Isaiah 42:5-9; Romans 5:1-5
The Rev. Tom Herbek
December 2, 2018
When Paul uses the word translated as “boast,” it means to be filled to overflowing, filled up in a way that energizes us, inspires to make a difference. Paul says that it doesn’t just come from knowing God’s love for us, God’s grace, but that it also comes from hope. And then Paul says that hope doesn’t just come to us when everything is great. He says that even suffering can eventually inspire hope in us. He writes that suffering enables us to find endurance beyond what we thought we could do, a strength in the toughest of times that is awakened within us, and that awakening of inner strength helps us to see who we are in brand new ways, and- out of that new sense of identity- we are inspired and enabled to hope.
For some people, the joy or the peace of this season might be easy. But for many, it is the possibility of hope that is the key to Christmas. If everything were going well, we would not need to spend one Sunday each Advent focusing on hope. That is why Isaiah’s words are so important at Advent: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”
The Good News of hope is that there is still light in our darkness and God is still with us, and there is more light to come. Even though we may not understand it, the Christmas story fills us with hope.
As long as we have hope, Christmas is a time when shivers in the spine have nothing to do with the weather. It is a time when songs are sung, not with our lips, but with our hearts. It is a time when light comes, not from light bulbs, but from God.
The great cellist Pablo Casals revisited his first memory of attending church on Christmas Eve when he was 5. He walked to the church in a small village in Spain hand-in-hand with his father, who was the church organist. As he walked, he shivered, not because the night was cold, but because the atmosphere was so mysterious. “I felt something wonderful was about to happen. High overhead, the heavens were full of stars, and as we walked in silence, I held my father’s hand …. In the dark, narrow streets, there were moving figures, shadowy and spectral and silent, too, moving into the church, silently…. My father played the organ, and when I sang, it was my heart that was singing, and I poured out everything that was in me.” (Pablo Casals, Joys and Sorrows)
When we pour out everything within us, our sorrows and our hopes, then we experience Christmas in a new way. And whether we are suffering or celebrating, Advent becomes a time of special meaning, a time of hope in our darkness. And even if we still can’t bring ourselves to sing out loud, perhaps the wonder of this time, the promises and presence of God, will allow us to hum in the darkness.
God’s light shines in the darkness, and always will, even when we feel alone and separate from the light in the dark places of our life. But Christmas comes to remind us that we are not alone, and that there is light that comes and love and peace, and, perhaps most importantly– hope.
Poet Ann Weems remarks that we seem to forget:
What concerns me,
what lies on my heart,
That we in the church
papered and programmed
articulate and agenda-ed
are telling the faith story
are telling it as though it happened two thousand years ago
or is going to happen.
We seem to forget that Christ’s name is Emmanuel,
God with Us,
Not just when he sat among us
Whenever we feel the darkness closing in, there will come to us reminders that the darkness cannot extinguish the light. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once wrote: “People are like stained glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.”
There is light within each of us, even in our darkness, because we are each a child of God, and the light of God continues to come to us, for God is, indeed, Emmanuel- God with us. Let us not lose hope, even in the darkness.
In 2008, writer Barbara Kingsolver was the commencement speaker at Duke University. She opened her speech by saying: “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.”
It seems to me that, before we can be people of faith, we also need to be people of hope- or, at the least, the two (faith and hope) are so intertwined that it would be impossible to have one without the other. A long time ago Emily Dickinson wrote that “hope inspires the good to reveal itself.” When we think about something that we face, thinking about it in a hopeful way changes us, which then changes our experience of the obstacle in front of us, which sets into motion hope-filled energy that creates new possibilities for the future. Hope is very powerful.
Yet hopelessness can be very strong also. “Hopelessness has at least as much to do with what we bring to life as it does with what life brings to us…. What breeds hopelessness is the failure to pursue the possible in the imperfect…. The challenge of hopelessness is the challenge to take our place in life, knowing that it is as much our responsibility to shape life as it is for life to shape us.” (Joan Chittister, Between the Darkness and the Daylight)
When you look at the stories that make the news, it is sometimes hard to remain hopeful when we hear over and over again about the worst of humanity. It can feel overwhelming, and- unless we can find what we hope for- perhaps it is. That’s why figuring out what we hope for is so crucial, especially today.
Sometimes we have to be hopeful in order to be creative. Three people once had adjacent businesses in the same building. The person who had the store at the end of the building put up a sign reading “Year End Clearance Sale.” At the other end of the building, the owner of that business put up a sign that said, “After the Holidays Inventory Reduction Sale.” The person in the middle store was really worried that the business would be hurt badly, so they put up a sign that said, “Main Entrance.”
Our hope enables us to be creative, to see opportunities even in the darkness, places where others may not be able to see the light. Michelangelo was once asked, “How do you manage to create these beautiful sculptures?” Pointing to an angel he just finished he said: “I saw the angel in the marble, and I just chiseled until I set the angel free.”
What are the opportunities for us that just need to be set free?
Sometimes we expect a life that is devoid of fear, but that is not possible. There are things we all fear – from entering school to retirement, from growing up to growing old. And when we look at the violence and tragedy in our world today, if we are honest with ourselves, there is an element of fear in what will happen to the human race. Yet, even with the fear, even realistic fear, we must balance it with hope. Without hope, it is hard to believe in anything.
In her book, God is Always Hiring, Regina Brett tells a story that gives me hope:
The Lost Boys of Sudan are no longer lost and no longer boys. The six men sang to bless the medical supplies bound for South Sudan as a forklift hummed around them. Six of the Lost Boys came to help pack 10,000 pounds of medical supplies into a 40-foot-long cargo container bound for South Sudan. It is so poor there, one in seven children die before turning five. People walk two hours to a clinic or wait for help under a tree. There is no hospital, no equipment, no beds.
One of the boys, Majier, said the shipment will show the people of Sudan that someone cares. “That is true love, to care about someone you don’t know,” he said.
Dr. Lee Ponsky started MedWish International in 1993 when he was just 20. He wanted to be a doctor and ended up working one summer at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Cleveland. He decided wanted to go somewhere and make a difference. He has made it his life’s mission to collect local medical supplies that would end up in landfills and send them to poor countries all over the world to save lives.
As a medical student working in a clinic in Nigeria, he saw doctors make their own saline, use fishing line for sutures, and run out of clean water during surgery. It was Lee’s job to wash, powder, and sew up medical exam gloves to use again.
Lee graduated from the University of Rochester, and then he got his medical degree at Case Western Reserve University. He started the nonprofit MedWish in his parents’ garage. He later became chief of urological oncology at University Hospitals in Cleveland.
He calls MedWish his hobby. Some hobby.
The Cleveland Clinic donates the use of the 38,000-squarefoot warehouse that he has transformed into an international medical supply depot. MedWish collects and distributes medical supplies from 50 hospitals and nursing homes from Cleveland to California. MedWish ships to more than 90 countries, from Belize to Zambia. It takes no government funding and runs solely on donations.
People drop off walkers and wheelchairs, unopened gauze and gloves. Most donors prefer to be anonymous. One nursing home donated beds. A hospital donated sleep sacks for babies and burn dressings. The warehouse is full of hospital beds, incubators, operating room lights, mattresses, examination tables, IV poles, infant airways and bottles.
There are stacks of beds, wheelchairs and dialysis machines, incubators and operating lights ready to go.
“Everything you see in this warehouse would be thrown in a landfill,” Lee told me. “What we throw away is gold in other parts of the world.”
I love the small sign attached to the office refrigerator: THE PERSON WHO SAYS IT CANNOT BE DONE SHOULD NOT INTERRUPT THE PERSON DOING IT. MedWish runs with the help of donors, volunteers, and special-needs students paid to sort items.
Huge banners on the wall remind everyone of the mission. Each shows the face of one child from Africa, Central America, the Middle East, and South America.
The Lost Boys smiled at the pallets of bandages, gauze, ointments, IV poles, exam tables, wheelchairs, stretchers, gurneys, beds, and mattresses headed for South Sudan.
“Thank you, thank you,” the Lost Boys said, almost in song. They wanted to tuck something else into the shipment. They sat at a table and wrote letters to put inside the cargo container. Slowly and carefully; they printed words of hope for people on the other side of the ocean.
“This gift from MedWish is just a beginning,” Majier wrote. “This gift, I hope, will make a difference.”
Lazarus Makhoi paused a moment, then wrote the words he had wanted to hear all those years ago when he was that boy in a refugee camp:
“I didn’t forget about you.”
That is the message that we all want to hear. That is the message that we are being called to.
We are the hands and feet and voices of God, the God of hope and compassion, even in a world of violence and tragedy.
As Emily Dickinson once said so well: “Hope inspires the good to reveal itself.” So let us figure out what we hope for, and then let us use our hope in efforts to inspire the good to reveal itself.
And once hope is revealed, let us be the hands and feet and voices of our hope-enabling and compassion-filled God, in this community and in our world, so that those who want to hear it so badly will know: “I didn’t forget about you.”
May our light shine in the darkness, and may we feel hope in our darkest moments, as we discover again that Emmanuel, God with us, did not forget about us- and never will!