Sunday, December 28, 2014

All the Things God Has Done That Need Praising by Karen Shepler (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

Well, Christmas is over and we’re moving into the New Year.  I’m hopeful that most of you had a great Christmas and are looking forward to 2015 and all that it holds.  

            Did you see the top ten news stories listed in the Blade religion page yesterday?  When I lived in Dayton back in the 80s, there was a religion editor for the Dayton Daily News who did a reflection back on the top news for whatever year it was.  I think he listed maybe ten things that had happened in Dayton and in the world and, like in the Blade, it wasn’t just religious things he looked at.  It was things that had happened all over the world.  Things like the high crime rate, specific murders, wars in other countries, refugee crises as folks streamed in from Central America because of civil wars there.  The list went on and on. 

            I was pretty upset with the list.  What upset me was that there was no good news in his top news list.  So I wrote to him.  Now usually when I write a letter to a newspaper it seems to be ignored.  But Dave, the religion editor, actually paid attention.  He wrote in the next week’s paper that he had received a letter complaining that he was too negative.  So he took another look at the year and he came up with a list of things that were good.  I was impressed and in talking to him later, I found out that he was genuinely pleased that I had brought his negativity to his attention.  

            It’s easy to get cynical in the world we live in today.  We’ve just come through Christmas, which now is so commercialized it’s hard to find the reason for the season in anything except maybe church.  I went shopping for one last gift and some food on Tuesday and I swore I would never shop again.  It was crazy!  We have a build up to Christmas that now starts at Halloween and continues until December 24th and then we have the after Christmas sales.  After our family gatherings and Christmas parties, we’re all pretty tired.  This Sunday and the Sunday after Easter are called low Sundays because so many people stay away from church.  I realize that some people are on vacations and with family, but some people are just worn out from all the hustle and bustle of the holidays. There is a kind of Christmas letdown that we sometimes and maybe often experience these days in between Christmas and New Years.

            And in Isaiah’s time it seems a similar thing was happening.  Chapter 63 of Isaiah is written right after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 567 BCE by the Babylonian general Nebuchadnezzar.  Most of the elite were taken into captivity in Babylon. The city was razed to the ground. Only a small number of people were permitted to remain to tend to the land.  Without the temple the people were lost.  It was like they had not only lost the building itself but their belief in God too.  The temple was where God dwelled, and now he was gone.  Their whole city was gone – razed to the ground, burned, destroyed.  They didn’t just have Christmas let down – they had a spiritual let down:  they felt abandoned and conquered.  

            This part of the chapter is actually the first part of a lament, looking at all the good things God has done in relationship with God’s people.  It’s like a Dave Letterman top ten list of all the great things God has done for God’s people:  great goodness, compassion lavished, love extravagant, claiming the people as God’s own, becoming their Savior, redeeming them, coming to them, rescuing them, carrying them, redeeming them.  

            But before this section and after this section, the reading makes it sound like the people believe that God has left, is no longer there, and no longer cares for the people that were chosen.  These are some of the things that are said about God in the next verses:  God became their enemy and fought them. Isaiah asks: Whatever happened to your passion, your famous mighty acts, your heartfelt pity, your compassion?  Why are you holding back?  For a long time now, you’ve paid no attention to us.  It’s like you never knew us.

            I have had moments in the last year when I think I have asked the same questions.  Have any of you had those moments?  Times when things in our families, our homes, our work, our world just seem so overwhelming.  And it felt like we were all alone in whatever it was, that no one was there to love or comfort or support us, that even God had abandoned us.  I did say moments, but for some those moments turn into hours and days, and months.  It’s been a tough year.  We’ve had almost 30 homicides in Toledo in the last year, and that number rises as we look at Lucas County.  We’ve had wars in the Mideast, massacres in Africa, Ebola outbreaks that have killed over 7,000 people and orphaned who knows how many.  We’ve had racial injustice, police being ambushed and killed; we’ve had tornadoes and hurricanes that have taken lives and devastated whole countries.  And closer to home, we’ve had family issues:  divorces, fights, separations, abandonment.  We’ve had illnesses, surgeries, torn ligaments, misunderstandings and accusations.  I’m getting depressed just reading this list.

            For Isaiah, it was important to insist that God show up in new ways for the people, maybe so that they would realize that the old God was still around, just looking and acting differently.  He calls up images that the people would recognize:  God can cause fire that would make a pot boil; mountains shudder.  He has to remind them because their temple and their god have been destroyed.  They have to learn to search for God in new places and with new metaphors.   Shortly after the destruction of the city and the temple took place, the Israelites who had left Judah returned to Jerusalem and then the remnant that was there and the returnees all fled to Egypt.  There they were really required to look for God in new places.

            With the troubling things we have experienced this last year, we need to look for God in new places and with new metaphors too.  So I want us to think about that as we come together today.  We have just come through Advent and Christmas, a time of preparing our hearts and minds for a new thing:  this baby Jesus who came into the world so cute and cuddly as all babies are.  We’ve heard the Christmas story and seen it in our minds, as the shepherds came to the manger scene to see what God told them would be there.  And now we’re past Christmas, the baby will soon be put away with the rest of the manger scene and the other decorations.  Where will we find God?  What will we remember that God has done for us to help us praise him in the meantime?  

            Through all of the horrible events in our world and our nation, God was still there.  Through the events in our lives that have been difficult:  the illnesses, the deaths, the tragedies, the arguments and separations, God was still there.  And God is still here.  I’m praising God for all the ways I have been blessed this year.  I’ve been blessed with good old friends and new friends, with this church that has helped me to grow and stretch, with time away and with times of silence and solitude.  I’ve been blessed by good health and the ability to care for those in my family whose health hasn’t been so good.  I praise God for all of that and more.

            On this “low” Sunday, when we’re feeling the letdown of Christmas being over, of all the hype that goes along with the parties and the family gatherings, what are all the things God has done that need praising?  Let me get a little personal now.  On Christmas day my family has always gotten together for fun and fellowship, for presents and food and a good old-fashioned good time.  This year, a decision was made that we wouldn’t have Christmas on Christmas day.  We’ve had a lot of illness in our family:  my brother-in-law just got out of the hospital and rehab, my sister has been sick off and on for the last year, we’re all exhausted from taking care of them.  I mean, there was good reason not to have a big blast.  Christmas morning I got up and found myself pouting.  I was going to be alone on Christmas.  My aunt and I were going to get together for lunch but basically the way my Christmases have always been went out the window.  And then I started getting texts and phone calls from friends and relatives wishing me a Merry Christmas.  I thought back to all the things that have happened in this last few months in my family and I realized I was being a jerk.  I began to praise God for all the good times we had in the past, for all the friends that I have who have stuck by me through thick and thin and I began to have Christmas. One of the traditions we had in my family each Christmas was to see who could give my mother the gift that would make her cry.  One year she received a padded toilet seat! I mean, the love that I should have been feeling all along came back to me and I was made new.

            I want to ask you to spend a few minutes in silence now, thinking about, first of all, your last year and all the reasons that you might not have felt grateful.  Think about the hard times you’ve had this past year and the times you felt that God and others had abandoned you.  Think about the loneliness you may have felt, or the anger or sadness.  And then reflect on all the things you have to praise God for.  What has God done for you this past year that you need to give praise for?  On your table is a large sheet of chart paper and there are markers there too.  After you’ve reflected silently for a few minutes, write your praises on that paper in big bold print.  I’m convinced that each one here can write down at least two or three praises with no problem.  If you’re not sitting at a table, come up and join one so that you can write down your praises too.  Spend some time in silent reflection and then feel free to write and share at your tables.  When you’re finished, post your papers on the wall so that all can see before we leave today.

We’ll celebrate the New Year this week, looking back over 2014 and saying, “Wow, what a year!”  We’ll hear wrap ups of what’s happened in our world over the last year and maybe even the top ten news items.  But today, we’re celebrating the good things that God has done for us, the way we have been lifted up and carried, loved, and embraced by a loving God who never abandons us, just as the people of Israel were never abandoned.  We’re moving forward into the New Year as people of hope, people who know the rest of the story.  I praise God for that and I hope you do too!  Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Weaving Promises: A Savior to Restore Justice by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

At the beginning of Advent I got this idea. I would set up my loom with a weaving project and have it here in the worship space every Sunday during Advent. I figured that during the Thanksgiving holiday, I could teach Becca how to set up the loom. Ever since she was about three, she has noticed my loom sitting in the corner of the living room gathering dust. She asked me what it was. When I told her it was a weaving loom she of course said, “Mommy, would you teach me to weave.” I learned to weave when I was in seminary and I wove for almost 10 years. Then I got busy having babies and planting churches and there was no time in my life for weaving.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving weekend. I pulled out my weaving notebook, with the instructions on how to put the warp on the loom and I realized this was going to take longer than I remembered. And there were some auxiliary parts that I had lost along the way. I had to call Rock and Beth and ask them to cut me a piece of wood because we don’t have a saw. Then a week later I realized I needed two more small pieces of wood. I finally went to Lowe’s and bought a saw.
One Sunday, you may recall, we brought some bobbins of yarn and put them on the table here as a display. That was a teaser. We talked about different colors of thread being woven together like the different aspects of God that we need in our lives.
You see, Advent is the season of waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (Bringing this loom to you has become my symbol of waiting, and that was not even the point.)  In the Old Testament we have many prophecies, or promises, about a Messiah who will come and change the world. These promises are woven through the ancient text. And then they are woven into the New Testament. As Jesus comes onto the scene, people refer back to the promises in the Old Testament and say, “Hey, remember? We were told this guy was coming. God must be in this man Jesus.”
The people waited a long time for Jesus, but he was worth the wait. You did not even know that you were waiting for me to get the loom here as an illustration of weaving the promises. But I knew. I was beginning to fear I would not get it ready in time for the last Sunday of Advent but finally on Thursday night of this week, I got the warp on the loom and was ready to weave. My advent waiting had ended.
One of the things I liked most about weaving was this: even though you are bound to make mistakes, there is always a way to fix them. My teacher Laura taught me that. Weaving is a human art and so by human nature it is imperfect, but the imperfections in the fabric can almost always be corrected. She taught me that sometimes if I caught a mistake while I was doing it, I could unweave a few rows, go back, and fix my mistake. But even if I did not find the mistake until I took the fabric off the loom, I could take a needle and hand weave to correct the mistake and restore the pattern. There was always a way to fix things.
I love that about weaving. You can always make it look better with some handiwork.
Today’s scripture is about the handiwork of God making our world better, taking things that are messed up, and making them right. This text comes after Mary has found out she is going to be a mother. You could say this is kind of a big mess up because as you may remember, Mary is not yet married to Joseph. Being an unwed mother in 1st century Israel is not a good thing. But God sends an angel to Joseph in a dream and tells him to stay with Mary – because God has chosen them to be the earthly parents of God’s own Son. Joseph complies.
Mary might want to try to hide this pregnancy as it would cause a scandal. So she goes to visit her older cousin Elizabeth who also happens to be pregnant. Elizabeth’s child is also something of an amazing gift because Elizabeth is well beyond child bearing years. She and her husband know that God has a special purpose in mind for their child too.  When Mary arrives at the home of Elizabeth, scripture says that the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps at the sound of Mary’s voice. We believe there will be a strong connection between these two cousins; and in fact, Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, will preach and baptize and prepare the way for Jesus and his ministry.
Mary sings a song of praise as she greets her cousin. This is our scripture reading for today. With this song she weaves in the promises of the Old Testament with her predictions about what her son will do. And she does something really interesting. She talks about Jesus as if what he will do has already been accomplished. This is a literary device meant to show her deep faith. “I’m not going to talk about what he WILL do, I’m going to tell you what he HAS DONE because I am that sure of what this child will accomplish.” Then she alludes to promises made in Deuteronomy and in the Psalms.
Mary says:
“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Jesus is coming to correct everything. He can make everything right. We don’t have to see the world broken and messed up, like a piece of fabric woven on a loom that has imperfections. Every mistake on a loom can be fixed. Mary says that Jesus can and will fix everything. That is the promise. This is the promise made to Abraham and to all those descendants – as many as the stars in the sky.
Jesus comes to lift up the lowly and to bring down the powerful who lord it over the rest. Jesus fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty. Jesus turns upside down the values of our world. Or rather, he turns them right side up. For too long we have allowed those with money and power to rule the world. Jesus comes and says: “Enough.” We don’t have to give in to these false gods of power and might.
So what does this mean for us? It means that we really can put our trust in Jesus. We can trust Jesus to feed the hungry and send the rich away empty. That is the Advent promise woven through both the Old and the New Testaments. We can trust that the way of Jesus is to take the outsider and make them the insider. Because to Jesus, we are all insiders. We are all inside the circle of God’s mercy and God’s love.
So in the places where we are outsiders, we are called to put our trust in Jesus and claim our place as insiders. Everyone is included in the circle of God’s love and God’s abundance. If we are being denied our rights then we need to stand up for ourselves (together – because there is power in numbers), and claim in the name of Jesus, that all God’s children are to be free and all God’s children are to be treated justly. All God’s children should have what they need.  That is the message of the gospel.
Now, in those areas where we are insiders, we are called to look at those outside and invite them in. This means that if we are inside the circle of those who have enough, and we see those outside who do not have enough,then we are called to bring them in to the circle of those with enough by sharing what we have.
There are countless ways to help others.
·      You can simplify your life so you have money to give to our Good Samaritan Fund. We use that to help people right here in our congregation who need emergency aid with basic needs.
·      You can give up something you want so that you have money to give to our Christmas offering. That money goes to give life-saving malaria bed nets to people living in Africa. Yes, I know Africa is far away, but if we want to talk about people who are outsiders when it comes to wealth of this world, let’s talk about Africa.
·      As insiders we can give our time to help those who are outside the circle of basic food needs being met. Patti organizes times for us to serve at the local food bank and at Food for Thought on a regular basis so that we can provide emergency food for hungry people. Yesterday we filled 600 boxes of food at the food bank that will be taken to senior citizens in need. These are just a few examples of ways we can follow Jesus and live out the promises of scripture to lift up the lowly.
·      After Christmas Karen Shepler is going to be leading a class called “Faith and Finance.” This is a class to teach people how to manage our personal finances better. This will be a great tool to help those with the least, learn how to get out from under debt. Anyone can participate in the class. It will be another way to lift ourselves up.
Christmas is coming. We will once again celebrate the bursting of God’s love into our world. The promises have been woven throughout scripture. Jesus comes to turn our world right-side up. Will you put your trust in Jesus? Will you follow the way of Jesus and stake a claim for justice? Will you share your resources so that all the outsiders will be inside the circle of God’s abundance? I hope your answer is yes. Get ready to celebrate his birth again.  Get ready to follow Jesus and change the world.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Weaving Promises: Good News for the Poor by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

On July 17th of this year, Eric Garner died in a neighborhood of Staten Island, New York, after a police officer put him in what many view as a chokehold for about 19 seconds. Chokeholds are a violation New York City Police Department (NYPD) policy. Garner was resisting arrest after police officers accused him of selling single cigarettes.  Officer Daniel Pantaleo, put his arm around Garner's neck and attempted to pull him backwards and down onto the ground. This is all seen on a recording that you have probably seen on TV or Youtube. As four officers restrained Garner, he repeated "I can't breathe" 11 times while lying facedown on the sidewalk. 

 An ambulance was called to the scene. He had a heart attack in the vehicle and was pronounced dead approximately one hour later at the hospital. His death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner’s office. But on December 3, a Grand Jury decided not to indict officer Pantaleo.  (Source: Wikipedia.) 

Demonstrations have erupted across the country with people wearing shirts that say: “I can’t breathe,” and with people lying in the streets having “die ins.”
Rev. Jeff Hood, a pastor in Washington DC had this to say about this incident: "For me, this is a very religious thing. I don’t believe you can love your neighbor as yourself and then kill them. … I think people of faith need to demonstrate. We have a fundamental responsibility to be in the streets, to be creating coalitions, to be building change.

I keep thinking about Eric Garner saying, 'I can’t breathe.- It made me think -- that’s what Jesus is saying in this culture. Jesus is fundamentally connected to the marginalized and right now Jesus is saying, 'I can’t breathe.' I think the church should be saying the same thing -- that we can’t breathe in this culture and we have to change this culture in order for us to have breath and exist in this society."

I think Rev.  Hood is right – not even Jesus can breathe under these circumstances. Something has gone terribly wrong in our culture, in our world. Black parents everywhere will tell you that they have to have “the talk” with their children, especially their sons.  The talk varies but it includes a terrible question posed by Jonathan Lethem in his book The Fortress of Solitude: "At what age is a black boy when he learns he's scary?" You see this is what it means to be a black boy growing up in America. You learn that you are scary to white people. You learn that you have to behave a certain way around police officers because you are, quite frankly, not safe around a police officer.  

I read this in an article: when you are the parent of a black son: you have to “protect your child from a country that is out to get him—a country that kills someone that looks like him every 28 hours, that is by a police officer, a country that will likely imprison him by his mid-thirties if he doesn't get his high school diploma, a country that is more than twice as likely to suspend him from school than a white classmate.”

Friends, this is wrong. This is what we call systemic racism. There are systems in place that cause children of color to grow up being treated differently than white children. And this is about more than what colleges they will be admitted to and what jobs they will get. This is a matter of life and death. 

You see, it is privilege, white privilege to walk down the street and not be feared just because of the color of your skin. If Eric Garner could not breathe, then Jesus cannot breathe, and the prophet Isaiah cannot breathe and God cannot breathe. If anyone is oppressed then we are all oppressed by an oppressive system. 

Well, in our scripture for today, (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 from The Message Bible for those following along from afar) Isaiah comes to a people who are living under oppression, and Isaiah offers some promises them from God:
God has sent me to  preach good news to the poor,
    heal the heartbroken,
Announce freedom to all captives,
    pardon all prisoners.
 God has sent me to announce God’s grace—
    …. [To give]
Messages of joy instead of news of doom.

This is what we need today too, isn’t it? We need a Savior. Later, when Jesus comes along, he reads this scripture in the temple, and he says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.” Jesus claims that he is the one to fulfill Isaiah’s promise. 

You see, God promises to give us the power to make the world this better place. God promises that we can heal the heartbroken. We can free those who are captive to the unjust systems we have created. We can give messages of joy rather than doom.

But we are not there yet. We thought when we abolished slavery, and then desegregated the schools and passed the Voting Rights Act (or what is left of it) that we had dealt with our racism. But those were only the first steps. Those were the structural and legal things we could do.

Now as we see hear the stories and see the racial tensions flare, we know that our work is not done. I had a conversation yesterday with three black men and one of their wives: Ollie Townsend who attends The Village regularly with his wife Kim Crosby. I also met two of Ollie’s friends, Chris and Cory. They talked about what it is like to be black men living in Toledo, Ohio. These are men who do not consider themselves to be what they call the stereotypical ghetto black men. They describe themselves this way: they are just regular guys who got a good education, go to work from 9 to 5 every day, wear clothes that fit, and stay out of trouble.  We are not the ones you will see on CNN, because we don’t fit the “type”. But they all have family members or friends who fit that ghetto stereotype. 

In our conversation we all agreed, ghetto or not, people are people, and everyone should be treated fairly by everyone, including police officers.  Amen?!?!

Kim told a story of when she and Ollie had just moved to Woodville which is a little town on the edge of Toledo.  They had lived there a week. She had parked her car in front of a diner and went for a drive with a friend who was showing her around town. When they returned, she noticed that there was a police car parked near her car, like they were waiting for her. She remembered that her license plate had just expired. When she got into her car, and started driving the police pulled her over. They asked her about her expired plates but then they did something very unusual. They said, “Where do you live?” She told them. And “Who do you live with?”  “My husband,” she answered. They said, “Yes we know that house.” 

Now how many times has a police officer, in a routine traffic stop, asked you who you live with? They were letting her know that they did not like a white women living with a black man in their town. Kim and Ollie were pulled over 5 times in less than a year while living in Woodville, for no serious reason at all. They ended up leaving Woodville because Kim did not feel safe living there. 

These three men all told me they will not drive through Ottawa Hills because they know it is not safe for them. For the most part, these three said, they have not had much trouble in life, but at their core they say they live with the knowledge that there is always a target on a black man’s head. Friends, No one should have to live like that, no one.

Isaiah said that one would come who would bring good news to the poor and freedom to the captives. This one would give space so we can all breathe freely. Lots of people in our country cannot breathe freely yet. They leave their houses every morning with a target on their heads and they have to second guess every move they make so it won’t be misinterpreted. That is no way to live. 

So how do we change the world? We breathe. We breathe in the Spirit of God. We boldly ask the Spirit of God to live in us and inspire us. So we walk down the street and look the young black person in the eye and smile. We start up a conversation with and show an interest– let them know that we are loving people and we are not afraid.   We don’t find you scary and we are not afraid to call you fellow beloved child of God, friend, neighbor.  

When we see injustice, evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, we speak up. Friday as I was leaving Best Buy, the guy at the door was making a black staff member take off his coat and be searched before he could leave. He waved me and another white woman shopper off without looking at our packages. We were enjoying white privilege. I am ashamed that I did not walk up to that man and challenge him. Why didn’t I ask him, “Why are you searching this man but not me? Is it because he is black and I am white?” You see the black man could never ask that question because he would be called and angry black man, but I can ask the question. This is one simple way to engage in important conversation about white privilege. 

So I have a challenge for us today. There is an invitation in the program today, to change the world, by participating in a “Dialogue to Change” group. The groups are being formed to offer citizens in Toledo an opportunity to have honest conversations about racism. Groups of 10-12 people meet for two hours each week for six weeks, ending with an action plan to change race relations in the Toledo area. There are both afternoon and evening groups. Our own Karen Shepler is the coordinator of this project and can tell you more about it. I have signed up and I would love if if 20 people from The Village sign up to do this in the New Year. This is one important way that we can be part of the change we want to see in Toledo.

Finally, I ask you to pray.  We can all take a deep breath and pray. Pray for our city. Pray for Eric Garner and others like him to follow.  Pray for our police officers.  Pray for the promises that Isaiah makes that are woven into the Advent message. Jesus comes to bring good news to the poor and freedom to the captive. We are surrounded by poor and captive people. And until everyone is free, none of us are truly free. Pray that God might use us, to set all the people free. Amen.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Weaving Promises: God Comes With Power and Tenderness by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

 “On August 13, 1961, the Communist government of [East Germany] began to build a barbed wire and concrete [wall] between East and West Berlin. The official purpose of this Berlin Wall was to keep Western “fascists” from entering East Germany and undermining the socialist state, but it primarily served the objective of stemming mass defections from East to West.  It divided families and kept people crossing over to their jobs.  The Berlin Wall stood until November 9, 1989, when the head of the East German Communist Party announced that citizens of East Germany could cross the border whenever they pleased. That night, ecstatic crowds swarmed the wall. Some crossed freely into West Berlin, while others brought hammers and picks and began to chip away at the wall itself.” To this day, the wall symbolizes both the nature of human beings to put up barriers, and the power of God to pull down the walls so that we can all live together as one.

The internet is filled with personal stories of people who lived in Germany during the time that the wall was up and during the week that the wall came tumbling down. I found one such story written by a student named Joe Vandervest who lived in Berlin for three years, from 1968-1972. He was in the 5th to 7th grades during that time. He writes years later:
I was at work - working late when someone at the civilian firm I worked at came to me and said - hey - didn't you hear the Berlin wall came down.
Having lived in Berlin [from 1968 to 1972 (68-72)] - I too -- like the others here -- was impacted by the Wall and the cold-war itself.
When I heard the news and then confirmed it - I was stunned. Shocked. It was like another world - as though I was living in a dream. Living there, at the forward battle-edge of the Cold War - the Wall seemed permanent. Fixed. Unmovable as it was. Supported by thousands of tanks and Warsaw pact troops.
When I heard that news it made me think back to one particular incident where I learned that even the Communists were people…
It was 1972. Armed with my dad's binoculars I humped through the woods behind the army apts. in Dueppel. The woods gave way to a small clearing and then the wall. One of those observation platforms was there - not too far away from the guard tower. We kids used to play army (US vs. Soviets) in those woods and we knew our way around pretty well. We'd frequently go to the wall and peer over.
Anyway - so there I was on the tower. Already under observation from the guard tower. You know - you did it too - your binocs looking up at them, they looking back at you across the no man's land of death.
So I'm peering up. The vopo [German] and the russian were peering back at me through their binocs. We looked at each other for a bit and I flashed a peace sign up at them. (Hey - it was the 70's!). What amazed me was first how they just looked back - expressionless. then the fun part..
The vopo got bored and looked away, putting his binocs down around his neck. The russian (amazing how military kids learn to tell uniforms)...kept watching. Then he looked away to check on the vopo - and on the side of his body away from the vopo - he very quickly flashed a peace sign back at me.
As a young person, that was one of those human moments when I started to realize - hey - people are just like was a bold and risky thing for the soldier to do...but he totally made my day and gave me a memory to last a life time....
that wall coming down was just an amazing thing...
- Joe Vandervest - Overseas Student  from a web site called “Fall of the Wall: Wall Stories.”
You see, during the Cold War, human beings built up a wall to divide people. But God tore down the wall. God does not want God’s people to be oppressed. The wall was evil. The wall was sin. The wall divided families. The wall represented oppression of people. And in November of 1989, with the whole world watching, the wall came down. Because God will not allow injustice to last forever. Humanity’s inhumane treatment of one another will not be tolerated. Eventually, good will win over evil.
The story from Joe Vandervest, who was an elementary school student living in the shadow of the wall, tells us that humanity is never totally given over to evil. So as a boy in the 7th grade, he flashed a peace sign to a Russian soldier and the soldier took a chance. The soldier surreptitiously flashed a peace sign right back at him, from the East to the West – a sign of reconciliation across a wall that most of us thought would never come down. But, you see, the power of God’s peace, and love and reconciliation are stronger than any human made wall.
There is always hope. Because God lives in us. God created us. God made us to be people of peace and love and reconciliation.
This is what we see happening in the book of Isaiah. The people had been suffering. There was not a literal wall as in Berlin, but there was oppression. God’s chosen people had been scattered, taken from their home in the Promised Land. Many were living in exile in Babylon. Their temple had been destroyed. They were suffering mightily and they had turned away from God. But Isaiah comes as a prophet and speaks for God. Isaiah says: “Comfort, comfort for the people, you have suffered long enough. You are forgiven.”
The walls of evil and sin were declared null and void by Isaiah. He said:
Make the road straight and smooth,
    a highway fit for our God.
Fill in the valleys,
    level off the hills,
Smooth out the ruts,
    clear out the rocks.
Then God’s bright glory will shine.
And Isaiah made a promise to the people: Your God will come in power to reward those who have loved God.  And God will come with gentleness,
Like a shepherd, God will care for the flock,
    gathering the lambs in God’s arms,
Hugging them and carrying them.
    leading them to good pasture.
Isaiah gives an image that God is like a strong soldier who flashes a peace sign. God is both powerful and gentle.
Because, you see, we need a God who can weave together the promises of both strength and gentleness. The people then, and the people now, cannot get by with a God either of power or gentleness. We need both.
There are moments when we need God to be powerful and mighty. We need God to live in us and give us courage to speak the truth to the evil forces of this world. When we see injustice, evil and oppression in this world, then as God’s people we need to speak the truth. We need to make things right. The promise is woven from the Old Testament into the New Testament prophecy about John the Baptist who will prepare a way for Jesus. We find the promise here in Isaiah and then later in the Gospels: “Prepare a way for the Lord; Make the road straight and smooth,
    a highway fit for our God.
Fill in the valleys,
    level off the hills,
Smooth out the ruts,
    clear out the rocks.”
This is a strong promise, woven from the old message into the new: a savior will come and we prepare for him by smoothing out the roads and making our paths line up with his way for the world. God wants to come live with us and be our God, but we have to make a way for God to come. We have to make space.
The second promise seems to be the exact opposite but it is, rather, complementary. Jesus also comes, “[with] reward [for]those who have loved him. Like a shepherd, he will care for his flock,
    gathering the lambs in his arms,
Hugging them as he carries them,
    leading them to good pasture.”
The message woven here is the promise that God cares for us in the same way a shepherd cares for every sheep or goat in his flock. Each one matters. Every life matters to the shepherd. We matter to God.
When you weave a piece a fabric there are many ways to get variety of color. One way is to wind two colors of thread together as you put them on the spool. Then you weave these two pieces of yarn into the fabric together. As you do, you don’t just get one color or the other woven into the fabric, you get both. A red and a blue yarn, woven together, give the look of a purple fabric.  God is like the thread - powerful and gentle.
When we weave together both power and gentleness, we get the fullness of God. God is powerful in speaking the truth to the principalities of this world. And God is gentle in caring for God’s own children. We need both from God. We need God’s power to tear down walls and we need God’s gentleness to care for us as a shepherd cares for sheep.
What might it look like for you to receive God’s power AND God’s gentleness in your life? Which one do you need more right now? In different seasons of life we might be in more need of power or gentleness. You might really need power today, or you might really be in need of gentleness, of healing.
I invite you today to open yourself to the fullness of God’s promises. Be open to receive the fullness of God’s power in your life, to give you strength to do hard and courageous things. You don’t do it on your own, but with the full power of God behind you.  Be open to receive the fullness of God’s gentleness; let God heal you and comfort you and remind you that you are God’s beloved child. Together with God, you will have the power to change the world. God will change you, and through you, God will change the world.