Facing Death With Hope

Passages: Wisdom 5:15-22; Is. 35:1-2; Is. 61:6-7; 1 Peter 1:3-9; Luke 12:4-10

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!

The beating of drums could be heard as the earth shook under their feet. With each beat, the enemy marched forward. You could hear the sound of the ferocious elephants marching towards the battlefield – bellowing the trunks. Overwhelmed and afraid the soldiers looked to each other and to the heaven’s wondering what would happen next. Then all of a sudden a small voice could be heard over the loud trumpets, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

When we remember St. Ghevond Yerets and his brave priest’s what do we recall? What is it that we celebrate? The story of the Ghevondyant Priests is well known as we read from the history and hagiography of St. Ghevond and his fellow priests courageously leading and fighting alongside the brave soldiers of Armenia against the traitorous enemies of the pagan Persian Empire. These heroic clergy marched alongside St. Vartan Mamigonian and his men, praying for them. Perhaps for us today this image is all to familiar as only a few months ago, we witnessed our modern day Armenian clergy in the battlefields of Artsakh, praying and pasturing our soldiers as they faced today’s enemy. Perhaps this image is too real for us who witness how our own parish clergy give of themselves in order to help each of us.

Yet, again I wonder whether from St. Ghevond and his clergy brethren or the clergy we see in the battlefield of Artsakh or the clergy through out our history, what is it that we are remembering? Their bravery, their readiness to stand next to us? Do we recall their activism, how they were and are vocal against the unrighteousness, hatred and our physical enemy? Perhaps we recall their service, their death and martyrdom, for those who died for their faith protecting that, which is Holy. When we closely examine the stories of our modern clergy, and even more importantly when we look at the example of our saints only one thing remains unchanged – hope, in the love of Christ Jesus even in the face of death. A hope that does not waiver, in the sight of suffering; A love that does not diminish in times of persecution; A fervor to serve God that does not weaken in times of tribulation. And it is this hope that we, today and each day, must remember and celebrate because this hope, this love and zeal is a renewed hope, as St. Peter writes in his letter, in Christ Jesus through His death and resurrection.

These saintly priests of the past and present knew the path of the cross because they understood that what stood in front of them was certain death. Yet, despite this devastating reality, they remained faithful as they continued to serve as examples for each one of us clergy or laity, in our daily struggles and pain of life. We read from the Gospels to not be afraid of those who cause physical death. To not be deterred by those things in life, which can bring us anxiety, move us towards depression, and make us feel like a failure. This is not to deny the real pain and suffering, which we feel with physical sickness, death or loss. Rather, it is to direct us and to teach us how to trust in that renewed hope in Christ Jesus. If we only trust in the physical, in the self- serving, in the temporary and material comfort, when we only believe when life is good, we begin to deny Christ’s call to pick up our cross and follow Him. We begin to live for the creation rather then the creator. We begin to deny God!

It’s easy to say that we believe in God when life is easy. It’s easy to say that God is good when my stomach is full. Yet, when we recite Psalm 23, what do we say? “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Meaning even if there is failure, suffering, death – I will fear no evil. And it is this psalm that the clergy and soldiers recited as they faced the Persians hordes. For nowhere do we read in the Holy Scriptures that we will not suffer in this life, if we believe in God. Nowhere do we hear Christ tell us that if you follow me, life will be easy. Contrary to what the world will tell us, faith is not an opioid that numbs us to the reality of life’s struggles. Faith is not a crutch for the weak, that we lean on. Rather, to remain faithful we live with the knowledge that our strength comes only through Christ Jesus, through whom we learn how to turn to God.

However, my dear brothers and sisters, even in the times of the saintly Ghevontyants clergy, we see that the enemy did not come only from the outside. We know well the story of how even within the Battle of Vartanantz, there were those who betrayed and who turned away from God and nation in order for personal gains. Just as today we know that continues to happen. However, even with this knowledge our clergy, our soldiers and we together place hope in God’s love and overcome death through Christ. For Christ himself was betrayed by his disciple. Christ knew of what was going to happen, yet, in order for the Son of God to teach us how we must place our hope in God the Father, Jesus continued to love even he who betrayed Him. Likewise, we know what suffering means. We know sickness, pain, addiction, bigotry and hatred are around us; we know these exist within us. We know that both from the outside and perhaps even from the inside we may face tribulation and failure. Just as St. Ghevond and his clergy knew that certain death stared them in the eyes. Yet, they also knew that even in their momentary death, God would care of them in eternity.

2 Corinthians 4:17-18 “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient (temporary), but the things that are unseen are eternal.” This means that St. Ghevond and his clergy as with all our martyr’s we understand that we do not focus on what is seen such as the troubles, pain, suffering or even death, but rather on the unseen that which is eternal that which we receive through Christ’s resurrection. And we know this hope to be true because of the proof here, today. That even after we have been put to the sword, we, the children of the saintly Ghevondyants priests, the children of Vartanatz, the children of Artsakh, the children of the Armenian Church, we continue to pray, to love, to grow, to sing and dance to stand up and protect that which Christ Jesus has taught us is sacred. And so our hope is in the presence of God who is revealed to us through Christ Jesus –  who is with us now here and will be with us out there. Who died and who is resurrected for us and through whom we learn to come into Communion with God.

Therefore, it is this that we celebrate today; it is this that we remember on Thursday and everyday that we look to our saints who show us examples of what it means to always live for God even in the face of trial and death. And it is this, as St. Peter continues to write that, “As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.” Let us never lose sight of God’s love and hope in the face of pain. Let us never shy away from acknowledging God through the life we live, even if we live in pain. Doing so, we all shall be crowned a nation of Holy Priesthood, who together with the heavenly angels and all the saints will glorify God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, eternally, Amen!

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