Aug. 11, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Aug 11, 2019 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14C)

August 11, 2019

Hope in the Darkness

Early in the life of the Church, everyone wanted to know when Christ would be returning.  Believers told and retold the story of his Ascension, and his solemn promise to come again in glory and reign forever.  Every day their eyes scanned the horizon, in hopes of glimpsing his approach among the clouds.  But since no one could say how long they’d have to wait, as time passed their convictions flickered.  Today we are still watching and waiting as they did, striving to trust in Christ’s promises to us, even when they are not yet fulfilled. This is where our faith lives, in the stretches of time between the stresses of the here and now, and our eternal hope.

“Faith,” our first reading explains, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”  We are reminded of faith’s beginnings in Genesis: God promises Abraham, an aging, childless nomad, that he will one day father great nations.  “Look up into the night sky,” God directs. “As many as there are stars in the sky, so will your descendants be.”  Common sense to the contrary, Abraham is strangely moved to trust that God will be faithful to his word.  When Abraham encounters all kinds of delays and discouragements along the way, he recalls God’s promise and hangs in there on a hope and a prayer.  He actually dies before the promise is fulfilled, but his faith has long since formed him into God’s friend forever.

Faith still flickers to life today in the gaps between current distress and eternal hope. In our times it’s even harder to fan that flicker into flame, because attitudes have grown so secular and we’re totally wrapped up in the here a now. It takes a truly riveting situation to swing our attention back toward God.  So here’s a truly riveting situation.

The year is 1987, and a Brit named Terry Waite is shuttling back and forth between London and Beruit, negotiating the freedom of hostages taken by Hezbollah.  On what turns out to be his final trip, Waite is taken hostage himself and placed in solitary confinement. He is blindfolded and forbidden to speak with anyone, and has absolutely no idea when, or even if, he will ever be released. He discovers that his physical hardships—though excruciatingly real—are not his biggest survival challenge.  It is the spiritual hardship of keeping a lifeline open to God, when he’s feeling so forsaken.

Waite is not sure he is a “good enough Christian” to pull it off, but he sets out to try.  To cancel out the bleak darkness that confines him, he instinctively imitates Abraham who gazed outward into the blackness that night.  Waite calls up twinkling memories of earlier times when life felt blessedly carefree. He replays in his head a boyhood recollection of walking into a bookseller’s shop, and breathing in the rich aroma of newly printed wares.  Gradually familiar friends and family emerge to populate his inner vision, evoking comfort and even amusement.  As the blessed past comes to life within him, Waite is strangely moved to trust that God will be faithful to him.  He gives thanks for the Sunday School teachers who helped him befriend the Bible, and the parish priest who taught him about Christian hope from the Catechism. Reciting bits and pieces of scripture and prayer transforms the present darkness, and propels his attention beyond bodily afflictions to spiritual consolations.  Alleluia, he is managing to hold onto his Christian identity, and that means all of it—including Christ’s parting promise, “Lo I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Years before, as a searching young man, Waite had read theology and been ordained, and now he mines from his memory long-buried bits and pieces of the Communion service.  Haltingly he approximates the full text, and he religiously begins setting aside a scrap of bread from daily rations, and a sip of water from bathroom breaks.  When the guards finally go to sleep, he celebrates Holy Communion alone in his cell, and thanks God for the blessing of belonging to the Church of the ages. On one particular evening as Waite listens for the final night round, he detects a new voice.  Forbidden to speak himself, he simply listens as his guard demands in Lebanese, “Sing for me!”  Waite’s thoughts race to an anonymous, blindfolded stranger he’s heard shuffling in a cell nearby.  He is overwhelmed with desire to share hope with this beleaguered captive.  So in his long-silenced bass voice he booms out, “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.”  His captor, who speaks no English, seems satisfied with the command performance, and departs.  At the end of five years Terry Waite also departs, and he reports to the world, “My deepest convictions were forged and strengthened in those years alone.”

Faith flickers to life like this in the gaps we endure between present distress and eternal hope.  Waite’s takeaway from his Hezbollah ordeal is this: “Yes, my enemy, you have the power to break my body, and even my mind, but my soul is not yours to possess.  My soul lies in the hand of God.”  So may you and I learn to say, with Terry Waite.  Amen.

© 2019 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved.