Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
June 17, 2018
Psalm 130; Mark 7:26-34
A preacher friend of mine tells me that her congregation especially loves it when she gets autobiographical in her preaching. I try to be sparing in using myself as an example. But today, on this Father’s Day, I can say that if my children had been taken from me against my will for any reason whatsoever, I would be angry, anguished, and anxious. I read this morning that “The number of migrant children held without their parents by the US government has surged 21% since last month to 10,773 children…. The uptick comes after the Trump administration imposed a new “zero tolerance” policy to prosecute migrants who cross the US border illegally. The policy means that migrant parents who cross the border with their children are forcibly separated while they await criminal prosecution. 658 children had been separated from 638 adults between May 6 and May 19 under the new zero tolerance policy.”[i]
Out of the depths we cry to you, O God.
|Reaching for Hope|
Our very being seems to be at stake. Our children are being torn from our arms. I say our children, because all children are our children. It seems rather distant until we notice that nearly two hundred mothers of those children are being held in our name in the privately-run detention center only ten miles from where we sit in comfort and community this morning. Their despairing becomes our despairing when we acknowledge that those mothers are likely also followers of Jesus – devout Christians who are fleeing domestic abuse, gang violence, and terror in Central America brought about by the narcotraficantes whose markets are the opioid addicted just down the street. Our way of being – our worship of appearance, achievement, and affluence – our instant and disposable culture that serves unchecked profit mongers – has a symbiotic relationship with the violence and greed that drive the exodus of families from their homes in Central America.
The Attorney General of the United States of America this week quoted the Apostle Paul from his letter to the Christians in Rome – the belly of the empire – saying that “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order….”[ii]
Jeff Sessions is an active member of the United Methodist Church – which is an outgrowth of John Wesley’s desire to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” He quoted the biblical passage that has been used for millennia to justify such injustices as chattel slavery and to prevent women from full participation in forms of leadership from voting to ordination. If he were to read the next few sentences in that same chapter from Paul, he would find this:
“Owe no debt to anyone – except the debt that binds us to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you have fulfilled the Law. The commandments … are all summed up in this one: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love never wrongs anyone—hence love is the fulfillment of the Law. Besides, you know the time in which we are living. It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith. The night is far spent; the day draws near. So, let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”[iii]
We might wish for this all to go away.
We might wish for those seeking to escape persecution and abuse to stay home.
We might wish for the opioid addiction crisis to subside.
We might wish for relief from the embarrassing behavior of our current administration.
We might wish.
But wish is not hope. And what’s the difference? Well, first, a wish is something I can have all to myself. A wish is something that clearly suits my preference, my comfort, something that goes beyond convenience. A wish is primarily about my delight. Further, to wish is to relinquish agency – to put what I want to happen into the hands of a magician. To hope is to hold on – to hold on to the future – to engage, and to fulfil the tasks God has given us – to be sentinels for love and justice.
Eugene Peterson tells us that Psalm 130 is about hope in two ways. First, Psalm 130 gives dignity to suffering. Together we cry from out of the depths. Suffering is common to our human condition. He says that only humans are able to truly suffer, because only we are aware of our beloved condition. Only we are able to comprehend – collectively – that we are made in the image and likeness of God – beloved and Spirit-filled. He implies that the rest of life may be able to experience pain, but that it can understand neither the inevitability nor the injustice of pain – especially pain that is knowingly inflicted. I would not entirely agree. It is dangerous for us to separate ourselves too far from the consciousness of creation. At our best, we are the consciousness of creation. All too often, we betray ourselves and undermine our own thriving by presuming that we are the pinnacle and purpose of creation. At our best, we can give voice to the suffering of creation when we cry out,
“God, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to my voice, my cries for mercy!”
The cry, though given shape and breath through our throats, must just as well be on behalf of the entire creation – if love and justice are to be served.
Again, the heart of this Psalm is underscored through the poetry of repetition. First, we notice that the personal name of God is inscribed six times in eight verses. It is as if, by calling
YHWH, YHWH, YHWH,
YHWH, YHWH, YHWH,
God cannot help but respond. Like refugees at the border, we are desperate, demanding, having nowhere else to turn. When we call to God – by name – repeatedly – we signal that this is no ordinary suffering, but that circumstances are dire. We also signal our faith that God is indeed faithful. We are daring to enter into a first name relationship with the Source of all Being, and willing, in our desperation, to respond when God calls us back by name.
We have good reason to hope in YHWH. Psalm 130 enumerates. God is “One who forgives sin, who comes to those who wait and hope…, who is characterized by steadfast love and plenteous redemption, and who will redeem [those who struggle]. God makes a difference. God acts positively…. God is not indifferent… is not rejecting… is not ambivalent… does not act arbitrarily… is not stingy, [does not provide] only for bare survival.”[iv]
The other repetition underscores our human condition. As one translation renders it, “Our soul waits for God, more than watchers wait for the dawn, more than watchers wait for the dawn.” We have noted before that waiting upon God does not mean sitting around. “Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions.”[v] The overwhelming weight of the Torah, the Prophets, the Psalmists, and the Evangelists underscores that our task is to “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,”[vi] to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,”[vii] “to bring good news to the poor…. to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”[viii]
At the “Summer Institute in Pastoral Theology” at Pacific Lutheran University this past week, the theme was “Pastoral Leadership in Anxious Times.” We focused on the nature of anxiety in general, how we are experiencing anxiety in our time in history, and how we can understand and manage it. Anxiety is not always a negative thing. Anxiety is the energy that flows through relationships – all relationships – relationships between people, and between people and institutions or ideas. Anxiety is the fuel for change as well as the cement of stasis. Anxiety is powerful – and when relationships are dysfunctional, anxiety becomes a powerful weapon or a dangerous contagion that works to maintain the status quo – to maintain equilibrium at any cost. Hope is a way forward – a way to unstick harmful, abusive, or oppressive relationships. Great leaders have risen in anxious times – from Moses and Elijah, to Jesus and Paul, to Medieval mystic saints, to contemporary poets.
The Czech poet and playwright, Vaclav Havel challenged the totalitarian regime in his country and was rewarded for his efforts with several lengthy prison terms. Havel spent his life trying to work and lead in difficult and anxious times. He was a poet who also served as president of Czechoslovakia and then the new Czech Republic after the fall of communism. In an interview during the dark days of the 1980s, he was asked, “Do you see a grain of hope anywhere?” Havel responded:
“I should say that the kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.
“Hope in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do here and now.”[ix]
Hope is to plant the small seed – seemingly insignificant – the yield of which we will not taste. Hope comes from else-where to the benefit of else-when. We cannot go upstream in time to prevent our past selves or others from the actions that rend our bodies and souls. That is wishful thinking. We can pull the bodies and souls from the torrent that come down to us from our past. That is charity. And we can act now to protect and heal bodies and souls from being drowned where we are in the river of time. That is justice. Justice requires hope. It requires hope that whatever small effect our actions have in the here and now are enough to make a difference downstream. As sentinels who wait for the dawn, we must be responsible to our downstream others and selves.
Beloved, I suggest once again, as we go about our tasks as sentinels of love and justice, so too let us wait upon God in contemplative prayer. Start small. One minute today. Two minutes tomorrow. Whisper God’s name constantly in your heart – listen for God to call us by name into the rhythm and swirl of life. Make it a prayer of one word only – your own intimate, unpronounceable name for God – a name you never dare to speak aloud. If you can’t sit still, walk as you pray. Quiet your soul. Ground yourself. Prune away the worries of yesterday and tomorrow. Plant a seed. Allow yourself to rest in that place between worry and demand. Do it alone or together. Maybe even lift your hands in blessing. And as you pray, follow your upward path toward the City of the Peace of God, where God’s sentinels await you.
[ii] Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer and Laura Nasrallah, “What Jeff Sessions got wrong when quoting the Bible” The Washongton Post, June 15 [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/06/15/what-jeff-sessions-got-wrong-when-quoting-the-bible/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.602fee558fc1]
[iii] Romans 13:8-12, The Inclusive Bible.
[iv] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an instant Society (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2000), 141.
[v] Ibid., 144.
[vi] Isaiah 1:17 NRS
[vii] Amos 5:24 NRS
[viii] Luke 4:18-19 NRS
[ix] Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala, tr. Paul Wilson (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 181-2.