This is what God the Lord says—he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breadth to its people, and life to those who walk on it: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. ‘I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols. See the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
With these words of Scripture the prophet Isaiah portrays the powerful God of creation that gave life to the heavens and the earth and yet also takes our hand and leads us, like a loving parent takes the hand of a child. In the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy we want God to hold our hand because the darkness is unbearable. It has fallen across the land and affected each one of us. One of the co-chairs of our stewardship committee had just finished a phone call to his best friend, the uncle of the little girl, Christina Taylor Green, who was killed in the shooting. He led our stewardship meeting but did not tell anyone about his call. Only minutes after sharing the grief of his best friend and hearing how a family is suffering in shock, he went into our stewardship committee meeting. At the end of the meeting everyone left encouraged about the campaign and the future of our church. When he shared his phone call with me, I recalled the way he conducted the meeting, with hopeful, optimistic encouragement. It truly inspired me. Right in the wake of helping his best friend who just lost his nine year old niece, Christina Green, he was able to express his love for God and God’s church.
What do we do when evil strikes? How do we respond and take God’s hand when we feel darkness surrounding us? We respond by not letting evil have the last word. The last word must be a word of hope. President Obama’s recent speech in Tucson in front of thousands of mourners taught this lesson. As the President spoke about the ones who had been killed, he ended with Miss Green:
Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted. I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations. Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called “Faces of Hope.” On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child’s life. “I hope you help those in need,” read one. “I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles.” If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit. May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in restful and eternal peace. May He love and watch over the survivors. And may He bless the United States of America.” Our President comforts his grieving nation.
Our nation will be shaken by this tragedy for a long while. Whenever something happens that calls the entire nation to attention, we have an opportunity to respond as God would have us respond, not as we might naturally respond. God calls us to muster up courage and hope. I remember the time that I did not respond with courage in my hometown of Livingston, Alabama. In 1991 a video recording of police officers subduing Rodney King was broadcast. The nation was more racially divided than it had been in years. My mother served on the city council, and she was on her way to see a leader in the town’s African American community to discuss how he felt about the incident. I rode along with her to play basketball at the park.
As my mother entered the community center, I stepped onto the court. There were about twenty players on the court just shooting around with several balls. When people noticed me, suddenly everyone stopped playing and stood still. I realized that I was the only white person on the court. I remember seeing the balls finishing their bounces and resting still on the ground. Everyone was still, just looking at me. Even faces I recognized seemed unfamiliar. Each face was filled with anger. Fear surged into my body, but why did I feel afraid? I had played basketball with them plenty of times before, but at that moment, I felt very unwelcome, and I felt very white, so I slowly walked off of the court and went back to sit in the car.
When my mother came out of the community center she said hello to several of the players with a friendly wave. She got into the car and asked why I wasn’t playing basketball. “They don’t want me to play with them,” I replied. “Why?” she asked. “You didn’t do anything.” Then I remember the lump in my throat and my answer, “Then why does it feel like I did?” I’ll never forget my mother’s rebuke to me after that. She had been inside building a bridge across the black
and white communities and I could have been outside building the bridge, but fear and prejudice had paralyzed me. “You should have played basketball!” she said strongly as she drove away. And she was right. I could have lit the darkness but instead I gave up. There are many times in life when we miss opportunities to be a light in the darkness.
Tomorrow our nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. He was someone who tried to fill the darkness of life with light. He preached against a pessimism in the land that challenged his vision. Here are some of his words from a sermon he preached called, “A Knock at Midnight.” The sermon uses the parable of Jesus from Luke 11:5-6 of a man knocking on a door at midnight looking for bread:
The traveller asks for three loaves of bread. He wants the bread of faith. In a generation of so many colossal disappointments, men have lost faith in God, faith in man, and faith in the future. Many feel as did William Wilberforce, who in 1801 said, “I dare not marry—the future is so unsettled,” or as did William Pitt, who in 1806 said, “There is scarcely anything round us but ruin and despair.” In the midst of staggering disillusionment, many cry for the bread of faith. There is also a deep longing for the bread of hope. In the early years of this century many people did not hunger for this bread. The days of the first telephones, automobiles, and aeroplanes gave them a radiant optimism. They worshipped at the shrine of inevitable progress. They believed that every new scientific achievement lifted man to higher levels of perfection. But then a series of tragic developments, revealing the selfishness and corruption of man, illustrated with frightening clarity the truth of Lord Acton’s dictum, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This awful discovery led to one of the most colossal breakdowns of optimism in history. For so many people, young and old, the light of hope went out, and they roamed wearily in the dark chambers of pessimism. Many concluded that life has no meaning. Some agreed with the philosopher Schopenhauer that life is an endless pain with a painful end, and that life is a tragic comedy played over and over again with only slight changes in costume and scenery. Others cried out with Shakespeare’s Macbeth that “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But even in the inevitable moments when all seems hopeless, men know that without hope they cannot really live, and in agonizing desperation they cry for the bread of hope.
Dr. King fought profound pessimism that he described as shadows of immorality, prejudice, and inequality. He preached that the knock at the door in the parable was an awakening of America to shine light into those shadows.
He portrayed hope not just as a feeling, but as a reaction to the darkness, reacting in a way that God would have us react, not in a way that we might react by misguided fears and prejudice. Dr. King portrayed hope as a way to be when the odds seem against you. Hope is reacting with faith to a situation that feels hopeless.
Sparks ignited hope in the life of Dr. King. Rosa Parks was one of those sparks. She refused to back down when she was asked to move to the back of the bus so a white man could have her seat. She let her hope shine in the darkness and that inspired him. Dr. King learned from this frail woman’s action, and he taught a kind of hope that responded with that same courage. He was tested several times in his life but he held strong to his ideals and leadership. Charles Johnson, author of the book, Mine Eyes Have Seen, Bearing Witness to the Civil Rights Struggle, writes:
“King was at a meeting during the Montgomery bus boycott, when segregationists bombed his house. He rushed back and found his wife Coretta and their baby Yolanda unharmed. Outside his damaged home, an angry, armed black crowd confronted the white policemen at the scene. The situation was edging toward violence when King raised one hand to quiet the crowd. ‘I want you to go home and put down your weapons,” he said. “We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence.… We must meet hate with love.’ According to the white policemen there that night, King’s calming words in the heat of racial violence saved their lives.”
During 1956 he battled the city of Montgomery, Alabama. The city felt that a carpool in light of the bus boycott was unlawful. Even as he preached words of optimism and hope he felt “the cold breeze of pessimism pass over the audience,” he felt hope flicker, but he kept its flame alive. Later in the day the Supreme Court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional in Montgomery. Dr. King preached about this moment in his sermon, “A Knock at Midnight”: “My heart throbbed with an inexpressible joy. The darkest hour of our struggle had become the first hour of victory. Someone shouted from the back of the courtroom, ‘God Almighty has spoken from Washington.’ The dawn will come.”
We are a part of that dawn especially in times of tragedy, and there are other lights of hope in the world. This past Wednesday our public affairs program featured Dr. Laurie Flentye, a member of our church, who spoke to us about what it is like to serve as an archeologist in Egypt. Dr. Flentye shared how the Muslim majority in Egypt protected the Coptic Christians, a 10% minority in Egypt:
In the days following the brutal attack on Saints Church in Alexandria, which left 21 dead on New Year’s eve, solidarity between Muslims and Copts has seen an unprecedented peak. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent – the symbol of an “Egypt for All”. Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, and depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one. Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honored when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candlelight vigils held outside. Muslims had offered their bodies as “human
shields” for Christmas Eve mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that God will tell us things that will spring into being before they happen. That is the definition of hope. Think about how those persecuted Copts felt as the worshipped inside their churches, peering out the windows, surrounded by human shields with little candles outside. What a sign of hope that people who look different, blacks and whites, or believe differently, Christians and Muslims, can co-exist in peace! How do we respond when evil shrouds the land with darkness? Let us believe that new things can spring forth. Let us not walk off the court in fear. Let us play ball! Like our stewardship co-chair, like Dr. King, and like the Muslim majority in Egypt just days ago, we must look straight through darkness and seek that spark of hope, so when the world asks, “What is stronger than despair?” We will answer, “Hope.” When asked, “What is stronger than evil?” We will answer, “Goodness.” “What is stronger than hate?” We will answer, “Love.” Amen.