Westminster Abbey is across the street from Parliament in London, England. It most recently hosted a little wedding you might have heard of. What you might not have known is that below the west tower there were ten niches that were empty since the Middle Ages. It was decided in the 90s that it was about time to fill them with statues, which is what they were created for. It was decided that instead of the usual saints they would pick 10 20th century martyrs. In 1998 these ten statues were dedicated and they represented those who died in circumstances of oppression and persecution. They also represented every continent and many different Christian denominations.
You might have heard of some of them. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who stood up against Hitler and was put to death as one of Hitler’s last requests before he lost power. Archbishop Oscar Romero fought against the government of El Salvador who was persecuting its people and gave death squads permission to kill whoever and whenever. Romero was shot in his church while presiding over the mass. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot by an assassin’s in April 4th, 1968 for his work in the Civil Rights movement in this country. Those you might have heard of but there are others you might not have.
Manche Masmola was a South African and only 16 years old when she died. An Anglican Mission came to her town and she loved to listen to the missionary preach and she attended classes twice a week. Her and her cousin were even looking into being baptized. Her parents did not like this idea though because they thought she would leave them or refuse to marry. They took her to a spirit priest because they thought she was bewitched. The priest recommended the regular remedy for this and her parents beat her into submission in order for her to take it. That did not work and Manche still disobeyed them and attended classes and services at the mission. In February of 1928 her mother and father took her to a isolated place and killed her. They buried her near a granite rock on a remote hillside. She was never baptized. People to this day still visit her grave and in 1969 her mother was baptized into the Christian faith.
Esther John was a Pakistan nurse in an orphanage. When she was 17 years old she was moved by the faith of one of her Christian teachers. She began to read the Bible and when she was reading Isaiah 53 she felt a power conversion come over her. Her faith grew secretly and she decided to run away from home to escape an arranged marriage. She worked at the mission hospital as a nurse until she realized her love for teaching. In 1959 she followed that new found passion and moved in with American Presbyterian Missionaries. There she taught women how to read and telling them about Jesus while working with them in the fields. On February 2, 1960 Esther was found brutally murdered in her own bed.
Lucian Tapiede was the son of a sorcerer in Papua New Guinea. His father died when he was really young and he eventually went to a Mission School. He became a teacher and an evangelist. After the attack on Pearl Harbor the Japanese started to invade and take over many other islands in the Pacific. in July of 1942, they attacked Lucian’s island. Many residents of the island tried to escape or at least tried to hide and evade capture. Lucian helped ten other evade capture and they attempted to hide with a native tribe. The men of that tribe escorted them out of the village and one man killed Lucian in the process. During this invasion 333 Christians lost their lives, some of which were even Methodist missionaries. Lucian’s killer converted to Christianity some years later and took Lucian as his last name. He even help build a church in his honor.
Saint Maximilion Maria Kolbe was a Polish Catholic monk. During World War II he was imprisoned in Auschwitz for hiding almost 2,000 Jews from the invading Germans. While in the concentration camp he was known for giving up his food to help others. When three men disappeared from the camp the SS decided to send 10 men to a starvation cell. Those ten men’s slow and agonizing death would be an example to help deter others from escaping. As the solider was picking which ten men would die, one cried out for his wife and kids. At that moment Kolbe spoke up and asked if he could take that man’s spot. In the starvation cell he was allowed to give communion to his fellow prisoners every day. After two weeks, only Kolbe remained. The Nazi’s needed the cell and so they gave Kolbe a lethal injection. Those present said he simply raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection.
There are others memorialized for their deaths in those niches in Westminster Abbey. But there are many more who are not enshrined that have followed Stephen’s example from the scripture today. Stephen in this scripture dies the first martyr’s death. He was arrested for doing wonders and signs in the name of God. During his trial the Jewish Council could not find a good argument against him because he answered them wisely after each question. They even went to the lengths of bringing false witnesses against him. Finally Stephen speaks up and gives a speech. In that speech he recounts Israel’s history and their “collective and habitual disobedience, particularly in the form of idolatry.” This enraged the council and they take him out to be stoned.
As we witness Stephen’s death we do get echoes of Christ’s death. Stephen looks up to heaven and sees the glory of God and Jesus standing by his right hand. The council covers their ears and pull him out of the city to stone him. As stones hit his body with the sound of rocks landing in mud, Stephen prays for the Lord to receive his Spirit and then prays for forgiveness of those hurling the stones. This sounds a lot like Jesus on the cross asking God to forgive those who are crucifying him and to receive his Spirit.
When we hear stories of martyrs they are filled with a relentless passion for God ad a faith that even death cannot shake free. Cassie Bernall was in the Library studying when two shooters entered Columbine High School and started their murderous rampage. Cassie was reported to be praying under a table when the shooter entered the library. As the story goes he looks at her and asks her if she believed in God. She replied, “Yes, I believe in God.” Then he shot her. A lukewarm faith, in the sight of death will never answer yes. Self-preservation is too important. According to her mother’s book, Cassie had some turbulent teenaged years but did find God.
We don’t know when our faith will be put to the test. Sometimes life throws us a huge curve ball and we are stuck on the side of the road trying to make sense of it all. I pray that none of us will have to confess our faith with a gun to our heads and we can count ourselves as lucky. There are other places in the world where Christians are faced with that very reality. We are lucky we can worship openly here this morning without persecution. The truth is though that wasn’t always the case in our country.
There was a time, in many of your lifetimes, that people died or at least were brutally beaten because they were following the teachings of Jesus and trying to make them a reality in our country. One of those martyrs whose statue is on the side of Westminster Abbey fought a non-violent fight to give every person equal treatment in this country. Martin Luther King, Jr was a Baptist preacher who fought for equal rights for everyone regardless of the color of their skin. There are many others who followed him in his path.
James Zwerg was one of those people. CNN.com just recently did an article on him. He grew up in Tennessee and in his early college years felt compelled to join the Civil Rights movement. He and other fellow students from Nashville decided they would take a bus ride through the south to help desegregate public transportation. They called themselves Freedom Riders. The night before he took this ride he read Psalm 27 over and over again. James had a feeling that this was the day he was going to die. The first verse of Psalm 27 reads, “The LORD is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?”
As the bus pulled into Montgomery, AL a mob grew and sealed off the road. The door of the bus hissed and James volunteered to get off first. His foot hit the pavement and the mod reached out for him and dragged him away. As they did, James bowed his head and prayed, “The Lord is my light and my salvation-whom shall I fear?”
Let me read you some of the article,
“Though the aftermath of the beating caused Zwerg much emotional pain, the attack also led to one of his most profound religious experiences. He felt something during the mob attack that he still struggles to describe.
In “Parting the Waters,” Taylor Branch wrote that the mob had swelled to 3,000 people and described what happened to Zwerg: “One of the men grabbed Zwerg’s suitcase and smashed him in the face with it. Others slugged him to the ground, and when he was dazed beyond resistance, one man pinned Zwerg’s head between his knees so that the others could take turns hitting him.'”
Yet in the midst of that savagery, Zwerg says he had the most beautiful experience in his life. “I bowed my head,” he says. “I asked God to give me the strength to remain nonviolent and to forgive the people for what they might do. It was very brief, but in that instant, I felt an overwhelming presence. I don’t know how else to describe it. A peace came over me. I knew that no matter what happened to me, it was going to be OK. Whether I lived or whether I died, I felt this incredible calm.”
Zwerg blacked out and didn’t wake up until he was in a car. The mob had continued to beat him after he was unconscious. Being unconscious saved his life, he believes now. His body was relaxed, so it took the punishment better than if he had stiffened up to protect himself. Incredibly, no Freedom Riders were killed during the mob attack.
He never found the bond he experienced with the other Freedom Riders. “Each of us was stronger because of those we were with,” he says. “If I was being beaten, I knew I wasn’t alone. I could endure more because I knew everybody there was giving me their strength. Even as someone else was being beaten, I would give them my strength.”
James Zwerg did not die but part of him did that day. As he followed what the Lord had called him to do, he did so at the protest of his parents. His parents disowned him because he was standing up for a group of people they did not like. Because of his faith live out verse 10 of Psalm 27, “Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.”
Jesus tell us, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” There is no escaping this reality and the first martyr of this new faith reminds us of that today. As Rev. James Ellis says, “while we are called to speak the truth in love, we also must love the truth enough to act on its behalf, to become godly agents of change.” If we take our faith seriously and if we truly follow Jesus, we are all called to be those godly agents of change. That may lead us off a bus to be beaten or to the cross. Yet God’s power is made perfect in our weakness and nothing, not even death, can shake God’s love off of our souls. So what is there truly to fear?
And all God
3. Luke 9:23-24