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June 1, 2016

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Winston S. Churchill

Last night I watched Sony Legacy’s newly released video of the Highwaymen (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson), which included their performance of many of Kristofferson’s songs including the haunting song, “They Killed Him.” The lyrics decry the fact that even though Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Jesus all did praiseworthy things for humankind, they were killed because of their strong convictions. People with strong convictions are often persecuted for those convictions.

All of the men in this week’s scripture texts[1] (David, Elijah, Paul, and Jesus) were men of strong religious convictions, who maintained their beliefs throughout years of persecution.  Jesus is included in the group of men because even though he is God, he was also a man and suffered as a man.

Jesus, of course, is the superstar of the group. In the gospel lesson a few weeks ago, he declared, “before Abraham was born I am!” (John 8:58). This was an astounding statement to the Jews of the day, because he told them point blank that he is God. Not only had he existed before Abraham, but he also used God’s holy name (“I Am”) in reference to himself. The congregation tried to stone him, but he escaped. And despite the threats to his life, Jesus held steadfast to his convictions, and continued to perform miracles demonstrating his power. In this week’s gospel lesson, Jesus, like Elijah, brought a widow’s son back to life. His continued demonstrations of power and speaking the truth threatened the religious establishment and put him in their crosshairs.

While Jesus was the superstar, the others showed extraordinary courage in difficult times—often at great risk to their personal safety.

David, the author of Psalm 30, was a man after God’s own heart[2], but still had his share of challenges. He fled from Saul, committed adultery and murder, became despondent when his baby boy died and then, years later, when his rebellious adult son died. Yet he remained strong in his commitment to God, and wrote some of the most eloquent songs praising God, including Psalm 30: “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever.” (Psalm 30: 11-12).

God raised up Elijah to confront King Ahab who, with his wife Jezebel, led the Israelites away from God and built temples to Baal. A comment in my study Bible notes: “Elijah’s single-minded commitment to God shocks and challenges us. He was sent to confront, not comfort, and he spoke God’s words to a king who often rejected his message, just because he brought it.” (Life Application Study Bible, Zondervan, p. 583). Elijah performed many miracles during the course of his ministry, one of which is described in this week’s text. But Elijah’s troubles did not end when he provided food during a famine, or when he brought the widow’s son back to life. His most difficult challenges with Ahab and Jezebel were yet to come.

In our epistle text this week, Paul reminds us that his audiences knew of his transition from persecuting Christians to being one of the persecuted: “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” (Galatians 1:23). During his missionary journeys, Paul would show up at the local synagogue and preach that salvation is through the risen Christ. After teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, he was usually thrown out, beaten and/or arrested before going on to the next town–just to repeat the same scenario there. Yet, he never gave up. He was martyred in AD 68.

Hannah More stood out as a woman of conviction in an era when women had no voting rights and were not normally educated. An 18th century English writer, she and her fellow abolitionist Thomas Clarkson enlisted the aid of William Wilberforce to champion their cause in Parliament.

More and Wilberforce became lifelong friends based on their passion to end slavery. More had a tremendous influence on the culture of the time: “More’s role as a cultural figure and as a woman of letters is precisely what we need as a model for those interested in bringing about social and cultural change . . . She swam in their circles and spoke their language and was able to do in high culture what Wilberforce could do in politics.” (Prior, Karen Swalow, Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, (2014) Nelson Books, p. xv). After 18 years of working toward their goal, the friends saw their dream come to fruition when a bill against the slave trade passed both houses of Parliament in 1807.

All of these people lived their lives courageously, and without expectation of earthly gain for their efforts. They persisted in the face of great odds. In some cases, they lost their lives because they were outspoken about their beliefs. Heroes like David, Elijah, Paul, Wilberforce, and More know that the words of the old spiritual, “All my trials, Lord, soon be over,” is not a promise of relief from their burdens in this life. It is blessed assurance of joy in the life to come. Hannah More died at the age of 88 in 1832 surrounded by her friends. The last word she spoke was “Joy!”

While you and I will most likely not have the impact on the world that Wilberforce and More had, we are called to live our lives according to God’s plan for each of us. Living life courageously according to your convictions will influence those around you. I think of my parents, teachers, and others in my life—who lived their lives with integrity, humility, intelligence, creativity, humor, faith, and courage. It wasn’t always easy for them, but they persevered. These people had an impact on many others resulting in a significant impact on the culture.

Jimmy Carter, who at 91 years of age still teaches Sunday School and volunteers with Habitat for Humanity, said “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something… My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”


Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Third Sunday after Pentecost are Psalm 96:1-9; 1 Kings 17:17-24; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17.

[2] “But now your [Saul’s] kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.” (1 Samuel 13:14).

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