Faith of Our Fathers

This was my Father’s Day message for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 23 June 2002, at Walker Valley (NY) UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 21: 8 – 21, Romans 6: 1 – 11, and Matthew 10: 24 – 39.

It would be highly appropriate for me, on this Father’s Day, to speak in glowing and favorable words about my own father. But to do so would gloss over his relationship with me and with his family. Though he was a man of vision and many of his ideas had a great impact, he was like many fathers we have heard about, aloof and distant from his family. Immensely proud of his children’s accomplishments, he often failed to let us know of his pride in us.

Still, at the end of his life, I knew how proud he was that I had received my doctorate and how proud he was of my then fledging career in the ministry of the United Methodist Church. I also knew that, despite his initial objections to this choice, he had come to understand that it was a choice made in my heart. It was a choice that he accepted and endorsed. For he knew that the path in ministry that I was beginning to walk was a path shared by others in our extended family, the Schüessler family from whom my grandmother and his mother came. He was proud of that choice and was working to make my path a little bit easier.

I also knew that at the end of his life, he had come back to that same foundation and faith in which he was raised.

That is the way it is for each of us here today. We walk a path of our own choosing, guided by our wisdom and made in our heart. But it is a path made easier by our fathers and their fathers before them, our mothers and their mothers before them, by all those in our family, both close and extended who have traveled this path before us.

The challenge for us then is to move forward, to expand the path so that those that follow us have the same and perhaps greater opportunities than we did. But I see in today’s society people unwilling to move forward. I see in today’s society people who feel that the good days are the ones behind us; that there is no hope for the future and what we have today is the best that it will ever be. We have become a society unwilling or unable to go beyond the bend in the path before us, fearful of what might lie there.

We are a society that has accepted the here and now as the norm; we don’t look to the future; we are afraid to take risks. If our own political founding fathers had been unwilling to move into the unknown, then we might still be a colony of Great Britain today. But there were those in the small towns and villages of this country who saw the road to Independence for what it was, the only path to take, and so we moved forward. Beginning with the visionary and radical document we know as the “Declaration of Independence”, this nation has moved into the future. The question is whether we can continue to do so.

I am not sure that the spirit that led us to cheer when we heard that all men were created equal still exists today. I am not sure that we are a nation willing to put the values expressed then into practice today. We are not interested in long-term solutions any more. We want an answer now, no matter what might happen tomorrow. We react immediately and without thought. I will not minimize what happened on September 11, 2001. It was an act that defies belief and can only be explained in seemingly irrational terms.

But have our responses since that day solved the problems that caused the attack. Have the forces of evil that feed on ignorance, hatred, and injustice been removed from today’s society? Or, have each of our own violent responses been met with more violence? We must seek justice in this world but it must be within the boundaries of what we believe. We have repeatedly told the world that we are a Christian nation, so we hold to the Gospel message presented in the New Testament. Yet, we have stated that we are a people of the New Testament; as such, our responses seem to be more a rephrasing of the old Mosaic Law of an eye for an eye. The fact is that when violence is answered by more violence, there will never be peace.

The roots of hatred and violence run deep in this world. And in a world where self-interests seemingly come first, such roots are not easily removed. But if we would simply stop and think for a few moments about how we should respond, we could create a peace-based, non-aggressive response that would meet our goal while not portraying us as weak or inept. This is difficult to do, especially in a time when society demands violent responses and victory at all costs and belittles all those who do seek alternatives. But, in light of the Gospel before us today, we should not be surprised. For the Gospel message for today tells us that society is not often open to the liberating thoughts alternative solutions might possess.

Jesus is passing through the town and area of Gerasa. There He encounters a man possessed by seven demons. Because of this possession, this man has been driven from his home and forced to live among the tombs of the town cemetery. Society’s actions and condemnation have declared him dead and unfit to be in the real world.

He recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and his Savior. He begs to be healed and saved from that which is tormenting him. Not only does Jesus heal him, he elevates him to a status above those how who have scorned and condemned him. But what do the townspeople do?

Instead of rejoicing in this man’s healing and literal return from the dead, they are angry with Jesus. As we read in the Gospel for today, Jesus placed the demons that had tormented the man in a herd of pigs nearby, causing the pigs to jump over a cliff and fall to their death in the sea. The people were angry with Jesus for doing this.

It is very interesting that this was their response. For as devout Jews, the townspeople could not eat pork. So these pigs were not for local consumption. Rather, the people raised the pigs to feed the Roman soldiers garrisoned nearby. The anger comes from the fact that Jesus, in saving one person, has disrupted the ways of society; Jesus has disrupted the status quo.

Yet, the status quo served to keep the people of the area enslaved. Jesus comes as a liberator, offering an alternative. But He was rejected and cast aside by the very people that He came to free because His solution was not acceptable to them. Those caught up in the ways of the secular world are often not willing to accept liberation, especially if it interferes with the easy life of the status quo.

But you cannot liberate an enslaved people using the methods that enslaved them in the first place. There must be alternatives. Jesus offered an alternative then and today. Are we willing to look at the alternatives or shall we continue with the status quo?

John Wesley saw people trapped by poverty and societal indifference. English society in his day believed, as some in today’s society still believe, that poverty was a direct result of a sinful life. If you were poor, it was because you were a sinner. If you were rich and prosperous, then God must have smiled on you and granted the blessings of life. It did not matter if your riches came from the enslavement, abuse, and oppression of others; if you were rich, God was on your side.

Historians tell us that the England of John Wesley’s time was ripe for the same violent and bloody revolution that swept through France some fifty years later. They also tell us that one of the reasons why England did not have such a bloody revolution was because of the work of John Wesley and the early Methodists.

The early Methodists fought to improve the conditions that condoned child abuse and sent children as young as twelve into England’s mines and factories. The fought against the drug and alcohol abuse prevalent in society and, which for some was the only escape available. The early Methodists tried to change a society that found it convenient to throw people in jail for owing others money and keeping them in jail until the debt was paid. People in proverty were made to feel ashamed because they were poor; people were made to feel that God had forgotten them.

Instead of repression and humiliation, instead of making it impossible to better ones life, the early Methodists show people that they had not been forgotten, that God loved them as much as anyone else. More importantly, the poor and lower classes were given hope, the same hope promised in the Gospel message. And slowly but surely, the early Methodists changed the minds that looked inward first and caused to look around them and see what the world really was.

Do you remember the story of John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace” and a number of other powerful Methodist hymns? His life changed when he saw that the source of his wealth was the enslavement of others. Faced with the irony that by selling people into slavery was the cause of his own spiritual enslavement, he chose to walk away and seek a new life. Through his hymns and ministry, he helped bring about the quiet revolution in England.

This is the power of the Gospel; that is the power of faith in Christ. Jesus gave new life to a man condemned by society. John Wesley gave hope to people forgotten by society.

It is the same for us. Through Christ, we have been given the opportunity of life without slavery to sin and death. Salvation is ours through the power of the Gospel. And like the man in the Gospel message today, we are challenged by Jesus to take the Gospel message into the world, bringing others to Jesus.

But it requires that we change. It requires that we have that life-changing experience that the man in tombs underwent. It requires a change in one’s thinking and direction of life, as it was for John Newton.

We cannot simply rearrange the present in hopes of making the future better. The Galatians were one of the first Christian churches but like some many others, they were reluctant to change their thinking. They still saw themselves in terms of the old ways of life, using the law as a way of exclusion. Paul reminded them it was their faith that united them in a radical equality. Paul told them to cast away the old identities of Greek and Jew, slave and free and see themselves in the light of Christ and their faith in Christ.

You will tell me that this is all well and good but it will not work in today’s world. To live and preach the Gospel message will only bring ridicule and embarrassment. You will tell me that you cannot take on the world’s problems by yourself. What would you have done if faced with thousands of refugees who will die if you do not take action?

At the last P. A. P. A. (Peekskill Area Pastor’s Association) it was resolved that we would remember Aristides de Sousa Mendes this week. You may not have ever heard of this gentleman and he probably would have liked it this way. He was the General Consul of Portugal in Bordeaux, France during the spring of 1940.

At that time, the Nazi blitzkrieg had breached the French armies’ defenses and refugees of different nationalities, including thousands of Jews, were coming to Bordeaux in hopes of avoiding death by obtaining a transit visa to Portugal and from there to ports in South America. The Portuguese dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, was a Fascist and supported Adolf Hitler personally even though Portugal remained neutral throughout World War II. Premier Salazar gave orders to all Portuguese diplomats forbidding them from extending visas to refuges and to Jews who had been expelled from their country of origin.

In spite of this, Sousa Mendes issued thousands of transit permits to refugees in Bordeaux, Bayonne, and Hendaye (a town on the Spanish border with France). It is believed that because of his actions 30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews, were saved from death in the Third Reich’s death camps.

On June 16, 1940, Sousa Mendes faced the crowd and said,

“I cannot allow you to die. Most of you are Jewish and our Constitution established that neither religion nor political beliefs can be used as an excuse to reject the staying in Portugal.”

“I will give a visa to whoever needs it, either he/she can pay for it or not. I will act according to what my Christian conscience tells me to do,” he used to say.

For his defiance of his country’s leader he was expelled from the Portuguese Foreign Service and lost all benefits. The utterance of his name was prohibited for decades and he lived the rest of his life as an outcast, homeless and in poverty until his death in 1954. In 1987, President Mario Soares posthumously awarded him the Order of Liberty and publicly asked his relatives for forgiveness for the injustices that had taken place.

In a letter sent to the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (another individual whose conscience dictated actions that were counter to public sentiment and who paid the ultimate price for his action), Francisco Sousa Mendes, the consul’s grandson, wrote “Aristides de Sousa Mendes was a diplomat. As such, he knew that he was a public official, somebody who should serve the people and, in no way could he take advantage of his position for personal benefit. But, even more important, more than a public official, my grandfather was loyal to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, particularly the one that prescribes us to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

When faced with the choice of doing what was right in the eyes of his people and what was right in the eyes of the Lord, Aristides de Sousa Mendes choose to follow the Lord, no matter what the cost it would be to him.

The prophet Elijah could relate to what happened to Sousa Mendes. Elijah took on the establishment, challenging the prophets of Baal and in direct confrontation with Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. In showing these prophets to be fools and charlatans, Elijah embarrassed and enraged Jezebel, to the point that she put a bounty on his life.

In the wilderness, Elijah is convinced that he is alone, that there is no one who believes in God as he does. He believes that he will die in the wilderness, alone as the last of God’s witnesses. He is also convinced that God has forgotten him. Yet, God showed that he was neither forgotten nor alone. God showed Elijah that there are others and that there will always be others who believe in God and act in the same manner as Elijah.

You may see yourself alone in the battle but look around you. There are others whose presence today tells you their paths have crossed yours and the faith of their fathers is still present, as is yours.

Today, we are reminded that our fathers, like their fathers before them, worked to make our paths a little easier to tread. We are reminded that Jesus came to liberate and save us from sin and death. We are reminded, as our fathers before us and their fathers before them that the Gospel message is to be taken from this place and into the world. We are reminded again, in the words of the old Methodist hymn that the faith of our fathers lives on today.


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