I borrow much of the first part of this sermon from Nancy Lynne Westfield’s thoughtful reflection — please refer to note (1) below …
Thomas Dorsey, born in 1889 in rural Georgia, was a prolific songwriter and an excellent gospel and blues musician. While a young man, Dorsey moved to Chicago and found work as a piano player in the churches as well as in clubs and playing in theatres. Struggling to support his family, Dorsey divided his time between playing in the clubs and playing in the church. After some time of turbulence, Dorsey devoted his artistry exclusively to the church.
In August of 1932, Dorsey left his pregnant wife in Chicago and traveled to be the feature soloist at a large revival meeting in St Louis. After the first night of the revival, Dorsey received a telegram that simply said, “Your wife just died.” Dorsey raced home and learned that his wife had given birth to a son before dying in childbirth.
The next day his son died as well. Dorsey buried his wife and son in the same caske. He then withdrew in sorrow and agony from his family and friends. He refused to compose or play any music for quite some time.
While still in the midst of despair, Dorsey said that as he sat in front of a piano, a feeling of peace washed through him. He heard a melody in his head that he had never heard before and began to play it on the piano. That night, Dorsey recorded this testimony while in the midst of suffering:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light;
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.
Testimony is usually reserved for the stories that declare how God brought the faithful out of slavery into freedom, how God made a way when there was no way; how God acted to save a distressed people. We are accustomed, I think, to hearing a testimony from someone whose ‘bad times are over now’.
The peculiar words of Jesus in the Gospel text today (Luke 21:9-36), however, tell us that when we experience destruction, betrayal, and loss, we are to see these times as opportunities to testify (v.13). What kind of testimony does one give in the face of great suffering and great hatred? Not after it’s passed, but in the midst of it?
The opportunity to testify during times of destruction is, in part, the daring to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering. Great suffering changes some people and defeats others. What distinguishes a Christian from others is not the difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances we must all face in this life. It is the nature of how we respond to that suffering. For those who endure with hope and not despair — their very souls are gained.
Suffering provides an opportunity for those who have been changed to tell of their hope. Howard Thurman, brilliant African American theologian, has seen suffering change people. He writes, “Into their faces come a subtle radiance and a settled serenity; into their relationships a vital generosity that opens the sealed down doors of the heart in all who are encountered along the way.” (1)
The tragic events in Thomas Dorsey’s life put him down, for sure. But not out. How one responds to adversity is what marks a person’s character and resilience. I read recently that employers today are not interested in whether or not a candidate has experienced failure in a particular line of work. But how that candidate responded to that failure. (2)
Hope is not born out of some escape or distraction into flights of fancy. Hope is not something we feel after good things happen in life or after we get more and more stuff. Rather, hope is expressed amidst personal loss and failure and suffering. In Jesus’ vision of the ‘end time’ in Luke, dramatic and tragic events in life are simply a required stage-setting for the great drama of speaking God’s truth.
How do we “speak” God’s truth? How do express that hope and faith? “Testifying” is not only a verbal act. Bearing witness and testifying to hope and truth is also something we do. When Martin Luther was confronted with the prospect of the final judgement and the end of time, how did he respond? With an action — that he would still go out and plant a tree. In our hope-filled actions, we live into the reality of God’s kingdom, which God promises.
In the 21st chapter, Luke makes clear that war is not the way the world will end. Fear and uncertainty are not the end either. The world will not end with truth’s impersonators. Yes, peace will be disrupted and we will feel like our security has been shaken. But these ‘signs’ are not the end. (3) These are just means to an end, so to speak.
What is at the ‘end’ is our testimony, our witness in the world, our lives of action in faith, hope and love in relationships with others. Our testimony will come out of turbulence, destruction and suffering. God’s kingdom is born from the testimony of the faithful. What we do and what we say out there in our daily lives matter. Especially in the midst of difficult times.
I received an email this week about our need for trees. Yes, trees. You may receive this as a plug for one of the 2017/500th anniversary Reformation challenges to plant 500,000 trees. This story does, nevertheless, point to the desperate need, I think we all share, for doing things for the sake of faith, hope and love into a better future in the Kingdom of God:
A plumber was helping restore an old farmhouse for a friend. He had just finished a rough first day on the job: a flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric drill quit and his ancient one tonne truck refused to start.
While his friend drove him home, he sat in stony silence. On arriving, the plumber invited his friend in to meet his family. As they walked toward the front door, the plumber paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands.
When opening the door he underwent an amazing transformation. His face was wreathed in smiles and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss.
Afterward he walked his friend to the car. They passed the tree and the friend’s curiosity got the better of him. And so he asked the plumber about what he had seen him do earlier.
‘Oh, that’s my trouble tree,’ he replied ‘I know I can’t help having troubles on the job. But one thing’s for sure: those troubles don’t belong in the house with my wife and the children. So I just hang them up on the tree every night when I come home and ask God to take care of them. Then in the morning I pick them up again.
‘Funny thing is,’ he smiled,’ when I come out in the morning to pick ’em up, there aren’t nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.’
It starts in our lives and in our closest relationships — with ourselves, with God, and with others. Hope then moves outwards in acts of creativity, acts of kindness, generosity and forgiveness. May this Advent season lead us to a hope-filled celebration for all, at the coming of our Lord.
(1) in Nancy Lynne Westfield in David Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor & Kimberly Bracken Long, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, 2014, p.17-19
(2) Barbara Moses, “What Next” 2nd edition, DK Canada, 2009, p.241
(3) Patrick J. Wilson, “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion”, ibid., p.22-24