Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below
Come This Way, This Way Out
Advent Directions 2
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday in Advent/A • December 4, 2016
“Come this way, this way out! Leave everything, come this way, this way out.” I hope never to hear those words because they are what flight attendants say during the evacuation of an airplane. If you’ve ever flown, you know how long it takes to board an airplane: the stop and go of the line down the jet bridge, the search for a place for your bag, stowing things and settling into your seat. It takes about half an hour to get a 143 seat airplane boarded and ready to go. It takes 90 seconds to evacuate it; that’s the FAA standard.
Who can say, “Come this way, this way out?
I can only imagine how confusing and frightening a landing that requires evacuation must be. As soon as the plane stops, flight attendants open the doors, blow the slides and then, despite their own fears, they stand by those doors loudly yelling, “Come this way, this way out! Leave everything, come this way, this way out.” In fact, they are tested every year on their ability to do this, with a critique if they aren’t loud enough. “Come this way, this way out! Leave everything, come this way, this way out.” Reading this scripture today, imagining the situation in which it was preached, thinking about our own situation today, makes me long sometimes for someone who can say: “Come this way, this way out!”
Who can give hope?
Here’s the background. God’s people have been defeated. Maybe you know what that feels like; maybe you’ve been part of a political campaign that lost, maybe you’ve been fired from a job or suddenly had your direction changed because of a defeat. This defeat of God’s people was violent and unexpected and at its end, King Zedekiah and thousands of Jews were taken captive by the Babylonians and forced into exile near what is today Baghdad. They felt, in the language of the scripture, “clean cut off”. Their sense of defeat deepened when King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, died. Who would lead them? Who would stand as the symbol of their nation? Who would give them hope?—hope they might return, hope they might have a future? That’s the moment into which Isaiah announces,
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. [Isaiah 11:1]
Coming Out of the Present and Into God’s Future
“Who’s Jesse? What kind of hope is this, based on someone I’ve never even heard of!” That takes a bit of explanation. Long ago, God’s people were ruled by a king who veered off God’s path. So God did what God always does when there’s a roadblock, what we do when there’s a detour: God backed up and tried again, took a different route. God sent Samuel to anoint someone who would be a new king, a righteous king. Samuel was sent to a man named Jesse and his son, David, was chosen. David wasn’t perfect but somehow God loved David and he became the emblem of God’s favor. So to say that a shoot would come out from the stump of Jesse is to say, “Don’t stop hoping, don’t stop believing: even an old stump can send out new growth.” And if there is new growth, if God can send up a new shoot out of the tree of covenant and care, there will indeed be someone to say to the people in exile, “Come this way, this way out.”
It’s hard to identify new growth. It’s hard to know who to believe when you’re desperate and looking for a way out. I once heard Tony Campolo talk about the difference between leadership and demagogues. He said that the problem of liberal churches is that for so many years we said there are no demons when people often felt defeated by them. So demagogues, false leaders, false prophets attract attention by saying, “Yes, there are real demons.” The problem is that demagogues go on to say, “The demons are in them!” So they lead attacks on some them: Jews, immigrants, anyone who can be defined as different. True leaders, on the other hand, know there are demons out there. But what they say is: the demons are in us and we need to change. We need to come out of our present and into God’s future.
Change isn’t something that occurs easily. One of the things that always makes me laugh is that here we are, Congregationalists, proud of our Pilgrim heritage, and yet who were the Pilgrims? People who gave their lives to changing their society. Bit by bit, they invented many of the democratic institutions we take for granted, from a written constitution—the Mayflower Compact—to the town meetings that originated as the Annual Meeting of Congregational Churches.
Coming Out and Changing
Here we are, Congregational Christians with this heritage and more importantly the emblem of the cross before us at all times, an emblem that reminds us Jesus gave up his life to change the whole world. Yet every time I’ve become the new pastor of a church, I’ve heard the same thing early on: “Please, don’t ask us to change where we sit.” Well, I understand that. I am sympathetic to that. I like where I sit, I like doing things the way I’ve always done them.
Traditions are rich for me. There’s a prayer I often share for the offering that begins,
“We offer here our treasure and our goods, and some of it is gold, and some is myrrh and some is frankincense.”
You’ve all heard me share this prayer. I learned it sitting in the Pine Hill Congregational Church listening to Harry Clark, who became my mentor, my friend, my spiritual father. Sunday after Sunday he shared it. When I became in my turn a pastor, I shared it every Sunday for years and then later as one among the offering prayers. I asked him about the prayer’s source once; he told me he had no idea, it was something his pastor said every Sunday and he just picked it up. It’s a tradition; it’s comforting. It’s where I sit.
But there are real demons loose. And if I just sit comfortably, I am not following Jesus, who never sat anywhere long. We focus on the stories of Jesus; maybe we should pay more attention to the spaces between the story where we read over and over again, “Jesus was on the way.” But which way? What way out? Isaiah’s prophecy isn’t just that there will be someone to tell us, “Come this way, this way out,” it also tells us how to recognize this person.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. [Isaiah 11:6-9]
The sign is peace; the sign is safety. When we make safe places, we follow Jesus.
Sometimes this is a personal moment. We know the demons of division are loose in our land. Recently, two Asian women went to an event in Brooklyn and then did what we all often do, they stopped at a cafe for something to eat. There a man began to loudly attack them. Apparently, he thought he could depend on others; that no one would stand up for people who looked different, for women. He was wrong. When the police were called, they refused to back him up. A man confronted the racist and the racist sprayed him with pepper spray and got arrested. There have been a number of similar incidents. It’s why many people are wearing safety pins today, a sign that says, “I’m safe and I will make a safe place for you.”
Making a Difference
Does this make a difference? It can make all the difference. The Jewish Foundation for the righteous lists many stories of people who rescued Jews during the holocaust. I was especially struck by something one said in response to a child’s question. He was asked if he considered himself a hero. Knud Dyby was a Dane and a member of the King’s Guard. When the Nazi’s conquered Denmark in 1940 and attempted to raise their flag over the capital, he helped take it down. He was a sailor and knew the best routes out of Copenhagen. In 1943, when the Germans ordered the round up of Danish Jews, he participated in the effort that helped over 7,000 Jews escape to Sweden. Asked, “Why did you risk your life to save total strangers?”, he said,
It was our duty, it was just something one did; …there was a sense of outrageous indignation that anyone would harm their fellow compatriots, their neighbor humans – their neighbor kids, their grandmothers, members of their community, no matter what religion they espoused. [https://jfr.org/rescuer-asked/knud-dyby/]
Perhaps these two incidents don’t seem connected. But the demons of the holocaust grew powerful years before. They grew when no one stopped the first Nazi from abusing a Jew in a cafe; when people looked away from the little violence of small moments.
Come This Way, This Way Out
It doesn’t happen often but it does happen: an airplane is stopped, the doors flung open, the chutes deployed and brave flight attendants stand at the door yelling, “Come this way, this way out, come this way, this way out.” So too, our mission is to say to those whose hope is dissolving like a sunny day overcome by clouds, “Come this way, this way out—out of the darkness of division, out of the darkness of hatred, out of the darkness of conflict and hate.
“Come this way, this way out”—there is hope and the emblem of that hope is Jesus, a man who offered his life as a picture of what it looks like to live in the experience of God’s love, the emblem of that hope is Christ, who invites us to make his life our lives. This is the invitation, the same with which we begin every worship service: “The peace of the Lord be with you.” It is a way of saying to the darkness, to the violence, “Come this way, this way out.”