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The First Congregational Church, Columbus
November 7, 2004 - 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching
The Promises of Politicians
II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

George Bush won't deliver on all the promises he made during the campaign. Then again, John Kerry wouldn't have been able to do so, either. Take this in a non-partisan way: you can't put your faith in what politicians say that they intend, even if they're sincere. No man or woman can deliver on everything.

High-ranking leaders may appear bigger than life, but they are not gods; they're only humans, with both their stronger points and their lesser. Some will be well remembered long after they're gone; others will fade from practical memory and be recalled only in the factual information of textbooks.

This is not intended to be a put-down of democracy. Call it, instead, a reality check. Humans are limited in what we can do, even the best and brightest of us. Elections do remind us, however, that we must be careful where we place our trust.

Our Gospel reading for this day tells us about some Sadducees who come to Jesus to ask him a question. The text says that they didn't believe in the concept of a resurrection. (Now obviously they couldn't have known about Ralph Nadar, who seems to come back to life every four years.)

They come to Jesus with a convoluted question about seven brothers who, each in turn, become the husband of the same woman. What they ask is whose wife will the woman be in the resurrection. It's a rather absurd inquiry and, considering they don't believe in an afterlife, the answer they seek is meaningless. Which is the whole point to them: all talk about a resurrection after death is meaningless.

Jesus is probably more gracious than I would be in response. He answers them, but probably not in a way they expected. What he does affirm is that life goes on, even after the last breath is taken. What God begins, God continues. Attempting to understand eternity in human terms, however, is bound to come up short.

"Trust what I tell you," he says. "Everything will be OK. There is a plan, and you'll be in it. You want all the details, but you couldn't comprehend them even if you could know them. Everything is taken care of. I give you my assurance."

I want to tell you a story this morning. In May of 1940 Wing Commander Basil Embry of the Royal Air Force was shot down. His plane was hit as he was leading his British squadron in a mission over France. Embry bailed out of his stricken plane and parachuted downward, but the Germans were in full control of the ground. Within a very short time he was captured and made a prisoner. The Nazis took him to an assembly area where other soldiers—French, Dutch, Belgian, and British—had been gathered under close guard.

A few hours later the prisoners were ordered to prepare for march. They filed in and began their journey to some unknown destination. Embry guessed that it was to a more secure prisoner of war camp, but this collection of strangers knew no more than this: it would be whatever their captors should choose.

There was a steady rain and by the time the prisoners reached a small town at dusk they were thoroughly soaked. Soon they discovered that the Germans had commandeered the village church and they were ordered into the building. There was no concern for providing these Allied soldiers with humanitarian shelter, just the practical necessity of maintaining security. The church, a place of worship, was turned into a heavily guarded jail for the evening. It was a desecration of the greatest magnitude, but those in charge did not care.

Basil Embry sat down on a pew in the sanctuary, the first time off his feet in the last six hours. Water collected in puddles under each of his boots as he rested in exhaustion. The air in the church was so heavy with moisture on this night that a steamy mist was created in the old building as more and more prisoners were herded inside.

The men were faced with sleeping in wet clothes or stripping down with the hope that their uniforms might dry overnight. Most of them chose to take off their clothes. Either way, they knew that they would be chilled and uncomfortable.

In the middle of the night Commander Embry wakened from a fitful sleep, the cold penetrating to his very bones. His teeth chattered and his skin was goose-fleshed. He wondered how long this intolerable night would continue, how long he could last. Miserable minutes seemed like hours.

He thought how ironical the scene was. In this place, this very room, words of promise and hope had been repeated over many decades. Now in the partial darkness, over a fantastic scene of stripped, sprawling, snoring men—men of every kind and class—a great misery had descended. It was like a surrealistic painting, a living canvas colored by an overwhelming sense of sorrow and despair.

Embry raised his head and his eyes fell upon the high altar, now cleared of its usual cross and candles. In their place along its marble top was the naked figure of an exhausted man, a soldier who had sought refuge there as the last place available to lie. One arm hung down across the front of the altar cloth, pale white against a crimson background.

Suddenly, and out of nowhere, these words came to this British officer: "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places." Words that he had heard as a child, but long ago had cast aside, now came back vividly to him. He experienced them for the first time as a living reality. In that moment the assurance of Jesus became fully personal to him. Basil Embry had the overwhelming feeling that here, in this strange mixture of the sacred and profane, the holy and the obscene, here was something he had long been searching for. His quest was ended, or maybe it was just beginning.

On that night, unexpectedly, God's Spirit came and penetrated one man's hard shell of skepticism and indifference. How unlikely that this should occur in the midst of capture and misery. How ironical is the feeling of hope arising from a sense of despair. He was a prisoner, yet that night he found freedom for the very first time.

Strange, isn't it, that sometimes things break through to us in the most unexpected of circumstances. Sometimes when we think it just can't get much worse, when our soul is most oppressed, something happens to change our world. Some new awareness comes upon us that holds promise to be one of those turning points in our lives. Out of sickness or loss, out of addictive behavior or homelessness, out of despair or melancholy, comes a glint of light in a world of darkness. It may take many forms, that light, but its source is always the same.

It is often in the most unexpected of times that God breaks through the high walls we erect to protect ourselves, and offers us rest. In ways that can't be ignored, God lets us know that we are worthwhile and worthy of love. God offers us an abiding presence that will give to us strength that is beyond our own. God lessens our fear of tomorrow and the unknown. Our hope is restored.

"In my Father's house are many dwelling places." There's a spot there set aside for each one of us. That's all we have to know. The past and the future all come together there. We will find our rooms, locate our places at the table. We'll be truly "home."

"In my Father's house there are many dwelling place," said Jesus. "If it were not so, I would not have told you. Do not let your hearts be troubled; instead trust in God, trust also in me."

The Scriptures remind us today where we can put our faith. The bread and the wine of this morning are symbols of the greater banquet to which we are invited.



Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church