Romans 12:1-2, 9-18
November 11, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Today is the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day when the fighting of World War I officially came to an end. On November 11, 1918, at 11 am, the guns fell silent and in America, noise erupted as people rushed into the streets cheering, honking horns, and waving flags. It had been a devastating war in which 16 million people died, and in an acknowledgement of its devastation but also with hope that humankind had finally tired of violence, people began to call World War I “the war to end all wars.” I imagine in fact, that when four years later, in 1922, the Union University Church was formed, the members of that new congregation must have been ready to put aside their mourning and look optimistically to the future. In 1922, the nation was at peace and enjoying unusual economic prosperity which spilled over even into little towns like Alfred. When the President of Alfred University Booth Davis, who was also acting as pastor of this new church, gave the convocation address that year, he noted that the University had had such a stellar financial funding campaign the previous year that it had received for the first time an A rating among the nation’s colleges. It had raised the unheard of amount of $400,000. In fact, Booth added, enrollment was so good that year that they were building a new science lab to accommodate all of the students.1 Certainly those charter members of the Union University Church saw only good things for the future, and yet how quickly their faith would be tested. In 1929, only seven years after that first Sunday together, the Stock Market crashed and for the next ten years, the members of this church along with the rest of the country struggled through the doubts, fears, and privations of the Great Depression. The depression finally ended in 1939, but economic recovery came at the cost of another war. World War I had, after all, not been the war to end all wars, but only the first in a century of violent conflicts: in the 1940s, there was World War II, in the 1950s, Americans served in Korea, in the 1960s and 70s, we sang “Where Have all the Flowers gone?” and mourned over the graves of young soldiers killed in Vietnam, and in the 1990s, and on into the 21st century, the members of this church prayed for those deployed in the Persian Gulf, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan.
And war abroad was not the only thing that tested the faith of the members of the Union University Church throughout the years of our history. In the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities warned of communists hiding in every closet. In the 1960s, children practiced duck and cover exercises after the Bay of Pigs brought us to the brink of nuclear war. In that same decade, police turned fire hoses on citizens marching for Civil Rights, little girls died in a church bombing in Birmingham, and President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were all assassinated. The 1970s opened with bloodshed at Kent State, and with the first Earth Day awakening the nation to the growing threat of environmental decay. In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic made pariahs of gay men and women, and in 1998, the murder of Matthew Shepherd opened the eyes of a nation to the suffering of LGBTQ people.
And through it all, the members of the Union University Church worshipped and prayed and preached of hope.
I am rehearsing this history of the nation’s troubles because our memories are short and we are inclined to think that the grief we bear, the anxieties we face, and the questions and doubts that torment our faith are unique to our times. We wonder how to respond faithfully to the injustices and cruelties of our age, tempted to believe that in no other time have Christians had to face issues as deeply disturbing as those that threaten us today, and yet the truth is that humankind has not changed much since the founding of this church in 1922. In fact, humankind has not changed much in the 2000 years since the apostles first gathered in Jerusalem to worship and pray and pledge themselves to Christ. They were, after all, gathering in the shadow of the cross, a most torturous means of execution. This is not to diminish the difficulties we face today. I am not suggesting that Neo-Nazi’s marching through Charlottesville, or the refugee crisis, or global warming, or any of the other horrendous issues we face today are somehow less tragic because life has always been tragic and humankind persistently sinful. Nor am I suggesting that since nothing changes, we might as well curl up in our beds on Sunday morning with a good book and just give up. What I am suggesting is that we need to consider seriously the locus of our hope and the nature of our work because if we make the mistake of thinking that our work as Christians is to eradicate selfishness and cruelty from humankind, if we make the mistake of grounding our hope in the permanent transformation of all human hearts from evil to good, then our hope will always be disappointed. 2000 years of Christian history proves to us that there will always be powerful people who try to game the system in order to get ahead. There will always be people so frightened of what they don’t understand that they will lash out in violent ways. And there will always be sin — both large and small — and that sin will threaten to disrupt the peace of nations, communities, and even our own families. If we make the mistake of grounding our hope in our ability to fix humanity permanently, or to create a land where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day, our hope will always be disappointed. To try to permanently fix humanity is like trying to stop it from ever snowing again in Alfred.
Nevertheless, just because we can’t stop the snow from falling doesn’t mean we let it pile up until we are all trapped in a frozen wasteland. This morning at 5 am as I was waking up, I heard the snow plow go by and I thought, “Thank goodness there is someone willing to get up on Sunday morning in the cold and dark to clear those roads for me.” That is where God calls us to ground our hope. God calls us to ground our hope in the community of faithful people — people like you and me — who are willing to get up each day in this cold and dark world to continue to work to clear those roads: to push back the cruelty, to hold back the injustices, and to constantly strive to create a society where people can live in peace together, at least for this day. The troubles of a sinful world have not changed, but neither has the work of compassionate people of faith changed: God calls us not simply to have hope but to be hope; to be willing to get up every day to once again clear the way for others to live in peace together.
Over the years of my ministry, I have stepped into this pulpit in the wake of tragedy and strife — wars, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, environmental threats, corruption, and bigotry — and always people say to me, “What can we do? What can I as a Christian do to help?” And over those years, my answer has always been the same. It is to do what the members of this church have been doing since 1922. It is to do what Paul told the churches of Rome to do to respond to the violence and injustices around them.
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Don’t look for hope, be hope. Be willing to get up every day in the cold and dark to once again clear the way for others to live in peace together. This is what faithful Christians have been doing for 2000 years, and nothing has changed for us; it is still what we are called to do today. Don’t look for hope; be hope.
This week, John Buckwalter shared a story on Facebook of a Mennonite congregation who took God’s call to heart. After the shooting in Pittsburgh that killed 11 members of a synagogue two weeks ago, Jews around the nation felt vulnerable and frightened. The congregation of Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco were in particular worried about their safety because their building is visibly Jewish and in addition, it was founded by and for the LGBTQI community. The synagogue shares the building with a Mennonite church that worships there on Sundays, and after the shooting, the Mennonite pastors reached out to the Rabbi of Sha’ar Zahav. They offered to gather outside the doors of the building that Friday night, holding a vigil of protection for their Jewish friends during Sabbath worship. Accordingly, on Friday evening as the Sabbath services began, about 20 Mennonites stood outside the front doors in an arc, singing hymns and holding candles. The Rabbi said that hearing those voices outside the windows felt as if they were being held in an embrace while they worshiped. He wrote, “My chief hope since the shooting has been that we will refuse to live in fear… We will continue our community’s work fighting systemic anti-Semitism, white supremacy and racism. We will continue fighting for the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers. In our commitment to create a world where no community needs an armed guard to gather for worship in safety, we will continue to address the deadly combination of hate and easy access to weapons. The Mennonites are returning tonight,” he said, “to sing outside our doors once more as we observe the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” when attacks on Jews and synagogues were carried out by the Nazis. Of course, we don’t expect our friends’ presence at our door to be a permanent solution to a complex, ongoing problem. Perhaps our community will decide that we do need to step up security measures in some way down the line. But in the short term,” he said, “I’ll take 20 Mennonites over one armed security guard any day.” 2
Those Mennonites didn’t look for hope in the wake of another tragic event; they chose to become home. They pushed back at the bigotry and cruelty of the world by embracing their neighbors with compassion; by singing hymns, lighting candles, and continuing to do the work to which Christ had called them.
So too, we in this church pledge to be hope for one another and for the world; to find comfort and strength in the ongoing commitment of our fellow Christians to get up every day no matter how dark or cold the world, and persist in our work. We will rejoice with those who rejoice, we will weep with those who weep, we will live in harmony with one another; associate with the lowly; refuse to repay evil for evil, take thought for what is noble in the sight of all, and as far as possible, live peaceably with all.
This is our calling, as it has been for 2000 years; Christ calls us to be the hope the world so desperately needs.