Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 17th March 2013
17 March 2013 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
I have a dream; that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. Today I have a dream.”
Words from one of the most famous speeches of all time - that of Martin Luther King, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on 28th August 1963. Less than five years later he was dead - assassinated on 4th April 1968.
During these Sundays in Lent as we draw closer to Holy Week we’re thinking about Christians who’ve taken to heart the words of Jesus to his first disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” - Christians, who down through the centuries have been martyred for their faith.
So far we’ve thought about those martyred during the early centuries of the Church’s history and of the martyrs of the English Reformation - both Protestants and Roman Catholics who gave up their lives for their convictions.
Today I’d like us to think about some of the martyrs of the twentieth century - in particular, those who are commemorated above the Great West Door of this Abbey.
Martin Luther King is perhaps the most famous of the people commemorated by the statues in the ten niches.
As a Baptist Pastor, he fervently believed in non-violent challenge to racism, calling for equal voting and civil rights for the black community of the United States.
A number of the other statues are also of very well-known people - for example: Elizabeth of Russia killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged in a Nazi Concentration camp in 1945 for his resistance to the regime; and Oscar Romero, the Roman Catholic Archbishop assassinated in El Salvador in 1980.
But all ten figures commemorate courageous men and women who’ve died as a result of religious persecution and oppression and they represent people from every continent of the world.
So from Africa we have Janani Luwum, an Anglican Archbishop assassinated in Uganda in 1977 during the rule of Idi Amin, and Manche Masemola a young girl of just sixteen years old from South Africa, who was killed by her parents in 1928 because she had become a Christian.
From Asia we have Wang Zhiming, a pastor and evangelist killed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution; from Australasia Lucian Tapiede, an Anglican from Papua New Guinea, killed during the Japanese Invasion in 1941; and from Europe, Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan Friar who was also killed in 1941 - volunteering to die in place of a stranger in a Nazi Death Camp.
Having those statues in such a prominent place we know is an inspiration to people from all around the world.
Just the other day, I was at an event in the House of Lords honouring women of courage. The guest speaker was a woman MP from Pakistan, who herself faces danger on a daily basis because she’s a Christian. She spoke of the huge encouragement that women like her receive from the fact that Esther John, a Pakistani Christian nurse who was killed by a Muslim extremist in 1960 is honoured amongst the Twentieth-Century Martyrs on the west front of Westminster Abbey.
All ten of these martyrs, whether they are household names, or people who we’ve not heard of before, were outstanding examples of courage and self-giving. They remind us that Christian martyrdom is not something confined to ancient history - but that men and women throughout our modern world continue to put their lives at risk by following in the ways of Christ.
Their example challenges each one of us to think about our own discipleship and to ask ourselves the questions; how much am I prepared to suffer in standing up for what I believe to be right, and would I be prepared like them to give up my life for the sake of my faith in Christ?
As well as being challenged and inspired by the twentieth-century martyrs though, we have another company of people with us today who are also people of courage - those who serve on HMS Westminster.
Like others who serve in our Royal Navy, amongst their many duties they spend much of their time working alongside people in situations of conflict in our world; engaging in anti-piracy operations; counteracting drug trafficking; and bringing relief to parts of our world which have suffered through natural disaster.
The variety of places in which they operate reminds all of us of the huge problems faced by millions of people in our world of different races, cultures and religions, all of whom are our neighbours. As Christians we are called to reach out in compassion to them, holding in our minds the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbour as yourself”.
And true love is costly. Men and women serving in all our armed services, as we are well aware, are often called to put their own lives at risk as they serve in situations of violence and conflict and try to protect the vulnerable.
Like the twentieth-century martyrs, some of them make the ultimate sacrifice of laying down their lives - bringing to mind those other words of Jesus, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
So on this Passion Sunday as we draw yet closer to Holy Week when our attention becomes focussed on the suffering and death of Christ, let us all be drawn into and strengthened by God’s absolute love for us and his world, shown in the sacrifice which Christ made on the cross - "love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all".