Princeton University Religious Life

A Way Out of No Way

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
November 15, 2015
1 Samuel 1:4-20; Mark 13:1-8

            Earlier in the week, I gave this sermon the title “A Way out of No Way,” with the intention of preaching about Hannah, and her release from a situation of such suffering, and from a dead end place where all she was really supposed to do was to resign herself to her own (admittedly undeserved) fate.  I will preach that message this morning, but what I couldn’t have known last Monday when this bulletin went to print is that Parisians would be so brutally attacked this weekend – people listening to music, dining out, headed to a soccer game, walking down the street.  We, too, like doing these things on a Friday night.  “A Way Out of No Way,” preached on this morning in this place, needs to be a sermon both about the power of God to move us out of the bad dead ends in our own personal lives, as well as in our lives as a global community.  It was Karl Barth who said that sermons should be composed with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

            There is the horror of the Paris massacres – the horror on the face of it all.  There is also the horror underneath – the families of the known dead, cut down so suddenly in the middle of a fun but not extraordinary evening.  Another Friday evening.  There is the horror of those families waiting to see if a loved one who is wounded will live or die.  There is the horror of so many people lining up to donate blood, or filling the squares of other cities around the world simply to stand in solidarity with Paris.  One of the attackers at the concert venue is said to have yelled, as he began shooting, “This is for what you’re doing in Syria.”  Violence begets violence.  ISIS brutally captures territory in Syria and Iraq, those countries’ militaries and ours respond with bombs and counter-insurgencies.  So called “Jihadi John,” the young, hooded British man suspected of the unconscionable beheadings of journalists and others – he is thought to have been killed this week by an air strike.  And so his supporters strike Parisians, who get a hideous taste of why Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis and others are leaving their beloved homes.  The irony is that they may be no safer in Europe.  The cycle of violence feels endless to me. No way out.  At our worst, human beings are greedy for power and resources; we are vengeful, and brutal to fellow humans, to animals, and to the earth and skies and waters.  I’m not a political scientist, so I won’t venture any opinions on a political or military solution.  I leave that to others.  I’m a practical theologian, so I’m called to think theologically with you about how to make a way out of no way.

            One of the theological foundations of Christianity is that all human beings are made in the image of God.  All of us.  Friday’s attackers, the desert and beach beheaders, the violent persons in our own lives, any cruel oppressors – all of us are the image of God and no action we make can change or negate that.  Another theological foundation of our faith is that Christ died to redeem all persons, not just those in every age who are sure that Christ would like them.  And so we are never to demonize others.  They are made in the image of God, and loved unto death by Christ.  We may not like other people, but we do not write them off.  Our enemies are not people of any religion, or region, or political perspective.  Our enemies are people who do violence, and sometimes we do violence, personally, emotionally, physically, spiritually.  Sometimes the country in which we live does violence, and we need to be the people to ask if this is ever the right thing, and why.

            Another theological foundation of Christianity is love – we worship the God who is Love, and we worship the son of that God who is love, who is the Love that expends his own live to redeem us all.  What, then, does it mean for us to love others as Christ loved us?  How do we love people who massacre, or neglect, or misuse, or abuse?  How do we love all others as Christ loved us?

            My best guess at an answer comes from Christ’s teachings – just love.  Love others as you love yourself (and you should love yourself).  Love all others because Christ finds them lovable, even if you do not.  Pour out your love and see what happens – maybe transformation, maybe redemption, maybe not.  All we can do is love and love and love, if we can find it in ourselves to do so, and even then we cannot guarantee any outcome.  I wonder if some among us can testify quietly to a long love received from another person that slowly worked its grace – or a powerful zapping love from God or another person that immediately slammed its grace – a love that slowly or quickly made us different.  In the face of a violent world we can be pro-active practitioners of love.  We may not deter terrorists (hopefully they aren’t in our midst) but, pray God, we can turn people from anger to acceptance, despair to hope, hate to love.

            We can make our days about redemption - another Christian foundation.  Christ redeems others from their sins; we are empowered in our own way to practice redemption – release! - from other chains, like exploitation, poverty, oppression, subjugation, hunger, trafficking and slavery, homelessness.  We may feel powerless but we are not – we were put on this earth to help all souls to live lives of respect from others – manifested in dignity, nurtured in care.  We literally redeem other persons from whatever sinkholes they have fallen or been thrown into when we practice a kind of redemption through meeting their basic needs, helping to end their exploitation, and affirming their sacredness.  We affirm people’s sacredness.  How many people need so desperately to know that they are sacred?  They aren’t sacred because of the beautiful or horrific things that they do, but because of who they are – imago dei.

            Convocations and tribunals will be held in coming days by diplomats and others in order to chart a political course to stem the tide of terrorism, both domestic and international, and to thwart the growth of homegrown supporters of all things that do violence to others.  This is good.  We humble followers of Jesus Christ can only – always – do our best: to live out our faith in the knowledge that all persons are irrevocably made in the image of God, that Christ died to redeem them, that the God who is love loves them now and always, and that we redeem others in our own small way, when we provide the means for the relief of their suffering and their oppression.  After Paris, after everything, this is what we do.  Because we are Christians we believe that there is a way out of no way.  We practice mercy, love, and redemption – not for our own sake, but for those who sin or suffer more than we at the moment.

            Our sister Hannah does have much to teach us at this moment, and at every moment.  She found herself in a dead end, no way out.  She was bullied by the person who decided she was her rival.  Her husband said, “Hey – aren’t I the answer to everything you ever wanted?!”  Nobody understood her pain.  Everyone denied that she was in a childless dead-end.  Everybody either told her she deserved her state or that she should not bother with it, and both were totally false.  Hannah speaks so plainly to Eli the priest about her anxiety, suffering, and supposed worthlessness and, at first, he writes her off, too.  But when Eli tells Hannah that she has been heard by God, that is when she is healed of her anxiety and stops suffering.  Her suffering doesn’t end when she finds herself pregnant, but rather when she is reminded that her prayer has been heard

            And so that’s where we start – any and all of us – when we need to find a way out of no way.  Facing a big dead end, we just pray.  We pray when our lives’ vocations are not working out, including, as with Hannah, our vocations to be parents.  We pray with expectation in all circumstances, including when violence seems to envelop people everywhere.  We don’t give up, we invite God to help us make a way out of no way through our prayers for our communities and for ourselves.  In our passage from the Gospel of Mark we see how the disciples, walking with Christ past the great Jerusalem temple, note that the massive marble stones are eternally unmovable.  Jesus tells them that is not so – the great stones are not permanent at all, and they will surely be demolished.  There is a destructiveness to every age, including our own, and the things we love may well come tumbling down.  The good news for the disciples of Christ, then and now, and for every Hannah, then and now, is that there is a way out of no way.  God is at work.  We pray to God for the things we feel called to nurture.  We pray to God for the peace with justice that truly makes all things new and turns enemies into brothers and sisters.  For many of us, these days, personally and corporately, feel like those in which there is no way out.  But there is always a way out of no way, and it starts with our prayers to God, who with Christ effects the redemption of us all.

            Amen.

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