Reflecting the Light: Courage

12.13.2020 Luke 1:26-38

Rose Bryant worked in retail, but she wanted to be a teacher.  She had started at an HBCU in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Stillman College, but did not finish her degree.  In 2015 she took a courageous step, quitting her job and visiting Stillman to see if she could pick up where she left off and work toward graduation.  A faculty member at this Presbyterian college told her about funds that were available to help students get both feet back in the door of higher education.  It was a scholarship provided by the Christmas Joy offering which we participate in each Christmas with Presbyterians all over the country.  Rose finished her coursework and graduated in 2019.  Now she is a 7th grade language arts teacher in Dallas, Texas.  Rose says: “I don’t think I would be here without the support of Stillman. The amazing thing is that all of this has had a ripple effect.  I was able to finish my goal because of the support I received, and I know of at least six people who came directly to me about how they could do the same….” 

Sometimes all we need is a little step to stand on to take a courageous movement in a new, bold direction.  The Christmas Joy offering provides that little step for many students who are the first in their families to attend college. 

Mary had a couple little steps to stand on before she surrendered to the plan put forth by the angel Gabriel on God’s behalf.  She already knew God could do impossible things.  Her relative Elizabeth had been barren like forever, and now she was 6 months pregnant!  She would have grown up hearing the stories of an elderly Sarah giving birth to Isaac, of a barren Hannah giving birth to Samuel.  She would not put it past God to enter into her life in such a radical way. 

Another step to stand on was the message from this stranger who appeared in front of her.  There was really no reason for her to be selected for this role as the Christ bearer.  She was young, likely a teenager.  She came from an ordinary family, likely poor.  She lived in an out of the way village, not in the bustling big city.  She was definitely not on the lookout for God to show up in her life like this.  Imagine what is going through her mind when Gabriel shows up.  Why me?  What have I done to deserve a visitor like you? She was perplexed and probably at least a little afraid.

Gabriel addresses her as the favored one and tells her the Lord is with her.  Being favored means that she is the recipient of undeserved love from God.  She has been chosen for a big role in the developing story of the relationship between God and human beings.  Then Gabriel tells her not to be afraid.  Have courage.  Your life is about to be rearranged in a way you would never have imagined in a million years!   At first, she is puzzled, and with good reason: “how could this be?”  How could this be if she had never been physically intimate with a man, or as she says, literally,  I have never known a man.  It is a clear way to describe herself as a virgin, and many translations of the text just use the word virgin here.

How could this be?  Excellent question, you say.  How indeed?  This whole thing sounds improbable, if not downright impossible.  Mary knows good and well that she does not currently have the capacity to conceive and bear a child.  On her own this would not happen.  This is going to take divine intervention.  But look at what happened with Elizabeth, says Gabriel.  Nothing will be impossible for God.  That is the step Mary needs to stand on, the boost of courage to move forward into this new vocation as the bearer of a child who will be holy, even the Son of God, a king whose kingdom will never end.  Nothing will be impossible for God.

Mary was a young Palestinian woman living under the constant fear of the iron hand of the Roman government, expected to at least fake worship of the emperor, always keeping watch for soldiers who might mistreat her, forced to pay taxes to fund a military regime which oppressed her people.  She was among the disinherited that Howard Thurman describes in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited.  The disinherited are any people or groups who have their back against the wall, who have to figure out how to manage a life crowded with fear and hatred on a daily, even hourly, basis.  Written in 1949, Thurman refers to life in the Jim Crow south, but also to the prejudice and discrimination experienced by Blacks in the northern states as well. I feel like his words continue to speak directly to our time in history!  We still live with ongoing gaps based on skin color between people of privilege and opportunity and generational wealth and people without privilege or opportunity or generational wealth.

God dives right in to this social and political milieu.  God dives right in and bursts open the assumptions that God only uses the rich or the famous or the males or the mature or the powerful or the inherited.  God dives right in and shows us all that God works through ordinary people like Mary, ordinary people like you and like me.  The way Luke will spin this story of Jesus, God dives right in and especially works through the disinherited, the poor, the downtrodden, the vulnerable, the ones most likely to suffer and even die if they contract covid-19, the ones without stable housing, and so on.  God dives right in and Mary says YES

Mary listened to Gabriel’s  message—first she questioned it, but then she believed it and accepted it.  She submits to the Lord, ready to be the Lord’s servant, to be the vessel God has chosen her to be, as humble and disinherited as she is. 

Remember the words from Thurman’s poem:  I will light candles this Christmas.  Candles of courage for fears ever-present.  For some of us the fears never go completely away.  They may not be at the forefront all of the time, but they are ever-present.  Fears for our young Black men who could potentially be targeted by police, by vigilantes, by any of us, when assumptions are made just because of their appearance.  Fears of driving through a neighborhood where you might arouse suspicions.  Fears of a rampant virus.  Fears of what the future may hold for our children and grandchildren.  Fears of a medical diagnosis for ourselves or a loved one.  Fears of being alone.  Fears about aging and losing independence.  What fears seem ever-present in your life?  What fears do you try to push back and ignore, but find that they continue to bubble up to the top on a regular basis? 

We all need a little step to stand on, a step to give us courage to move forward when fears are ever-present.  We don’t get an obvious visit from an angel to remind us that all things are possible with God.  Or do we?  Perhaps we can we see God’s messengers, for that is what the word angel means—messenger—all around us.  God’s messengers can show up in the darndest places—when you are waiting for your car repair, when you connect with a friend from long ago, when you see a colorful sunset, when you read a poem that touches your heart.  Messengers can bring different messages at different times.  I have heard you say, “That encounter, that phone call, that event, came at just the right time for me!”  God’s messengers can give us courage even though the fears don’t go away.  God’s messengers can push us toward being the vessels God has chosen us to be in our own environment.  We can use the little step to propel us into accepting the role God has equipped us for—a listener, a baker, a note writer, a song writer, a child care giver, a non-anxious presence, a support for someone in grief or turmoil, an agent of change in our society that seems mired in the ripple effects of barriers set up for black, indigenous and all people of color in this country, even 70 years after Thurman wrote his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. 

I want to encourage you to watch for God’s messengers. To listen to the message.  To believe and accept.  You too can reflect the light into the darkness of this world we live in.

 One of God’s messengers to me this week was a card from the Sisters at Emmanuel Monastery.  It came to the church, addressed to the interim pastor who was here before me, at least 10 years ago!  They clearly keep their mailing lists for a long time.  Sometimes I open those envelopes and sometimes I don’t.  This week I did.  The words on the card are these:  One woman trusted God and carried the Hope of the World…it is now our task to bear that same Hope into the world today.  Emmanuel!  Let us be lighters of candles of courage where fear is ever present. Amen.

Reflecting the Light: HOPE

Sunday, December 6, 2020 Isaiah 40:1-11  

I will light candles of hope where despair keeps watch.  I don’t even have to list the contributors to despair for us this morning, do I?  Each of us keeps our own running list of ways despair seems to be keeping watch over us, our community, our nation, and our world.  How to light a candle of hope with despair keeping watch?

Howard Thurman, the author of the poem we are using as a guide this Advent, was a prolific writer and speaker.  In the dark days of World War II, Thurman spoke at the 1943 graduation of Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston, IL, offering a candle of hope to the graduates and to all of us.  He starts off with: “Curious indeed is the fact that at a time of crisis men (and women) must be constantly reminded that the crisis does not mark the end of all things.” We humans tend to be very near sighted when it comes to a time of crisis, whether it is a personal crisis or a national crisis or even a global crisis.  It seems all we can see, all we can focus on is the crisis, forgetting that our current situation is not the ultimate destiny for any of us.  Thurman believes that we must be bearers of witness to the truth that the ultimate destiny of humans is good, not evil, peace, not trouble.  In his words: “it is particularly important at such a moment as our own, now that the whole round world is rolling in darkness.”  Sounds like he is writing directly to us in this moment. 

The prophet Isaiah’s message which we heard this morning is the very beginning of what we call Second Isaiah, a section of this prophetic book which was written to the exiles who were hoping to return to Jerusalem.  The entire first 39 chapters of Isaiah are written to lambast the sinful people of Judah, providing ample evidence as to why God will use Babylon to carry them off into exile.  It is full of dire warnings of future doom for Judah.  This is a shift.  And this is written later, perhaps by a pupil of Isaiah.  Here we find words of comfort to a people who have already endured.  Words of comfort that they have paid their penalty, they have served their prison term in Babylon.  The backdrop here is this:  King Cyrus of Persia has extended his realm to include Babylon, among other surrounding nations, and although he maintained rule over all the areas he conquered, Cyrus was willing to allow exiles to return to their homelands.  Isaiah clearly understands Cyrus as being used by God to enable the long-held hopes of the people of Judah to be fulfilled.

What is the message of comfort?  Making a highway in the wilderness, making a way out of no way, making a place where God’s glory will be visible.  No longer will they be prisoners in a foreign land, but are being transformed into prisoners of hope, a phrase found in the prophet Zechariah and used by Thurman in some of his writings.  Prisoners of hope—are so entangled in hope that we can not be separated from it.  Prisoners of hope are so surrounded by hope that we carry it even in the midst of a crisis.  Prisoners of hope are so filled with hope that we can see beyond the current troubles. 

It is in this return to Jerusalem that the glory of the Lord is made visible.  Surely this is the light, the darkness-overcoming light, the exile-ending light, the hope-producing light that is God.  When we are freed from the prison of fear, of loneliness, of illness, of self-deprecation, of negativity, we become reflectors of that light, the glory of God.

I see Thurman and the prophet Isaiah giving a similar message:  look at the big picture, the long view.  Isaiah says we are temporary, like grass that withers, like the flowers placed on a grave which fade, losing their color and shape.  The big picture shows there is much more to life than fragile, limited human beings.  It is God’s word which stands forever.   

  The people themselves are to become the heralds of good news, the ones who announce it to the world, who shout with full voice—“here is your God!”.  That is our good news, our proclamation to the world as well.  Where are you able to say, “here is our God!”?  We can say, “here is your God!” when we sit with a friend who is in grief, not trying to fix it, but simply to be present.  We can say, “here is your God!” when we notice the beauty of a flower growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk, reaching for the sky.  We can say, “here is your God!”  when a loved one is crying out for forgiveness.  We can say, “here is your God!” when we hear the angels announce the birth to the shepherds in the fields.  We can say, “here is your God!”  when we light a candle of hope where despair keeps watch.  We can say, “here is your God!” when we remember that God is bigger than any crisis that might come our way, when we recognize that we are prisoners of hope, hope in Christ, our Savior, God with us, Emmanuel.

Who is this God?  Isaiah tells us that this is a God who comes with strength, with arms stretched out in victory.  Not like a soldier or a warrior, but like a shepherd who cares and protects, who gathers and draws together once again a people who have been scattered, deflated, disillusioned, full of despair.  This God comes to an exiled people who had been wondering if God really was powerful, wondering if God really loved them.  This God comes with power and with love.  This God brings hope for new life, hope for life beyond the current situation.

Victoria is in third grade.  She has written and recorded several songs about her hope for the day when she and the rest of us will be free from the restrictions of the coronavirus which keeps her from her friends, her grandparents, her activities, her school building. She is my cousin’s daughter, and since he is a music teacher and musician, he has added various instruments to the recording of her voice, and they are creating a beautiful expression of hope.

I asked Victoria’s permission to share some of her lyrics with you today.  One of her songs is called “House Fever”, another is “I Can’t take it anymore”, and she repeats that as a refrain multiple times … but even there, she offers hope… the last verse is:   Rain clouds getting dark inside of me So many things I want to see Lightning flashes, thunder booms Just wanting to get out of these rooms All the happiness is fading away I know that this will end some day 

We can relate, can’t we?  We may be feeling like rain clouds are getting dark inside of us, as we watch the whole round world rolling in darkness.  We are looking for a candle of hope where despair keeps watch. I find hope in Victoria’s song, “Cartwheels in my mind”.  It goes like this:

Sometimes when it gets crowded in my head

And suddenly I am seeing red

take a step back,

Take a breath

Reload your mind,

Focus on the world at rest.

Cartwheels in my mind,

Gonna dance and unwind,

Cartwheels in my mind

Just gonna let it shine.

When you’re mad you don’t see things right

 You pout and scream,

And maybe even fight

Take a breath, take a step

Take one more to get back in your head.

Cartwheels in my mind,

Gonna dance and unwind,

Cartwheels in my mind

Just gonna let it shine.

It is the light shining in the darkness, shining through a crowded head or an angry face.  It is a candle of hope where despair keeps watch.

 I wanted to learn more about Howard Thurman, so I purchased two of his books.  This week I have been inspired by Meditations of the Heart.  It is a collection of short reflections offering guidance, encouragement, and strength.  One is a prayer to God…I invite you to join me for the last part of his prayer:  “Kindle thy light within me, O God, that Thy glow may be spread over all of my life; yea indeed, that Thy glow may be spread over all of my life.  More and more, may Thy light give radiance to my flickering candle, fresh vigor to my struggling intent, and renewal to my flagging spirit.  Without Thy light within me, I must spend my years fumbling in my darkness.” Amen.