“The Worship Challenge”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
Delivered in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Sunday, September 17, 2017
When the Nazis occupied Holland during World War II, Casper ten Boom ran a watchmaker’s shop on the first floor of a building in Haarlem. Upstairs, his daughter Corrie ran a different kind of business. She was the chief organizer of an underground operation to rescue Jews. Thanks to her work, eight hundred Jews escaped arrest and certain death.
The ten Booms created a secret hiding place behind a wall in Corrie’s bedroom upstairs. The family frequently practiced evacuation drills to prepare their guests in case of a raid by the Gestapo. The ten Booms lived in constant fear. The much feared raid finally came on February 28, 1944. When the Gestapo banged on their front door, Corrie raced to hide the Jews in the secret hiding place. Miraculously, everyone who was hidden managed to escape.
The Gestapo, however, arrested Corrie’s entire family. Her eighty-four-year old father died ten days later. Corrie and her sister, Bestie, were sent to the infamous Ravensbruck concentration camp, where Betsie died as did their nephew, Kik, who died from abuse and starvation.
Remarkably, Corrie was released from the concentration camp because of a clerical error. She returned to Holland. After the war, various Christian groups invited her to speak about her faith, courage and survival. As she concluded one talk, Corrie was shocked to see a familiar face approaching her. She instantly recognized the man in a long brown coat as one of the cruelest concentration camp guards. Her mind flashed back to scenes of starvation and brutality. Now, standing years later in a faraway place, she recoiled in fear.
Thrusting his hand towards her, this cruel former guard said, “A fine message, fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!” Corrie quickly recalled how easily she had spoken about forgive others as if it were the most natural thing to do.
Now, however, faced with a hideous dilemma, she struggled to compose herself. Her heart raced, and she tried not to panic. In her mind pictures flashed of her dead sister, countless people starving, cruel guards, inhuman conditions and people marching to the gas showers never be seen again. “You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk. I was a guard there,” said the man. “Since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, will you forgive me?”
“I stood there,” notes Corrie, “I, whose sins had again and again been forgiven – and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place – could he erase her slow, terrible death simply for the asking?” As the former guard held out his hand for a few seconds, hours seemed to pass. This courageous woman who risked everything to save Jewish refugees now found herself unable to respond to this simple question: “Will you forgive me?” She knew the answer, but she couldn’t find the words. She notes, “’God forgives’ has a prior condition: that we forgive those who has injured us. “If you do not forgive others,” Jesus says, “neither will God forgive you.”
Corrie knew this truth not only as a biblical commandment but from daily experience. Since the war had ended, she had created a home for victims of Nazi brutality. She notes, “Those who were able to forgive their enemies were able to…. rebuild their lives…. [while] Those who nursed bitterness remained invalids.” Now, she faced a choice. Choose forgiveness and you unlock a door and move forward to healing and a new future. Deny forgiveness and you remain locked in a prison of bitter memories that will ultimately rob you of your life and joy.
Corrie notes, “I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.” “I forgive you brother,” said Corrie. “With all my heart!” She notes, “For a long moment, we grasped each other’s hands…. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”
All of us have someone that we need to forgive. Peter tried to impress Jesus by asking, “How many times must I forgive someone – seven?” He knew that the Torah commanded Jews to forgive someone three times for the same offense. Peter was being generous, suggesting three times and adding four more, but Jesus said, “Not seven but seventy times seven,” which was a Hebraism meaning forever. Jesus calls us to forgive someone an infinite number of times.
What would have happened if Jesus, when they nailed him to the cross had cursed his enemies? There would be no Gospel, no Church and no Christianity. For instead of a message of great joy and mercy, Jesus would have died hating his enemies rather than dying for them. So, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and that made all the difference.
Anne Lamott, in her book Travelling Mercies, says that trying to punish someone by not forgiving them is like trying to kill a rat by drinking rat poison. We only hurt ourselves when we withhold forgiveness. God’s forgiveness flows as we forgive others. When we hold onto hatred, resentments and grievances, we clog the pipe and punish ourselves.
Dr. Frederic Luskin, who is director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, wrote a best-selling book called Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. He notes that learning to forgive for good is a key to our physical and emotional health. It reduces stress, anxiety and anger, and increases hope, compassion and wellness for who are willing to forgive. Hence, holding a grudge is hazardous to our health.
Human love wears out – that’s why we see so many divorces. All of us know people who are not divorced, but no longer love their spouse. That because there’s a limit to human love. It dries up. That’s why we need God’s love to enter our relationships, if they are going to last. God’s love never wears out, because God’s love is patient, persistent and forgiving.
When his children were young, pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren took his family to an air show. He said that one of the most impressive sights was to watch how a tanker could hook up to a jet in flight and refuel. Warren notes, “Can you imagine someone flying a jet saying, “I don’t need to refuel?” The jet would crash and burn. In a long distant flight, a jet has to refuel.
To give the kind of persistent love that God wants us to give those around us, we have to refuel. All around us we see relationships that have crashed and burned because they did not refuel their love. Relationships cannot reach their highest potential solely on human love. We need God-infused love to forgive the unforgiveable or to stay in a relationship when it hits bottom.
How do we refuel our love tank? We start by coming to church to soak up God’s love. Worship heals, inspires and strengthens us. It gives us a spiritual reset and turns us inside out so that we leave focused on God and on others and ready to love and forgive. The author of First John notes, “We love because [God] first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
That’s why this morning, we are launching The Worship Challenge. We want to encourage every member of our church to attend church for the next 52 Sundays, as long as you are healthy enough to worship. If you are out of town, find a church and worship there. Bring back your worship leaflets and give them to the clergy, because we are going to create a wall of worship leaflets from across the country and around the world. Bring back fresh ideas about what you have seen and experienced in other churches that has touched you and share those ideas with us.
Why do this? Because being a Christian is like being an athlete. It requires spiritual exercises. The most basic spiritual exercise is to worship each Sunday. We simply cannot go further on our spiritual journey unless we first honor the Sabbath and devote time to God in the company of other faithful people. This is the building block that the rest of our week revolves around.
So, I encourage you to fill out The Worship Challenge card in your leaflet this morning and put it in the alms basin that will pass shortly or take it home and mail it in to us. No one is going to punish you if you miss church. But if you honor the Sabbath and attend worship each Sunday for a year, I guarantee that God will honor your commitment and some amazing things will occur in your life that would not otherwise take place. God will bless your commitment.
I will take these forms and pray for each of you, and every week one of our clergy or staff members will send you a short message or teaching to inspire you on your faith journey and deepen your understanding of worship. A year from now, everyone who has participated in The Worship Challenge will be invited to a special celebration banquet, and we will have much to celebrate. All of us can do this, and it will transform our journey with Jesus.
Bear in mind, the depression rate continues to grow each year while the worship attendance rate continues to shrink. Is there a correlation? Studies show that people who attend church seldom or never are far less happy than those who attend church once a month, and those who attend nearly every week are much happier than those who worship just once a month. In another words, regular worship creates happy, joy-filled people. Is God trying to say something to us?
Six years ago, we invited people to read the entire Bible in a year and 180 of you accepted the challenge and 90 folks from beyond joined us. That started a spiritual revolution. Today, nearly one million Anglicans have participated in The Bible Challenge, which began right here. It is now the most significant Bible ministry in the Episcopal Church. We have done something huge here that has impacted hundreds of thousands of lives. Now is our chance once again to help lead a spiritual revolution in the Episcopal Church. I hope that you will accept the challenge and do something spiritually transforming for yourself and huge for the Episcopal Church. Amen.