Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, November 29, 2015
I Thessalonians 3:9-13; Jeremiah 33:14-16
It sure is hard to be hopeful these days. I’m almost afraid to look at the news. Someone asked me the other week why we keep praying for peace when things just seem to be getting worse in the world. What effect do our prayers have? Where can we find hope?
These are huge questions. I don’t have answers, but I do have stories—stories of others in difficult situations who have continued to pray; who have still been able to find hope. Perhaps they are our teachers.
Our first story takes us back to our scripture reading. In these few verses of the epistle to the Thessalonians, the word “Lord” was used four times. This is the word that was used in the Roman Empire to refer to the Emperor, who was to be worshipped as their god and lord. In this public letter, Paul is intentionally challenging the colonial power of the empire by referring to Jesus as their Lord. At this time, the early Christians were under intense persecution. Nonetheless, they were still brave in their political resistance to the tyranny of empire. Not only were they brave, they were also filled with hope as they longed for the second coming of Jesus. This letter was written about 25-30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion at a time when the early church believed Jesus would return within their lifetime. In spite of their very difficult situation, they were filled with hope not only because of the expected imminent return of Jesus, but also because of their ability to fervently love for each other. They were practically giddy with joy in their strong faith and ability to remain firm in their worship of their Lord and care for one another.
Our second story takes us to Manitoba. One week ago, a member of Dauphin United Church answered the phone and heard the caller threaten to burn down their church because they were about to sponsor Syrian refugees. The woman who answered the phone was badly shaken, but when the chair of the board heard about it, his resolve was only strengthened. He was a former RCMP officer—not to be easily intimidated. Like the Thessalonians, Dauphin United Church decided to remain firm in what they understood to be Jesus’ call for compassion. To give into threats would be to deny Jesus and his call. I spoke with Rev. Larry McPhail, their minister, and he said that, although some of them were quite shaken and certainly saddened, their church, along with a partnering Baptist Church and a Roman Catholic Church were still standing strongly together. In the midst of a difficult situation, they have hope that compassion will change hearts.
Our third story takes us to Albania. The population is primarily Muslim but also has a large percent of Christians. There is a very small number of Jews. They all live peaceably together. In 1933 there were about 200 Jews, but very soon after, somewhere between 600 and 1,800 more Jews fled into Albania to escape the Nazis. We don’t know the exact numbers because they were hidden. In 1943, the Nazis occupied Albania and demanded lists of Jews. Anyone caught harbouring a Jew would be killed. Unbeknownst to the Nazis, their threat challenged the highest ethical code in the country, called Besa. This word, which literally means to keep a promise, comes from the Koran. The Albanians refused to comply with the Nazi demands and even competed with each other for the privilege of saving Jews.
Lime was a Muslim Albanian, who recalled that her village immediately divided up all the Jews and took them in. The village was very poor. Lime’s family didn’t even have a dining room table, but they never allowed their Jewish refugees to pay for food or shelter. She went into the forest to chop wood and haul water for many of them. They dressed the Jews in their own peasant clothes. The local police all knew, but no one gave them away. Miraculously, in the entire country of Albanian, only one Jewish family was killed by the end of the war. Why did so many risk their lives to do this? One of them said that, as devout Muslims, they extended their protection and humanism to the Jews because of their ethical standard of Besa and because of the holy Koran. In the midst of a terribly frightening time, they never lost hope; they stayed firm in their Muslim faith of compassion; they never ceased praying.
What do all of these stories have in common? They link courage and bravery with faith. They refuse to give up in the face of horrendous circumstances in their world. They remain resolute in their ability to love their neighbour as themselves. Some of us know Karen Ridd, who risked her life to save a companion when they were both imprisoned in El Salvador because of their political advocacy. She told me that despair is a first world luxury; that people who live in desperate situations cannot risk losing hope or they will die.
So how can we remain hopeful in the midst of a troubled world? Why do we even bother praying every week for peace? Because of stories like these. Because of the Thessalonians and the Dauphin churches and the Albanians, who have refused to give up hope and have lived into their prayers for peace. How can we do any less?
Deb Murray, the minister at Sturgeon Creek United, pointed out a very interesting translation of verse 7 & 8 from our reading of I Thessalonians 3. The New Jerusalem Bible reads, “your faith has been a great encouragement to us in the middle of our own distress and hardship; now we can breathe again, as you are holding firm in the Lord.”
Paul, in the midst of his own persecution, heard about how the Thessalonians were remaining firm in their worship of their Lord and in their love for one another. Just hearing about their faith helped Paul to breathe again.
What helps you to breathe again? When you’re going through a tough time, what helps you to get your feet on the ground again and be able to physically relax into hope? Now that winter has finally come, I catch myself doing the ice-walk—where your whole body is braced and you arrive with shoulders lifted, muscles strained, breath shallow. Trouble and worry have the same ice-walk effect on our body, when every cell is braced for the next wave of bad news.
Can these stories of faith help us breathe again? help us let go of our fear or despair just enough to make room for a feather of hope that tickles the soul into ahhhhhh? Can these stories of courageous faith and determined compassion, help us make room for a shoulder-dropping, neck-releasing, breath of hope into our ice-walk hunch?
Let us breathe in deeply the Spirit, who gives us hope. Ahhhhh—now we can breathe again. Thanks be to God. Amen.