St. David’s North Austin Medical Center Sermon for July 12, 2020 is called Hope and Shalom in the Pandemic. With Jeremiah 29:11 as the Scripture, Ch David Little takes us on a journey through the present pandemic; the struggle that it is for all; and presses on to a place of divine hope and shalom (or peace). This happens through God’s help, and the people loving and giving compassionate care to hurting people with pain in their lives, as ministers of healing.
Hope and Shalom in the Pandemic
NAMC Worship Service
It has been – in my view – a return to the early stages of the pandemic in the hospital, community, and in Texas. Surge planning and operations to ensure COVID-19 areas at North Austin Medical Center are already happening. The hospitals in Central Texas that were the main COVID-19 centers are filled with affected patients, and so North Austin Medical Center – along with other hospitals – is taking the Coronavirus cases and dealing with them from start to finish. As a result, we have seen tension rise and struggles that are a part of our existence at the hospital spike to new levels.
Patients and families, it breaks out hearts to keep families out – with only exceptions to the rule – and wear masks – in order to protect you – but have that barrier as we care for you. We see you in crisis, and we can’t imagine how hard your walk is… As the COVID spreads, some of us have traveled down a similar road you’re traveling. You have our hearts!
From the Chaplains, thank you staff for being here, with your service hearts, tireless efforts, and courage that is evident to all. Remember – we are a team through this, and you only have to do your part. Rely on the team to bring care, comfort, and compassion to the patient and family. Love is the key; with that, everything you do is geared toward helping.
I have one question: Do you want a hug? For extroverts especially, but for everyone in the pandemic, virtual hugs are allowed; Real ones if necessary…
If you put it on Google on your computer and search “the hugging lady” you will find Amma. Her name is Mata Amritanandamayi, and she is from India. A Hindu spiritual leader, she was born in a remote coastal village n Keraia, South India in 1953. At 9 years old, her mother became ill, and she withdrew from school to help take care of household tasks and her seven other siblings. From a small child, she could see the suffering around her – both in her family and beyond.
According to Hinduism, the suffering of the individual is due to her or his own karma. She accepts this, yet still loves them anyway through the journey; saying “if it is one’s karma to suffer, isn’t it our dharma (duty) to help ease his suffering and pain?”
While India is a caste system, with strict rules about women being in the background and NOT touching people – especially men – people began to call her Amma – or “Mother” because she embraced people as she comforted them in their sorrow.
Amma follows her heart, calling it her inborn nature to console people who are suffering. She says that love expressed is compassion, and compassion means accepting the needs and sorrows of other’s as one’s own.
She has care for even those suffering with COVID-19, where she can’t do the thing she wants to do – hug. Her North American Tour this summer has been cancelled. Instead, she is giving relief with funds to help combat and contain COVID-19 as well as to provide relief to those physically, mentally, and economically affected by the virus. This includes free care at Amrita Hospital in Kochi, India.
We talked about love in the religions earlier, and in Amma’s story. But what about hope or expectation. Do we have an outside human source of hope? What does that look like? Is shalom present as well?
In the Holy Qur’ān, Islam’s most holy word, it speaks of hope from Allah. Sūrah 94 is a short message of hope and encouragement for Muslims in a time of darkness and difficulty.
In Sūrah 94:5-6 it says “So, verily, with every difficulty There is relief. Verily, with every difficulty There is relief.”
This is one of the most quoted verses from the Qur’ān, this particular verse reminds all who read the Holy Qur’ān that with every hardship in life, there will always be relief from Allah as well. Remembering that Allah gives and takes, and also provides us all with what is best, this particular verse can help those improve their levels of hope when it seems like all is lost.
For Christians, hope is tied up in the kingdom of God, believing in Jesus (which is your relationship to the Triune God, and the Holy Spirit inside you), and the coming of the kingdom at the end of the age – the eschaton. Christians hope because there is a better time, and more complete age, and God is bringing it to us in His perfect time; meanwhile, He is here with us in our struggles, and making us more like Jesus with every trial. In that, it is both individual hope and communal hope – the body of Christ waiting on Jesus’ return, and doing the kingdom of heaven’s work in the meantime.
Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
Jeremiah 29:11 English Standard Version (ESV)
11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare[a] and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Jeremiah 29:11 Or peace
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I like The Message too, for this scripture, translated by Eugene Peterson. The Reverend Peterson was an American Presbyterian minister, scholar, theologian, author, and poet, who died in 2018. He wrote The Message to try and show the Holy Bible in today’s terminology. Here’s what The Message says:
Jeremiah 29:11 The Message (MSG)
10-11 This is God’s Word on the subject: “As soon as Babylon’s seventy years are up and not a day before, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for."
I like “plans to give you the future you hope for” because it is a communal calling of hope to a nation. More on that “communal hope” in a minute…
And while Jeremiah’s letter was meant for exiled Israel, we human beings in this time and space are being given the same message.
So, who was Jeremiah, why did he have letters that he wrote to the Israelites, and what were the circumstances around the writing?
The book of Jeremiah occupies more space in the Bible than any other book, and the prophet Jeremiah’s stature is tops among prophets in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Jeremiah’s call from YHWH came in 627 B.C., which was also the death of the Assyrian King, Ashurbanipal. The Babylonian Empire came the following year 626 B.C., and would eventually swallow Judah and within Judah, Jerusalem.
The first deportation came in 597 B.C., and the ultimate destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., by Nebuchadnezzar. It was during this time that Jeremiah spoke the word of the Lord to the Israelite nation.
In Chapter 29, Jeremiah is talking to the exiles in Babylon, speaking of communal hope, but struggles in the day of writing. The Judean people were trying to understand the strange events that had pulled them from their land, and cause them to be exiled (when YHWH was their God?). Would they be estranged from their homeland forever? Would the community remain the same after the Babylonian subjugation or would it differ in some ways? These and other questions were in the Judean exiles that Jeremiah spoke to in his letters.
Jeremiah had false prophets to contend with, also. They were saying the deportation would be brief, but Jeremiah knew that YHWH had a longer duration (70 years – meant as a long time), and that the short-time view would cause a danger to the community.
So, Jeremiah said get comfortable, settle, be at peace, and even pray for Babylonian people and its nation. But even though the prophet tells them to build houses, plant a vineyard, and become engaged – which says they will be there for a while – he also tells them YHWH has plans for them, a purpose for them, and a future that has shalom.
And the people of today cannot avoid the fact that Jeremiah is telling the exiled people to accept living in the struggle. But not only that, as the exiled people settle in, as they seek and work for their captors and the Babylonian community, they will find shalom. YHWH will also give them shalom in the future – communal hope – and return them to Israel.
Do we have shalom or hope today in this pandemic?
Shalom is the word for peace in Jeremiah 29:11. Shalom means Completeness; Soundness, welfare, and peace among other things. For this verse, it means “Peace with God.” In other words, the completeness from a divine standpoint that makes everything alright, even in troubled times.
Hope in Ancient Hebrew
For hope in Ancient Hebrew, it meant “to await, hope for” and “to expect.” I hope that we can rely on divine help to weigh in and turn this darkness into light; I may not see it, but I can trust that it’s there. And if I can see blessings, even in the darkness – love, care, comfort; people giving of themselves despite the cost – I have hope.
Sounds like there were some similarities between the exiled Jews and people of today’s world, especially in the pandemic. To some, it doesn’t look favorable; no hope or peace; but to others who have shalom and the hope for a better day (with God’s help), it makes them persevere.
A scholar on ecotheology of critical hope highlights individual hope and communal hope in the Hebrew Bible. There is individual hope, but there is also communal hope which I think fits in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles and our present day.
Hope from a psychological perspective is helpful, it doesn’t give the breath and concept of hope from a religious view. Communal hope, Cherice Bock says, in the Hebrew Bible denotes hope from the nation as a whole. Hope not for them, but for the nation that is to come. “Yet they chose to continue to hope in this expanded vision of the purpose of the community: living out God’s call to righteousness across time.” She goes on to say “Each person’s act of waiting and trusting in the long-term hope contributes to the coming of the hoped for shalom of God. It provides meaning to suffering and trials, a context within which these painful and discouraging experiences make sense.”
Thus, having the communal understanding of hope allows us to continue working for justice and righteousness even when we know that is not going to happen in our lifetime.
Speaking of righteousness and justice, there is one more lady that I want to introduce (or re-introduce) to you, Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mrs. King was one of the most influential women leaders of this world in her day. She was born and raised in Marion, Alabama in 1927 and died in 2006. She was already a high school valedictorian, received a B.A. in music and education from Antioch College, and was studying concert singing at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music (where she earned a degree in voice and violin) when she met Martin. They got married on June 18, 1953, and in September 1954 moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where she balanced the responsibilities of mother to 4 kids, a pastor’s wife, and Movement work in her own right, speaking before church, civic, college, fraternal, and peace groups.
Mrs. King traveled with her husband to Mexico and India (where they met with Mahatma Gandhi), and Norway, where Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize. I know from experience that every good man has a better woman beside him, and I expect Dr. King would agree with me. Sounds like a story-book ending is coming, but Dr. King’s assassination in 1968 brought disaster to their world.
Nonetheless, Coretta Scott King tirelessly carried the message of nonviolence and the dream of the beloved oppressed community to almost every corner of our nation and globe. Among her outstanding achievements are the following: She helped to build the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta; spearheaded the campaign to have her husband’s birthday as a national holiday; led goodwill missions in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia; spoke at many of history’s most massive peace and justice rallies; was the first woman to deliver the class day address at Harvard; and was the first woman to preach at a statutory service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
During her lifetime, she dialogued with heads of state and participated in protests with rank and file working people of all races. She stood with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa, when he became South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, and these are just some of her accolades.
She turned what could have been a tragedy into an amazing triumph. She is buried alongside her husband now in Atlanta. The inscription on the crypt memorializing her life of service is from I Corinthians 13:13 and says, “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Bring it to the people
So, what does hope and shalom look like for you, especially in this pandemic. From my counseling eyes I see grief and struggle that has real world consequences in the people it affects. Or to put it plainly, I see “fight or flight” in people, and it brings the best – and the worst – in human beings. Heroes on the one hand, and human beings just trying to get through the “miry clay” of their lives on the other.
Have you seen that in your walk?
First, like Buddhists, experience what everybody’s experiencing in this pandemic. Look around you and see the suffering, the struggle, and know that you have “company.” Then, if you can, lean into love; have empathy for those that are having difficulties on a grand scale – that will make your difficulty seem less of a hurdle from day to day.
Have Amma’s perspective – you can come alongside someone – even if you aren’t suffering – and give them love, care, compassion, and a “hug,” even if it’s a virtual hug. Or be Mrs. King, and stand up for justice, even though the world has taken your love as you fought; you keep on fighting. Here in the hospital, you keep driving and serving!
There is hope – whether individual or communal – and peace or shalom – which means completeness, soundness, welfare, peace – or in Jeremiah 29:11, peace with God. Unbelievably almost, God is working His perfect plan through the fallen world. You have access to His shalom and living it will make you and the people you serve better, but more importantly, whole as they can be in this pandemic. There is communal hope there, that will make the world more complete in time; sometimes you just must trust in His word.