August 26, 2018 — Rev. Nancy Parent Bancroft
Readings: Psalm 137: 1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13; John 14:27
Clergy, like all other working groups, have their professional journals. And the big topic being discussed in them this year and often among clergy when they get together is how to preach given the present divisiveness and political climate. And the consensus of the experts seems to be, avoid partisanship but address politics. I know, that sounds scary. Partisanship is defined as feeling, or showing, strong and sometimes blind adherence to or against a particular party, faction, cause, or person. Partisanship divides us. Politics on the other hand is about people and what concerns them. It’s the art of using or limiting public power so as to address the needs of people. The word politics comes from the Greek word that means citizens. Talking about a particular political party or government officials or conservatives vs. liberals is partisanship and has no place in a church where all are welcome and all deserve to experience peace. But politics is about decisions and actions that affect us all deeply. The purpose of sermons is to consider how gospel values, how the teachings of Jesus inform the way we live; guide us with what concerns us.
Politics are at the center of the Jesus story . The heart of his message was political. Jesus lived in a world that was divided into kingdoms, and in that milieu he spoke about the coming of the “kingdom of God” on earth. The Lord’s Prayer speaks of God’s kingdom coming on earth even as it already exists in heaven. And in his behavior and through his stories Jesus spelled out what life of earth would be like if God were the ruler and the lords of the dominating systems were not. If Jesus had wanted to avoid the political meaning of kingdom language , he could have spoken of the “family” of God, or the “community” of god or the “people” of god, but he didn’t. He deliberately spoke over and over again about the “kingdom” of God; a world of economic justice in which everybody had material security. He called for a world of peace and nonviolence. And where did this all get him? His historical life ended by a political execution.
So here’s just some of our political mess. The polar icecap is melting at a rate even faster than the direst predictions of just a few years ago. Each year hundreds of species of animals and plants become extinct in large part because of global warming and pollution. All while Environmental Protection regulations are being rolled back. The gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen with more children experiencing hunger insecurity in this country every year. Affordable housing, even in our communities is almost non-existent. This past winter we as a church gave Seeds of Hope a number of sleeping bags because people five miles from here were sleeping outdoors in the bitter cold. Racism and bigotry is rampant in our country and if not socially acceptable definitely more openly tolerated. Despite the number of mass shootings we’ve had in this country nothing significant has been done to prevent them from occurring again. Ever since Woodrow Wilson fought for a League of Nations after World War I, our leaders have expanded and deepened collaboration with other countries, attempting to preserve peace and share goods and resources more equitably. Now those bonds are being dismantled. Partisanship on both sides of the aisles is threatening the foundation of our system of democracy. The checks and balances of a three branch of government model designed by our founders is eroding through extreme partisanship. Lack of public civility is common practice. I’m sure that you could add to the list of problems that we face. Regardless of our party affiliation, many of these tragedies leave us feeling helpless and hopeless.
Right about now you’re probably asking yourself, why when our focus this week is on hope do I start my sermon talking about depressing political issues? If we avoid facing the global, national, and community issues that lead us to feel hopeless, then hope is simply a superficial emotion: “I hope it rains tonight so that I won’t have to water the garden.” “I hope the Red Sox win.”
There are some in this church who don’t think that we should ever focus on bad things during our Sunday service. “We come to church to be uplifted,” they say. True enough. That’s one very important part of our communal worship. But how can we experience being lifted up if we don’t ever acknowledge that we are down. If we just focus on the good and what’s right with the world, we pray to a God that we don’t really need very much. We can only show trust in God when we own that there are problems well beyond what we can do for ourselves. The virtue of hope rises like a Phoenix from the ashes of terror and despair. We have much to despair about. So we have many opportunities to practice the virtue of hope.
In his recent book, The Soul of America –The Battle for our Better Angels, Jon Meacham helps us to hope. He says, “We have been here before,” and then walks us through critical times in our history when “hope overcame division and fear.” He teaches us that “the climate of partisan fury is not new,” and shows us how what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature have repeatedly won the day. “ Meacham tells us, “to know what has come before is to be armed against despair.
Today’s readings are examples of looking at what has come before. “By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down, yea; we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it.” This is despair! This first reading was written during the Babylonian captivity. This was the period in Jewish history when the Babylonians invaded land of Judah. They destroyed much of it including their beloved Temple. When the Babylonians left Judah, they took captives with them. Over a seventy-year period several deportations took place – Families were split up and the best and the brightest, craftsmen and artists, were forced to leave their homes and live in a foreign land. Although the Jews suffered greatly and faced powerful cultural pressures in this foreign land, they maintained their national spirit and their religious identity was strengthened. After Babylon fell to the Persians , the exiled Judeans were permitted to return to home where they rebuilt an enlarged Temple complex, with deepened rituals and higher standards of priestly sanctity. And from that time to today, despite continual and even harsh world-wide anti-Semitism, despite the holocaust, the Jewish faith continues as a vibrant world religion.
In the second reading we see that the early Christian Church was not heaven on earth. The factions rebuked by St. Paul were groups within the Church who divided themselves into parties, each calling itself by the name of some Apostle or church leader whose teaching and practice they most highly esteemed. There were jealousies, power struggles, and adversarial camps and cliques. Yet, St. Paul with the Corinthians, and spiritual leaders throughout every era unto today have guided and transformed the Christian community so that despite heresies, abuses of power, and persecution, the Christian faith survives in many forms to nurture, support, inspire and develop millions of its faithful.
Our third reading takes place when Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure. He wishes them peace but he says this is not the peace that the world gives. When we wish others peace we usually mean no hassles – peace and quiet. Jesus tells his friends, you will have trouble, but do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. Jesus spent three years building a Christian community and promised to be here in the mist of it until the end of time.
Remember the ant that we sang about this morning? Why did it have high hopes to move a rubber tree plant? Have you ever seen just one ant? A few weeks ago I was wiping the kitchen counter and saw an ant walking on it. I immediately stopped wiping and looked around. Sure enough, there was another, and another and another. Ants live in community and I’m sure that ant we sang about got his brothers and sisters to help with the rubber tree.
We also have community and we believe, we know, that the Divine lives here with us, in and around us. And whenever we meet members of this community we have reason to hope. Look at all of the love, kindness, compassion and generosity all around us. We experience goodness in this community all the time.
The magazine called The Week, like all news magazines is full of articles about bad things happening. But it has a small section entitled “It wasn’t all bad” where it highlights good things that are going on. I think that we need to be bearers of hope for each other. We aren’t all despairing at the same time. We all have moments of hope. And when someone is down and telling us about it, we might not only listen empathically but also intentionally share hopeful news. The Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister tells us that when tragedy strikes, when trouble comes, when life disappoints as it surely will, we stand at the crossroads between hope and despair. To go the way of despair, she says, colors the way we look at things. It makes us suspicious of the future, negative about the present and leads us to ignore the very possibilities that could save us.
Hope, Chittister says, takes life on its own terms. The virtue of hope knows that whatever is happening, God is in the midst of it and expects that whatever its twist and turns it will ultimately yield its good to those who live it consciously – to those who live it to the hilt. She says that hope is not a matter of waiting for things outside of us to get better, it is about getting better inside about what is going on outside. “ It’s about being open to the God of newness, to a future we cannot see but trust to God. Surrendering to the demands of the moment and holding on when holding on seems pointless brings us to the point of personal transformation which is the juncture of maturity and sagacity. Then whatever the circumstances, however hard the task, however painful the struggles we become hope in the midst of despair.” Chittister tells us that every dimension of the process of a struggle is a call to draw from the well of new understanding. It’s in those struggles that Hope dwells. It’s hope, trust in the good, that carries us beyond the struggle to new wisdom and new strength. Hope, she says, is fulfilled in the future but it’s remembering that we’ve survived everything in the past, and sometimes have come out stronger and better for it that helps us trust in the present. Chittister says, It’s like waiting by the window for another dawn when there isn’t a shred of evidence in the dark, dark night that dawn will come.
Chittister challenges us by saying that “the spiritual task of life is to feed hope. We need to cultivate hope in ourselves and lift up that hope for others. We’re called to step out of the confines of false securities and allow our creating God to go on creating in us.”
Finally, in a world ravaged by violence, by hatred, by conflicts that seem eternal and insoluble, we need to pray. If we leave world, national and community problems like the ones I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon, issues that tear at our hearts, outside the church doors we aren’t accepting the gracious invitation that Jesus gave us. Jesus says, “Come to me all of you who are burdened and I will give you rest.” We are invited to bring all of our burdens to the Lord. Each week we pray out loud for those who are sick and otherwise troubled. When we get together with family and friends many of us talk about the political issues that make us sick at heart, but there seems to be an unspoken rule that these topics that terrify us and drag us down are somehow not acceptable problems to bring to communal prayer. Don’t we need God’s help to deal with them?
Monks and nuns chant a beautiful prayer when one of their own dies. It’s called De Profundis which means, Out of the Depths. It’s psalm 130. I invite you now to close your eyes and identify a few of the political problems that disturb the peace in your heart right now. Raise these concerns up as I pray part of this psalm. Open yourself to hope.
Out of the depths I cry to you, oh Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry. . . I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. . .Put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love. Amen