Each of the Scriptures this morning envisions a world in turmoil. The Psalmist claims the assurance that God is our refuge and our strength, in a world where the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the sea; where the waters roar and foam, and the mountains quake with their surging: where nations are in uproar, and kingdoms fall. In the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of the wise one who builds a house on solid rock in a world where the rains fall, and the floods rise, and the winds batter the walls. A world in turmoil. In our world, we may know something like that.
The community that wrote the Gospel of Matthew certainly did. As we’ve mentioned this year, the Matthew community is likely one that has suffered disruption – a dislocation. From what we can tell, it seems there’s been a painful break in community. They’re likely a Jewish community who look at the words of the Law and the words of the Prophets, and say, “we see that, too, in the way of Jesus.” And they have either been thrown out of the larger community, or they have left. And so, when they tell the good news of Jesus, and when they write it down in a gospel, they remember that Jesus wrapped up the Sermon on the Mount, by speaking of a house built on rock that withstands the storm as the rains fall, and the floods rise, and the winds batter the walls.
But that’s just the closing image of what Jesus has been saying in the three chapters of the Sermon on the Mount that begin with: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice;, blessed are those who embody tender mercy; blessed are the peacemakers.
Jesus goes on: You remember the Law? Well do that, and more. You’ve heard it said, “Don’t murder. Well, yes, but do more – make peace. You’ve heard it said, “an eye for an eye,” well, actually, if someone asks you for your coat, give it to them. You’ve heard it said, “Love your neighbor,” well, I say, “Love your enemy, and pray for them, seek their well-being. Give to the needy. Pray with humility and authenticity. Do what you pray. Don’t worry. Consider the birds of the air and the grass of the field, how God loves them, how God loves you. Don’t judge. Do unto others what you’d have them do to you. All that.
It’s a lot to take in. And to wrap things up, Jesus says, Everyone who listens to my words and does all this – well, they’re like the wise one who built their house on solid rock, so that when the rains fell, and the floods rose, and the winds buffeted – there they were.
It’s as if Matthew’s community listens to Jesus and says – “That’s a lot to take in. What are we to do with all these words we’ve heard from Jesus in this world where life is hard?” And what they remember is this: We weather the storm by doing the steady work of Jesus – by living the life of Christ – for each other and for the world.
It’s 2020, and we know what the storm is like – the storms that have just risen on the horizon and the ones that.have been with us for far too long. We are weathering together the storm of pandemic – as communities, and nations, and the world – try to keep each other safe, and tend the sick, and comfort those who grieve – in our world of sheltering, and face-coverings, and physical distancing. In the midst of that, we have been collectively re-awakened to the persistent 400-year reality of systemic racism in our country – as we see the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor – more Black lives taken far too soon – and we are convicted to do more to dismantle those systems of racism. Now. We continue to face the calamity of climate emergency. Just this week, all that has been present in the tumult of a contested election.
As we sit with this image from the Gospel of Matthew, we know the storm. And what I want to say is this: What we are doing here is building the house. Amid the storm, what we are doing here is building the house of our lives on the sure and steady foundation of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. What we are doing is building the house on the sturdy shoulders of all those who have gone before and arm in arm with others who embrace this work around the world. What we are doing here is the steady work of Jesus faithfully embodied in us. For our time.
That’s what we’ve been doing in this storm, and it’s no small thing.
· As early as February, the Session took seriously the CDC’s advice that communities prepare for pandemic. The Session set in motion a commitment and process to live steadily, safely, and faithfully into the challenges of these days – that’s what we’ve done under of the leadership of the “Moving Forward Together” team.
· The Zoom Team and the Worship and Connections teams collaboratively have created an entirely new online space for our life of worship and connection. Each of us learned Zoom skills; and, now, in this space, we worship face-to-face, imagining and embodying new, beautiful, and faithful worship.
· As a central part of that, Daniel, Natsuko, the choir, and the musicians of our church have created new modalities for making music – music led “live” by musicians during the Zoom service, new recordings, and new adventures in videography that have brought the sounds and sights of our amazing choir back into our life of worship. We are experiencing every one of those in this worship service.
· The Deacons and Martha Spears have created new structures for staying in connection and community.
· Patrick and the Education and Families team have created new online opportunities for children and families, like “Compassion Camp” and youth and college online “home groups.”
· The Resources and Connection teams and Laurie Buntain have worked to create new ways to continue our spiritual-practice of giving and to financially sustain the life of the church –and securing a pandemic-related federal Payroll Protection loan/grant to support and sustain both church and Preschool.
· The Church & Society team and other saints of the church have learned new ways of continuing our service in the world – learning how to participate in online public hearings; engaging as part of the Marin Organizing Committee to support undocumented neighbors and the unhoused; making and donating face-coverings to protect the health of essential workers, those living outside, and each other.
· In this election week, it’s important to lift up that, since February, a committed group of folks in this congregation have worked with Reclaim our Vote, and a much broader national movement, to support voting rights. Lisa Della Valle reported in the Friday email that this effort has been embodied in
620 phone calls
180 personal letters
Each of these helping fellow citizens to vote, helping them check their registration status to make sure that voter suppression efforts haven’t removed them from the rolls, and affirming, as Lisa says, “their vote and voice and power.” In a season of distancing and sheltering, we’ve been part of a national movement – across this country in an election with historic voter turnout.
· And even more broadly, an anti-racism team has formed to make our anti-racism commitment part of the fabric of our community – to keep learning our participation in systemic racism, and to do the work of repair.
All that has happened in 8 months of our life together.
· And in recent days, the Moving Forward Together team has brought to life our first, careful opportunities for being in-person again in small groups including, the baptism in the Memorial Garden that blessed our Zoom worship two weeks ago.
Together, we have lived our life of 2020 in the midst of the pain of the world, including our own, and we have lived that life on the sure and steady foundation of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, in the love of community, and with bright hope.
During Stewardship Season, we name that and give thanks for God’s work in our midst – we think of what we do – and we think of how we do it – how we take all that has been entrusted to our care – and put those resources to work – in the midst of life’s storms – to build the house – steadily and faithfully – and to do as much good in the world as we can, in the name of Jesus.
And this year, we’ve done all that – all that I just described – within budget. Together, we’ve taken an expense budget that never could have anticipated what 2020 would hold; we’ve realized savings from what we haven’t been able to do; and we’ve put that savings to use on the new things that the Spirit is empowering us to create for such a time as this.
As the Stewardship Team will explain, that hasn’t been without challenge. Like so many other faith communities, on the revenue side of the budget, this year, we’ve been able to bridge a gap in resources with a federal payroll-protection plan – a resource we don’t expect to have next year. And so the Stewardship Team is asking us – as we look forward to 2021 – and consider our pledge – to consider prayerfully – if and as we are able – increasing our pledge – investing as we can in the house we are building.
We don’t yet see a break in the storm. As we move toward 2021, we have learned to expect the unexpected. We don’t yet see a break in the storm, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t see hope. Not only do we see hope – we embody it – we have embodied it this year with every new thing we have created that we had never before even imagined – standing on the sure foundation of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – and, by the power of the Holy Spirit – doing the steady work of Jesus -- living the life of Christ – for each other and for the world – Living into Hope.
And we have seen hope this week, too. There is so much to say about this week – about its tumult and tension – those moments and days where we sat as a nation with our gut twisted in apprehension. As I’m still processing all that, I thought I’d share just one glimpse of hope.
In the tumult of this week, I’ve been inspired – I’ve been inspired again by the work of Stacey Abrams. In 2018, Stacey Abrams ran for Governor of Georgia. A prominent member of the State Legislature, Abrams was the first Black woman to be nominated to run for governor. And as you may know, the forces and systems of voter suppression – a number of which I detailed just a few weeks ago – worked to suppress the right to vote for far too many. In 2018, African Americans in Georgia turned out in record numbers, but even so, too many were blocked from voting, because polling locations were changed or relocated, because they’d been purged from voting rolls, because of insufficient ID, or in some places because the polling places didn’t have enough ballots. And to make it worse, Abrams ran against the sitting Secretary of State, who “controlled the levers of the election.”
When the dust settled, and the election results showed a 50,000 vote difference between Abrams and her opponent, Stacey Abrams “acknowledged the legal sufficiency of the election results,” but she then launched a critique and a campaign against the entrenched systems of voter suppression. She focused like a laser. She turned down invitations from party officials to run for US Senate. Instead, Abrams formed three organizations, including Fair Fight Action and Fair Count, to work for voting rights and against voter suppression, through litigation, legislation, and advocacy. With other organizations – many of them also led by Black women like Nse Ufot, Deborah Scott, and LaTosha Brown – they did the steady work. As someone has described it, they set about to build the infrastructure. And since 2018 – 22,000 voters have been reinstated to the voter rolls in Georgia, after having been purged. 800,000 new voters have been registered – 49% of them under age 30, and 45% of them persons of color.
And this week – amid the storms of 2020, and chipping away at centuries of systemic racism embodied in voter suppression – what we saw this week was the State of Georgia become competitive – with record voter turnout – a state where voters – and particularly Black voters – have more meaningful access to their constitutional right to vote – because Abrams and so many others – working collectively in community – did the steady work.
Before the election, Abrams was asked if she was anxious, and this is what she said: “I don’t have anxiety because I know that I’m doing everything in my power to push back. I’m not optimistic or pessimistic. I’m determined. And I believe we are prepared.”
Friends, hope is so much more than wishful thinking. Hope isn’t shiny and sparkly. Hope isn’t ephemeral or a mere fancy to get us through the day. Hope is what we do every morning when we rise with the day and say, “We can do this.” Hope is what we do when we face the day, and make sure our kids have breakfast, get them ready for online school, even as we set about to do our work, remotely, alongside them – trusting that we can do, again in this day, what on so many days feels impossible. Hope is how we pick up the phone to check in on someone who may be lonely or hurting. Hope is the meal we take to those struggling with illness. Hope is the postcard we write, the public hearing we log into for our 2 minutes of advocacy, the face covering we stitch, and the one we wear for each other. This is hope – what we’re doing right here – because who would have ever thought... Hope is the hand we hold in love.
Like our ancestors before us in the faith, in our storm, we know this hope in our bones. This hope is standing on the sure and sturdy foundation of God’s love for us, and building the house – brick by brick – steady on – living the life of Christ to transform this world. We are living into hope – and it is the hope that the life we live today – will make the world better tomorrow for ourselves, and for our children, and for the generations yet to come.
© 2020 Scott Clark
 For general background for the Gospel of Matthew, see M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995); Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (Crystal Press, San Rafael, CA: 1976).  See Stacey Abrams, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2020).  The work of these organizations is described in Abrams’ book. You can connect to this work at https://fairfight.com  https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/06/black-women-continue-to-be-the-democratic-partys-most-powerful-weapon.html ; https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/06/black-women-continue-to-be-the-democratic-partys-most-powerful-weapon.html  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/06/us/politics/stacey-abrams-georgia.html
Photo by Abigail Keenan, used with gratitude and permission via Unsplash