Sermon transcript for January 1, 2012
IF NOT NOW. . . .
by Pamela C. Hawkins
January 1, 2012
Scripture Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, Matthew 2:1-12
While preparing this sermon I came across a phrase I had not heard before. “Righteous Gentiles.” Many of you may be familiar with the term, but it is new to me, and although I had a feeling about what it means, an intuition you might say, I still decided to search the internet before I bypassed “Righteous Gentiles” altogether.
I confess that my first response to the word “righteous” is grounds for a good detour when I’m preaching. “Righteous” is, for me, like “glory of God” or “persons of the Trinity,” a little thorny to work through in twenty minutes. “Righteous” feels dusty to me, like something stuck on a top shelf for too long, unused and out of date; a word mostly abandoned to archived religious writings.
That is what I expected my search to reveal, that “Righteous Gentiles” is an archaic phrase from some dated biblical translation.
But instead, my search revealed that “Righteous Gentiles” is an official title for today, in use now all over the world. It is a title of honor awarded to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
More currently translated the “Righteous Among the Nations,” these are non-Jewish persons from many faiths, countries, and economic circumstances who rescued, hid, saved, and protected Jews at the risk of losing their own lives. As their stories from dark times are revealed in the light of the world, these gentiles are awarded, often posthumously, the title and honor of “Righteous Among the Nations,” “Righteous Gentiles,” by Yad Vashem, which is the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel.
One of the most remarkable stories about “Righteous Gentiles” takes place in a little village on a dark, cold night lit only by starlight. We begin with a knock at a door of a little farmhouse. From inside, a man slowly opens the door and sees a woman standing outside. She is poor, tired, and hungry. She has traveled a long way. He is the local pastor of the village protestant church. She is a Jewish refugee fleeing for her life from the Nazis.
“Can I come in?” she asks.
To receive her, to hide and protect her goes against all political authority and power of the time. To make room for this one Jew would not only put this one man at risk, but would implicate as a conspiracy all 5,000 villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon if they chose not to report their pastor to the Nazis and Vichy government. Yet for this man, Andre Trocmé, taking in the woman and protecting her was the right response as a man of God.
Over the following four years, it is known that at least 5,000 Jewish refugees, many of them children, were taken in, sheltered, and saved by the Christian villagers of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon—at least one Jew saved for every gentile villager.
Virtually every household became a haven. Every family played a role.
The story goes that not one single Jew was turned away or turned by from the village. Not one. And years later the entire village was honored as part of the “Righteous of the Nations”, as a community of “Righteous Gentiles.”
When Andre Trocmé was asked, after the war, at what time during the war he made the choice to stand against deadly political authority of the day and to save Jewish refugees, he replied, when “they came here and needed help… ”
Time can be like that, can’t it? One moment it is not the right time for us to act or choose or change; and then, something inside of us whispers or screams or urges: “now.”
“Now is the right time…..” Something we see or try not to see, something we hear that causes every cell in our soul to come to life because the beauty or pain or truth that resonates around us or shows up at our door or passes us on the street, calls up an inner voice of wisdom and compassion asking: “If not now….. when?”
For Andre Trocmé the right time to choose to live differently, the right time to choose life over death, healing over killing, keeping over throwing away, speaking over silence, love over hate, good over evil, peace over war…. The right time to choose was when a neighbor’s need presented herself at his door.
For the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, for the entire village, it has been said that they became part of a “conspiracy of goodness” at a time when goodness was given little hope to survive.
When asked years later about the good that they had done, these Christian villagers replied, “How could you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done.”
Five thousand gentiles determined that it was the right time to save five thousand Jews at risk of losing everything they had. Righteousness does not seem so strange a word anymore. It does not seem so archaic a possibility.
Many years before, in a different village on another dark starlit night, a Jewish refugee stood on one side of a closed door of a little hut-of-a-building. On the other side, out in the night, stood a gentile, a pagan, a wise man by reputation, who had traveled a long way.
Neither person was alone. On the inside were also a young woman and infant boy-child, refugees as well, huddled together in the dark, afraid of who might have found them at such a late and desolate hour. On the outside waited more than one wise man, more than one magus astrologer wishing on a star that he had found what he was searching for in the darkness.
With this wise man hovered other gentiles from the East who had also traveled by star-light through Jerusalem, through King Herod’s courts and inner circles, through prophetic predictions, religious posturing, and political plotting to get to this night at this door under this star with this family.
We cannot fully know what happened when that door opened, when starlight slowly illumined the faces of the refugee family hiding inside, when the wise men first peered into the space to find what they were searching for.
Still, we do know this much from Matthew’s Gospel: what they found changed them.
What they discovered in the presence of the Christ-child altered the course of their lives – changed their direction, changed their alliances, changed their loyalties, their obedience, their hearts, their story.
The wise men started out following the light of a star; they kept going at the instruction of a political leader; they agreed to report—turn in—the newborn child they were seeking; and then they planned to return home just like they had come.
But according to Matthew’s Gospel, that was not in the stars for them. According to the gospel, these gentile wise men got caught up in a conspiracy of goodness in a little village called Bethlehem. Not a conspiracy with the villagers, but a conspiracy with God.
And now, the time has come for them to go back out into the world. Time for them to go home. And it is also time for each of them to choose which way to go, to choose which conspiracy to join – God’s or Herod’s.
Their choice, like the choice of Andre Trocmé and of the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, is recorded as part of history of the church. Their choice is revealed in our gospel reading: “they went home by another way.”
A biblical scholar writes: “the wise person’s task…is to know when the right time has come and to move visibly with whatever invisible program there may be…”
What the wise men thought they were searching for in a star, they really found in the light of the Christ-child. And in that light, that holy light, in that loving presence of God-with-us, the time was right for the wise ones to join God’s conspiracy of goodness.
So, what about us? When is it our time? “If not now, …..when?”
There is a beautiful song by Carrie Newcomer with lyrics that illumine this question for me:
“If not now, tell me when, if not now, tell me when.
We may never see this moment in place or time again.
If not now, if not now, tell me when….”
And then she writes :
“But miracles do happen every shining now and then.
If not now, if not now, tell me when.”
Villagers of Belmont United Methodist Church and beyond,
God’s healing, saving light has been revealed in Jesus Christ
and this light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not and will not overcome it.
May we risk opening our doors, our hearts, and our lives
to receive this life-changing Light of Christ.
If not now…. when?
“The Righteous Among the Nations, “ at Yad Vashem, website, http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/about.asp
“The Village,” at http://www.auschwitz.dk/Trocme.htm
W. Sibley Towner, “Ecclesiastes,” in Introduction to Wisdom Literature, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Sirach, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 5., ed. Leander E. Keck, John J. Collins, David L. Petersen, Thomas G. Long. (Nashville: Abingdon).
Carrie Newcomer, “If Not Now,” from Before and After (Rounder Records 2010).
Sermon transcript for January 22, 2012
The First Steps of Faith
Belmont UMC—January 22, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
Last week I spoke of having our spiritual senses awakened so that we can hear and see what God wants us to hear and see, to know God’s purpose for us. I encouraged us to first look close at hand to see the ways in which God’s purposes are already being fulfilled in our lives, in our relationships with friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors. Sometimes we miss the obvious or we look for something more interesting or exotic, but what we need to see is right in front of us.
Today’s Gospel passage is the call of the fisherman who would become Jesus’ disciples—Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John. Peter and Andrew are casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee and James and John are busy mending their nets. As he walked along the Sea of Galilee Jesus calls out to them, “Follow me!” And they put down their nets and followed him.
This is in Mark’s Gospel and Mark’s short, concise telling of the Jesus story does not offer a lot of detail. We wonder if there was a verbal exchange, questions and answers, “Follow you, where?” “Who are you?” Some believe that these four had been followers of John the Baptist and their hearts and minds were already primed to become followers of Jesus, others refer to this calling and immediate response as a miracle, much like Jesus saying to a man who was lame, “Take up your bed and walk!” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Miracle on the Beach”)
“Follow me!” Every week we gather here and we hear Jesus call, “Follow me!” I have a purpose for your life! It’s interesting that most Rabbis would not have called their followers in the way Jesus did. They would have interviewed potential disciples and chose from among them the most astute, the brightest and the best. Jesus walked among the common folks and called them to follow. He called the fisherman, the tax collector, the zealot, the thief, the doubter and he calls each of us to follow as well. He doesn’t wait until we are well credentialed or have finished our in-service training on discipleship. He says, “Follow me!” and bids us to come with him on this adventurous journey of faith.
Are we ready to follow Jesus? Are we ready for this journey? The story suggests a couple of things that we will need to do to follow Jesus.
First, we will need to let go of our nets. We will have to let go of the things that keep us from following Jesus. It means letting go of our security, our control, our fear of failure, our “set in our ways” mode of doing things, our personal agendas, our past, and many of our preconceived notions and assumptions.
I remember learning to swim. I had had a scary experience once in the creek when I was a child. I fell in and went under and it seemed like a long time of struggling and gulping creek water before someone grabbed my shirt and pulled me to safety. It was probably seconds but I was convinced that I was going to drown.
When I went to the city pool and watched folks dive into the water and glide through the water with long, smooth, graceful strokes, I wanted to swim. There I was in the pool, holding firmly to the side, terrified and Dad said, “If you don’t let go, you’ll never learn to swim.” When I did let go I realized that I could swim a little bit. It wasn’t pretty, but it felt good. Later on swimming lessons would add to my gracefulness. We have to learn to let go to follow Jesus.
A rich young man came to Jesus. He wanted to follow Jesus but Jesus said, “First, you have to let go of all the things that own you and demand your allegiance, the things that hold you back.” And that young man walked away dejected because he was not able to let go.
The first time I preached was a letting go experience. The first time I visited a prison was a letting go experience. The first time I hosted homeless guests was a letting go experience. The first time I walked into an ICU was a letting go experience. The first time I spoke up for the poor before a City Commissioner meeting was a letting go experience. The first time I sat with a dying friend was a letting go experience. This whole journey is been a process of letting go of so we can take up God’s purposes.
I want to share a story that I’ve shared before but I think it’s important. I preached a sermon like this one time at my last appointment and a young mother came up to me after the service and she asked, “What do think God wants me to do? What is God’s call on my life?” Her question made me rethink how I preach this type of sermon because that young woman spent her days caring for her invalid mother and her nights doing hours of homework with her young son who was struggling in school. I knew this and I said to her, “I think you are already doing God’s work. I can’t imagine God calling you to do anything more noble or more important at this time in your life.” And she cried at the thought of it.
Letting go of your nets doesn’t mean that you quit your job and go to seminary. But this is what it means. When that young woman went to stay with her mother and work with her son the next day it felt different to her, and she said so; it felt meaningful and rich and sacred. Some fishermen and women won’t need to literally put down their nets to follow Jesus, but I can promise you the nets won’t ever feel the same in their hands; the nets will feel purposeful and holy, because they are God’s nets, not ours.
Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way, “It may mean doing something different with the fish you catch, or spending money they bring at the market in a different way. It may mean reorganizing the whole fishing business so that the drifters down at the pier have work to do, and so that everyone who works receives a decent wage.” (“Miracle on the Beach,” Home by Another Way” p. 41) “Follow me” means that the work of the doctor, the attorney, the accountant, the custodian, the teacher, will not feel the same anymore--it will feel like God’s work. It will be God’s work.
Jesus says, “Follow me!” and the next thing we must do is to take those first steps of faith. Faith is action. Faith is when we let go of the side of the pool and make those primitive attempts to swim. It may not be graceful at first but it’s still an act of faith.
When I was a boy someone told me that faith is like standing on the ledge of a burning building. Firefighters have gathered below and are holding a huge net and yelling, “Jump!” Faith, I was told, does not happen when I believe I can jump or I believe the firefighters will catch me. Faith happens when I step out into thin air and make my rapid descent. Faith happens when we step out to follow.
The church tends to rewrite this Gospel story. In our version of the story Jesus walked along the shore of The Galilean Sea and he found some folks and preached his ever popular “Follow Me” sermon. Those who gathered were enthralled by his words. There even a few “Amens!” and they sang a hymn or two, took up an offering and invited him to come back the next week to repeat the performance.
But that’s not what happened! Jesus said, “Follow me!” and they dropped their nets and left old Zebedee sitting in the boat with this mouth open with surprise and they followed in faith. And their faith, their action, would ultimately turn the world upside down and the course of human history would hinge on this lakeside miracle.
I served a church that mostly operated out of fear. These fears were most often expressed in Finance Committee meetings where the words, “We can’t do that!” were expressed each month. We operated out of fear all the time and I bought into it for a long time. One month I was asked to do the centering for that committee and I led them in saying the Apostles’ Creed and then I said, “There a lots of positive things happening around here and those alone should give us courage. (And I listed them.) How can we say we can’t or we’re afraid when we serve this God in whom all things are possible, the Maker of heaven and earth? I absolutely refuse to be afraid anymore.” And that was a turning point in our church life because we promised each other that we would start stepping out in faith to transform the world.
(The Finance Committee here doesn’t avoid the reality of our financial status, but the focus of our time together is positive, hopeful and ministry and mission focused. We don’t have a fear factor in our budget but we have a line called the “faith factor,” because we believe that God has called us to do great things.)
We gather here each Sunday and we affirm our faith in a God who has the power to create heaven and earth, the God of justice and compassion, whose love for us never fails, who is our Rock and our Refuge. This God came to live among us and reveals God’s self to us in Jesus Christ. We believe in the God who has the power of forgiveness, the power of transformation and even the power of resurrection. We, the church, offer affirmations of faith but we must not leave this place to live affirmations of doubt, reluctance, restraint, and fear.
Because the world in need out there--the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, the immigrant, the imprisoned, the marginalized, the grieving and the lonely, the homeless, the bullied and belittled, await a church that is fearless and ready to follow Jesus.
The Apostle Paul said, “I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me!” “We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us!” May this be our affirmation of faith as we journey with Jesus!