letter in the New Testament, to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.
And to be a doer of the Word, belief is only part of the recipe.  One must have faith as well.  After all, belief at its core is merely an intellectual assent to reality.  I believe that grass is green.  I believe that my eyes are brown, the same dark brown of my ancestors.  But that's just the first part of things.

That is why, whenever I baptize someone, I do not just ask for a statement of belief—the “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God” part, but also for an affirmative action of faith—“and do you accept Him as your Savior?”

Faith is acting on those beliefs, and that is where I think Christianity sometimes misses the forest for the trees.  We care so much about right doctrine that we lose sight of right faith and right action.

All doctrine is a form of interpretation, and that is what is on display here in Matthew 16: Jesus is asked once more for a sign from the hostile Pharisees and Sadducees, and He basically tells them that it wouldn’t matter even if He did provide a sign, because they can take a singular reality—the redness of the sun in the sky—and make it mean one thing one day and a completely opposite thing the next day.  They have no fidelity to reality, only to their own selfishness.

That is a dangerous world to live in, one in which your leaders actively warp reality to suit their own purposes, rather than to serve and protect their own people.  It is a foreshadowing of what will eventually happen to Jesus Himself—the factuality of His words about who He is will get twisted by the chief priests and Pontius Pilate alike at trial—and it is a foreshadowing of we have done to one another, to those not like us, for the past one hundred years from Armenia to Nazi Germany to Cambodia to Rwanda to Darfur to Syria.

Because the truth is, reality only somewhat drives at our motivations for doing anything that we do.  What we choose to do comes down to our decision-making, and that calculus is fundamentally predicated upon how we see and interpret the reality around us.  That is why a liar is so dangerous—a lie is told enough times, and not only does the liar begin to believe it, but so do those who hear it.

Which takes us back to the First World War—a war that broke out largely because of erroneous interpretations of a reality, rather than of that reality itself.  In December 1914, Enver Pasha, the Ottoman Minister of War, fought the Battle of Sarikamish against the Russian army, which was aided by a number of Armenian volunteers.  It was a disaster for the Ottomans—Enver Pasha had failed to both keep an adequate operational reserve force and accurately predict how the Russians would react to being attacked.

But such reality often does not suit men of power and of egos.  Enver Pasha blamed the defeat on the Armenian soliders who had fought alongside the Russians, because many of the Armenian soldiers were themselves Russian citizens, but also partly because the Ottoman Empire had initiated a series of pogroms and massacres of its Armenian populations in the 1890s (which had led to more Armenians immigrating elsewhere, including to Russia, to begin with).

This was only a part of the Armenian community, though, and in fact many were still enlisted in the Ottoman armed forces—until Directive 8682 was issued in February 1915, which ejected all ethnic Armenians from the Ottoman military, under the pretense of community-wide disloyalty.

These two actions, along with others, provided the pretext for the execution of 1.5 million Armenians throughout the remaining duration of the First World War.

Now think, for a moment, about what was said about the Ottoman Armenians—they were blamed for strategic international setbacks, and domestically were accused of disloyalty, or of holding loyalty to their group over loyalty to the country in which they lived.

Does that sound at all similar to what is being said, by many Americans, some with substantial political or cultural influence, about groups of people like Muslims, or Mexican immigrants?  It isn’t our fault that our country has made strategic errors in how we ally with hated regimes in the Middle East, or how we enable the exploitation of migrant laborers and workers, no, it couldn’t be our fault!  It has to be the fault of the outsiders, of the people who are not us, who are making America worse! 

Mexico isn’t sending good people to us, they’re sending us rapists, remember? 

Any Muslim is a potentially disloyal terrorist; that is why we have to ban them from entering the country and put the ones who are here under police surveillance, remember?

And we have somehow said yes to that delusional, diabolical, devilish interpretation of reality.

We are in an election cycle, and ordinarily, I never comment on the candidates put before us.  If you remember during the 2012 election, I never uttered the names “Barack Obama” or “Mitt Romney” within a sermon.  According to IRS regulations, I cannot tell you who to vote for, and that is as it should be.

But we are in a cycle in which one party’s two frontrunners for the most powerful job in the world have said that they would ban an entire religion or put its practitioners under unique scrutiny from law enforcement, all the while also saying that the rest of us—we Christians, not all those *other* people—should have our liberties protected, because we, after all, are the righteous ones.

This is the *exact* same sort of language that was used to sinfully and unlawfully imprison Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.  This is the *exact* same sort of language that was used to justify the Nuremburg laws against German Jews during the 1930s.  And this is the *exact* same sort of language that was used as a pretext to eliminate the Armenians from their homeland in 1915.

Washington’s Republican primary is scheduled for one month from today—May 24.  When you vote, please, I beg you, take a moment of prayer and reflection between now and then and ask yourself if the candidate you are planning to vote for really and truly reflects the values of Jesus Christ, of goodness and care and empathy, even towards—especially towards—those not like Him.

That is our reality as Christians—we follow, worship, and trust in Jesus Christ.  If we are to take that reality seriously, then His example has to matter.  His ministry has to matter.  His entire purpose has to matter—not just for the salvation of our individual souls, but for the salvation of the world, of a kingdom made not according to human design but divine design.

We do not get to interpret Christ’s reality with our own selfishness.  That may be what we have done in past days, but it cannot be on the table now.  We must live and trust in Him, not ourselves.

Jesus has said His piece.  His teachings are here to stay.  The next move is ours.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 24, 2016

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