Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 24, 2018
“When It’s Dark Out”
I have a story to tell tonight. It’s not a Christmas story but it’s a true story. And it doesn’t take place at Christmas or even among Christians, but among Muslims in the Sudan during the month-long holy season of Ramadan.
This true story was told by a teacher in the capital city of Khartoum. The country was so dangerous, you needed a permit to leave the city. Even so, this teacher would take his classes out into the desert. On this particular trip, he loaded 20 students onto the back of a flatbed truck.
If you don’t know, during the month of Ramadan, observant Muslims don’t eat or drink anything during the day, including water. Since they were supposed to arrive before dark, no one thought to bring any food or water with them.
Travel outside the city was not only dangerous, shifting sands in the desert make it nearly impossible to maintain roads. And whenever sand covered up the road, sometimes for miles at a time, they had to trust their instincts. They had no GPS. And in the desert, there’s no cell phone coverage.
After riding in the back of the truck for what felt like a really long time, rumors began to spread quietly among the students that they were lost, and when dusk came, sure enough, the driver admitted that they were indeed lost. But, he insisted they had to keep moving on.
They wandered through the desert for hours until the sun had completely set and it was time to break their all-day fast. Except, no one brought anything to eat or drink. No one said much, but each of them was thinking about stories of what happens to people who get lost in the desert. It’s not good.
As they kept moving forward, their headlights stretched out for miles into an empty desert. And then, just when they were feeling most desperate, most hopeless… they hit a rock. Some wires were torn and now the headlights didn’t work.
There was no moon in the sky that night. And with thick clouds, there were no stars either. They were travelling in total darkness. One person walked ahead of the truck, leading the way, and another stood in the back scanning over the cab as far as they could see.
With each passing hour, they lost a little more hope. Which made them even more hungry and thirsty. Not to mention, added to their fear of what happens to people lost in the desert. It’s not good.
And then one of the students in the back of the truck said “Hey! Isn’t that a light?” Everyone was excited. But no one else saw anything. They all tried to look as they could until someone said what others were thinking: “It’s just your imagination.” But she insisted – “There! On the horizon. It’s just the tiniest pinprick possible. I think. Maybe…”
The guide told her to point and even though he didn’t see it, he then directed the man walking in front of the truck to start moving toward something everything thought was only in her imagination. She kept saying, “Look over there. No over there.”
As they moved toward the “light,” it became clearer that it was only her imagination. It had to be a mirage because, as they got closer, it didn’t get any bigger.
But what else could they do but keep moving in that direction. There was no other direction to try. And then someone else said they thought maybe they saw something too. And a little way further, another one and another one. They finally arrived at the source of the light. But it was impossible that anyone could have seen it. It was only a candle. From miles away? One candle outside a few tents of a small Bedouin camp.
You see, one of the Bedouins couldn’t sleep, so she had come out of her tent, propped a crate on its side, and dripped some wax on it to hold a candle upright. That was it. One little candle.
But still, one girl saw that candle. And that’s what led a lost group of students through miles and miles of desert. One candle. It’s absurd. Until you realize, absurd or not, that is what saved them.
They owed their lives to a stranger who couldn’t sleep. And one girl who saw something in the distance that no one else could see. Who dared invite the rest to trust.
If there had been a moon or any stars or any other light at all, she wouldn’t have seen far enough into the distance.
In fact, if they had not lost their headlights, they might still be lost.
Oh, and by the way, they arrived just before dawn. Just in time. If they arrived any later, they would have had to wait a whole other day before they could eat or drink. That is, if they had ever arrived anywhere at all.
It may not be a Christmas story or a Christian story, but it still teaches a powerful lesson: No matter how dark things get, one candle can still make a difference.
The Gospel of John says,
“The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.”
It’s a dark time in our country. It seems like every week we can add more examples. And sometimes it seems like chaos, cruelty, and suffering are the only things we hear. It’s all exhausting. Spiritually, emotionally, and mentally exhausting. It’s easy to lose sight of any light out there because it’s so far on the horizon. But that’s why we keep coming back.
So when we listen to all the news of chaos, cruelty, and suffering and feel overwhelmed, remember, none of that is capable of extinguishing the light. Though we are travelling right now through dark times, as you watch the news, remember that darkness is ultimately powerless, inept, incompetent, and useless.
When it’s dark out, remember:
“The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can’t extinguish the light.”
Thanks be to God.
 Story significantly adapted from “A Great Light” by Rev. Angela C. Menke
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 23, 2018
“No Crib for a Bed”
Matthew 2: 13-23
“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
One year on Christmas Eve, a woman calmly told the pastor, “I will never set foot in this church again.” She placed her candle and the cardboard drip-catcher into the box and walked out. And, kept her promise. She was outraged about a reference in the pastor’s sermon about a little boy who had been murdered. Christmas was not the time for something so unpleasant.
But if not Christmas, when? How can we ignore one of our most beloved songs when it says “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed. The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head. The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”
I mean, I can’t sing that song and not wonder whether migrants and asylum seekers stuck at the border might wish to be so lucky for a bit of fresh hay. Are there cribs for the infants at the sports complex in Tijuana where approximately 3,000 men, women, and children have been forced to wait for weeks and even months before being allowed to request asylum? No crib for a bed? When Amnesty International visited last month, Mexican officials admitted the sports complex lacked sufficient food, water and health services, and that respiratory illnesses were spreading among those there. But they also bitterly complained about having to foot the bill when the issue is that the US government refuses to hear these asylum cases.
In the second verse we sing: ”The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”
A manger is one thing, but imagine a baby trying to sleep through the night with all the noise inside one of the many detention centers inside the US. Reportedly, some children may be reunited with their families before Christmas, but earlier in the week there were still 14,000 minors in government custody. Earlier this summer, as we know, toddlers were ripped from their parent’s arms and separated with no apparent plan to reunite them. How many are still separated? I read that today most of the migrant children are teenage boys from Central America who have traveled alone, trying to escape gangs and violence. Alone, away from their families, especially on Christmas Eve, I can hear them singing, trying to hide their sobs,
“I love you, Lord Jesus; protect me, I pray, and stay by my side until night turns to day.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary, Joseph and the baby had to flee violence too. Jesus wasn’t born in Pleasantville. And he wasn’t born at the North Pole. He was born in Bethlehem, a place ruled by a tyrannical, paranoid King Herod. He was an extremely cruel man, so repugnant that he reportedly arranged for men to be killed on the day of his death so at least someone would be in mourning.
The story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew is much darker than Luke’s more familiar nativity – the one of children’s pageants with cute shepherds and angels and animals in a barn. Except for the three kings, we don’t hear much about Matthew’s story. But, as you heard Patrick read, there is much more to it than the arrival of some magi.
As you are likely familiar, they followed a star in the east. They came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? We have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” To which King Herod freaked out. He consulted where the prophets said the Messiah would be born and sent the Magi to Bethlehem. He asked them to report back so that he could go and honor him too. But through a dream, the magi were warned about Herod’s real intentions.
And fortunately, Joseph was also warned in a dream to uproot his family and take them to Egypt because Herod would try to kill his child. There is no consensus on how long they were in Egypt, but it was likely as long as a few years. Jesus would have been a toddler refugee. There is no other way to describe their situation other than that they were migrants who crossed a border in order to escape violence and persecution. Thank God they were allowed in. And after however long, we’re relieved to know that young Jesus is now finally safe in his own home. And we can sing of growing child:
”Away in his own bed, no crib did he need, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head. The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus, now sleeps on his own mattress from IKEA.”
But there’s more. In the polite, pleasant, company of church, we skipped over the part where Matthew tells us: “When Herod realized he had been tricked, he was so angry that he ordered the death of all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under.” I should see if Jeremy can find a way to add that to next year’s pageant.
We surely skip over this part because it is too horrific to imagine let alone mention at Christmas. Except it’s not that hard to imagine. We can even put a face to it. If we don’t know what Jesus looked like, well, then just take a look at the face of the seven-year-old Guatemalan girl Jakelin who died two days after being in the custody of US border control agents. Now, was border patrol responsible for her death? Didn’t they do everything they could? That’s a fair question. But their story is surely disputed by her father. And to which our government said, “See, that’s what happens.”
I don’t know what they were trying to escape, but we do know that before their journey northward, Jakelin received her first-ever pair of shoes. They departed from their tiny wooden house with a straw roof, dirt floors, a few bedsheets and a fire pit for cooking – which makes a manger filled with hay and the sound of cattle lowing sound like an upgrade. Jakelin and her father were not part of the big scary caravan of “invaders” that had traveled for weeks. Jakelin and her father didn’t walk from Guatemala and at the end they had walked less than a day as part of a small group and surrendered themselves. And now she’s dead.
In the Gospel of Matthew, this incident is known as the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. Remember Jakelin’s face.
Some scholars argue the Massacre didn’t really happen because Matthew is the only historical reference to it. Perhaps it’s just a literary device to connect Jesus with Moses. Perhaps it’s just a mythical legend. And yet, we can’t deny that it still contains truth. Even if it didn’t happen then, that time, we know such violence happens today. In Yemen and Syria. Or among our own country’s leaders who seem more than willing to engage in endless levels of cruelty toward suffering humanity.
Sojourners describes it this way: The administration would have us believe that this humanitarian crisis is the inexorable product of human migration. But, “this is the intended outcome of policies designed to keep asylum seekers from entering the U.S.” Currently, there are between 5,000 and 6,000 people on the waitlist to apply for asylum. Despite this overwhelming need, and the inhumane conditions they must endure while waiting, CBP only interviewed 30 asylum seekers the first day and 40 the next. They had weeks to prepare. But at this rate, people will be forced to live in squalid camps for hundreds of days.
“Our government is more than able to rapidly process more asylum claims but has simply chosen not to. Make no mistake, the disdain with which our government is treating asylum seekers is a deliberate choice to inflict suffering.”
Did it really happen in Bethlehem? I posted a meme from John Pavlovitz on our church Facebook page this week: “If you’re going to rejoice over the refusal of refugee families at our borders, you probably shouldn’t be sweetly singing about a baby with no crib for a bed.” As of this morning, that post has been shared 657 times and seen by nearly 52,000 people. One person replied that Joseph wasn’t a refugee. She explained, there was simply not enough room for them in the inn. If Luke was the only story, she would be right, but I politely reminded her of the story from the Gospel of Matthew. But, I don’t fault her. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had never heard this story read aloud in church. If we did read it every year, perhaps then we wouldn’t see such a shocking response to suffering from white Evangelicals. 68% believe we have no responsibility to accept refugees. This is not specific to the caravan of migrants but of refugees worldwide.
Did it really happen in Bethlehem? Does it matter? It is real today. But of course, then what? What is the good news this Christmas?
First of all, Christmas is not the time to ignore the news or leave it unspoken in church. This is exactly the time to remember that our vocation is to proclaim love when everyone else is screaming “Be afraid!” Christmas reminds us that love is made manifest in the care and protection of those who are most vulnerable. The Good News is that God chose to become incarnate in the most vulnerable way possible in order to experience our condition. Our God understands us and everything else we bring with us this morning that weighs heavily on our heart. So that we don’t just sing of an infant in a manger, no crib for his bed, but remember what it was like for the boy Jesus as a refugee in Egypt and therefore not forget Jesús stuck in a stadium in Tijuana.
And then to remember that beyond the carols, Christmas celebrates the birth of a child we know is going to die for speaking truth to power. Because he so loved world. Therefore, we sing and pray for all these children on Christmas:
“Be near them, Lord Jesus; we ask you to stay close by them forever and love them, we pray. Bless all the dear children in your tender care, and bring us together in love we all share.”
That’s the Good News of God’s love. For children at the border as well as for you and me, for us in our grief and sadness this Christmas when we remember people no longer with us. When we fear that this could be our last Christmas. When we struggle with hope in a cruel world. When we hear the words “stage 4.” God knows the difficulty of the human condition so that we can find comfort when we sing for ourselves:
Away in a manger no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head. The stars in the bright sky look down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. I love thee Lord Jesus, protect me, I pray, and stay by my side until night turns to day.
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 9, 2018
“Kinder and Gentler”
Luke 1: 68-79
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
who has looked favorably on the people and redeemed them,
69 Who has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of servant David,
70 as God spoke through the mouth of holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus has God shown mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered their holy covenant,
73 the oath swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve the Lord without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The nation reflected this week upon the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush, often in ways that, even if unintentional, so sharply contrast with the current president that, although his name was never mentioned at the National Cathedral, no one could mistake the two men.
Presidential biographer Jon Meachum shared his eulogy with Bush prior to his death. Bush complained that it was “too much about me.” Meanwhile, the current president sat brooding at that service, clearly unhappy it didn’t have enough “me” in it.
Meachum described Bush’s code of life. Among other things: “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Try hard. Forgive.” We were told he sought to make our lives and the lives of all nations “freer, better, warmer, and nobler.” Causes larger them himself.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulrooney called Bush courageous, principled and honourable.
Not to draw out too many more comparisons, but when Senator Alan Simpson said “hate corrodes the container that carries it,” nothing intentional or not could have been said more clearly.
How can we help but compare them? For example, their acceptance speeches when each was nominated at the Republication National Convention?
With dark imagery and an angry tone, Trump portrayed the United States as a “diminished and humiliated nation and offered himself as an all-powerful savior” on behalf of law-abiding Americans.
By comparison, Bush said in his acceptance speech in 1988:
The contrast is almost too obvious. But, not to suggest sainthood. One has to wonder what happened to kindness and gentleness and our better angels when it came to Willie Horton and the portrayal of black men. That television attack ad remains one of the most racist things to have ever aired as part of a presidential campaign – or at least until two years ago. And then there is the regrettable fact that Bush replaced Thurgood Marshall with Clarence Thomas. On the other hand, he named Colin Powell the first African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
When someone dies we tend to remember them in their best light; you might say, to white-wash their misdeeds, but, once again, we not only mourned the death of a decent man this week but we continue to mourn the death of decency itself in the person of our nation’s commander in chief and his enablers. But of course, as Christians we believe in redemption and resurrection. And that’s the real good news. What, however, does that call from us in between?
The bulletin cover, songs and prayers, not to mention the big letters hanging on the banner in front of us, make it clear that today is Peace Sunday.
And that’s the line that really stuck with me this week. Not that peace is possible. But that peace is the way. Put another way, we could say that kindness is the way to kindness. Compassion is the way to compassion. Love is the way to love. In a world of people who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, starved for kindness, compassion, and love, we have to ask of ourselves: are we being kind, compassionate, and loving?
John Pavlovitz, in his new book Hope and Other Superpowers, said, “I carry a heavy sadness seeing the cruelty that now seems standard issue, the sarcasm, snark, and verbal venom so regularly wielded. And I grieve the most when I notice it in the mirror.” We cherish winning an argument over cultivating humility. We’d rather celebrate the accomplishment of blasting our opponents instead of understanding them. Bitterness is the opposite of kindness and if we want kindness to win, we have to be less bitter about the current state of our country. And, note to self, about our president.
Jesus knows a little about that. He was not born into a time of peace. And he tried to teach peace during some of the darkest days while Israel was an occupied territory of Rome. Caesar did not tolerate threats to his absolute power. Any peace that may have existed was the result of violent repression. And things did not improve in the years after Jesus’ death. In fact, when the gospel of Luke was written, prophecies that the birth of the infant Jesus would bring about an era of peace would seem flat out wrong. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, Rome had completely crushed any hope of rebellion and destroyed the Temple.
And yet, or maybe for that very reason, Luke used the word peace more than the other three gospel writers combined. He used peace as bookends for his gospel – from Zechariah’s words in the first chapter that God will guide our feet into the way of peace to among the last words of Jesus to his disciples: “Peace be with you.” You have to wonder why those who first read the gospel wouldn’t have thought this talk about peace was just a false hope; or worse, a lie.
There are many ways to define peace, but Luke’s purpose was clearly meant to contrast the peace of Christ with the peace of Caesar. The comparison couldn’t have been more obvious. Caesar governed violently by submission. In contrast, the peace of Christ is holistic, peace in one’s soul and in the world in a practical way.
Much like how Ralph Bunche wrote that “peace, to have meaning for many who have only known suffering, must be translated into bread or rice, shelter, health, education, as well as freedom and human dignity.” Bunche was the first African American winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, resulting from his work with Arabs and Israelis. Jesus, too, taught people both with his words and with loaves of bread and fish.
Archbishop Oscar Romero had been preaching against the Caesar-like repressive force of El Salvador’s right-wing military government when they assassinated him in 1980. He taught those sitting in the dark shadows that “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is the generous contribution of all to the good of all.” By the way, now Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero.
I still sometimes wonder, is peace possible? And not just some time in the distant future but today? If you, like me, are skeptical at times, we have to remember that before Zechariah spoke his beautiful words he was mute – or at least he had been mute for the previous nine months because he did not believe the angel who told him that his wife would conceive a son. “How can this be,” he asked Gabriel? “It is not possible because we are too old.” And because he did not believe, he was made mute until the day his son was born. Similarly, Gabriel told Mary that with God, nothing is impossible. So, if the question isn’t whether peace is possible, then how? Not an emotion but the condition of wholeness for all parties.
John the Baptist called upon people to prepare the Way of the Lord by repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Perhaps we need to look in the mirror in order to repent our complicity in escalation. My own complicity. And then, as with all repentance, to turn in a new direction.
If we wonder if civility is forever dead, perhaps we need to remember that civility is the way to civility. Did decency die? Or is decency the way to decency. And kindness the means to kindness. And compassion the means to compassion. And love the only means to love.
As Dr. King said, “One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but that it is the means by which we arrive at that goal.” Of a kinder, gentler nation, a thousand points of light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
 John Pavlovitz, Hope and Other Superpowers, Simon and Schuster, 2018, Chapter 11 on Kindness
Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 4, 2018
“Everything Will Be OK in the End”
Luke 21: 25-36
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
It was just a week or two ago that I said I felt a little more hopeful than I had been for a while. I was cautiously optimistic. More women elected than ever. More People of Color elected than ever. More LGBT folks elected than ever. Various ballot initiatives around the country were approved to restore and protect voting rights, limit exploitation by payday lenders, and expand health care in some unlikely places. And somehow, the imminent threat of a dangerous invading force from the South magically disappeared from its 24 hour a day coverage over at Fox News. Seeds of hope blossomed.
But then, while we were in church last Sunday, having fun hanging the greens, we went home for lunch only to turn on the TV to witness scenes of mothers with their children in diapers running from the tear gas raining down on them. Not in Yemen. Not in Syria but outside San Diego – USA. Migrants seeking asylum, forced to flee from terror in their home countries, now forced to flee from terror by ours. My cautious optimism ebbed.
So, all week I looked for signs and stories of hope to replenish my soul. I was particularly moved by a story about members of CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina. They had provided sanctuary for Samuel Oliver-Bruno for 11 months. For 11 months he slept in a Sunday school classroom and tried to carry out a “normal” life while essentially being under house arrest. He taught Bible study classes, played in the church band, and did what he could to support his wife in her battle against lupus. One day U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asked him to come in for an appointment. It was a hopeful sign of progress, but church members also worried ICE could use it for a trap. So, the church that had been providing sanctuary inside decided they must provide sanctuary outside the church too. Members accompanied him and kept watch as they drove the 15-mile journey. When they arrived outside the offices, they were joined by 100 more. They stood in the parking lot singing, making sure their witness was both seen and heard from inside those offices. But two minutes into their singing, someone screamed as they watched through the window. Two plain clothed men from ICE put Samuel in handcuffs and led him to an unmarked car. 100 people sprang into action and surrounded the car and prayed and sang Amazing Grace and other hymns for three hours. Finally, as they sang We Shall Not Be Moved, police carried 30 of them off to jail. That evening Samuel was put on a plane and deported to Mexico.
So, is that a story of hope or not? John Lennon said, “Everything will be OK in the end. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”
Meanwhile in the Netherlands, a church has been in continuous worship for the last five weeks, 24 hours a day. You think a service that goes a few minutes over one hour is long? How about a service that, so far, has been going on for 840 hours straight?! Bethel Church in The Hague is protecting an Armenian family that has been part of the community for nine years. If deported, they fear the fulfillment of death threats for their political opposition. You may or may not know that sanctuary churches in the US, like CityWell, are only protected by a custom that says immigration officials won’t enter. It’s not by law. But a law in the Netherlands states that a raid cannot be conducted during a worship service. This small church had a creatively subversive idea, but they didn’t know how they could keep a service going 24 hours a day. When word of their plans got out, 420 religious leaders stepped up and one after another have been conducting what is essentially a filibuster service. Who knows how long it will take or whether it will ultimately succeed. But as John Lennon said, “Everything will be OK in the end. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”
Jesus said in our passage today that “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” Eugene Peterson describes it as simply, “It will seem like all hell has broken loose.” Earlier in the same chapter Jesus described a time of wars and insurrections. “Nation will rise up against nation; there will be earthquakes and famines and plagues. Before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all…”
Apocalyptic texts like these are terrifying and troubling. In some cases, they are quoted to cause fear because somehow the fear of hell is supposed to make you love Jesus more. I doubt that Jesus said these words in order to make his followers afraid but rather to address people who were already afraid, living in a state of fear. Afraid of what was happening. Afraid of what could happen. Because, basically, everything was not OK. And it would, in fact, get worse as Jesus himself was denied and betrayed and handed over and flogged and executed. But on the third day, he promised, the Son of Man would rise. And then return again. But in the meantime, Jesus said, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down.
How many times in the past week, in the last six months, in the past two years have you felt your heart weighed down – maybe by fear. Or weighed down by despair, for example, over seeing women and children tear gassed, reminiscent of kids held in cages.
Or your heart weighed down by disgust. On Thanksgiving, yet another young black man was killed by police. Army-veteran 21-year-old E.J. Bradford Jr. was helping to apprehend an active shooter when police arrived at a shopping mall in Alabama. The police saw a black man with a gun and assumed he was the problem. The same thing had just happened in Chicago to black security guard Jemel Roberson. He had just apprehended a suspect when he was shot and killed by police. Both, by the way, were legally carrying their gun. To be fair, the police can’t always tell a good guy with a gun from a bad guy with a gun, but when the good guy with a gun is black, it seems like they are always assumed to be the bad guy. And did the NRA express any outrage?
Our hearts weighed down by fear, by despair or disappointment. Anne Lamott admits that even “hate has weighed me down in these past two years and muddled my thinking. It’s isolated me and caused my shoulders to hunch.” And, she asked, when our shoulders are hunched, where do our eyes look? We look down. We gaze upon the ground. We rub our feet into the dirt. What can we do? Jesus said, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” When we lift our shoulders and raise our heads, what do we see?
When I raise my head, I see 100 members of CityWell United Methodist Church singing songs for 3 hours while surrounding the car of a man they had come to love. I look up and see a small Dutch church in worship for 840 hours and counting.
When I raise my head I look up and see our second floor and the offices of Knitting4Peace – housed here at Park Hill, founded by Susan McKee, and now led by Kathleen Marsh. They have delivered over 140,000 knit and crocheted hats, gloves, blankets, peace pals and more around the globe, and to the women who sleep in our fellowship hall. It’s astonishing. They may even hit 150,000 items before the end of the year. But it was a little story I read in their newsletter on Friday that made my shoulders go even higher. Kathleen and Evan were in Los Angeles and taught 15 former gang members how to knit and crochet. So that these formerly incarcerated men and women could feel good about giving away hats and gloves and blankets and peace pals and more instead of being seen as recipients in need. That’s hopeful.
One more story of hope. In a small town in southern Mexico, a volunteer from the American Friends Service Committee witnessed a group of poor women bent over an open fire, making soup for more than 2,000 Salvadoran refugees heading north. Kathryn Johnson said it was common for the migrants and refugees to receive this kind of compassion and open generosity as they journeyed through some of the most impoverished towns and villages in Mexico. While the women served noodle soup from large steaming pots to the passing strangers, others provided free medical care and advice.
That’s the kind of thing that builds a reserve of hope to carry us through times when our shoulders are hunched and our hearts are weighed down.
But what could possibly give me more hope than to look up and see you? Could I have stayed sane or stay sane for as long as it will take to live through this mess without having you and this church – a place to sing and worship and pray, a place to give back to the world by, for example, making up cots for WHI, retreats to build resilience like we had yesterday? Plus now, a labyrinth to walk when any of us need it. And the echoes of children down the hall today preparing to present the centuries-old story of Christ’s birth, complete with costumes of cows and sheep. Could anything be more hopeful?
So, back to that John Lennon quote: “Everything will be OK in the end. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.” That’s the very wisdom Jesus was trying to impart to his disciples and followers. When these things happen, don’t be distracted by wars and rumors of war. That’s not the end. Don’t be distracted by those who would hate or betray you. That’s not the end. Destruction is not the goal. If things are not OK, it’s not the end.
You may make the same mistake I do sometimes when we think of hope. We often hope for something, perhaps something too concrete. I hope I get that job. I hope she will come to visit me soon. Those aren’t wrong. After all, I hope I have a safe and good time on my sabbatical. I hope that the church does well. I especially hope you want me to come back!
And yes, I hope for more peace and I hope for an increase in kindness and love. But as people of faith, I think our hope is more deeply in redemption. Not simply for these times to end but our hope is the redemption of these terrible fear-filled, despairing and disgusting times that lead good people to rage and even hate. Or worse, to give up. Redemption is hopeful because it asks “What can change?” and believes it will.
For example, I hope we learn not to take things for granted – things like the rule of law and respect for customs and the desire for democracy itself. I hope citizens are never complacent again. That would be the redemption of these times. And a more faithful goal than simply hoping or even praying for an end to this mess. How can these times be redeemed? Used for good in the end. Like, more women elected than ever. More people of color elected than ever. More LGBT folks elected than ever. Restored voting rights, limits to payday lenders, and expanded health care.
Hope is not wishful thinking but our combined action. And for Christians this hope rises out of destruction and the death of Jesus when things were not OK. But everything will be OK in the end. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end. And that is our hopeful, good news as we begin the season of Advent.
One: Let us pray: Great God, help us to remember that how things are now, is not how they’ve always been;
All: And it’s not how they will always be.
One: Help us to remember that the seeds of your kingdom are growing among us now;
All: And the time will come when love fills the world.
One: Therefore we hope.
All: Therefore we hope.
One: And we pray for your coming to a world whose poverty, pain, trauma, and grief make your promises seem like pipe dreams
All: We pray for your coming into our neighbor’s lives who long to see love and compassion expressed through your people.
One: We pray for your coming to us. May you fill more than simplistic hopes but fill our deepest longings for peace and joy and love. Today, and everyday forward,
All: We hope.
 Her new book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope quoted by Janet Hunt in Dancing with the Word
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world