“The Vision of the Shepherds”
Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:8-20
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
December 10, 2017
Writing to the people of Judah almost 3,000 years ago, Isaiah speaks of dwelling in a land of deep darkness. This year, perhaps more than most, we have found ourselves in a land, and world, where there is a great deal of darkness.
As a church we have felt the shadow of unexpected illness and health challenges for friends and family members.
As a nation we have seen the darkness of violence fall upon Charlottesville, Las Vegas, and Sutherland Springs. We have witnessed the images of fires and floods, of hurricanes and earthquakes; we have even observed the resurgence of groups like the KKK.
Around the world 2017 has seen escalating tensions with North Korea, election violence in Kenya, and genocide in Myanmar/Burma. And in these past few months, we have come to recognize in a new way the pervasive reach of sexual harassment and assault at all levels of media, arts, and government.
As Jesus says in the Gospel of John: “This is the verdict: the light has come into the world, but people loved the darkness rather than the light…” (3:19).
Much the same could be said about the time of Isaiah. The prophet who wrote the first section of this book addresses God’s people in a period of deep darkness. They had not yet been taken to captivity in Babylon, yet already they were being threatened by their powerful neighbor, Assyria. Even as international tensions escalate, Isaiah recognizes that the greatest threat to Judah comes from within—from the people’s own sin and disobedience to God. They have been worshipping idols, looking to foreign powers for national security, consulting the dead for wisdom, oppressing and exploiting the poor. Things were just about as bad as they can get.
So with stirring words and vivid imagery, Isaiah calls upon the people to turn back to God, to lead lives based not on the pretense of piety but on true righteousness, trusting and honoring God, loving their neighbors, pursuing justice with the poor and vulnerable of their land.
Isaiah does not shrink from this hard message, this confrontation of their sin.
Neither does he minimize the violence they have born—the violence and assault upon their people, and even upon one another. In his words we can almost hear the stomping of invading armies, and hear the cries as garments are stained with blood.
Into this deep and offensive darkness, Isaiah dares to speak a word of hope—hope not simply for the future but present hope for that very day. He proclaims that the people have already seen a light; already received from God the gift of joy, for God has broken the rod that beat their shoulders, defeated their oppressors, thrown those remnants of war—tramping boots and bloodstained clothes—into a consuming fire.
For a child is born, a son given! He will be their ruler; they will call him “Wonderful Counselor,” “Mighty God,” “Everlasting Father,” “Prince of Peace”—his authority will grow forever; his kingdom will always be at peace; his power will be based on what is right and just, from now until the end of time (Is 9:2-7).
This promise, the gift of this child, is so powerful that even then, 800 years before the birth of Christ, it cracked open the darkness, shining on God’s people with light.
Centuries later, on a dark night in Bethlehem, that light poured into the world in the birth of Jesus. The announcement came first to shepherds out in the field.
You may remember that in those days shepherds were widely looked down upon.
Not only were they poor but they were also seen as disreputable, dirty, and dishonest. Viewed as less than by those around them. And we can readily think of people in our day who are seen that way, or feel that way.
These shepherds on the edges of society also lived under the darkness of political oppression. Their ruler was Caesar Augustus, widely known for his imposition of the Pax Romana, “Roman peace” which was no peace at all but rather intimidation and retaliation meant to control the people, to keep them in line, afraid of fighting back.
Like the people of Isaiah’s day, once again God’s people, including these shepherds, would have been all too familiar with tramping warriors and blood-stained clothes. We cannot therefore help but see as essential the shepherd’s place in the story: God’s choice of these socially stigmatized, politically oppressed people, as the first guests at the manger, and the first earthly preachers of the Christmas news.
As New Testament professor John Carroll writes, “The Christmas story is as familiar as any in the Bible, but it speaks a stirring, hopeful, and at the same time world-challenging message that never grows old. It continues to speak of a faithful God who keeps promises, but sometimes in the most unexpected ways.”
The story of Christ’s birth is indeed full of such upside-down, inside-out moments.
Not least among them is the revelation God gave to the nobodies of their time, which was of course the greatest vision of all time. A vision of light pouring into the darkness—in the angel choir, yes, but most of all in the vision of this child swaddled in cloth and lying in the feed trough of a stable. For he is the true light coming into the world.
One of the gifts of the Celtic Christian tradition is the way it helps us see parallels between the natural world and the presence and power of God. One frequent image in Celtic prayers is that of Jesus as the sun—s-u-n.
The image became especially appropriate this year, as I like many of you was fascinated by the summer’s solar eclipse. Our family made sure to get our special glasses and studied up on eclipses, exploring the science of it together. For a few brief moments the path of totality stretched across North America, from sea to shining sea, and even here, hundreds of miles from totality, the sight of the eclipse was profound.
One of the things our family learned was how the sun, moon, and tilt of the earth must line up just right for an eclipse to occur. When all these factors align, the sun, though it is 400 times greater in size, can be obscured by the much smaller, yet much closer moon. The sun, which makes all life on earth possible, can be hidden for a bit by this far lesser celestial body.
I wonder if perhaps we have seen other eclipses this year. Have there been times when despair slipped between us and hope? When violence blocked out the vision of peace? When assault obscured joy? When hatred stood in the way of love? It seems to me there have been times this year when the powers of the earth have gotten in our way, have eclipsed our ability to see the much greater power of God.
Yet we know one truth about every eclipse—a shadow may fall upon the earth,
but it is passing; the light of the sun may be blocked out from our view but not for long, for the sun is always so much greater than the moon. And the birth of this child, Jesus, is always of infinitely greater magnitude than any object that momentarily obscures him.
Always the light of Christ is greater; always the light of the Son will soon shine down upon us—for nothing in all creation has the power to block God’s light for long. That was the vision of the shepherds: they saw the light of God shining down on them, even as their part of the world, in its daily rotation, turned away from the sun. For they saw the true light coming into the world, the light laying that night in a manger.
This Advent, perhaps more than most, we rejoice that this light still shines and always will. We rejoice that nothing can eclipse God’s light for long. For God is in a manger, Jesus Christ, our Prince of Peace. His light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall never overcome it.
Thanks be to God.
Resources: “Luke 2:8-20” John Carroll and W. Hulitt Gloer in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke Volume 1. “The Book of Isaiah” Introduction in the Good News Bible.
“The Message of the Angel”
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
December 3, 2017
“Don’t tell anyone, but I just saw an angel.”
It was my dad who spoke these words. He and my mom were sitting together in an examination room at Duke Medical Center. And lest you think I have just broken his confidence, I can assure you that he soon changed his mind about keeping the story secret.
A few months earlier my dad had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and he was undergoing chemo, getting ready for radiation. He and my mom were at Duke for a check up, waiting to meet with his oncologist. As they sat in the exam room, they talked for bit. Then my mom picked up a magazine and my dad sat quietly waiting.
After a while he broke the silence… “Don’t tell anyone, but I just saw an angel.”
“An angel?! Was it your guardian angel?” my mom asked.
“No,” he said. “It was an angel of encouragement.”
“What did it look like?”
“It was right where the wall and celling meet. I could only see the angel’s head and shoulders.”
“Did the angel say anything?”
“No—but I could feel the angel reassuring me, that everything’s going to be alright.”
Afterwards, on the drive back home, he carefully advised my mom, “Now, you don’t need to tell anybody at church about this.” But a month or two later, my dad decided he was ready to share the story. He was the pastor, after all.
What is most astonishing about my dad’s vision is that up until that moment, he didn’t believe in angels. He was a minister and professor of religion, raised in a staunch Presbyterian family, and had never had a high regard for angels.
He had even spoken publically about how he didn’t believe in them.
But my dad’s own vision of an angel of encouragement changed all that. I can still remember when he told me the story—I was shocked but I trusted my dad, and so I trusted that he was telling the truth.
I wonder if Mary may have felt a similar mix of shock and trust when she saw the angel Gabriel. Luke tells us that Mary is perplexed; she seems curious and questioning as she ponders his words. But as Gabriel continues to speak, disclosing God’s intention, Mary gradually makes the move to trust, believing the message and accepting God’s remarkable call upon her life.
Luke tells us that as soon as the angel leaves, Mary goes “with haste” to the home of her cousin Elizabeth. Six months before, Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah had seen Gabriel too. They too are expecting an impossible birth. So it seems that Mary trusted them to understand. To be able to hear her story and believe it.
When Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, he had been even more shocked than Mary was. For while Mary was “perplexed,” when Zechariah saw Gabriel, “he was terrified and fear overwhelmed him.” Yet to both of them, to Mary the perplexed and Zechariah the terrified, Gabriel says the same thing: “Do not be afraid.”
It’s the same message that comes to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth; the angel’s opening line is, “Do not be afraid.” The sight of these angels surely must have been unsettling. Perplexing for some and terrifying to others. Yet “terrified” is not a feeling we associate with angels. Most of us, when we imagine angels, think of gentle beings, softly glowing, white wings, golden haloes. Almost the exact opposite of scary. We even use the word “angel” to describe a child when he or she is exceptionally polite, quiet, and obedient.
But in the Bible angels are something else entirely. Scripture portrays them as powerful beings who often do cause fear. They are messengers, encouragers, and fierce protectors. When the shepherds suddenly see “a multitude of the heavenly host,” the word “host” is the Greek word for “army.”
The shepherds are looking up at a heavenly army praising God, an army whose purpose is to worship and serve the Lord and to encourage humans to do the same.
So the angel says to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard.”
And to Mary, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. The Lord is with you” And to the Shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.”
Again and again the angels point beyond themselves to God, bringing messages about God’s power and presence in the world and urging the people who see them to go deeper than their fear or excitement about the vision, and see and trust what God is doing in their lives.
So the angel tells Zechariah that God is calling him to be the father of John, who would prepare the way of the Lord. And the angel tells Mary that God is calling her to be the mother of Jesus, the Son of the Most High God. And the angel gives the shepherds the joyful news of Christ’s birth and urges them to go and find him. Again and again angels call humans to see and hear a deeper truth. To look for what God is doing. To listen for the joyful news. To go and find the child.
Perhaps this is the angel’s message for us this Advent season: go deeper. Go deeper than the activities, responsibilities, and expectations that pile up, vying for our time and attention. Go deeper. Go deeper than fear or even excitement about angelic visions, seeking to worship and serve the Lord.
During Advent most of us will see angels every day—not perhaps in visions but in the signs and symbols of this season. And perhaps the angels you see this December may serve as a reminder to go deeper. Whether these angels appear to you on the pages of Scripture or in examination rooms, on ornaments or Christmas cards, nativity sets or decorations, books or carols—wherever and however you see angels this Advent season, let them remind you to go deeper.
Right down to the very heart of what this season means:
To look for what God is doing.
To listen for the joyful news.
And to be sure to go and find the child.
Resources: “Commentary on Luke 1:26-38” by Mark Allan Powell and “Commentary on Luke 1:26-38” by Karoline Lewis at workingpreacher.org. Hidden Christmas by Timothy Keller.
Love of the Strange
Romans 12:13-21 and Hebrews 13:1-2
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
October 1, 2017
In the ancient world, travelers didn’t have too many choices.
Inns were unsavory places, prone to violence; innkeepers viewed as disreputable, untrustworthy characters. Most people tried to avoid public inns altogether. In fact it was usually safer to stay in the home of a complete stranger than it was to spend the night at an inn.
Given these realities, hospitality was a key value in the Biblical world. But it was not hospitality as we think of it today—hosting neighbors, friends, or family. Hospitality in both the Old and New Testaments was the practice of welcoming strangers. The New Testament Greek word that we see translated as “hospitality” is literally “philoxenia”—which means “love of the strange.”
For us today “strange” has negative connotations. We speak of strange customs, strange foods, strange languages—none of which are exactly compliments. And while “love of the strange”-- “philoxenia” was never adopted into English, another word with the very same root—xeno—was. But this word means almost the opposite: xenophobia--“fear of the strange.”
I wonder if this fear of the strange was already creeping into early Christian communities. Perhaps it’s why Paul explicitly encouraged the church members in Rome to “extend hospitality to strangers,” presenting love of the strange as one in a long list of Christian virtues.
We hear a similar encouragement in the letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…” Such hospitality was a matter of safety for travellers afraid of public inns. And it was a practice rooted in Israel’s own experience of living as foreigners in a strange land. They knew what it was like so they should be the first to show hospitality to strangers. But there’s another reason the author of Hebrews gives for offering hospitality—that by doing so, “some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
These words bring to mind the story of Abraham and Sarah hosting mysterious guests who promised them a child, as well as lesser-known stories, like that of Gideon welcoming a mysterious angel, and Samson, whose birth was also announced by an angelic visitor. In each of these accounts, offering hospitality to strangers was like opening the door for good news.
Showing hospitality to strangers was therefore more than a custom or courtesy, more even than an expression of faith—it was an opportunity to receive a blessing.
Hosting strangers from far-off places was considered a rare and special gift. Since people in the ancient world were far less mobile than we are today, travelers were the ones to bring news and stories of distant lands, adding to the host’s knowledge and understanding of the wider world. There was a wonderful reciprocity in welcoming strangers, for while the host provided food and protection, he or she received in return stories that expanded their horizons.
Professor Erik Heen writes that from the Biblical perspective, hospitality—love of the strange—was not so much an obligation as an opportunity. A chance to “be blessed by exposure to the wider world that God cares deeply about.” And in welcoming a stranger, Jesus taught, we might even be welcoming him. “Hospitality is [therefore] a gift that feeds and nourishes us as well as our guests.”
Along with this encouragement to show hospitality, loving the strange, our reading from Hebrews also encourages us to practice “mutual love”—it’s one Greek word we all know—“Philadelphia”— brotherly love. The kind of love we have for members of our family. Early Christians emphasized the importance of showing this family love for one another--they understood themselves to be part of a new family—the church, brothers and sisters through their faith in Christ. The author of Hebrews places these two kinds of love side by side: family love for your fellow Christians AND love for outside your community of faith.
2,000 years later, these two kinds of love are still important for Christians.
Yet showing love and welcome to one another and the wider world often takes different forms than it did in Biblical times. We now have our choice of many safe places to stay when we are traveling and most of us would be uncomfortable opening our homes to people with whom we have no prior connection. Yet we can choose to show hospitality—love of the strange—in a variety of other important ways: in how we use our church buildings to benefit the community, how we welcome new neighbors, how we relate to those who seem strange to us.
The key to practicing such hospitality is not letting “strange” mean the same thing as “wrong” or “bad.” Instead choosing to see “strange” as a potential blessing: the opportunity for listening and learning, for expanding our understanding of the world.
I found myself invited into such a moment of hospitality one morning this summer at the Brighton Public Library. Our family had gone there for a children’s puppet show and then headed out to the playground next door.
Another mother was also there with her children. Yet there was an obvious barrier between us. She was wearing a niqab, meaning that she was covered everywhere, except for her eyes. I had never been so close to someone dressed that way. I felt uncertain and awkward. I did not expect that we would interact.
But then she began to talking—talking to me, chatting about her children—engaging Lydia and me in an outgoing, kind, and friendly way.
It was clear that she and her children visited that library and playground often.
I began to realize that we were the visitors she was welcoming. As we talked casually like any two moms on a playground, she was inviting me to cross the barrier I had silently set up.
This is exactly what the author of Hebrews calls us to do. To let mutual love continue—meaning our love for fellow Christians—and to show hospitality to strangers.
On the playground that day, I was the stranger who received hospitality. And I received a blessing, learning that the barriers between us may be easier to cross than they at first appear. I was reminded that what seems strange and even uncomfortable can be an opportunity to expand my vision of the world.
Each of you has, on your bulletin today a small placemat, with the invitation to consider how you have experienced such hospitality. To think about times in your life when you have been a stranger who was welcomed and blessed. Moments when you may even have been surprised to receive a welcome from strangers. It is possible that the welcome you received came on the other side of the world…but perhaps it occurred no farther away than the library or playground or school.
On this World Communion Sunday, as we celebrate our mutual love for one another as Christians, and also remember our calling to show hospitality to strangers,
I hope you’ll take this placemat home with you and remember your own stories of being welcomed. Perhaps you will even use it as your placemat for a meal—and tell your stories around the table.
In a world of xenophobia, where so many people fear the strange, in a world where we ourselves can be tempted to fear those whose appearance and customs differ from our own, just as I did on that playground this summer, God calls us be a people of philoxenia, people who show love and caring to all. And let us celebrate our heritage as Christians—a heritage of hospitality and welcome.
Resources: “Commentary on Hebrews 13” by Amy L.B. Peeler; “Commentary on Hebrews 13” by Brian Whitfield; and “Commentary on Hebrews 13” by Erik Heen at workingpreacher.org. http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/resource/inns-and-innkeeping
Psalm 119:33-40 and Matthew 5:38-41
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
September 24, 2017
Some verses in the Bible are almost too famous. They are widely know and often quoted but usually misunderstood. When these famous verses are taken out of context, their meaning tends to be dangerously oversimplified.
Today’s gospel reading packs two such famously problematic verses: the ancient teaching “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and Jesus’ instruction to “turn the other cheek.” When heard out of context, these verses give wildly inaccurate impressions. The saying, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” originated in ancient Babylonian and Hebrew teachings—it was part of the Code of Hammurabi and the law God gave to the Israelites for their post-slavery society.
But the concept behind the law was not to legitimate violence—rather it was to restrict it. At the time acts of retaliation often grossly exceeded the violence of the initial offense. “An eye for an eye” was not a free pass for revenge but a way to restrain violence. An eye for an eye and only and eye. A tooth for a tooth and only a tooth.
But when this teaching is quoted out of this historical context, it is heard as permission to retaliate at will. It’s not intended to guide modern systems of criminal justice. As the great peace activist Mahatma Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Gandhi’s words stand in the tradition of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he too confronts the logic of “an eye for an eye.” “You have heard that it was said,” he begins, “But I say to you do not resist and evildoer.”
The word for “resist” here is key. In the Bible this word is used, not regarding all resistance but rather in terms of violence. Jesus is about to teach his followers that they can choose another way to resist.
Both Matthew and Luke record the teaching that follows but with an important difference. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus simply says, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” To be honest, this teaching seems naïve. It goes against our human instincts to protect the vulnerable and to defend ourselves. Thus our tendency is to dismiss Jesus’ words as foolish.
But Matthew’s version notes one extra detail. Here Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Did you hear it? The RIGHT cheek.
I preached on this passage here at Covington about six year ago and at the time we acted out the scene. Id’ like to play it out again today because being clear on what this detail means is absolutely vital to understanding the passage.
So I need two volunteers—and don’t worry—no one will actually get hurt.
I need one of you to be a Jewish man/woman and the other to be a Roman soldier.
An important preface to this scene is that in the ancient world, there was a strong cultural distinction between right and left hands. Left hands were used for unclean tasks, right hands were used for everything else; when people touched each other, it was always, and quite instinctively, with the right hand.
So with your right hand you are going to pretend to hit our Jewish civilian on, as Jesus notes, the right cheek. Let’s see how you do it.
The only way to hit someone with your right hand on his or her right cheek is to do what? To backhand them. Now one similarity between Biblical cultural and our own is that backhanding is an insult. It’s something you do only to someone you consider beneath you. In the ancient world, soldiers backhanded civilians and masters backhanded slaves.
So what if our Jewish citizen who has just been backhanded, turns the other cheek?
Now he is asserting equality. If the soldier wants to hit him again, he will have to accept his conditions—his demand to be treated like an equal.
What our volunteers have demonstrated is that Jesus is training his followers to see that they have power to reject insults and the right to insist that they be treated as equals. Jesus is pushing them not to passively give in to evil but to think subversively, standing up against evil with restraint and self-control
A similar scenario plays out in the next two examples. Imagine a lawsuit where someone is suing you for your coat. Your only coat. Because your clothes are all that you own. It’s unbelievably immoral: suing someone when all they own are the clothes on their back—someone living in absolute poverty—no home, no land, no other possessions that can be taken from them. So to reveal the injustice, Jesus says, give them everything.
Think of people’s horror to see someone stripping down to their underwear to pay the person suing them. It would be a shocking exposure—not only of the person’s body but also of a corrupt system where people treated the poor with such contempt.
Now it’s hard to imagine anyone actually took Jesus up on this suggestion.
I think they got his point: he was saying they have options. They can find creative way to challenge injustice—even if sometimes those methods might be offensive.
In his third teaching, Jesus talks about “going the extra mile.” Nowadays when we use these words, it’s usually to describe someone who goes out of his or her way to offer help. We use the term in a positive sense.
But once again context is key. In Roman-occupied Palestine, military officers felt entitled to enlist civilians to carry their bags. This too had financial implications for the poor: they would have been leaving their paid work to labor without compensation. Generally each person who was enlisted to carry a bag did so for one mile. So if the person chose to go a second mile, he was changing the story: becoming the one deciding to carry the bag. It’s a subtle but important shift in the power dynamic.
With each of these scenarios, Jesus is teaching his followers how to challenge evil.
Not through the ethos of an eye for an eye OR the practice of passively accepting whatever comes our way. Rather Jesus is calling his followers to creative, empowered resistance; affirming our agency to assert equality, maintain dignity, expose injustice, and challenge oppression.
A news report last month told the story of such peaceful, creative resistance in the life of African American blues musician Daryl Davis. Some thirty years ago, a white man came up to Davis after a concert and they began talking about their love of the blues. After a while the man said, “You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man?"
Davis was astonished—“how could that be?” he asked. “Why?”
At first, Davis says, “he didn't answer me and he had a friend sitting next to him and he elbowed him and said, "Tell him, tell him, tell him…I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan."
“I burst out laughing,” Davis says, “I just couldn’t believe him. “As I was laughing, he pulled out his wallet, flipped through his credit cards and pictures and produced his Klan card and handed it to me. Immediately, I stopped laughing. I recognized the logo on there…. and I realized this was for real, this guy wasn't joking. And now I'm wondering, why am I sitting by a Klansman?”
“But he was very friendly, it was the music that brought us together. He wanted me to call him and let him know anytime I was to return to this bar with this band. The fact that a Klansman and black person could sit down at the same table and enjoy the same music, that was a seed planted. So what do you do when you plant a seed? You nourish it….I decided to go around the country and sit down with Klan leaders and Klan members to find out: How can you hate me when you don't even know me?”
Davis studied the Klan in depth, seeking to understand its history and the motivations behind its members. Then he set about the work of befriending Klan members.
“That began to chip away at their ideology,” he says, because when two enemies are talking, they're not fighting. It's when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy...you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you're forming a relationship and as you build upon that relationship, you're forming a friendship.”
Since that meeting thirty years ago, 200 members of the Ku Klux Klan have given up their hooded robes after meeting with Davis. That’s 200 discarded robes!
Davis has held on to those robes as a reminder of what can happen when “you sit down to dinner with people who hate you.”
This is precisely the kind of creative, nonviolent resistance Jesus is talking about. Jesus likewise calls on us as his followers to seek out creative, courageous solutions to the problems we face.
Do not take an eye for an eye; but also do not passively accept evil. Instead, be creative! Listen. Build relationships. Commit yourself to work for peace. Who knows what God might have in store? Who knows what conversations might turn enemies to friends? Who knows how many more hooded robes of hatred can be left behind?
I invite you now to renew your commitment to creatively pursue peace with words written by David Lose, inspired by the Prayer of St Francis:
Lord God, we pray that you would arm us with courage and compassion sufficient to the challenges of these days and make us heralds of your grace and instruments of your peace.
Where is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is harm, let us bring healing;
where there is prejudice and intolerance,
let us offer understanding;
where there is enmity,
let us be agents of reconciliation;
where there is despair, let us speak hope;
where there is doubt, let us spark faith;
where there is fear, let us kindle courage;
and wherever there is darkness,
let us offer the light of your mercy
that enlightens the whole world.
Meet us in our fear, Lord God,
and embolden us to side always with the defenseless.
Protect all who put themselves in harm’s way
to keep others safe.
Thwart the plans of those who harbor hatred and plot violence.
Grant our elected leaders the wisdom to know what it is right and the courage to do it.
And bless this nation and people that we might be a blessing to the world you love so much.
This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Resources: . “The Things that Make for Peace” Bible Study Session 3, PCUSA “A Season of Peace” at https://www.presbyterianmission.org/resource/season-peace-bible-study-full/ The Powers That Be by Walter Wink. http://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544861933/how-one-man-convinced-200-ku-klux-klan-members-to-give-up-their-robes
“A Prayer After Charlottesville” by David Lose at davidlose.net.
Luke 5:12-16, John 14:27, and Philippians 4:4-7
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
September 17, 2017
What is this peace of God? Peace that passes understanding? Peace that is different from the peace provided by the world? A kind of peace that guards our hearts and minds?
The 2014 Oscar-winning documentary The Lady in Number Six explores these questions of peace under the most difficult of circumstances. The film tells the story of Alice Sommer, who at 109 years old, was the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor.
Alice was born in 1903, to a prominent family in the city of Prague. Discovering an early passion for music, Alice devoted herself to practicing and playing the piano and became a renowned concert pianist.
When Alice was in her late thirties, by then a wife and mother, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Eventually all the Jews in Prague were taken away. First Alice’s husband and her mother, both of whom were sent to Auschwitz; and later Alice and her son, who were taken to a concentration camp called Theresienstadt.
The purpose of Theresienstadt was unique among the concentration camps: it was
the camp for Jewish celebrities and intellectuals, used for making propaganda that could demonstrate to the world just how well the Jews of Europe were being treated by the Nazis. Starving prisoners were allowed to compose and give concerts, children’s choirs sang, actors performed in plays, and artists painted. As long as the Nazis wanted entertainment, as long as they wanted propaganda, they kept the prisoners alive. But it was still a concentration camp, a pause on the inevitable road to Auschwitz.
During her time at Theresienstadt, Alice gave over 100 concerts, playing all of Chopin’s Etudes from memory, performing for the Nazis, as she was required to do, but truly playing for her fellow prisoners, for her son, and for herself.
Reflecting back on that time, Alice speaks about the way music kept her and her son alive. It was literally her skill that kept them from Auschwitz but the music provided something more—it was a kind of spiritual protection, that allowed her, she says, to retreat to an island of peace, beauty, and love. Amid the horrors of those years, music gave her hope. Music taught her that “even in very difficult situations, there is beauty when you know where to look.”
So often in the world there seems to be a divide between those things that appear useful—producing concrete, tangible results—and those that seem almost indulgent: the beautiful parts of life that can appear to be luxuries.
What good is studying music, one might have argued to Alice as a child? It is an indulgence, a waste. Time should be spent on that which is practical.
But in the end it was the beautiful, stunning impracticality of knowing all 27 of Chopin’s Etudes by heart that saved Alice’s life and preserved her sanity and soul.
As the good bishop says in Les Misérables, amid a debate over the value of planting flowers when one could instead use the land for planting food, “The beautiful is as useful as the useful. Perhaps more so.”
Often such things of beauty connect us with God in a way that the practical things in life cannot. Photography, painting, writing, gardening, running, dancing, singing, playing, creating—these elements of life nourish our souls with infinite value.
For Alice it was the beauty of music that gave her peace. We might say it was the peace of God, in Hebrew “Shalom”— wholeness, peace that passes understanding,
peace that came inside the walls of Theresienstadt, peace that was the true guardian of her heart and mind and soul.
Prayer is another beautiful source of peace. Yet we have the tendency to think of time spent in prayer with a sense of dread, as though there are a hundred more useful ways to spend our time. And no sooner do we have those thoughts than we judge them, ending up feeling guilty about not spending enough time in prayer.
But guilt doesn’t do anyone much good. None of us are motivated in any life-affirming way by feeling guilty; it just makes us resentful and ashamed. Guilt is in fact the opposite of peace. So instead of any shoulds or oughts tos about prayer, I simply want to invite you to think about prayer in a different way.
To think of prayer as being very much like Alice’s music—a source of beauty and joy that can sustain us in very difficult circumstances. Prayer can be a most wonderful, beautiful gift—a way we experience the peace that God promises to give.
I wonder if for Jesus getting away to pray, retreating into solitude with God, was his source of peace during an earthly ministry that ultimately cost him his life.
We see in the gospels that Jesus’ prayer life was disciplined—he get away by himself to pray, arises early for prayer, even at times devoting whole nights to prayer. Over and over we see Jesus turning to prayer as a source of spiritual renewal. Not as a burdensome responsibility but as a beautiful gift to savor.
That which is beautiful in life—whether flowers or music, photography or stained glass or prayer—does have great value. And that which seems wasteful, luxurious, and extravagant may not in fact be so. Music was no luxury for Alice at Theresienstadt—it was for her the very presence of God. Prayer was likewise no luxury for Jesus. It was a beautiful gift, a way that he restored his soul, his source of peace and joy and wholeness.
When we give our time to what is beautiful, whether music or art or nature or prayer, we are wasting nothing. Just the opposite in fact: we are receiving and perhaps also giving to others a life-sustaining gift. Through such beauty God heals us, renews us, and makes us whole.
The “Westminster Shorter Catechism” begins with this question: “What is the chief end of man?” In today’s language we would say, “What is the chief purpose of humankind?”
The response is simple: “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
We are responsible, hard-working Presbyterians, who tend to only remember the first part of that response, as though our purpose is complete and concluded in glorifying God—living upright, disciplined lives, giving to and serving those in need.
But when we only work, only do, only give, our souls grow depleted and weary. It is all too easy for us to miss that little word “and”—forgetting that our purpose in life has two parts: is to glorify God AND to enjoy God forever.
Enjoying God is no waste of time; it is what makes us whole. For God created us to enjoy the beauty of this world—the beauty, peace, and love that nourish our souls.
“The beautiful IS as useful as the useful. Perhaps more so.”
So remember that little word “and”— glorify AND enjoy God—and may the beautiful, joyful, loving peace of God restore and sustain you, body, mind, and soul. Amen.
Resources: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life. “About” Alice Herz Sommer http://nickreedent.com . “The Things that Make for Peace” Bible Study Session 2, PCUSA “A Season of Peace” at https://www.presbyterianmission.org/resource/season-peace-bible-study-full/
“The Westminster Shorter Catechism” in The Book of Confessions: Part 1 of the Constitution of the PCUSA.
“Only Light, Only Love”
Luke 19:37-44 and Ephesians 1:17-19
Rev. Laura Fry at Covington United Presbyterian Church
September 10, 2017
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (NRSV); “that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see…” (CEB).
These words form a beautiful prayer, one for wisdom and hope as we come to know God more and more. There is a sense of gift, and growth, and greatness, the clarity of being called by God.
Yet it is also true that as we come to know God more and more, we often find this growth to be hard, this enlightening of our hearts to be a painful process. When God’s wisdom opens our hearts, when God’s light illumines the darkness, we see more clearly the chasm between the world as it is and the world as God desires it to be. We see, on one hand, wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, tragic accidents, and fear-provoking violence, and, on the other, the peace and wholeness in which God desires us to live.
The eyes of my heart were painfully opened a few weeks ago at an Interfaith Peace Vigil in Batavia. The event was organized in response to the violence in Charlottesville, and the increasing presence of symbols of hate, including the Confederate flag, in our communities. Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, including many Presbyterians and three of us from Covington, gathered at the Batavia YWCA to express our shared commitment to peace.
One of the speakers who addressed us was Diana Kastenbaum, and she told the story of her family’s Rosh Hashanah observance last year. Rosh Hashanah is the early autumn celebration of the Jewish New Year, and begins the High Holy Days of Judaism, a season of penitence in preparation for Yom Kippur.
The services for Rosh Hashanah had just concluded at Temple Emanu-El on Bank Street in Batavia; as the Kastenbaum family left the synagogue, a group of men was standing on the porch of a house across the street. The men looked at them, a Jewish family, and heiled Hitler.
We all know that such acts of hate occurred 70 years ago in Germany, Poland, and Austria—but that idea that such an act would happen in Batavia in 2016 is astonishing.
This story opened the eyes of my heart. I saw the fear this act inflicted upon this family and the members of Batavia’s only synagogue.
In the wake of the Charlottesville violence, it is clear that such acts can no longer be seen simply as the ignorance of a few but rather are part of a pattern of increasing tolerance of hate, bigotry, and anti-Semitism—stark rejections of the things that make for peace.
As Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Luke tells us that he was overwhelmed with sorrow, weeping over the people in his time who did not know the things that make for peace.
I wonder if we might also glimpse our Lord weeping at Temple Emanu-El that night. Grieving to see the worst hatred of the 20th Century resurfacing in our nation, a country that sacrificed so many lives in order to defeat the hate espoused by Hitler.
In a recent statement against white supremacy, Lutheran leaders David Lose and Rolf Jacobson refer to a letter by George Washington in the year 1790, addressed to “The Hebrew Congregation at Newport, RI.” In his letter, Washington expresses his hope for a nation with an expansive moral vision, writing, “happily, the Government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”
As citizens of this nation, and as people whose hearts have been enlightened to the growing dominance of bigotry, we have powerful opportunities to work for peace.
I see peace building taking place already in the Pavilion School district’s emphasis on the value of serving others. There has been a long-standing tradition at Pavilion of a girl’s service league, and this year a second service league was added—this one for boys.
I think of the library’s summer reading program—the theme this year was “Build a Better World”—a vital message to teach our children. In so many ways libraries have promoted understanding and respect.
I think of businesses in our community that have been responding to recent natural disasters, seeking to offer hope and help.
Washington’s words remind us that we as citizens of this nation are to give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. And as people of faith, Jesus’ words challenge us to even more: to know and to do the things that make for peace.
Perhaps we can learn the things that will make for peace here from those parts of the world that have also faced deep and entrenched conflict.
Many of you know that before going to seminary I spent time working with youth in Northern Ireland. Their families shared with me stories of the division that had long plagued their province, and the complexity of the conflict there.
Some of the most prevalent visuals symbols of this conflict are the Peace Walls, concrete and metal boundaries built across roads, parks, and backyards during the period of Northern Irish Troubles.
The purpose of these “Peace Walls” was to protect communities from one another, removing opportunities for open conflict and violence. But the failure of these walls to create peace is visible to all: for bricks and petrol bombs could easily be hurled over them and ladders leaned against them, so as the years passed they were built up and up and up, layer by layer, concrete, then metal, then razor wire, as higher and higher they climbed, never able to accomplish peace. Those walls crisscrossing Belfast could not build a better world. Neither could religious slurs, segregation, or flags raised defiantly.
In the end it was the churches—Roman Catholic and Protestant alike—who led the way to building a better Northern Ireland. The things that made for peace there were not forged of concrete, metal, or colored cloth but of relationships of mutual respect and care that were built as churches led the way in listening, service and prayer.
Peace has come to Northern Ireland gradually, and more formally, as churches pressured elected officials to work for peace. As generations of children learned about their own culture and forged friendships with those on the other side of those walls.
I lived in Northern Ireland, about 4 years after the Good Friday Agreement had been signed, the legislation that formally paved the way for peace. Now, nearly two decades after that agreement, the progress toward peace has been so significant that the first of the Peace Walls has come down. By 2023 all of Northern Ireland’s 48 peace walls will be demolished.
Although peace in Northern Ireland remains complex and imperfect, while bombs and bricks are sometimes still thrown, the people have overwhelmingly known and done the things make for peace. They have chosen peace, sometimes at great personal cost.
As the first peace wall came down last year, and as others continue to be toppled, I imagine Jesus watching, with joy, as people know and do the things that make for peace.
So may we as citizens of this nation that we love, recommit ourselves to give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. May we know and do the things that make for peace in our own communities, remembering the words of Dr. King who said to us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive our hatred, only love can do that.” Amen.
Resources: Diana Kastenbaum at Interfaith Peace Vigil, Batavia YWCA, 8/24/2017. “The Complex Process of Demolishing Belfast’s ‘Peace Walls’” by Feargus O’Sullivan at citylab.com. “The Things that Make for Peace” Bible Study Session 1, PCUSA “A Season of Peace” at https://www.presbyterianmission.org/resource/season-peace-bible-study-full/ Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr.