“To Witness the Truth Uncompromised”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

August 19, 2018

Matthew 16:24-28


When I was in seminary, I learned about a book called The Martyrs MirrorThe Martyrs Mirror was originally published in the Netherlands in 1660.  Almost a century later, Anabaptists (that’s Mennonites and Amish and their siblings) in Pennsylvania translated the book from Dutch into German and printed it.  The project took fifteen men three years to complete, and when it was finished, it was an enormous volume, more than 1,500 pages—the longest book printed in the American colonies before the Revolutionary War.  After another century or so, it was translated into English.  And even today, it is still a cherished book in many Anabaptist homes, right up there with the Bible.

The full title of The Martyrs Mirror is this:  The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660.  It’s not exactly light bedtime reading.  It is a compilation of stories, illustrated by more than 100 engravings, stories of people who were killed because of their faithful witness—stoned, burned, beaten, stabbed, and all kinds of other gory events.  As you may know, Anabaptists place a very high value on pacifism and nonviolence, even to the point of not resisting attacks on their own person.  So in that community, The Martyrs Mirror became a faith formation text, a book of examples of what a faithful Christian life might look like.

But you don’t have be Mennonite or Amish to know about martyrs.  You don’t have to read all 1,500 pages of The Martyrs Mirror.  There are stories of martyrdom right in the Bible.  They are not the stories we tend to emphasize in UCC congregations, at least not those of which I’ve been a part.  But they are there nonetheless.

There’s John the Baptist, who was imprisoned by Herod and ultimately beheaded.  There’s Jesus himself, who was crucified as an enemy of the state because the message he shared was such a threat to the powers that be.  There’s Stephen, who was stoned to death because of his testimony.  There’s James, son of Zebedee and brother of John, killed by the sword as part of an attempt by King Herod to put down this rabble-rousing movement of Jesus-followers, because executing their leader clearly hadn’t worked.  And on the stories go.

In our reading this morning, Jesus said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?  Or what will they give in return for their life?”

This is a hard teaching.  If it makes you feel a little uncomfortable, you are not alone.  Just before these words, Jesus told his disciples about the fate of suffering and death that awaited him, and Peter objected vehemently.  “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.”  Jesus chastised Peter, and then he turned to the group of disciples and said the words of this morning’s reading.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

This is a hard teaching.  Most of us, most of the time, don’t relish the idea of losing our lives.  Yet over the centuries and millennia, many faithful Christians have understood this as a call to uphold their beliefs even at the cost of their own lives.  In our modern era, we can think of such persons as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor in Germany in the 1930s and 40s who was executed in a prison camp because of his resistance to the Nazi regime.  Or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated because of his work for the civil rights of people of color in this country.  Or Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Jesuit priest who was murdered while celebrating mass in El Salvador because of his advocacy on behalf of people who are poor and marginalized and his outspoken resistance to state-sponsored violence.

We see Bonhoeffer, King, Romero, and others like them through the eyes of history, as larger-than-life heroes, but they were ordinary people inspired to extraordinary witness by their faith.  And their faith has moved mountains.  It has toppled unjust regimes; it has changed laws; it has called attention to the plight of those previously ignored.  It has bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

It may be that some of us, you or I, are called to this kind of far-reaching public witness.  We live in perilous times, and much is at stake, and none of us knows what the future may hold.  I hope we are not.  For your sake and mine, I hope we are not called to capital-M martyrdom, for it is a costly call to hear, a costly way to follow, not just to the one who hears the call and answers it, but to the ones who love them, too.

But not all martyrdom is grand and far-reaching.  Not all sacrifice moves entire mountains.  Sometimes a molehill or a mustard seed is enough.  Sometimes, Jesus’ call to “Take up your cross and follow me” looks more like what Lina and Feroza discovered in our children’s book today:  that life is not a zero-sum game, that sometimes when we give up something precious, we gain something infinitely more so.

Either girl could have kept both sandals for herself.  It would have been understandable.  Having walked through mountains and across deserts to escape from violence at home, they would have had a keen awareness of how much even a pair of flip-flops could improve a person’s life.  They would have had a powerful appreciation for the health, comfort, and dignity those precious sandals could provide.  Having lost so much, you could understand if they had clutched at anything they could get their hands on and held on tight.

But instead, they sacrificed what they could have had—Feroza first, when she gave her sandal to Lina, and then Lina as well, when she gave both sandals back to Feroza and proposed that they take turns wearing them.  It meant that every other day, one of them went barefoot.  Every other day, one of them had to contend with the discomfort and danger of walking around barefoot on stony, arid terrain.  But what they gave up in comfort, they gained in friendship.  What they lost in independent self-sufficiency, they found in relationship.

It’s like that song we used to sing in preschool:  “Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away; love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.  It’s just like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won’t have any; lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor…”


It turns out that the word martyr, etymologically, has nothing to do with pain or suffering or sacrifice or death.  The call to “take up your cross and follow me” is not a call to suffering for suffering’s own sake.  It is not a call to abase or degrade or devalue yourself.  It is not a call to seek out mistreatment as if that is itself a virtue.  Rather, it is a call to be clear about what is true, who you are, what you’re about, to whom or to what you choose to devote your life, and what you’re willing to give up for the sake of what is true.  The word martyr simply means “witness.”  The poet Dana Gioia puts it this way:  “The martyr’s true role [is] to witness the truth uncompromised.”

The martyr’s true role is to witness the truth uncompromised.

Because here is what Jesus promises.  That when you are clear about that which is true… When you are rooted firmly in the good, rich soil of God’s love…  When your house is built on a firm foundation of rock, not shifting sand…  When you ground yourself deeply in the truest truth there is:  that you are God’s beloved and so is everyone else…

Then you will find yourself able to speak and act in ways that bear witness to that truth, to God’s love for you and for all of God’s children.  Then you will find yourself able to embody God’s love in ways both ordinary and extraordinary.  Then you will find yourself equipped to extend generosity and mercy that once seemed out of reach.  Then you will find yourself with the strength to speak where you might have remained silent, with the courage to act where you might have let the moment pass you by.  Then you will find yourself with the wherewithal to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God… and to lead others—your neighbors, your community, your nation, your world—to do the same.

When you do, when you give of yourself for that which is true, you may find that, just as it did for Jesus and for so many others, bearing witness to the truth requires you to give up something precious.  Your pride, your prestige, your resources… a relationship, a job, a sandal that would protect your foot from the hard and rocky ground.

But here is what else Jesus promises.  That when you make that sacrifice, you will discover something yet more precious.  You will find that the empty place left by what you have relinquished is filled by a connection to that which is so much greater than you, to the Source and End of all our being, to the One who loves you from start to finish and everything in between, to the great stream of Life that is all around us, always, carrying us along, if only we have eyes to see.

For your sake and mine, I hope that none of us is called to the kind of capital-M martyrdom depicted so graphically in The Martyrs Mirror.  But whatever call God makes on each of our lives—and God surely does place a call upon each of us—whether that call is extraordinary or ordinary, far-reaching or close-to-home, I pray that we will all be able “to witness the truth uncompromised,” and to live accordingly, and to find our selves and our lives woven into the great and glorious pattern of the very life of Christ.


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