Generous Redemption: A Journey Beyond Fear

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Rev. Dr. Thom White Wolf Fassett

Psalm 130

2 Corinthians 8:7-15


Psalm 130: The plaintive lament and appeal by David. Waiting for divine redemption.

130:1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. 130:2 Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! 130:3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? 130:4 But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. 130:5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; 130:6 my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. 130:7 O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. 130:8 It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

II Corinthians 8:7-15, The Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians:

8:7 Now as you excel in everything–in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you–so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. 8:8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 8:9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 8:10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something– 8:11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 8:12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has–not according to what one does not have. 8:13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 8:14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 8:15 As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

Meaning of scripture:

What is this all about, anyway?  Here in Psalm 130, the Psalmist stands in the classic position of petitioning God, “out of the depths,” in fervent prayer and lament. Walter Brueggemann suggests that, today, we have lost genuine interaction with God in our prayers in a way that allows us to complain about injustice asking God to hear the cries of those who suffer. Out of the depths, the Psalmist pleads, “Lord, hear my voice.”  Hear my sinfulness. And God does not count our iniquities, or else no one would be acceptable. All of us live under the judgment of God and we must be conscious of our “right” relationship to God. We wait expectantly upon God, embracing hope, anticipating what God is about to do. And then the Psalmist turns from personal confession to corporate sinfulness and our collective failures as people of faith telling us that God will redeem us, deliver us from our corporate, self-inflicted wounds.

2 Corinthians 7-15, may be more familiar to us and sounds as if we are being directed toward more generosity in our stewardship campaigns. And, in a way, that is true except we often miss the most poignant theme in these passages calling for our stewardship of the world and those we don’t know who are lifted up by our generosity and our sharing in their painful conditions revealing what we believe about God’s promise and God’s activities in the world. Here, Paul is urging the congregation to reflect in their lives and behavior their faith, their trust in the Gospel. Even in our own afflictions, our own pain, we reflect the generosity we have received from Jesus. If others are paying so high a price, surely we can share out of our wealth and generosity, Paul suggests. Christ gave himself so that we might receive the wealth of God’s grace. And together with those who receive our care, we sing praises to God in our shared faith. While we care for the hurting people of Macedonia and Jerusalem, of far away places in the world and our community, we are connected in faith, bound to one another, not giving beyond our capability but sharing equally. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:8: “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.”

In a prayer in a Quaker meeting, John Greenleaf Whittier, put it more simply: “In calm and cool and silence, once again I find my old accustomed place among my brethren, where, perchance, no human tongue shall utter words; where never hymn is sung, nor deep-toned organ blown, nor censer swung, nor dim light falling through the pictured pane! There, syllabled by silence, let me hear the still small voice which reached the prophet’s ear; read in my heart a still diviner law than Israel’s leader on his tables saw! There let me strive with each besetting sin, recall my wandering fancies, and restrain the sore disquiet of a restless brain; and, as the path of duty is made plain, may grace be given that I may walk therein…cheerful, in the light around me thrown, walking as one to pleasant service led; doing God’s will as if it were my own, yet trusting not in mine, but in his strength alone!

Comment on Sermon Title: Generous Redemption: a Journey Beyond Fear

How do we “play” with these images as we look at the scriptures and reflect on our own conditions, our own lives? How do we understand our redemption and how it frees us to live lives that none of us would have guessed possible?  How do we define our lives–by our accomplishments, our material gains, our family, our friends, our jobs? Or, as redeemed people, journeying beyond fear living out our faith in the midst of the world’s challenges and bitter turns without thought of ourselves, something bigger than the Fourth of July, more triumphant than Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture?

I wouldn’t be here except that one day I was redeemed—given a chance, perhaps, a second chance. My mother was passing through Washington, DC, and her time came for my birth. I was born to a single mother in Columbia Women’s Hospital, fatherless, poor, and indigent. My future didn’t look too good. After recovery from her near-death birthing of me, we returned to Northern Pennsylvania where, until I was four years old, I was a ward of the Orphan’s court. Adopted into a non-Native family, I lived and grew up in a very bumpy and difficult environment. I was told by high school advisors that I should not think of college because I was more suited to learn a trade and find a job. But I knew there was something more. I listened to a still small voice and was convinced that I needed to heed that call. There was a compelling voice telling me that I could do things that I would not have imagined otherwise. I placed it all on that redeeming call and made my way in the world as one who had placed my time, talents and gifts on an altar that took me into the most challenging dynamics of faith and leadership I could never have imagined. The poor, the sick, the disenfranchised, the prisoner, the refugee, the lost, the least, became a part of my life in that journey beyond fear.

My friend, Willie and Helen Sunungetuk, lived redeemed lives. Willie and Helen were Inuit, born in the village of Wales, above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, in the early 1900’s. Willie and Helen, childhood sweethearts and, later, married, saw enough of life to discourage any of us. Before their children were born, they witnessed the terrible influenza epidemic of 1918 that killed more than one-third of the village’s population of 600. Most of them died within a week. Having married and with children in tow, they moved to Nome so their children could receive an education. Willie and Helen knew the subsistence days of Arctic survival were coming to a close and their children needed new survival tools in a new world. Willie became the janitor of the Nome high school but both Willie and Helen continued some of their subsistence practices that included a fish camp on the edge of the Bering Sea. Every harvest season I could see racks and rows of pink salmon drying in the long days of summer.

I first met Willie and Helen in 1977 in their home. Crunching over the ice in the afternoon darkness of Arctic night, chilled by -40 degree temperatures, I was warmly greeted and offered magnificent hospitality. They told me about their journey and how committed they were to the United Methodist/Presbyterian Church of Nome. They had been given a second chance. They were redeemed in the faith and were committed to living out the teachings of Jesus. Willie was still the janitor of the school and was proud that he had never missed a day of work. He and Helen had raised their children in the traditional way and they had gone to universities to acquire the survival tools of the new age. Now Willie was focusing his leadership role in the community out of the depths of his faith and what he believed–warning against oil companies moving in and despoiling the sea and the tundra. His children were doing their best to speak a new language about survival and the moral dilemmas of their generation. Two of them were major artists and university teachers making their statements about Native issues and symbols of the new world crashing upon Native communities bringing disease, addiction and suicide.

What is this about, this talk of redemption and commitment to the Gospel? How does the awesome story of our lives live out of these scriptures? After all, they point to personal and corporate justice…freedom for me, freedom for you, freedom for all who would call upon God’s name. Justice and freedom can be dangerous to us, personally and corporately, for they signal change and, for the Christian, a radical departure from how we have lived—calling for a radical covenant beyond patriotism, beyond fear. Our comfort zones may crinkle as we are drawn to reflect in our behavior our commitment to the Gospel.

There are so many hands being held up around the globe seeking recognition, help, support and relief compelling us toward love of God and our neighbors. More than 15,000 killed in Syria by government forces; wildfires in Gila National Forest in New Mexico and Colorado; Olaiya’s Cradle, funded by the District of Columbia for young mothers between 18 and 21, in their third trimester of pregnancy and homeless or living in unsafe situations who turn away women because of lack of resources; the 9000 formerly homeless people in the DC region now housed with 12,000 people still homeless in the region; the untold numbers of LGBT sisters and brothers ostracized by the church; 800,000 to a million “Dreamers”—undocumented immigrant young people seeking “deferred action” through the executive action of the President; the Roma children and their families facing poverty in Serbia and elsewhere; the nearly 2.5 million people in US jails and prisons where the United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its incarcerated; the more than 22% of India’s population who are malnourished as record grain harvests are being exported; those yearning for peace in Palestine and Israel as more illegal settlements in the West Bank are established triggering rocket fire from Palestine harming innocent people; 30 million Americans without health care now able to find a safe harbor; the children of poverty in the US which has the second highest rate of childhood poverty in the developed world, next to Romania; racism and discrimination in the United States hanging on like barnacles to this ship of state.

A daunting number of hands raised in the air. Take a breath.  “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it to me.” Ah, yes, we remember and we pray, and act as we share good news and peace, grace and hope through our personal and corporate lives, through Christ’s love and compassion—ambassadors of the Good News.

If we have seen the pain and do nothing about it we are deliberately and willfully blind. How do we avoid seeing the pain of the world, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, the stranger, the immigrant, the struggle of brothers and sisters seeking freedom from want and discrimination on a global scale. We have received generous redemption, prepared to journey beyond fear seeking abundant living for ourselves and others. Our freedom from fear will influence who lives in the White House, who adopts humanitarian legislation in the Senate and the House of Representative, who rules justly in the Supreme Court, how we live on in our community, on our streets, in our homes and how we pray in our sacred places. We are the graciously redeemed lives journeying beyond fear bringing freedom not only for ourselves but for others as well, forsaking the false prophets on today’s high secular altars dispensing dissembling speeches and self adulation. Perhaps we need an altar call for those who wish to commit themselves to seeing, doing and acting.

How do we leave our foot prints in the sands of time? Some say they just want to be saved, just want a one-to-one relationship with God—that’s all. Stuck on their way from redemption to glory—saved and frozen.

Willie knew something about redemption and commitment even on his death bed. Willie landed in the Native Hospital in Anchorage dying with cancer. Soon afterwards, while I visited Nome, the family asked me to take him some of his Native food because he was so homesick. So, I stuffed a parcel of seal oil and walrus fat into the overhead storage on my flight to Anchorage. It was a warm summer day and by the time we arrived in Anchorage, the tourists on the plane were trying to figure out where the unusual scents were coming from. Later, in a visit with him, I learned that Willie had been asked to address the youth in the Elder’s Conference in Nome. He was determined to get there. He had been practicing his speech in bed and was preparing to leave the hospital when he had a setback and couldn’t go. One afternoon, I took a little tape recorder to him and suggested he might like to tape his speech in the event he was not able to travel to the conference. He picked it up and with disgust shoved it to the bottom of his bed. He would get there.

We talked through the afternoon until his supper arrived and I said I would leave and give him some rest. As I rose to leave, Willie picked up the tape recorder and said, “How do you run this thing?” I showed him and said that I would wait outside so he could record his speech. As I walked down the hall, I could hear Willie challenging the youth to hold fast to their beliefs, not take helicopter rides with oil companies, keep their Native life undisturbed, preserve the people, and care for the animals and the land. Some weeks later, Willie’s speech was played for the youth in the Elder’s Conference. Willie had made his last journey.

Finally, what about the children? They are watching us. They see our every move, how we gesticulate, move our arms and legs, walk. They see the expressions on our faces, hear the tone of our voices—how we relate to them, loved ones, neighbors and strangers. They will adjudicate the authenticity of our witness. While traveling in India, I met a woman begging on the streets with a baby nestled in a sling on her back. I talked with her through an interpreter and as we talked, the baby held out her hand toward me as she had learned from her mother. The children are watching us.

When we are called to accountability at the end of our time on this earth, we will be asked, “Have you loved my children—all of them?”