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Sunday, January 1, 2017 | 11:00 a.m.

“This Is Still a Beautiful World”

Nanette Sawyer
Minister for Congregational Life, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 148
Matthew 2:13–23
Hebrews 2:10–18

Hope has to come up out of you. . . . To find something worth hoping for is a very good place to start. There are things worth hoping for; there are good people; this is still a very beautiful world.

Wendell Berry


“Long ago,” the book of Hebrews begins, “long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son, whom [God] appointed heir of all things, through whom [God] also created the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1–2).

At Christmas we celebrate the arrival of God through Christ, born into human flesh, into human joy and pain, human life and death.

As W. H. Auden once wrote, now that God has come to earth in the form of Christ, our task is not to long for something that is not here, but to surrender to the reality that God is here, all around us (W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio).

If we surrendered to that reality—that God is here, loving us, guiding us, calling us—how would that change how we live our days?

Would we be more confident? Would we be less anxious, less overwhelmed? Would we feel stronger or clearer? Would we pray more, to open our hearts to God’s presence, to listen for God’s whispers? Would we give more—of our time, of our money, of our service? Would we trust more?

If we surrendered to that reality—that God is here, loving us, guiding us, calling us—how would that change how we live our days?

We do have God-with-us, Emmanuel, in Christ who calls us brothers and sisters to him. We have a God who knows what it is like to be us. We have a God who has been tempted and tested and who has suffered but who has also risen to new life after all his trials.

The book of Hebrews speaks of the process of becoming holy, becoming sanctified. It’s a process of maturing in our faith—not that we will become perfect, without flaw, in this lifetime, but that we will be on a journey toward God and God’s dreams for our world. Jesus our brother is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, scripture says. And he is offering us hope like food for the journey. The process of perfection is the process of becoming more mature in our faith, becoming more rooted and grounded in it, persevering in our actions, focusing our thoughts, opening our hearts to possibility.

It’s not about becoming flawless; it’s about ripening, the way a peach becomes a perfect peach.

We remember all these Christmas stories of our faith and tell them again and again because they can help us to be rooted in our faith. And they can help us to become more mature in it.

For weeks we’ve been talking about the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. This is the light that shatters gloom and disperses shadows.

This story of hope is one that we need to hear again and again, because if we pay attention to the world at all, we keep hearing stories like the one we heard today from Matthew’s Gospel: the story of a ruler who runs from his fear by destroying others, in this case truly helpless ones. The innocents. It’s easy to lose hope when we hear these stories—the story in Matthew and the stories in our world.

We want to turn away and forget that bad things are happening. It’s so difficult to hear about them. We want to stop things that we cannot personally stop. We want to undo things that have been done. But what’s done is done, and we can’t undo it. And some things are so much bigger than we are that we can’t simply change them because we want to.

There are certainly wars and rumors of war; there are fears of future wars. There are refugees with no homes and immigrants trying to make a way out of no way; there is hunger and homelessness; there is violence and cancer and all manner of loss and grief.

In the face of such terrible things, one poet and author recently wrote that we might have a “tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world” (Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “We Were Made for These Times”).

Fainting is a way of going to sleep because we can’t handle what we see. “Do not focus there,” the poet says. Don’t allow yourself to faint or turn away.

On the other hand, she writes, there is also a tendency “to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.”

This image speaks to my heart somehow. When I dwell on things that are beyond my reach, the things that cannot yet be, it is as though there is a great wind whipping around me but going nowhere. I fall into a sense of weakness, because the forces of harm and evil are so much bigger than I am, bigger than any of us as individuals. There is not one King Herod, it seems, but many, who destroy and clutch for power.

In the face of all this, do not faint, the poet says, and do not fall into being weakened by dwelling on that which is beyond your reach.

In her prose poem called “We Were Made for These Times,” this poet Clarissa Pinkola Estes paints an image of us all as ships on rough waters. We are made for a time such as this, she says.

I think I will carry this evocative image with me into the New Year as I think about focusing my efforts in a new year in a new way.

The world is our rough water, and the winds whip around us, but we are seaworthy. That’s the thing to remember. And if we raise our sails, we can catch the wind and move together in a direction we choose. Remembering that, believing that, gives me hope.

But sometimes I lose that hope. I lose my focus. And I know I’m not the only one. When we focus on those things that are outside our reach, we “spend the wind without raising the sails.” That wind does not move us along. We spin and spin in that wind. So focus is important. And if we do focus on things that are inside our reach, that focus puts the wind into our sails so that we can be part of a fleet of boats who are moving this world toward a new place. I resonate with that metaphor.

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is how to build relationships that can heal and transform. This week I learned about two very interesting initiatives that are based on creating good conversations and building relationships.

First, I came upon a series of conversations that were hosted and curated by the New York Times (http://nyti.ms/2iYnvYP). They invited pairs of family members or pairs of friends who voted differently in our recent election to talk with each other about their differences. As we all know, this can be a very difficult thing to do.

But they developed guidelines for the conversations, like “Do it over a meal or drink” and “Offer the benefit of the doubt. Assume the other person has generally good intentions. Almost everyone does” (http://nyti.ms/2iLU1hb).

And they also developed questions for the conversation based on the advice of social psychologists. Each conversation began with questions about the relationship between the two people who were talking, and the conversation ended with similar questions. So the relationship created a container for the conversation.

To develop this project, the New York Times consulted with an organization called the Village Square, which is based in Tallahassee, Florida. This is the second really interesting thing I learned about this week.

Their more colorful self-description says that they are “a nervy bunch of liberals and conservatives who believe that disagreement and dialogue make for a good conversation, a good country, and a good time.” They say they are “building the town hall of the twenty-first century across the partisan divide.”

They host public events that bring diverse people together to talk about difficult things. They’re practicing the art of disagreement in a way that values relationships. They emphasize small group gatherings of people getting together to talk and connect. They even have a “Do It Yourself” Village Square page where they have suggestions on how any of us could also host a dinner.

They’ve developed a model for hosting dinners that they are calling “Jefferson Dinners.” They quote Thomas Jefferson who once said, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”

Jefferson was known for hosting delicious dinners at which people bonded and conversed and disagreed and sometimes came to new agreements. One very famous dinner is the one he had where James Madison and Alexander Hamilton struck a “dinner-table bargain” about their differences, and it changed the course of American history. I recently saw the musical Hamilton, and this dinner with Madison and Hamilton is the one that inspired the song “I Wanna Be in the Room Where It Happens.”

Isn’t it wonderful that dinner could change the world? We should eat together more and talk about things that really matter to us.

Coming together can change the world. Building relationships, knowing each other, changes the world. Repairing the breach is possible, but it’s never really finished. It’s a process of maturing in our faith. It’s a process of participating with God in God’s vision for the world.

And we don’t have to do it alone. Not any one of us can change the world. Not even God can change the world without our cooperation. Can God perform miracles? I believe yes; I think that God can and sometimes does. But changing the fabric of our society, the shape of our world? For that God needs us and we need God, and we need each other.

So when we feel the waves and the wind of social upheaval tossing us about, can we focus our minds and our hearts enough to do the next good thing? Can we raise our sails and let the wind catch them? Can we be about building relationships that transform?

This, I think, is a thing we can hope for: that our small part, the things we can do, will make a difference in the world. That our work adds to the piling up of good works that can tip a balance at some point. We do it not in order to earn salvation through our good works, but because God already loves us and we love God. God already loves the whole creation, and we can too.

And when we add our small part, it’s because this is how we love each other and love the world: by one brave action at a time, one conversation and maybe just one kind word, one new program, one new social justice campaign, one dinner that provides a respectful and safe place to talk.

We each have a different part to play, and part of our spiritual maturation is figuring out what we love to do and doing it; figuring out what we long for and moving toward that; listening for the dreams of God and beginning to believe in those dreams too.

Fear will not be enough to motivate us. Guilt will not be enough to change the world. We need love and longing. We need beauty to fill our souls and transform us. We need to remember, as the farmer poet Wendell Berry says, that, “this is still a very beautiful world” (http://bit.ly/2jbPF1S).

So let us not “veer toward fainting” or “fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside [our] reach.” Instead let’s raise our sails and let the winds fill them. Let’s find the beauty that is still here. Find the people you can help and help them. Find the institutions where you have influence and go ahead and influence them.

Lean into the power of God’s love for you, and let God fill you up and begin to heal the broken places of your heart.

In prayer, pour out all your fears and rage and anxiety at the feet of God, and remember all the things and people that you love. Let these things fill you. Our love will make us strong.

On this New Year’s Day, let’s make a new pledge, or renew an old pledge: that we will strive to follow Jesus, one step at a time, one prayer at a time, one act of kindness, one brave risk for love, one flash of honesty at a time.

Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. So one foot behind the other, let’s follow him. Amen.