Sunday, December 11, 2011
Living by Hope
[NOTE: Pictured above are Lin I-hsiong, his wife Fang Su-min, and their grandchildren at a memorial service in 2009 at Taipei's Gikong Presbyterian Church, in remembrance of his mother and their seven year old twin daughters who were murdered nearly three decades ago on February 28, 1980. The murders took place while Fang Su-min was visiting Lin in prison for participating in a human rights rally on December 13, 1979.
When it was dangerous to do so, Presbyterian women reached out to comfort Fang Su-min in her in her grief. Later, when no one would buy their home, the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan bought the property and made it into Gikong Church.
It was a great honor for me to be invited to preach in this place on Sunday, December 11, 2011. Following is the sermon I preached.]
Deuteronomy 34:1-7; Luke 1:46-55s
I do not have words to express the depth of my gratitude for your welcome to join you in worship today in this holy place. The only words I have are those some of you or your grandparents spoke to express profound thanks to those, who like a farmer, have labored on your behalf. To you, I say for both Connie and me, Lo Lat!
We are two weeks away from celebrating the birth of Jesus. Today, I want us to begin with something that happened twelve hundred years before Jesus was born.
This is how I imagine it. He must have been exhausted. In his earlier years this climb would have been nothing for a man of his strength and endurance. But he was not the man he once was. On this day he felt every rock underneath his callused feet. Every place where the gradual incline of the trail had been eroded by the ceaseless wind and spring rains meant that he had to force his tired body up to the trail's next level. Sweat funneled down the deep creases on his forehead and burned as they found their way into his eyes.
He was dying and he knew it. But something -- God! -- beckoned him up to the top of the mountain, a mountaintop from whose peak he could see over to the other side of the Jordan River to "the land of milk and honey," the land he had spent most of his life leading his people toward.
I wonder if this old man -- the text says Moses was 120 years old -- protested this indignity to God. Why couldn't he have used his last energy to go from the Plains of Moab on over the Jordan River and into the Promised Land? It was not to be. Moses was led up the mountain to see the land, but not to enter it. He had accomplished so much in his life. He had resisted the temptation to live a life of luxury and privilege in the house of the King of Egypt to be with his people who were slaves. He had confronted Pharaoh with God's demand to let the people go. He led the people safely across the waters when there seemed no other way. He led these slaves in their newfound freedom even when they would have gladly returned to the security of slavery. He went up on the mountain and received God's gift of the Law, only to return to find that the people had turned to a Golden Calf as the object of their worship. Even when God was ready to disown these ungrateful wretches, Moses had successfully intervened on their behalf. No, Moses didn't need any more accomplishments. But somehow it just didn't seem right that after his forty years of effective leadership he would not be able to lead the people just a few more miles. But it was not to be. Having seen the Promised Land from the top of the mountain the old man lay down and died without finishing what he began.
We, too, shall die without finishing what we began. Moses was strong and vigorous, but that was not enough to enable him to finish what he had begun. Not many of us have anywhere close to one hundred and twenty years. And many do not even have a full lifetime to get done what we long to do.
It was and is okay because life is like that. We never accomplish what we begin in a lifetime, whether in 35, 70, or even 120 years. Accomplishment is intergenerational. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, put it this way: "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”
Please do not mistake what I am saying to be a message that accomplishing all we can for good in our lifetime is not important. We not only need to accomplish all we can, we need to be working toward that which our children and their children, not we, will benefit.
For several years I lived on a small farm outside Atlanta, Georgia in the southeastern United States. I had a few acres of orchard and a few acres in vegetables. Around the house there were eight or nine large pecan trees. Pecan trees are native to North America. The trees grow 65 to 130 feet high. They produce nuts that are rich and buttery in flavor; they are eaten raw as well as used in cooking. When I was growing up, my favorite dessert was pecan pie.
You will understand that I listened attentively when I heard a story about an 81-year-old farmer planting a grove of pecan trees. Pecan trees take from ten to twenty years before they bear fruit. When the farmer was reminded that he was not likely to live long enough to see the trees bear fruit, he shrugged and said, “Is that important? All my life I have eaten fruit from trees that I did not plant. Why should I not plant trees to bear fruit for those who may enjoy them long after I am gone?
How many pecans had I picked up, given away and sold? How many had I roasted in the oven with honey and curry? I was able to do that because someone long before me on that piece of property had planted the trees, and perhaps not lived long enough to enjoy the fruit. This is true not only of pecans; we are always standing on the shoulders of others, benefiting from the labors of those who have gone before us.
Three close friends of mine - Dr. Peng Ming-min, and his former graduate student collaborators Hsieh Tsung-min, and Wei T’ing-chao - well understood how we need to accomplish all we can so that our children and their children, but not necessarily we, will benefit. They had spent hours talking about how bad the situation under White Terror was, but the day came in 1964 when the three of them decided to do something about it. You know the story, how they wrote a Manifesto for Formosan Self-Salvation, how they were arrested before they could distribute it, and how they went to prison. Once out of prison, they continued to work on behalf of the Taiwanese people. Dr. Peng would be forced to escape from his beloved Taiwan; Hsieh and Wei would be arrested again in 1971. They went to prison again, and in 1980 Wei would go to prison for the third time. They knew that they could not accomplish everything they set out to do for the people of Taiwan. They knew that accomplishment is intergenerational.
On December 29, 1971, when the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan’s Executive Committee issued its courageous “Statement on our National Fate,” most understood that this was just the beginning.
In December of 1979, General Secretary Kao Chun-ming was asked to help some Taiwanese pastors hide a human rights advocate being hunted by the police. He did not hesitate. Being under watch 24 hours a day by the secret police himself, General Secretary Kao couldn’t bring Shih Ming-teh into his own home; but he arranged a place for him to hide. Kao and the pastors were later arrested. Kao’s arrest and imprisonment was such an embarrassment to the Nationalist government that he was released in August of 1984. So highly regarded was he by Presbyterians in Taiwan that each year while he was in prison you continued to elect him General Secretary.
When the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan purchased this blood-stained property where three horrible murders had been committed, building a church was an act of hope.
Two thousand years ago, an unmarried pregnant young woman was visited by an angel who told her not to be afraid because she was going to give birth to Jesus who would be called “son of the Most High.” She couldn’t possibly have understood the hard and heart-breaking road ahead of her. Yet, she affirmed her hope in a God who could bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly, and fill the hungry with good things. Mary was prepared to live by hope, no matter how difficult the road ahead.
The “hope” of which Mary sang has little to do with optimism that things will inevitably get better. Hope that requires so little of the holder seems not to be hope at all. Saint Augustine who lived in North Africa in the fourth century, understood the nature of hope. He said,
“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage: anger so that what must not be, may not be; and courage, so that what must be, will be.”
This is the hope lived out by Peng, Hsieh, Wei, Kao, and the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, people who planted trees of truth and a demand for justice.
Today, the important question for us is not whether we will live long enough to see the final results of their earnest endeavors, but whether we, like they, persevere in planting trees of truth demanding justice for those who come after us. That’s what it means to live by hope!
- Milo Thornberry