“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1
The famous Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, once said that when a preacher steps into the pulpit he or she should have the Bible in one hand and a daily newspaper in the other so that, equipped with both, the preacher could bring the truth of God’s Word to bear on the harsh realities of our world.
Few of us who preach are able to meet such a lofty goal with any consistency. But try we must, for there is wisdom in Barth’s words: too often, preaching consists either of abstract and boring discussions of Biblical texts, disconnected from what is happening in our lives, as if God has nothing to say to us right here and now. Or, alternatively, preachers spend too much time merely offering their own personal reflections, forgetting that we come to Church to hear God’s word for us, not our own idle chatter.
Today, I feel the challenge of Barth’s admonition acutely, as we find ourselves reeling yet again from more unspeakably awful news about violence in our country. All week I thought and prayed about the people in El Paso and Dayton, as I suspect you did too. And just as importantly, I thought and prayed about what a faithful response to this latest tragedy might be for us as a community.
But the truth is I don’t know what to say anymore, and I struggled mightily this week to find words adequate to this moment. And I know I’m not alone. It feels as if there is a collective numbness, a national sense of helplessness and despair, as we seem caught in an endless spiral of horrific gun violence.
And then, as I was floundering to pull together a sermon, I reached up on my bookshelf and pulled down a dog-eared, slender paperback, one that I often go to, entitled God Has a Dream. I opened to the first page of the book and read again its beginning, which is written in the form of a letter to the reader:
“Dear Child of God,” the book begins, “I write these words because we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in our world will never end. I want to share with you my faith and my understanding that this suffering can be transformed and redeemed. There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now – in our personal lives and in our lives as nations. The most unlikely person, the most improbable situation – these are all ‘transfigurable’ – they can be turned into their glorious opposites. Indeed, God is transforming the world now – through us – because He loves us.”
“This is not wishful thinking or groundless belief,” the writer continues. “It is my deep conviction, based on my reading of the Bible and of history. It is borne out not only by my experience in South Africa but also by many other visits to countries suffering oppression or in conflict. Our world is in the grips of a transformation that continues forward and backward in ways that lead to despair at times, but ultimately to redemption. . . . Yes, there is considerable evil in the world, and we mustn’t be starry-eyed and pretend that isn’t so. But evil is not, and will never be, the last word. And the reason we know this to be true is because of the Cross, and the victory of love over hate that is God in Christ.”
These words, as you may have guessed by now, come from Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and Nobel Peace Prize winner. And every time I hear them, I am transported back to my days at Virginia Theological Seminary when our campus had the privilege of hosting Archbishop Tutu for a day, hearing him tell stories, and preach, and share the Eucharist with us. One of the stories Tutu told us, which became the basis for this little book, relates to one of the darker moments during South Africa’s struggles in the 1970s. Apartheid was in full swing as Tutu and other church leaders were preparing to meet with then Prime Minister P. W. Botha. Mandela was in jail, the resistance movement was losing steam, the white South African government was firmly in power, and the situation felt hopeless.
In that moment, Tutu said, he was overcome with an utter sense of despair, a ‘dark night of the soul,’ and he worried that he was losing his faith. Seeking to gather his strength, he wandered into the garden of the theological college where the meeting with the Prime Minister was to take place. The date was August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, and in that garden where Tutu sat down to pray he came upon a simple wooden cross. And as he gazed at the Cross, Tutu said he was overwhelmed with a feeling of God’s presence as it dawned on him how this cross, once a ghastly instrument of torture and death used by the most powerful empire on earth to destroy those who opposed its power, had been transfigured by Christ’s resurrection into its polar opposite, a symbol of enduring life and hope. Whereas two thousand years ago a person would have recoiled at the sight of a cross in fear and horror, it is now embraced and venerated as the surest sign of God’s love for the world.
Tutu told us that this moment in the garden was perhaps the most powerful epiphany he ever experienced, and that he came away from it with a renewed faith and a sure conviction in what he calls the principle of transfiguration: that nothing, no one, and no situation, is ‘untransfigurable,’ and that the whole of creation eagerly and expectantly awaits its transfiguration, when it will be released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty that God intends for all persons and all things. And, of course, Tutu was telling us this story several decades later, after apartheid had been abolished, an oppressive government overthrown, and Mandela had not only been released from Robben Island, but was elected South Africa’s first black President.
Tutu’s words remain powerful precisely because they are not idle chatter, but are borne from the crucible of Christian experience. Whatever sense of despair we may feel in the face of relentless violence in our schools, and churches, and shopping malls, and public places, awful as it is, Tutu’s words remind us that people throughout history have endured the same and worse, and have overcome it, through their faith in something bigger than themselves.
So, what I take from all this is that if Desmond Tutu can have his faith restored, and his hope renewed, in the bleakness of 1970s South Africa, so too can we, here and now.
And the faith of which Tutu speaks is, of course, the same faith that led Abraham and Sarah toward a Promised Land thousands of years ago, the same faith that led the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt, the same faith that led Kings David and Solomon to establish the holy city of Jerusalem, the same faith that Mary had when she agreed to bear God’s child, and the same faith that led the bewildered and frightened women to the empty tomb on Easter morning. In the words of our epistle lesson from Hebrews this morning, such faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.”
The saving grace in all these stories, both ancient and modern, is the unfailingly faithful hand of God guiding us toward the heavenly city of the new Jerusalem, a city whose eternal foundations are goodness, truth, beauty and justice, a city designed and built by God himself. This is God’s dream.
To be a Christian is to keep our eyes squarely fixed on this divine dream, even when, or perhaps especially when, present circumstances suggest otherwise. To have such faith is much more than mere belief in God. Faith is organizing one’s very life around God’s dream for the world.
Long before Christianity became an institutionalized religion with official beliefs, it was known simply as “the Way,” and was less a creed than a set of practices. If you wanted to be a Christian in the early Church, you gave to the poor; cared for the sick; grieved with those who mourned; and would refuse to engage in violence, insisting instead upon gentleness and civility. Following Jesus’ example, early Christians established communities without regard to class, social status, privilege or gender; shared their resources without possessiveness; welcomed strangers and foreigners; repented of their sins with humility; sought and extended forgiveness; prayed with regularity; and tried, individually and in community, to embody the fruits of a Spirit-filled life centered upon God’s dream of the New Jerusalem.
The challenge, of course, is holding on to this dream, holding on to this vision of the new Jerusalem, when everything around us seems headed in the opposite direction. Yet this is precisely what it means to have faith. Our thoughts, our prayers, our actions, our public life, all our comings and our goings, must always be guided by God’s dream, not our own wishes, and by God’s promises, and not the empty rhetoric of feckless politicians.
There is no simple human solution to ending violence in our country, I’m afraid. There never has been. The Christian faith has lived alongside a violent world since its beginnings. When evil rears its ugly head, the only faithful response I know of is to re-commit ourselves to living out as boldly as we can God’s dream for humanity in Jesus Christ, practicing our faith as much as preaching it, all the while trusting that in his own time and his own ways God will work in and through us to transfigure all that is presently hideous and painful and broken into its glorious opposite. As Desmond Tutu reminds us, it has happened before, and it will happen again. Amen.