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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 27, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Isaiah 40:9-11 and Luke 1:67-79
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I wonder what it is like for Cubans today. With Fidel Castro’s death on Friday, I wonder what sort of dreams and hopes, what sort of griefs and fears average Cubans are feeling. Fidel Castro took power in 1959. That means that 75% of the Cuban population has only known the Castro form of Communism and a Castro at the helm.[1] Are they feeling grief at Fidel’s death? Are they feeling like there is a power vacuum (even though Fidel handed power to his brother Raúl eight years ago)? Are they fearful that they may lose all they’ve known, or are they hopeful about changes that might be able to come? Or maybe they’re feeling a combination of these things.

I wonder what it is like for people in Syria and Iraq who live in the shadow of ISIS. Are their lives filled with fear or are they (at least some of them) somehow holding on to hopes and dreams?

And I wonder what it is like for the refugees – whose who fled Cuba generations ago and those who have fled ISIS in this generation. Is there hope in their fleeing or is it only desperation? Do they hope to return home or have they oriented their lives to the new land they how inhabit?

Brian McLaren points out, “Prophets in the Bible have a fascinating role as custodians of the best hopes, desires, and dreams of their society. They challenge people to act in ways consistent with those hopes, desires, and dreams. And when they see people behaving in harmful ways, they warn them by picturing the future to which that harmful behavior will lead.

“One of the most important prophetic compositions was the Book of Isaiah. Most scholars today agree that at least three people contributed to the book over a long period of time, but their combined work has traditionally be attributed to one author. The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah were situated in the southern Kingdom of Judah, just before the northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and colonized by the Assyrians. The prophet saw deep spiritual corruption and complacency among his people and warned them that this kind of behavior would lead to decline and defeat.

“That defeat came in 587 BC at the hand of the Babylonians. After the invasion, many survivors were taken as exiles to Babylon. Chapters 40-55, often called Second Isaiah, addressed those Judean exiles, inspiring hope that they would someday return to their homeland and rebuild it. That soon happened, beginning in 538 BC under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. That era of rebuilding was the setting for Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66.”[2]

Imagine with me for a moment what it was like for the people of Second Isaiah. Imagine what it was like for those who had been forcibly removed from their homes and taken into exile by the Babylonians. Yahweh, they believed, had promised them this land, but a foreign army had conquered them, removed them from their homes, and sent them into exile. Yahweh’s home was in Jerusalem, but they were forced to live in Babylon. Yahweh’s house, the Temple, had been destroyed. Where and how could they find hope?

Minidoka National Historic Site. The swimming hole

Minidoka National Historic Site. The swimming hole

Not that I was trying to mimic Isaiah, but my sabbatical can be divided into three parts. The first part was a great road trip that took me up the coast, across to Glacier National Park, south to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, and back home. It included, almost by accident, a stop at the Minidoka Internment Camp outside Twin Falls, Idaho. There is very little at the National Historical Park now: mostly open fields and gravel paths; a few concrete pads that were the foundations of garages and warehouses; a collapsing root cellar. The sentry tower and barbed wire fence are reconstructions. Only one of the original tarpaper barracks remains; the others were demolished or sold to farmers in the area, but only to white farmers. None of the internees were allowed to purchase any of the buildings or equipment that was deemed surplus after the war.

Minidoka National Historic Site. Family barracks

Minidoka National Historic Site. Family barracks

At its height, there were over 9,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens incarcerated in the camp, making Minidoka something like the fourth largest community in Idaho at the time. These thousands upon thousands of people of Japanese heritage are America’s 20th century exiles. Like the Babylonian army, the U.S. Army forced these people out of their homes and businesses and placed them in concentration camps.

According to the stories I read and heard at Minidoka, it was only through community that they were able to find hope. And, while the United States built the barracks, it was the people concentrated in the camp that built the community.

Of course, the internment of people of Japanese ancestry is not the only exile in United States history. The government’s treatment of the people who were here first, the Native Americans, was our original forced exile. I won’t rehearse the history; I can’t; I don’t know all of it. I know just enough of the Trail of Tears and the concentration on “Reservations” and the violations of treaties and the attempts to “kill the Indian” to save the child to know it was a story all too similar to that of the Judean exile in Babylon.

Aside from the elections, there was one news story that held my attention during my sabbatical: the story of the Standing Rock Sioux protesting the routing of the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred lands and along and under important water sources for the Standing Rock and everyone downstream of them. Up until the past few weeks, the mainstream news media were pretty much ignoring the story. However, because the Dakota Access Pipeline is new fossil fuel infrastructure, organizations fighting climate change were paying attention, and that got my attention starting in August.

On one level, this story sounds like every other story of the Indian Exile: white people with their police and military and corporations and courts giving Indians the shaft. Again.

But something different is happening this time. The National Public Radio podcast, “Code Switch” notes that the history “of indigenous people fighting to protect not just their land, but the land, is centuries old.” But this time, “The scope of the resistance at Standing Rock exceeds just about every protest in Native American history.”[3] The big thing that’s different is that Native tribes and nations from across North America, in both what is now the United States and what is now Canada, are showing up in support of the Standing Rock Sioux. Not only that, but indigenous groups from around the world are offering their support.[4]

This gives me hope, this community and solidarity that is growing around the globe. And because of that solidary (at least in part), this is now about way more than a particular pipeline in a particular place. What’s happening along the Cannonball River is becoming a clash of ideas and systems that have been at odds on this continent for five centuries. The thing is, because the Standing Rock are grounding their movement in prayer, this clash has the real potential to work itself out in a way where we are all transformed and we are all winners. And that gives me hope.

“To be alive is to desire, to hope, and to dream,” Brian McLaren writes.[5] Unfortunately, throughout human history, “some of us desire power and kill, enslave, and oppress others. Enslaved and oppressed people hope for liberation. Wilderness wanderers desire a promised land where they can settle. Settled people dream of a promised time when they won’t be torn apart by internal factions, ruled by corrupt elites, or dominated by stronger nations nearby.”[6]

If we read the prophets and the gospels in the Bible, one thing will be clear: While God loves everyone, God takes the side of the enslaved and oppressed, the wilderness wanderers and exiles, the people yearning for justice and peace. We heard the words in today’s scripture lessons.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
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 Lord God … will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

And there’s so much more in Isaiah.

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. (Isaiah 11:6-7)

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3)

Isaiah’s words and images inspire so much hope that Jesus and his followers quote this book more than any other writer.

“Many other prophets added their own colors to this beautiful vision of hope. In Ezekiel’s vision, people’s hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh. For Malachi, the hearts of parents would turn to their children, and children to their parents. Joel describes the Spirit of God being poured out on all humanity – young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile. Amos paints the vivid scene of justice rolling down like a river, filling all the lowest places. And Daniel envisioned the world’s beastlike empires of violence being overcome by a simple unarmed human being, a new generation of humanity.

“In the centuries between the time of the prophets and the birth of Jesus, these prophetic dreams never completely died. But they were never completely fulfilled, either.… [So] their dream lived on. It remained alive in people like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, and Anna and Simeon, and even among humble shepherds who lived at the margins of society.

“To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to have a desire, a dream, a hope for the future.”[7] To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to believe that the promised time is coming and that the promised land will be received. It is what we pray for every time we say, “Thy kin-dom come on earth.” But that is only a wish and not true hope if it does not spur us to action. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to translate hope for the future into action in the present and to keep acting in light of it, no matter the disappointments, no matter the setbacks and delays.

Now, as we enter a time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything for the sermon or scripture readings that caught you attention; or
… recall a time when you kept hope or lost hope; or
… the imagery from Isaiah (“He shall feed his flock …”), and how you would translate that imagery from the ancient Middle East into imagery from today’s world; or
… an image from today’s scripture readings – hold it in your heart, in God’s presence and let it inspire a simple prayer.

[1] “Cuba Age structure,” Index Mundi, http://www.indexmundi.com/cuba/age_structure.html (accessed 26 November 2016).

[2] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 14, page 64. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[3] Leah Donnella, “The Standing Rock Resistance Is Unprecedented (It’s also Centuries Old),” Code Switch, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/11/22/502068751/the-standing-rock-resistance-is-unprecedented-it-s-also-centuries-old (posted 22 November 2016; accessed 26 November 2016).

[4] Just as an example, Maori have set up a Facebook page in solidarity (https://www.facebook.com/maorisolidarity/) and have sent people to pray and stand in solidarity to the protest camps.

[5] McLaren, page 63.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 65-66.

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What does hope mean to you?

Seriously, I’d like to know you answers, so please post your definitions in the comments.

I raise the question because I ran into this definition in an old Christian Century article, and I like it.

“Hope means that the story’s not quite over, that the future is yet to be written. And it means that God has called each one of us for just such a time as this.” ~Matt Gaventa

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 14, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Revelation 22:1-5 and Psalm 126
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

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An aerial view shows the Zaatari refugee camp on July 18, 2013. From “The Telegraph.”

I’ve been wondering this week, if I were a Syrian refugee living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where would I find hope?

If I were a Palestinian, raised by parents in a refugee camp, now raising my children in the same refugee camp, where would I find hope?

If I were a Native American living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who, like the generations before me, was trapped in a cycle of poverty,[1] where would I find hope?

If I was a member of parliament in the Solomon Islands who has watched several small islands disappear because of erosion and rising sea levels, who has watched villages literally washed to sea as tropical storms increase in strength because of climate change[2] – where would I find hope?

If I were an African-American bus driver in St. Louis who sees how my nation has created a new Jim Crow by building a cradle to prison pipeline[3] that siphons black children, especially black boys, out of the schools and into the prisons, labeling them as “convicts” so they can’t get a job when they’re released, so the end up trying to get by only to be arrested again – where would I find hope?

If I were a Christian living in Rome during the reigns of Emperors Nero or Domitian, emperors who had essentially made me illegal by demanding I worship them as gods, something that would violate the very core of my being and faith – where would I find hope?

I can imagine those early followers of Jesus thinking something like this:  “Jesus has been gone now for decades.  The world doesn’t seem to be getting better.  If anything, with a mad dictator in Rome, it’s getting worse.  Maybe Jesus was wrong … maybe it’s time for us to forget about this ‘[…] love your enemies’ business.  Maybe we need to take matters into our own hands and strap on a sword to fight for our future.  Or maybe we should just eat, drink, make a buck, and be merry, because tomorrow we might all be dead.”[4]

This is the context in which Revelation was written.  I know there are plenty of Christians who think Revelation is some sort of coded book that, if properly decoded, will reveal exactly how God will bring the world and history to an end.  But it’s not.  Yes, it is sort of in code, but it’s not about the end of history or the world.  Revelation was written to bring the Spirit of Hope to an oppressed but faithful people.  “It addressed the crisis at hand.  Even if the emperor is mad, Revelation claimed, it’s not the end of the world.  Even if wars rage, it’s not the end of the world.  Even if peace-loving disciples face martyrdom, it’s not the end of the world.…  Whatever happens, God will be faithful and the way of Christ – a way of love, nonviolence, compassion, and sustained fervency – will triumph.”[5]

While Revelation is typically classified as apocalyptic literature (which literally means writing that unveils or reveals), I see Revelation primarily as an example of literature of the oppressed.  Sometime literature of the oppressed needs to be coded.  To remain silent to the present injustice would be an act of complicity, of cooperation with the injustice.  But to speak up in some situations can get you killed (or at least disappeared).

Revelation is this type of literature.  “Instead of saying ‘The Emperor is a fraud and his violent regime cannot stand,’ which would get them arrested, Revelation tells a strange story about a monster who comes out of the sea and is defeated.  Instead of saying, ‘The religious establishment is corrupt,’ it tells a story about a whore.  Instead of naming today’s Roman empire as being doomed, they talk about a past empire – Babylon – that collapsed in failure.”[6]

Brian McLaren points out, “People who read Revelation without understanding the context tend to miss some telling details.  For example, when Jesus rides in on the white horse, his robes are bloodstained and he carries a sword.  Many have interpreted this scene as a repudiation of Jesus’ nonviolence in the gospels.  But they miss the fact that he carries the sword in his mouth, not his hand.  Instead of predicting the return of a killer Messiah in the future, Revelation recalls the day in the past when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  His … words of peace, love, and justice will, Revelation promises, prove more powerful than the bloody swords of violent emperors.  In addition, we notice his robe is blood-stained before the battle begins, suggesting that the blood on his robe is not the blood of his enemies, but is his own, shed in self-giving love.  In that light, Revelation reinforces rather than overturns the picture we have of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”[7]

Revelation is a source of hope, a vehicle for the Spirit of Hope to come upon these oppressed, first century Christians.  This understanding of Revelation is what got me wondering where I would find hope if I were a Syrian refugee, or a Palestinian parent, or an Oglala Lakota, or a Solomon Island parliamentarian, or an African-American bus driver.  I know I wouldn’t find hope in a rifle or a rocket launcher or a riot.  So where would I find hope?

Maybe in the faces of some children playing soccer.  Maybe I would find hope in the news that Christian denominations in the United States were standing up for my human rights.[8]  Maybe I would find hope in watching my children learn our history and culture and keep our language alive.  Maybe I would find hope in accounts of people around the globe taking to the streets to demand climate action.  Or maybe I would find hope in something as simple and beautiful as poetry.

Last Sunday, I asked by Facebook friends to tell me, “What gives you hope in times of distress?”  Before I share some of their responses, maybe you’d like to think about your answer.  What gives you hope in times of distress?

Here are some of the responses from a few of my Facebook friends:

  • Stories of people who have survived worse and become happy. My having survived worse.  Being loved just the way I am no matter what.  Belief that love will outlast and best all the worsts.  Seeing and creating something beautiful helps too,…  Being able to laugh, be heard, and get the tears out also help.
  • Remembering friends who turned terrible circumstances into growth.… Seeing the refugee team at the Olympics, knowing the adversity they faced as they left the circumstances in their homelands and found life in new countries.  Experiencing the presence of God in my life, in me and in others when I least expect it.  Knowing I am loved and I can love with abandon.
  • Trusting that even in the midst of crises of any kind, we are all carried by a loving God, even if we don’t know it at the time.…
  • Watching toddlers as they learn new things and get excited.
  • Helping others, recognizing that I have the power to improve people’s situations, even if it’s just about feeling good for a brief moment.
  • I remind myself that other people have survived worse things. I sing to myself.  I practice a positive message and say it aloud as often as I can.  I call my best friend and moan, secure in the knowledge that it will go no further.  I pray for help.
  • [Remembering that] God IS good, even when I can’t see it – and eventually, love (always) wins.
  • Looking out at the stars and remembering that both God and the universe are bigger than our folly.
  • The love of my cat.
  • Seeing my grandsons … be kind to other kids.
  • Instances where people have offered kindness and assistance to others when they themselves have little to give.
  • I have a few people who I can rely on for support. I don’t always expect answers or solutions.  Sometimes just saying something out loud helps me work things out.
  • Perspective also helps.

Today’s scripture reading comes from “a beautiful visionary scene at the end of the Book of Revelation that is as relevant today as it was in the first century.…  It pictures a new Jerusalem descending from heaven to Earth.  This new city doesn’t need a temple because God’s presence is felt everywhere.  It doesn’t need sun or moon because the light of Christ illuminates it from within.  Its gates are never shut, and it welcomes people from around the world to receive the treasures if offers and bring the treasures they can offer.  From the center of the city, from God’s own throne, a river flows – a river of life or aliveness.  Along its banks grows the Tree of Life.  All of this, of course, evokes God’s own words in Revelation:  ‘Behold! I’m making all things new!’”[9]

Central to this image is this idea:  “God’s work in history has never been about escaping Earth and going up to heaven.  It has always been about God descending to dwell among us.  Faithfulness wasn’t [and isn’t] waiting passively for a future that had already been determined.  Faithfulness meant [and means] participating with God in God’s unfolding story.…  God [is] descending among us here and now, making the tree of true aliveness available for all.

“What was true for Revelation’s original audience is true for us today.  Whatever madman is in power, whatever chaos is breaking out, whatever danger threatens, the river of life is flowing now.  The Tree of Life is bearing fruit now.  True aliveness is available now.”[10]  The Spirit of Hope is among us here and now.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …

… anything in the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or

… a time when an invitation changed your life; or

… how you are (or aren’t) listening to contemporary examples of “literature of the oppressed;” or

… the image of creation inviting God, and God inviting creation, through the powerful word, “Hope.”

[1] “Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” Re-Member, http://www.re-member.org/pine-ridge-reservation.aspx (accessed 13 August 2016).

[2] Reuters, “Five Pacific islands lost to rising seas as climate change hits,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/five-pacific-islands-lost-rising-seas-climate-change (posted 10 May 2016; accessed 13 August 2016).  See also, Tierney Smith, “Solomon Islans town first in Pacific to relocate because of climate change,” tck tck tck, http://tcktcktck.org/2014/08/solomon-islands-town-first-pacific-relocate-climate-change/ (posted 19 August 2014; accessed 13 August 2016).

[3] The “Cradle to Prison Pipeline” is a term coined by the Children’s Defense Fund to describe the fact that “1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime.”  Learn more about this problem and ways you can be involved in addressing it at http://www.childrensdefense.org/campaigns/cradle-to-prison-pipeline/

[4] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 51, page 255. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 256, emphasis added.

[8] “Disinvestment from Israel,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disinvestment_from_Israel (accessed 13 August 2016).

[9] McLaren, op.cit., 257.

[10] Ibid.

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a noisy week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  Thanksgiving is usually a quiet day, and in the days preceding, if one really wants noise, one needs to go to a grocery store.  But this Thanksgiving was noisy, mostly with the sounds of snowplows and chain saws and Public Service line trucks beeping as they backed up in the great challenge of restoring power to most of the town.

Over a foot of wet snow fell on Wednesday, bringing down tree limbs and power lines.  Most of Mount William was in the dark all of Wednesday night and well into Thursday.  Anna and Bruce Renee had planned to do Thanksgiving dinner at their home, but with no power for the oven, cooking was a bit of a challenge, so they carted the turkey and fixings and their three teenage kids to Anna’s parents’ apartment in the retirement community that they moved into nine years ago.  It was the first time the smells of roasting turkey filled the small apartment, a smell Sylvia Spengler, Anna’s mom, had missed for all of those nine years.

Feeling like she was coming to the rescue filled Sylvia with a giddiness that continued right up until the moment she looked into the little galley kitchen in her apartment and saw what cleanup would entail.  Suddenly she remembered one of the reasons she and Bill had moved into the retirement community.

The Renees were not the only family that had to make emergency Thanksgiving dinner plans.  While few Thanksgiving gatherings went off as they had been planned weeks earlier, just about everyone thinks it was a great Thanksgiving.  There’s something about a manageable crisis to draw people together, and that’s really what most families want on Thanksgiving: to draw their loved ones together.  Well, that and some really yummy food.

It wasn’t a quiet week for Howard Friend, the minister at the Mount William Congregational Church, either.  His disquiet was more internal than external.  He had had some vacation in August and he decided to do something quite out of character for him.  He decided to go to Ferguson, Missouri.  There were so many conflicting stories about the death of Michael Brown – accusations and counter accusations.  And there was so much anger.  And there was so much violence – both the attention getting rioting of a small contingent of the protestors (interesting how the New England news media ignored the peaceful protests) and the militarized police response.  And underneath it all was the putrid stench of racism.  He needed to bear witness to the need for an open and fair examination of the facts of this case.  He needed to challenge the power of racism in our culture.  And he needed to confront his own complicity in the racism that permeates our society.  So he used some of his previously-schedule vacation and went to Ferguson.

His summer experiences came flooding back when the announcement was made that the Grand Jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.  All week long, the news continued and Rev. Friend found himself processing it.  He wondered how he would react if his church building were to be burned to the ground the way the Brown family’s church was this week.  Far from the centers of violence, one can’t help but wonder who is really responsible for this arson.[2]  Earlier in the week, he had read something that challenged his attitude toward Darren Wilson.  He had forgotten the emotional and spiritual cost Darren Wilson was paying, not because of the scrutiny his actions on August 9th were garnering, but because he had shot and killed another human being.  What moral injury was he suffering?  Rev. Friend found a surprising compassion growing inside him.

While several of his colleagues read – devoured – the various documents and reports from and about the grand jury,[3] Rev. Friend couldn’t go there.  He didn’t want to second guess the grand jury’s decision.  He didn’t want to get into the finger pointing and the blame game that seemed to surround him.  Instead, he needed to reflect on and process his memories of his days in Ferguson.

He remembered walking with a group of clergy, singing, “We Shall Overcome.”  As they finished the verse, “We are not afraid,” he realized it was a lie.  He was afraid.

He knew that this group would encounter the police at some point in the evening, but nothing prepared him for the sheer number of police officers.  The clergy had gathered at dinnertime in the parking lot of a grocery store miles from the protest site.  Nonetheless, by the time there were four clergy gathered, there were four squad cars in the parking lot and they were told to leave.

They drove to a high school, parked their cars, and began walking to the county prosecutor’s office to present a letter with their demands, including an expedited grand jury process run by someone other than county prosecutor Bob McCullough.  Although they were far from the site of Michael Brown’s death, the route was guarded by scores of heavily armed officers.  Squad cars drove slowly beside them, and there were SWAT teams and barricades.

They were not being guarded in the sense of being protected.  They were being guarded against, as if this group of clergy were an extreme threat.  A skinny white man from New Hampshire, Rev. Friend had never experienced being policed in his way.  It was unnerving.  Could a couple hundred clergy walking together really pose such a threat?

When they got to the country prosecutor’s office, the prayed together and delivered their list of demands.  It was a single sheet of paper, wilted in the humid heat, but the officer acted as if it might explode and hesitated to even take hold of it.

Earlier, they had gathered in a church that was a sort of home base for the protesters.  One folding table held a jumble of first-aid supplies.  The other held makeshift gear:  bottles of water, spray bottles with solution for washing tear gas out of eyes, paper masks, and swim goggles for eye protection.

The leaders were a group of twenty-somethings thoughtfully engaging in the disciples of nonviolent protest.  They wanted this group of clergy to know what they would encounter on the march.  There were important rules to learn:  no sudden movements; if you carry a water bottle, hold it high so the police officers can see what it is; if you take tear gas equipment (a mask or goggles), don’t let it be seen until it is needed, or you will be targeted.  This group of twenty-somethings were being so protective of these middle-aged newbies.  One of the twenty-somethings asked a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Friend was pretty sure her name was Shannon, if she had a group to walk with; he didn’t want her to go out alone.  They didn’t want any of them going out alone.

And then – it seemed so strange to Rev. Friend at the time – this group of young protesters prepared to face hundreds of heavily armed officers by reciting poetry.  “These leaders are the fiercest hope I have ever seen,” Rev. Friend thought.  He was amazed by it, humbled by it.  And he found himself feeling very protective of these young men and women who embodied it.

The clergy were divided into teams with a trained organizer for each team.  They memorized each other’s names, agreed to be responsible for one another, and wrote an emergency phone number on their skin in purple Sharpie.  The captain of Rev. Friend’s team asked them what level of danger and violence the were willing to face.  “Will you leave when the tear gas starts?” he asked the group.

“Why would we willingly walk into tear gas?” Shannon, the Presbyterian minister asked.

“To get the young people out,” he responded.  “They will keep going, so some of us go back in to pull them out.”

Rev. Friend tried to get his mind wrapped around the response.  He didn’t think he could stay if the tear gas started.  His noble motives aside, this was getting scary and this was the first time he had ever done anything like this.

When they reached the protest area, the street was closed to traffic and the parking lots were filled with media people and hundreds of police officers.  They were allowed to protest as long as they stayed on the sidewalk, kept moving, and did nothing that could be interpreted as aggression.  At one point a kindly police officer gave them a minute before asking them to move along.  “If I make an exception for you,” he said, “I have to make an exception for everybody.”  The clear implication was that he would let them stop if he could.  Rev. Friend was torn between enjoying this favor and realizing that it was this very distinction that he was there to protest.  Did the group seem harmless because of their clergy collars or because some of them were white?

As the night wore on, Rev. Friend’s fear deepened.  Every night so far, the police had responded with tear gas, or flash grenades, or rubber bullets.  “What will it be tonight?” he wondered.  They passed one person who appeared to be intoxicated and another who appeared to living with a metal illness.  All the marchers he could see were peaceful, but it was clear to him that it would only take one wrong move to set off the officers.

At one point, as the night wore on, a young black man came by and asked, “Are you a group?  Can I walk with you?”  This was the moment, as Rev. Friend recalled, where it all came into focus.  He wanted to tell this young black man, “No.”  He didn’t want this young black man with his red t-shirt pulled up over his head, effectively masking him, to walk with him and his fellow clergy.  Perhaps the shirt thing – he’d seen other protesters doing it – was makeshift protection against the tear gas, but Rev. Friend didn’t want this young man to march next to him because he feared his presence might spark a violence response.

Then the young man turned and Rev. Friend saw on his torso a phone number scrawled in purple Sharpie.  He was one of the young people from the church, one of the young leaders that Rev. Friend had been so eager to protect.  He had gone from hoping that his clergy collar would protect this young man to not wanting him near because he didn’t want the protection of his clergy collar and white skin and graying hair to be disrupted by his presence.  Hope in the church had turned to fear on the street so quickly.

Hope is always frightening.  It opens us to disappointment.  Hope is frightening in another way for those of us who are privileged in the current state of affairs.  “I want a better world,” Rev. Friend thought as he remembered his days in Ferguson, “but I am afraid to give up the security I have in this one.  Hope threatens me, even in its abundant promise.  I guess for me, part of the challenge is not to fear hope itself.”

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] This sermon is based (often quoting directly or changing the quote from first person to third person) almost entirely on a reflection by Shannon Craigo-Snell, titled, “Fear and Hope in Ferguson: Marching into danger,” published in the 1 October 2014 edition of Christian Century (pages 10-11).

[2] Wesley Lowry, “The Brown family’s pastor tries to make sense of the fire that gutted his church,” The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-brown-familys-pastor-tries-to-make-sense-of-fire-that-gutted-his-church/2014/11/28/15520f3e-7711-11e4-a755-e32227229e7b_story.html (posted 28 November 2014; accessed 29 November 2014).

[3] If you’re interested in reading some of the documents, you might want to check out http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/11/25/366507379/ferguson-docs-how-the-grand-jury-reached-a-decision.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 1, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Psalm 122 and Isaiah 2:1-5
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today is the beginning of the new church year.  We begin the liturgical year with a season that is marked by tension.  The Christmas rush notwithstanding, the tension of Advent is not that there are too many things to do in too little time.  Rather, as we begin the Christian year, we experience the tension between what is and what is yet to be:  between the coming of Christ in history (in the birth of Jesus) and the coming of the reign of Christ.

While the world around us moves toward the conclusion of another year, “hoping for increased consumer spending and waiting for final reports on this year’s profits, the church has already stepped into a new time, to begin a season of hoping and waiting for something of much greater significance than profits or spending.”[1]

So, this is a season of prophecies.  Today we begin a season of listening for God’s truth about what is and what is yet to be.

Our reading from Isaiah is a prophetic oracle or short poetic revelation.  It is a familiar passage, perhaps because it also appears in Micah 4.  Our other reading, “Psalm 122 contemplates a pilgrimage of believers to [Jerusalem].  It is a journey we are invited to imagine, to the city of real holiness, new regime, fresh king.  The substance of the new order is ‘peace and prosperity,’ ‘peace and security,’ ‘peace,’ and ‘good.’

“In Isaiah 2:1-5, the vision is enlarged.  Now it is a pilgrimage of all nations to the city.  The journey is to embrace Torah (verse 3), to practice justice and equity.  And the result will be an ordered society marked by disarmament and well-being (verse 4) – no more war, no more policies of greed, exploitation, and rapaciousness.”[2]

“The verses from Psalm 122 follow the same pattern as the [Isaiah] oracle:  diverse groups go up to a high place to worship, God’s divine judgment follows, and then there is peace.  This ringing declaration from Isaiah describes peace under God’s reign: ‘[T]hey shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’”[3]

Isaiah’s is “a vision of peacemaking, in a bloody, unpeaceable time.  The century of Isaiah, the seventh before Christ, [was] turbulent in the extreme.  War and rumors of war.  In the grand tradition of prophets in action, Isaiah intervened directly in political, military, and diplomatic events.  He predicted the invasion of [the] Palestine; it happened twice.  He lived to see the threat of siege laid to his beloved Jerusalem.”[4]

And yet, he holds up these words:  “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”  These are not just words of hope.  They are words that teach.  They declare that there is a direct connection between war and hunger.  Perhaps the connection is that finite resources cannot feed both the hungry and conquest.[5]  Perhaps it is a recognition that when a nation’s focus is on war, it will not focus the needy.  Either way, I hear an echo in the famous words of President Dwight Eisenhower, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in a final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”[6]

“The Isaiah reading also points out the deliberate and studied nature of war:  Nations learn and teach it.”  Can the same be said to the lesser wars in our lives – in our families, our communities, our churches?[7]  Perhaps there is a metaphor here for these lesser wars as well.  Just as nations learn and teach war, I think that we study and learn how to wage emotional jujitsu in our families, our communities, and our churches.  And we unintentionally teach what we’ve learned to our children.  There are, no doubt swords and spears in our interpersonal relationships that need to be brought to the blacksmith to be beaten into tools for planting and harvesting relationships of peace.

“If this text were not so comforting and full of hope, it would be painful to read.  Indeed, how our hearts long for a time – the time – of peace in the world!  Perhaps the most powerful affirmation in the text, however, is that history belongs to God and will surely unfold as God sees fit.”[8]

In my experience, there are two types of hope in the world.  There is powerless hope and there is hope that empowers.

I ran into powerless hope a lot when I worked at the juvenile hall years ago.  Kids would have a hearing coming up, and the closer they got to the date of the hearing, the more they would buzz with anticipation.  “I hope I get released tomorrow,” they would say.  “I hope the judge says I can go home.”  Even, “I hope my mom shows up.”  This was a hope that was based in nothing more than their fantasies.  They fantasized that their life was just fine, that there was no danger in being part of a gang or that their drug addiction didn’t control their lives or that their parents were reliable.  God’s truth about the way things are and about how they were going to be was not part of these fantasies.  And so their hope had no power.

But hope based on God’s truth empowers.  That’s what’s so powerful about these passages:  they are based on God’s truth.  “A monumental shift in geography is proclaimed, a change in the geography of our hearts as much as the Earth.  We won’t be able to ignore God any longer, Isaiah says, and we won’t want to.”[9]  This is a hope that empowers us to embrace the lessons of peace, to take up new tools for the trade.

As I mentioned earlier, both of our passages today follow the same pattern:  diverse groups go up to a high place to worship, God’s divine judgment follows, and then there is peace.  The way Christianity has traditionally understood the divine judgment part of this pattern has been to see it as Christ’s judgment coming in some cataclysmic event – or in the cataclysmic event, the apocalypse, when Jesus returns with armies of angels and establishes his reign.

But as I studied these texts, I began to wonder, “What if we’ve got how God’s judgment is going to be experienced all wrong?”  If we expect Armageddon, then it’s some time off, and the promised peace is some time off.  But if we expect God’s judgment to come in a child, a poor person, a rape survivor, a wounded soldier, a typhoon survivor … then the judgment has come and is coming even now, in this moment.  Perhaps what we need to do is pay attention to the judgment that is all around us.

This reminds me of a story told by my favorite preacher, Fred Craddock[10] (who happens to be a Disciples of Christ pastor).  Fred Craddock and his wife were on vacation in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee.  They found a lovely restaurant at a place called the Black Bear Inn.  They were seated there looking out at the mountains when this old man with shocking white hair – a Carl Sandburg-looking person – came over and spoke to them.

“You’re on vacation?”

They said, “Yes,” and he kept right on talking.

“What do you do?” he asked Fred.

Fred thought, “Well, it’s none of your business,” but somehow it slipped out that he was a minister.

“Oh, a minister!  Well, I’ve got a story for you.”  And he pulled up a chair and sat down.

“Won’t you have a seat,” Fred said.  (Later, Fred found out that the man sitting there was an 80-year-old who had twice been elected governor of Tennessee.)

“I was born back here in these mountains and when I was growing up I attended Laurel Springs Church.  My mother was not married and as you might expect in those days, I was embarrassed about that.  At school I’d hide in the weeds by a nearby river and eat my lunch alone because the other children were very cruel.  And when I went to town with my courageous mother I would see the way people looked at me trying to guess who my daddy was.

“The preacher at Laurel Springs fascinated me, but at the same time he scared me.  He had a long beard, a rough-hewn face, a deep voice, but I sure like to hear him preach.  But I didn’t think I was welcome at church so I would go just for the sermon.  And as soon as the sermon was over, I would rush out so nobody would say, ‘What’s a boy like you doing here in church?’

“One day though, I was trying to get out but some people had already got to the aisle so I had to remain.  I was waiting, getting a cold sweat, when all of a sudden I felt a hand on my shoulder.  And I looked out of the corner of my eye and realized it was the hand of the preacher.  And I was scared to death.

“The preacher looked at me.  He didn’t say a word; he just looked at me.  And then he said, ‘Well, boy, you’re a child of …’  And he paused.  And I knew he was trying to guess not who my mother was but who my father was.

“And the preacher said, ‘You’re a child of … um.  Why you’re a child of God!  I see a striking resemblance, boy!’  He swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Go claim your inheritance.’

And the old man told the Craddocks, “I was born that day.”

When we can see in each other and in ourselves the image of God and how God’s judgment exists in our relating – then we will be closer to the empower hope of Christ’s reign.

This Advent, like every Advent, we read these prophetic texts in the context of war:  conflicts and struggles flare and threaten to flare all over the world, in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt … in our cities and neighborhoods, in our homes and workplaces, in our relationships with one another, perhaps even within the walls of our congregation.   “We’ve come to understand the absence of peace in other ways, too:  in the threat of terrorism that [too often] makes even ‘peaceful’ days feel ominous and ‘secure’ places unsafe, in the growing anger of the dispossessed that threatens to explode, in the damage to the earth that we will leave as a tragic legacy to our grandchildren, and to theirs as well.  (Who ever heard of a ‘super storm’ before?  And yet the Philippines lie devastated from only the most recent one, and we have to wonder if nature itself is at war with us.)

“It isn’t hard then to imagine how the people of Israel must have felt over the centuries in the face of threat, destruction, and exile by one empire after another.  More than 500 years before the time of Jesus, they listened to this dream, this vision of the future, and then they looked at their once-beautiful city, Jerusalem, burned and battered by powers that must have appeared unstoppable.  Still, they held on to their trust in the promises of One more powerful than any empire and any destructive force.”[11]  They held on to this hope that empowers.

And so can we.

Amen.


[1] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” The United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/december-1-2013.html (30 November 2013).

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “A Better Governance,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/better-goverance (26 November 2013).

[3] Laurel A. Dykstra, “Hunger and War,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/hunger-and-war (26 November 2013).

[4] Daniel Berrigan, “The Vocation of the Servant,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/vocation-servant (26 November 2013).

[5] Dykstra, op. cit.

[6] Dwight D. Eisenhower in his Inaugural Address on 20 January 1953, quoted on http://www.babson.us/quotes/eisenhower_quotes.html (30 November 2013).

[7] Walter Bruggemann, “Light the First Candle,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/light-first-candle (26 November 2013).

[8] Huey, op. cit.

[9] Julie Polter, “A New Day,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/new-day (26 November 2013).

[10] I wish I had the source out of which I quote this story.  I don’t.  All I have is the story as I wrote it down in 2002 for a sermon I preached.

[11] Huey, op. cit.

Hope “is not prognostication.  It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. …  It is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. …  [Hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”  ~ Vaclav Havel, the dissident Czech writer who became his country’s president after the fall of the iron curtain, differentiating between hope and optimism.

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