The Work Before Us

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, January 7, 2018

Do you remember the movie “The Big Chill”? It’s about a group of college friends who come back together for a funeral, and they end up staying for the weekend. The title comes from a line in the movie, when during that cozy reunion, one of the characters reminds his friends that it’s a cold world out there. He says, “Wise up, folks. We're all alone out there and tomorrow we're going out there again.”

That’s not how I see the world, at least not most of the time, but I have to admit that in these days after Christmas, after the warmth and hope and beauty I find in that season, it can feel like being back in that cold world. And I’m not talking about the weather! If we’re lucky, we get these moments when we glimpse beauty and wholeness; we have these mountaintop experiences from time to time. But most of the time we’re down in the valley, carrying on with our lives as best we can. And the challenge is to carry the hope and promise that we have known with us, to lift up our light and let it shine, so we can bring some light and love to a world so in need of it.

But you know this is easier said than done. There is plenty that can lead us to discouragement and despair. So how do we keep hope alive? I trust that being here for worship, and being connected to one another here, that this does help you to hold on to hope. I know for myself that I need time outdoors, under the wide sky and in the presence of trees. Which is a little harder to get these cold days! I need beauty, whether I find that in watching snow fall, or a big moon rise, in music, or in silence. I need Sabbath time. And don’t you too?

Whatever your soul is longing for these days, I hope you are listening to that longing, and doing what you can to respond to it. I hope you can trust that our longings are holy, and will lead us, as Thomas Merton said, by the right road, though we may know nothing about it.

It seems to me that the meaning of Christmas, and the real test of Christmas, is how well we carry its spirit with us into January, into February and beyond. There’s a poem by Blaine Paxton Hall called,“Here’s a Christmas Child for You.” It’s written from the perspective of a teenager who lives in an orphanage where church people come visit at Christmastime, bringing gifts. But the poet says what he really wants is for one of those families to invite him home with them:

Now I will tell you church people
what I would have wanted for Christmas.
Would you bring me to your house
for a home-cooked meal?
Nothing fancy; some hot, creamy, saucy food
like mashed potatoes and gravy will do.
Would you have me eat with your family–
just a normal meal with a typical family?
I promise I’d behave–
I’d be too intimidated by your abundance,
too awed by your lightness of life.

And the poem ends with these lines:

And at the close of the evening
would you ask me for a photo of myself?
So that you could hold me in your heart
not just at Christmastime,
but all the year around.

This is what Christmas asks of us—to hold on to hope, to hold on to the call to help others, to keep our hearts open to them, not just at Christmas, but all the year ‘round.

Certainly we need to listen to our longings, and find hope in those things that feed our souls. But central to what is means to be a person of faith is the prophet’s call to do justice, and love mercy and walk humbly. The call to serve those in need and build the common good—isn’t this what it’s all about?

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins,” Howard Thurman reminds us,
“To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”

So how should we set about doing this good work? Who’s going to take on rebuilding the nations? Who’s going to heal the broken, and who will set about releasing the prisoners? Want to break into groups, or should we count off?

Our worship theme for this month is “justice,” and this seems just right for this season when we try to take the hope and love we have known, and make it tangible in the world. “Giving life the shape of justice,” we sang a few minutes ago. 

But sometimes justice-making seems so big and out of reach, doesn’t it? Do any of us have the power to create world peace or rebuild the nations? Systems of oppression seem so big and powerful and entrenched. And yet, we see cracks in their facades. Rather than being daunted by the enormity of the task, I think the answer is to come down to earth, and look for work closer to home. To seek out smaller, more manageable projects. 

And we are doing some of that here already—feeding the hungry, we are good at that. Making music in the heart, aren’t we trying to do that? Finding the lost, healing the broken, bringing peace among people—these things are possible too, aren’t they? How might we expand our ministries in these areas? What gifts do you have to offer? How can you serve the cause of justice here, on the ground, in your community, in your life?

Bobby Kennedy said “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events.” He said, “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.” Do we have this faith? That our small acts can and will make a difference? What do you want to work on changing?

I chose the reading from Matthew this morning because of its call to come down to earth; it’s reminder that we will be judged by how we treat those who have less than we do, those it could be easy to ignore or forget.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’”

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:37-40).

To do the work of justice is to use the power that we do have. It is to orient ourselves toward the lost and the broken. It is to understand that we are each other’s keepers; that we are all family; that your liberation is tied up with your neighbor’s liberation. That there is joy in letting down your guard and rolling up your sleeves. That this is what it means to be a person of faith.

None of us can do everything. But is that going to keep us from doing what we can? Our calling is to give life the shape of justice, one small act at a time. And to take heart, that we are not alone. That there are others, many others, also looking toward, and working toward, that land of freedom and justice, that land where we’re bound.