A sermon for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

There was a movie that came out in 1993 called Schindler’s List. Maybe some of you saw it. I saw it back when it first came out in the theater, so it’s been quite a long time. But there’s one scene in particular that stands out for me. The movie’s about a German factory owner named Oskar Schindler, who saves the lives of many of his Jewish workers during the course of the war. And this scene that I remember so clearly is the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Kraków.

Schindler is on a horse on a hill looking down over the city, and he’s watching all of this unfold before him. And it’s a horrific scene. There’s chaos in the streets. The Nazi soldiers are rounding up the people. They’re pushing them, they’re shoving them into line, marching them down the street, tossing their belongings on the ground. You hear cries and screams. You hear sporadic gunfire in the background, and then at one point, one of the soldiers shoots a couple of people at point-blank range, and you see them drop to the ground.

And Schindler is watching all this. And you can tell he’s both horrified and also sort of fascinated. He can’t turn away from it. Almost all of the movie is in black and white but there’s this haunting violin theme playing over all of this. If you saw the movie, you might still be able to hum it. It’s both inexpressibly sad and also in a way sort of joyful. It’s a very interesting melody.

Anyway, so this is all unfolding in black and white, and this is the part I remember so vividly: There’s a little girl and she’s wearing a red coat, and she sort of appears out of nowhere, and she’s almost invisible to everyone in that scene. They’re marching one way, she slips behind them and goes the other way. She slips through people, she almost seem to slip between the legs of the Nazi soldiers. She just keeps going against the flow. She finds a building that’s open. She goes up to an apartment and she hides under a bed. And Schindler has seen her. He’s noticed.

There’s a book called The Colors of Hope by a pastor named Richard Dahlstrom. And he calls this little girl “the incarnation of hope.” [i] He says that she’s the incarnation of hope because you see so clearly in her the way life wants to live, the way life wants to thrive thrive. And Dahlstrom says she stands for everything that’s good and true and beautiful. And Schindler can see this, right? She shows up again later in the movie. But she hasn’t survived. Schindler sees her lifeless body still in the red coat being carted away.

So you might wonder, how does someone who doesn’t survive become the incarnation of hope? Well, that’s a question I’ll come back to.

But first I want to sort of unpack some of the readings for today. All of the readings are in one way or another about the end of the world. The world will end. Christ will return. This will be the full establishment of the kingdom of God.

The New Testament letter to the people at Thessalonica is telling them that anyone who doesn’t work won’t eat. It sounds like a diatribe against the welfare state, but that’s not really what it’s about. What seems to be happening is that some of these people have decided that the world is going to end so soon that they don’t have to bother working in the meantime. They can just sit back and wait for the end. And the letter is saying, no, we don’t know when the end is going to come. And in the meantime, there’s work to do. You have to work. You have to work to feed yourself, but in the greater sense, there’s the work of being Christian people to be done.

And Jesus is saying something similar. The disciples are talking about the temple. Now, this was the second temple, and it had just recently been finished. It was built by Herod the Great, and it was a replacement for the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians a few hundred years earlier. And this temple was magnificent. It was massive. It was beautiful. That’s what they’re talking about. And Jesus says to them, the day will come when this temple will be destroyed. Well, that’s shocking news to them. It’s almost as if someone had said, say, in 1995, the day will come when the World Trade Center towers will fall down. What would we have thought? Well, like the towers, the temple does fall down. We know that in the year 70 AD, it was destroyed by the Romans and it did collapse. It was rubble.

And Jesus goes on to talk about the end of the world then, about how everything will end, about terrible times, about whether there will be wars and insurrections. And we’ve got them. There will be famines and plagues. We’ve got that, too. And the disciples are asking him, what will be the signs? How will we know when the end is coming? And he’s saying, all these things are going to happen, but none of them is the sign. Don’t listen to anybody who tells you they know when the world is going to end.

I remember, I guess it’s been a couple years ago now, but there was a guy in California who supposedly had interpreted the whole Bible, and he knew the day and the hour when the world was going to end. Well, here we are.

So Jesus is saying, don’t pay attention to any of that. Don’t listen to false prophets. In the meantime, though, you’ll be persecuted, and this will be an opportunity to witness. And don’t worry about what you’re going to say because I will give you the words to say.

So this actually was, believe it or not, all this scary stuff, it was a message of hope to the people for whom Luke was writing this Gospel. So again, the same question: how can all this terrible stuff be a message of hope? And it’s a message of hope to us, too.

Well, I would answer that with a two-point summary of this Gospel. This is where the good news is here.

Point number one:  God’s in charge. God will prevail. Goodness will prevail. Evil will not endure. The Roman Empire, which destroyed the temple in 70, will collapse eventually. Evil will be overcome by good, and in the meantime God will be with us. That’s the good news. And this is true for us now as it was back then.

But point number two is: in the meantime, we have work to do. We can’t just sit around and say, isn’t it terrible what’s going on? We have work to do. In the book I mentioned, The Colors of Hope, Dahstrom says that we’re all meant to be artisans of hope, artists, creators. And he says the colors that we paint with, we painters of hope, are justice, mercy and love.[ii] These are our colors. This is the work that we have to do. Jesus prepared his people to go out into the world and be his messengers of hope, to be signs of hope in the world. And that’s work for us to do, too.

And there are so many ways to do that, so many little ways.

We do that by reaching out to people who are going through hard times. We do that by voting, by educating ourselves, being poll workers, maintaining democracy, as we did last week. We do that when we make sandwiches for people who are hungry. But even as important, we do that when we educate ourselves to know about justice and injustice in the world and vote and work for justice and mercy. Our children are signs of hope. Those children who bear our names into the world, into the future ,are signs of hope. All these things are signs of hope that begin with us.

So this brings me back to the question, how does the little girl in the red coat who doesn’t survive become a sign of hope? Well, Oskar Schindler sees her body being carted away, and you see the expression on his face—it’s a moment of terrific acting. You can see that he’s grieving, that he’s moved, and it’s a moment of conversion for him. It’s the moment when he knows that he has to do something, and he begins to do that. The workers in his factory are Jewish prisoners. And he goes from being an opportunistic Nazi party member who really just hopes to get rich from the war to someone who begins to actively work to save the lives of his Jewish workers.

And by the time the war is over, he has saved the lives of more than a thousand people, a thousand individual human beings who go forth into life, out of death because of him. He is their savior.

And we also have a savior who is the most important sign of hope for us: Jesus Christ, our savior.

I tell stories in my sermons as Jesus did. And the reason I do that is because stories often convey truths that are deeper and more meaningful than mere words.

And the basic story that is the foundation of our faith is about Jesus Christ, who was brutally murdered and who rose again on Easter Sunday, going from death to life. God brings life out of death again and again. And we remember this story because this is who we are.

So I leave you with that two-point summary. The good news. Today’s good news is that goodness will prevail in the end, God will triumph over evil. And in the meantime, God is with us at every moment. And number two is, in the meantime, there is work for us to do. Amen.

Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, PA.

[i] [1]Richard Dahlstrom, The Colors of Hope: Becoming People of Mercy, Justice, and Love. Baker Books, 2011, 9.

[ii] Dahlstrom, 15.