Keawalai Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
Twenty-fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Sunday, November14, 2010
The Reverend Kealahou C. Alika
One of the conveniences of traveling and staying in a hotel is having the option of requesting a wake-up call from the front desk. It was an option that I often made when I found myself attending meetings in different cities across the country.
The meetings would run from one to two days. On occasion they would last for three or four days and if I allowed for two days of travel time from my home in California where I was living at the time, I would sometimes be away for a week.
It was at a very long meeting in the Midwest that I came to appreciate having the option of a wake-up call. I returned to the hotel late in the afternoon on the final day of our meeting. I walked past the front desk with one thought in mind. It was time to take a short nap. My flight was scheduled to depart early the next morning.
I reasoned that there was time enough to take that nap and after that to have a nice dinner. I would then contact the front desk for a wake-up call and have a good night’s rest.
When I awoke I looked up over the pillow with one eye open and noticed that the digital clock in the room read 7:00. The light of day was streaming in through the windows of my room.
“Oh, my God! I overslept,” I jumped up out of bed, grabbed my bags and made a mad dash for the hotel lobby. There was no time to brush my teeth or have any breakfast. The lobby was crowded with folks checking in and checking out.
I needed to get a taxi to the airport right away. I mentioned to the bellperson that I had managed to sleep through the night and that I was running late. My flight was due to leave at 8:00 a.m.
He grinned and said, “Sir, it’s 7:00 p.m. not 7:00 a.m. It’s still today.”
What I took to be the light at dawn turned out to be the light at dusk. I had in fact fallen asleep for a couple of hours.
“Thank you, God,” I said to myself. I supposed I should have felt embarrassed given the grin on the bellperson’s face, but all I felt was profound relief.
I had a good dinner. I called the front desk and got up my wake-up call the next morning.
Receiving a wake-up call from the front desk of a hotel is one thing. But on other occasions we understand a “wake-up call” to be an “awakening;” that is, we come to realize something about ourselves, about others, about the world in which we live as a result of an experience or event.
Some attribute such an awakening to a near-death experience. It is said that such persons become acutely aware of what has value for them. Priorities change. Things that seemed to matter before no longer matter anymore.
In our reading from The Book of Isaiah, the prophet is writing to those facing the daunting task of rebuilding Jerusalem. When the people of Judah returned from their exile in Babylon in 539 BCE, they found the city in a shambles; much had to be rebuilt. I imagine that for the people of Judah the less than triumphant return to Jerusalem was in fact a wake-up call.
They are called to leave behind the fear and anguish of their exile and to be open to the “new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:1) They will enjoy long and purposeful lives in close relationship with God.
In the midst of their despair Isaiah offers a word of hope. The prophet holds out the promise of a “new” beginning for Jerusalem “where the sounds of weeping will no longer be heard and workers will no longer be exploited and short-changed. No more shall infants live but a few days or children be born for calamity. No more.” (“Hope in Times of Despair,” Sue Mayfield, Seasons of the Spirit, Congregational Life/Pentecost 2, Woodlake Publishing Inc., Kelowna, BC, Canada, 2010, page103)
Such words of hope should not obscure the depth of the despair many were feeling. Nor should such words of hope obscure our own despair when we are faced with the radical suffering of so many in our world today. Still it is to such words of hope that we turn. It is to such words of hope that we testify.
Our reading from The Gospel According to Luke reminds us that even in the midst of suffering, we have an “opportunity to testify” to God’s word of hope. While it appears Jesus is unable to offer any words of consolation to the people as he warns them that the Temple will be destroyed again and all manner of wars and conflicts, famines and plaques, earthquakes and persecutions will befall them, he says a rather odd thing in verse 13: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
Nancy Lynne Westfield is the Associate Professor of Religious Education at Drew University in Madison, Wisconsin. She says we ought to “reflect on Jesus’ peculiar statement about suffering as an opportunity for testimony.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 311)
“Most of us,” she adds, “are accustomed to testimonies that praise God for good times, good things, blessings of redemption, healing, rescue and salvation.” (Ibid., page 310) But Jesus reminds the disciples and us that when we experience suffering of any kind, we have an opportunity to testify.
It is true that great suffering causes some of us to fall into despair, but it is also true that others are able to tell of their hope. Westfield tells the story of an opportunity for testimony born out of a time of loss, grief, and chaos in the song, “Precious Lord.”
The song was written by Thomas A. Dorsey. Dorsey was born in 1889 in rural Georgia. Over the course of his lifetime he became a prolific songwriter and a gospel and blues musician.
He moved to Chicago as a young man and found work as a piano player in churches as well as in clubs and theatres. He struggled to support his family, dividing his time between playing in churches and in the clubs.
In time he would come to devote his life and music exclusively to the church. In August 1932, Dorsey left his pregnant wife in Chicago and traveled to St. Louis where he was a featured soloist for a revival meeting.
After the first night of the revival, Dorsey received a telegram that simply said, “Your wife just died.” He raced home and learned that his wife had given birth to a son before dying in childbirth. The next day his son died.
He buried his wife, Nettie, and son in the same casket and in the days that followed it is said that he withdrew in sorrow and agony from family and friends. He stopped composing and playing any music for quite some time.
One day he sat at a piano and while in the midst of despair, it is said that a feeling of peace came over him. The opportunity to testify had come.
Danny Brown, our organist, recalled the life of Dorsey and he offered his recollection of what occurred that day. (Ibid., page 312) “When Dorsey said down at the piano the melody of ʻMust Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?ʻ (Thomas Shepherd & George N. Allen, Tune: Maitland) must have come to him.”
The opening of verse of the hymn includes the following lyrics: “Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free? No, there’s a cross for everyone and there’s a cross for me.”
“It may be,” Danny said, “that in the midst of his own suffering, Dorsey began to pray and from that prayer came the following words:”
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.
This then is our testimony. God is at work creating “new heavens and a new earth.” We believe that God is good, that God stands with all who suffer, and that God wills and intends that all of our lives be transformed.
Mahalo ke Akua. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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