“Hard-pressed, choosing hope”
Sermon for Sunday 24 September 2017
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
|The Israeli separation wall, as seen from Wi'am Center|
You see, I spent the week reading various commentaries on Jesus’ parable of the landowner and the workers in the vineyard. I read Martin Luther’s sermon on the topic. I read a new urban interpretation of the Gospel according to Matthew. And then I started writing a sermon, which I thought captured the Gospel message and carried the possibility of a few laughs, which I had tentatively titled: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…dodgeball.”
I know it sounds a little weird, but I promise, it made sense in my mind, and it almost made sense on paper. It was about how just as the kingdom of heaven turns our assumptions upside down, the game of dodgeball subverts the paradigm of elementary school, because the last kid standing, the kid nobody notices, is the winner of the game. You know, the last shall be first…
Anyway, it was a work in progress, but I was confident that by this Sunday morning, it would be a sermon worth preaching.
But as the dodgeball sermon was coming together this week, life kept happening.
And things haven’t been all that good.
There was no dodging the bad news from around the world this week:
There were more hurricanes.
And there were earthquakes—and then more earthquakes.
Countries across the globe are in political turmoil.
The threat of nuclear war grows every day, spurred on by juvenile jabs from world leaders.
And then a colleague, a pastor very close to my own age, died suddenly in her sleep this week, just days after starting a call at a new church.
As these events unfolded around me, I started to lose interest in my dodgeball-themed sermon. During a week heavy with issues of life and death, hope and despair, a sports analogy was just not going to work.
|The sniper tower that overlooks Wi'am Palestinian |
Conflict Transformation Center in Bethlehem
And although I had been contemplating Jesus’ parable all week long, it was suddenly the Apostle Paul’s voice that was ringing in my ears, from today’s appointed Epistle reading. I invite you to open in your Bible to page 953 to read aloud with me, Philippians chapter 1, verses 21-30:
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well—since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”
Paul writes these powerful words from his prison cell. He has come to understand the real possibility that he will never be released, and that he may in fact face the death penalty. His faith assures him that death will not be the end, and his current suffering in prison was very great. Therefore, a part of him considers whether he should just give in to the blessing of death rather than to suffer further. For this reason, he writes, “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
And yet, Paul knows there is work to be done. He knows there are other believers relying on him, that others are looking to him for courage and direction. He is “hard-pressed” to choose between despair and hope, between acceptance and resistance. Ultimately, Paul chooses life, saying:
“Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith.”
As I sat beneath the separation wall in Bethlehem on Friday, with the smell of tear gas wafting in the air, I was reminded that choosing life, and choosing hope, is an everyday struggle for so many of our neighbors. Such a choice is not easy—in fact it requires incredible courage and strength.
It is one thing to sit in a faraway place and speak of lofty things like “peace and justice in the Middle East”, or to advocate for “non-violence” as if it were the obvious choice. It is quite another thing to say it, to believe it, and to choose it, when “occupation” isn’t just a word, but is a reality spelled out in concrete and barbed wire in your backyard. Choosing life in the valley of the shadow of death requires steadfast faith in God, or what is called in Arabic “sumud.”
For this reason, Paul’s letter was a gift to me during a week heavy with questions of life or death, hope or despair. Paul’s voice rings out across time, encouraging fellow believers in every time and place to be courageous. Paul the preacher, Paul the prisoner, Paul the persecutor who became the persecuted, challenges us never to give up, but to choose life and hope even when the evidence doesn’t support it.
All of us will face this choice at one time or another.
Not all of us will find ourselves living behind prison bars of steel, or walls of concrete and barbed wire.
But we may find ourselves in prisons of depression, addiction, or abuse.
We may find ourselves in a prison of cancer, or poverty, or grief.
Others may try to put us in prisons of patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, or religious persecution.
And when you find yourself surrounded by such walls, visible or invisible, Paul says to you from inside his own prison: Don’t give up.
Don’t give up. And don’t just survive—live! Live in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.
“Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.”
I suppose one could interpret this to mean, “Live a pure life. Be good while I’m gone! Follow the rules! Play it safe, so you don’t get caught, or arrested, or imprisoned yourself!”
But living a Gospel life is not about playing it safe. A cross-shaped life is never without risk, never without struggle, never without controversy.
On the contrary, “living in a manner worthy of the Gospel” means we never let the fear of dying stop us from living.
It means never letting the fear of criticism stop us from speaking.
It means never letting the walls our opponents build around us block out the light of our faith in God and our hope in Jesus Christ.
Of course, there are moments when death may seem preferable. There are times when it seems all hope is lost, when the struggle seems too much to bear:
When there is no peace process and it’s already been 50 years of occupation. When your home has been destroyed by a hurricane or your child is beneath the rubble of an earthquake. When your bank account has had a negative balance for months, and you never get chosen for the job. When your political leaders are fanning the flames of hatred, and war seems inevitable.
In such times, like our brother Paul we may feel “hard-pressed.”
And still, we choose hope. Still, we choose life, not only for ourselves, but for others. As Paul chose to persist and endure for the sake of the Philippians, we also choose to persist in hope for the sake of our neighbors, for the sake of our children, for the sake of peace, justice, and reconciliation.
On Friday, as I sat looking up at that ugly wall, contemplating not only these 50 years of occupation but the sad state of the world today, I asked myself:
What do I choose?
Do I see barbed wire, or do I see the two little girls eating apples under that olive tree?
Do I smell the tear gas from Aida camp, or do I smell the flowers blooming even in the shadow of the wall?
Do I hear the voices of those saying “the dream of the Palestinian state is over” and “there will never be peace”, or do I hear the voice of Bishop Younan, proclaiming, “We choose to light a candle rather than stand to curse the darkness”?
And the answer is: By the power of the Holy Spirit, I choose hope.
Because I believe in Christ crucified and risen,
because by the power of love my Lord has defeated even death itself,
and with the Apostle Paul and the saints of every age,
I choose hope.
For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it! Amen!
At the end of this World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel, we will close with a prayer written by Most Rev. Dr Antje Jackelén, Archbishop of the Church of Sweden).
Let us pray:
God of hope, who fulfilled the promises of Easter by sending your Holy Spirit to the Church, and opening to all people the way of eternal life, pour your power upon your children in the Holy Land: Jews, Christians and Muslims, Palestinians and Israelis. Seeking a just peace, we turn to you. Let hatred be turned into love, fear to trust, despair to hope, oppression to freedom. Let what is broken be healed, teach us ways to live in equality. For in the light of Easter you have given us a vision of shalom and salaam, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.