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Hope in the Face of Walls

Here the beginning of worship on 12/4/16: https://youtu.be/9YgCWolkICY

Here is an audio of the sermon. Text is below.


Isaiah 9:2-6

This passage of scripture is familiar to many of us because of how it was immortalized in Handel’s Messiah. Those of us who have sung this piece can hardly even read the scripture in the King James Version without our pronunciation being affected by rhythm of the song. FOR unto us a child is bo-rn.

I love this piece of music, but I think it carries at least a little bit of the blame for our insistence that this passage of scripture is about Jesus. Although we as Christians can certainly look back and pull that passage into our views of Christ, that’s not who the passage was originally about. It was about an earthly king that would save the people, but he was just a child, so it would be a while. “The time was 734-732 BCE and [King Ahaz of Judah] faced the threat of attack from his northern neighbors Israel and Syria. One option he contemplated was to call on the superpower Assyria to defend him against his neighbors. But that would mean making a political alliance that, in the end, could be as destructive…. Ahaz’s other option was to throw his lot in with Israel and Syria in their efforts to cast of the Assyrian yoke. But that could also mean disaster for Judah especially if the local coalition proved ineffectual against the superpower…. In the face of Ahaz’s political dilemma, Isaiah urged a third solution that required the bringing of religious belief into the world of real politics and national security.”[1]

He urged Ahaz to stand firm in faith (Isa. 7:3-9) and to wait on the Lord. The assurance that God would come to his aid was not very impressive. There was no great sign, simply a command: Wait on the Lord. But the Hebrew word translated here as “wait” is the same as the word for “hope.”[2] Hope in the Lord.

Hope. Such a small word with so much meaning. Such an easy word that can be so hard. It is both strong and fragile, easy to find and hard to come by.

For all the darkness and despair in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the word “hope” actually makes a fairly strong appearance. When the ghost of Scrooge’s business partner appears to him, he says, “I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.” When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to visit the town where he grew up, “he was conscious of a thousand odors floating in the air; each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes.” When Scrooge sees his past, sees the joys and the pain, when he recognizes what his greed has cost him, we the readers begin to have hope for him, hope that he can be transformed.

And we hope that we can, too. Looking at the past is painful for many of us. We see the mistakes we made, the wrong turns, and the if-onlys. Or maybe we see the golden days of joy we fear we will never experience again. We must look at the past through eyes of hope, for hope is where the power of transformation lies.

I want to do something I don’t usually do in preaching. I want to quote a long piece by someone else. But it’s a story that moved me, and it needs to be shared in its entirety, so I beg your patience.

Theologian, writer, and pastor Mary Luti wrote this story: “The first time I saw poverty, I was 19 years old. I’d been sent by my religious order to Mexico City to teach English to the daughters of the wealthy at a private school run by my community. We had several cleaners, local women, who attended to the school building and the teachers’ residence. They appeared at the gate at six every morning, Monday through Friday, and departed through the same gate every afternoon at four…. The women were sweet and quiet and worked very hard, and they always left the place gleaming…. The school was located in the most glamorous part of the city, and so I assumed that the cleaning women did not live near us. I assumed that every day when they said good-bye with the soft politeness of Mexico, they got on a bus and returned to simpler homes in working class neighborhoods like the one my mother grew up in South Boston, with corner stores and local bars and a priest who knew your family. I did not know that there were no such neighborhoods there, and I did not know what the long high wall adjacent to our school was hiding.

Eventually I found out that behind the wall was what is called a barranca, a half-acre-or-so of littered open field dotted with cardboard shacks in front of which people cooked over open fires into which children routinely fell and were scarred for life, and where every Friday night most of what the women earned got spent by their despairing men on cheap, fast intoxicants. I also learned that in every rich neighborhood there were similar walls hiding similar barrancas. I learned that in Mexico City the typical distance between subhuman misery and superhuman luxury was the 8-inch width of a cement block. The women who made our floors shine did not come by bus from across town. They ducked through a small opening in the wall of Hell, right next door.

And I found that out because three Saturday mornings after I arrived, I was told to take some of our girls and go teach Christian Doctrine to the girls of the barranca. This we did weekly, ducking through that hole, sitting near those fires, teaching scarred children about God, the Virgin Mary and the sacraments. And every Saturday afternoon when I got back to the residence, I would stand for 15 minutes under a hot shower, which was never hot enough or long enough to get the stench off my skin and the crawling feeling off my neck. I hated that I could stand under hot water in a gleaming bathroom cleaned by women who had no running water, hot or cold, but you could not have gotten me out of that shower for love or money. And I used to cry myself to sleep at night over what I had seen, and I wondered what I was doing there, and where God was…. I wanted desperately to go home, to New England, where it was possible not to know these things, and a lot easier to believe in God.

The sisters saw my distress and gave me the option of going home earlier than planned. Instead, I kept going back week after week with my satchel of catechisms. I don’t know why. Nothing changed because of it. I can’t even say that I made any friends in that awful place. The next time I’m in Mexico City, no nice-looking, well-dressed man is going to come running up to me to say, “You’re Mary Luti, aren’t you? I remember you! Oh, thank you, thank you, for when I was a boy you gave me hope and changed my life, and now I run a multinational!” All I did was to keep leaving the residence, and to keep going through the hole in the wall. I also kept hating every minute of it. I kept showering afterwards too, and I kept crying every night over what I had seen, wondering what I was doing there and where God was. Every week, the same, for months on end.

There’s no question in my mind that Christians are called to bold action in the world. But after Mexico City, and scores of other similar experiences, I have to come think that we are also called to a peculiar form of patience that may appear at times like futility and helplessness, but may in fact be the foundation of action without which even religious activism could eventually devolve into one more ideology projecting its rage into the world.

The patience I mean takes shape in a persevering practice of being as simply and basically human as it is humanly possible to be in the midst of an inhuman world. While oppressors prosper and the poor die; while people are routinely sent to kill each other in war; while relationships break down and jobs disappoint; …while all our choices limit us, and our futures will not bend to our wills; while our health slips out of our control, and God seems so indifferent to it all, the calling of every believer is at least to take up the discipline of un-protecting ourselves from our own fear; to take the hearts we normally try to keep away from the fire of so much pain and disappointment, the hearts we armor against feeling, and march them right straight through any small opening we can find [in the wall] and make some kind of human contact with the ones we find behind it….

The day of the Lord’s coming for which we pray every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer—“thy kingdom come”—is not only some great cataclysmic future event; it is also every moment in which we become, by grace, a little more able actually to see and feel and hear other human beings who live behind high walls. It is every moment we do not flee in horror from the terrible spectacle.

The Lord’s return is also in our return in the continuous turning we call conversion, which is nothing more nor less than a willingness to keep going back to the sights and sounds of real human life, in all its relentless pain, even if all our returning produces is the tears of a shocked heart that flow down uncontrollably under a wasteful steaming shower; for all tears shed in the presence of human pain are a form of hope….

And isn’t this what we claim when we say we belong to the Incarnate One? That there is a God who came to the neighborhood, ducked in through the hole in creation, and stepped inside? A God whom we know in Jesus, who was born of Mary in a kind of barranca, out of sight behind one of the world’s high walls.

Isn’t this what the church proclaims about him—that his nearness to us in true human flesh is able to make us also fully human human beings, capable of the most copious tears, capable of lament, capable of a peculiar kind of patience, capable finally of commitment, and of the joy that comes from indomitable hope?”[3]

This is what we need today: indomitable hope. When we face our past. When we face the walls of division. When we face the cries for justice all around us. We need indomitable hope.

“We celebrate joyfully ‘a son given to us’ not in spite of all that is horrible, dangerous, or distressing about the world around us, but precisely because of it. In the birth of that one we hear again the call to faith that has always been there for God’s people.”[4]

It is a call to faith. A call to hope. And hope demands. Sometimes hope demands that we stand on the wall and proclaim a different world. Sometimes hope demands that we work with others to tear down the wall. And sometimes hope demands that we crawl through the hole in the wall to sit with those who live in despair.

Hope is also why we come to this table. We come to this table to proclaim our hope. We come to this table to eat from the bread of life that we share as one. We come to this table where there are no walls to celebrate the One who tore them down. We come to pray and to sing: “Ring out your truth, ring out your love, reverberate in our lives. Come, Lord, come!”

[1] http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/webotcomments/christmasc/christmaseve.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Luti, Mary. “Therefore Be Patient.” https://sicutlocutusest.com/2012/09/12/therefore-be-patient-james-57-10/

[4] http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/webotcomments/christmasc/christmaseve.html

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