Holding On to Hope

by Discipleship Ministries

  CONTRIBUTOR: Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser  

Matthew 24:36-44

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

I stand before you today unable to avoid the fact that we are at an extremely difficult moment in American history. Many of you, probably all of you, serve congregations that include members who are thrilled about Tuesday’s election. And you have members who feel like moving to another country about now. You might feel one or the other of these emotions yourself.

It has been a brutal election season. None of us have ever seen anything like what we have witnessed over the past year. We all knew it was going to be ugly, but most of us never imagined how bad it would get before it was over. There have been all kinds of articles written about the toll that this election has taken on our collective mental health.

But as of this week, it is over and we have a president-elect: Donald J. Trump. I thought there would be relief when it finally ended. For some, maybe there is. The majority is presumably satisfied with the outcome. Those who voted for Trump feel more secure and hopeful about the future.

But post-election editorials, people marching in protest, and other signs of the times, indicate that a good portion of our population is not relieved. In fact, many are devastated. So even though the election is finished, it isn’t over. We still have a lot of work to do, in our families, and in our communities, and especially in our churches.

The work of healing is on us. It is on you and me, the preachers who will plan worship and conduct Bible Studies and lead meetings, and try to carry on the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We are the ones who have to try to pick up the pieces—bind up our wounds and try to come together as a people—as President-elect Trump said in his acceptance speech. In order to do this, we have to initiate difficult conversations. We have to counsel those who are anxious, and comfort those who are afraid. We may have to organize and even take action as people of faith, to stand alongside those whose lives are suddenly at risk. We have to try and build deeper understanding, even as we ourselves may feel unwell and divided inside.

My colleague Taylor Burton Edwards and I talked just this past Tuesday morning—election day—about the sermon I was working on for you. I told him I was going to talk about how the texts for the Advent season, and the work of the season itself, really lends itself to helping people navigate through feelings of disappointment, pain, and fear, because like the texts during Lent, they call us to prepare the way of the Lord by entering into a period of deep introspection, both personally and communally. I said I thought the best thing churches could do was to gather around our sacred story and let it lead us through the healing process. I remember saying that no matter who won, we would all need to do this. In my heart, though, I didn’t think it would be me who needed healing.

Now I have to be completely honest with you, because if we aren’t honest and we don’t say our truths as preachers and leaders, how can we ever expect others to do that? So the truth is, when we met all those months ago to study the texts, and even when I started working on this sermon a few weeks ago, I really believed that I would be speaking to you today from the side of political victory. I believed that my candidate, Hillary Clinton, would be the president-elect. I believed I would be speaking to you from a position of great relief, joy and excitement about the future, and so I would need to find a way to talk about holding on to hope to the disappointed Trump supporters here in Iowa, or at least to those called to preach to disappointed Trump supporters.

And now my sense about this need to turn to Advent for healing has REALLY been confirmed, because I stand before you hurt, angry, and grieving today. I can’t sleep because I feel afraid. And so I need to listen extra hard for a word from the Lord speaking through these ancient texts assigned for this season. I need to hear in them the Good News of Jesus Christ. I need this season of Advent to help me find a way forward personally.

So what is the good news in this passage from Matthew? Because as I have read it over and over, it seems like not only the passage for today, but the entire 24th chapter, is bad news, not good news. It’s about all the terrible things that will happen when the end of the world comes.

But that’s just it, you know? That’s where the good news is to be found most profoundly. We can hold on to hope no matter what happens, no matter how difficult things seem to be, because our hope is not in the things of this world. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, who was, and who is, and who is to come. Our hope is in the promise of resurrection. We believe that no matter what happens in this world, a new life, a better way, something we can’t see for ourselves, is always, ALWAYS, coming. So no matter how bad things may seem, we don’t give up. We don’t throw in the towel. We heed Jesus’ call to stay awake, and we begin again, first by examining our own lives.

I confess, I am in a state of grief. I grieve not just for my personal loss, but for my own failure. I think that I have failed my fellow United Methodists somehow. I think I have missed hearing something incredibly important from a huge number of Americans. I have not loved with my whole heart. I have not loved all of my neighbors. I have not heard the cries of the needy coming from so many parts of these United States. I have not paid attention to the pain that has obviously been building over many, many years. This is my confession to you. It is my deep burden. It is the place that I need forgiveness, and the place where I need my brothers and sisters to help me, to comfort me and to open my eyes to the truths that you experience that I have neither heard nor seen.

I grieve also for all the people who are even more terrified than me about what the future may hold. Whether or not it becomes a reality, the message that was heard from the Trump campaign is that undocumented Mexicans—people who live in every community across the United States, people who work in restaurants and fields and mills and homes, who live in our towns and cities, who have formed new communities of faith in the United Methodist church, and whose children go to American schools, are to be rounded up and deported, and a giant wall is promised to prevent them from returning.

People of Muslim faith are to be kept under close surveillance and there may be a ban on Muslims entering the country. Black people are to be subjected to additional scrutiny by the police, in order to clean up our inner cities. Men may be emboldened to harass women or objectify them further, and we may lose some of our rights over our own healthcare decisions.

However you feel about Donald Trump, there is a sense, at least for me, that this is an apocalyptic moment in our nation’s history. I don’t mean that in a “left-behind” sort of way. I mean that there has been a break in the order of things that has left many people reeling. It took many of us by surprise. We didn’t see it coming. And so we can identify with this text in a whole new way. When we read the story of the two women standing in the field and one being taken and one being left, we can picture that scene in terms of our Hispanic or Muslim neighbors.

All this, right as we begin preparations for the Christmas season.

Christmas is coming. We can see it plainly in the change of merchandise displays in stores across the nation. In spite of the fact that I’m preaching on the text for the first Sunday in Advent, most of our nation, and many of our churches, are not thinking about Advent.

In the secular world, the Christmas season starts immediately after Halloween, if not before. Christmas is a call to feasting in preparation for hibernation over the long winter. People begin by eating large meals on Thanksgiving. We follow this with party after party, baking cookies and making candy and planning more feasts for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, literally gorging ourselves into a stupor over the course of a month.

And it is perfect timing, right? What better way to deal with our national anxiety than to engage in six weeks of communal stress-eating? We can literally eat and drink our pain away, interspersing our feasting with naps, to help us cope with the depression on these shortest days of the year, and then get up and do it again tomorrow. It’s like a month of vacation. And you know, right now, maybe we need a vacation.

But we’re in the church, and in the church, the Advent tradition stands in sharp contrast to the secular celebration of Christmas.

In fact, the Jesus that the gospel writer Matthew presents don’t seem interested in Christmas at all. Here, as we start the march towards Christmas, we find Jesus focused on an apocalyptic day in the unknown future, when the Son of Man returns with no warning and lives are suddenly and surprisingly changed.

The core of apocalyptic believing is that this world is too corrupt, too far gone, to continue as it is. The only way forward is a complete break with what we are doing. It is an in-breaking of God’s reign into the present moment. It is a complete reversal of what we think is going to save us.

My sense is that the people who voted for Donald Trump did so not because they agreed with everything he said or even approved of his character. I think it is because they believe that as a business man, he is in the best position to SAVE people like them. They believe he will protect small businesses, prevent manufacturers from moving overseas, and restore the industries that used to employ so many people in this country.

He spoke to the deep hurt and anger of a people who feel forgotten, who feel left behind. I have heard many, many people refer to Donald Trump as the savior they have waited for, the one who has not just seen them, but who has heard them, and who has promised to ease their suffering. He will bring back jobs. He will undo the damage that has been done to their communities. He will bring salvation through affordable private health care, and a quick return to the stability that created a strong middle class in America.

His words and his promises spoke to many, just as Hillary Clinton’s words and promises spoke to me. Hey, I get it, because she was going to be MY savior. Don’t think that what has been true for Trump followers isn’t true for us hardcore Hillary fans. I grew up in Arkansas. I’ve followed Hillary Clinton’s career my entire life. I knew her long before she became the person we’ve seen on the campaign trail. Because of this, I was able to turn a blind eye to the flaws so many others see in her. I saw the Hillary of yesteryear in her aging and tired face. And so, just like many Trump supporters, I was able to look past her sins, her lapses in good judgment, her embarrassing statements, and focus on what it was about her that could save ME. ME, and the people I know, the people I surround myself with, the people LIKE me.

The problem is, neither Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton can save us. We know that, right? We know that neither of them can restore what has come and gone. They can’t bring resurrection. Only God can do that, and if we let ourselves believe otherwise, then we’re really in trouble.

Those Christians who don’t like to talk about the end times, who refuse to even consider the whole idea of apocalypse, they are the ones who will be tempted to just eat and drink themselves into a stupor so they can try to sleep the pain of the election off like a bad hangover. Don’t go there at all. Just focus on the celebration. Talk about the baby in the manger. Speak words of hope about the recovery of our economy that is sure to come. Brush the pain of the moment under the rug and hope the dust won’t seep out around the edges later.

Those on the opposite end, who let themselves get all caught up in trying to read the signs and predict when the end is coming, will find themselves stuck in a state of perpetual anxiety. What is going to happen to us? Will we even survive the next four years? Is this the end of the world as we know it? Is it the end of the United States? Is it the end of the United Methodist Church? Has our great experiment failed? Has our Empire crumbled already, after only two hundred years and some change?

Advent comes around each year, to remind us once again just how vulnerable our lives and our world are. It comes when times are great, and we are feeling confident and all is well. And it comes when things are falling apart. It comes along and it calls us to prepare for the birth of Christ, and for his coming again, by not putting our hope in the things of this world or trusting in ourselves to have to figure out all the reasons for what is happening. We don’t have to know, and maybe it won’t even help us to know. So, we have to live our lives, all the time, in good times and bad times, knowing that God is with us, and this is God’s world, not ours. It’s not up to us to save it. It’s not up to us to fix it. We aren’t the ones who created order out of chaos, and separated the water from the land, and set the moon and the sun in the sky and the stars in the courses. We aren’t the ones who created all things and called them good.

The good news of Jesus Christ is that God is with us and God loves us. God has our best interest in mind, and we have to trust in that even when we can’t see it.

But that doesn’t mean we are off the hook and can go back to bed until it is over. Jesus is very clear that we are expected to do something. We are to live at all times, whether stable or uncertain, in a spirit of wakefulness.

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

How are we to live in a spirit of wakefulness? How are we to prepare the way of the Lord? How are we to be ready? By being faithful.

By focusing our attention on the present day and the needs of THIS hour: the people in the field, the mill, the restaurant, the rust belt, the ordinary places where life is lived.

By living out the covenant made in our baptism, which calls us to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin, and to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in this world.

By confessing Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and putting our whole trust in his grace.

By admitting our total dependence on the God who made us, and in Jesus Christ who saves us, and through the Holy Spirit comforts and sustains us.

And by serving him as our only Lord and Savior, all the days of our lives.

Dawn ChesserThe Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser is the Director of Preaching Ministries at Discipleship Ministries. This sermon was prepared for the Northeastern District, Iowa Annual Conference and preached on November 12, 2016.