Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
Many of you know that after college I took some time to travel. Two of my friends and I set off on a two month tour of art museums and culture sights around Europe. I was excited about the trip – it was my first time traveling off the continent of North America. It was also the first time I would be in places where English was not the primary language [I caveat this story with an acknowledgment that, whether it should be or not, it is fairly easy to travel in Europe with English speaking skills – but at the time I wasn’t totally aware of that]. We started our trip in England, flying into London and spending a few days there. England was a good place to transition into our travels. It wasn’t a big stretch to adapt to the culture in England and it lulled me into a happy state of complacency about the adventure ahead.
A few days later we crossed the channel and were onboard a train heading to Paris. I had dozed off to sleep for a bit and when I opened my eyes, I saw a field and a line of cypress trees. And I jolted awake with exhilaration as I realized I was traveling through the landscape of wonderful paintings by the likes of Vincent Van Gogh. I could simultaneously see the trees as if they were painted in his stylistic swirls and also understand why he used short dash marks to capture the trees in his works. They looked like each other!
I lingered in a happy moment of recognition of art in the world.
It was a powerful moment for me and a quick one. Because almost as soon as I recognized the countryside, my mind began to realize we were in France, and my logical brain started to panic. I realized that, due to our adventurous spirits and lack of planning, we would be arriving in Paris after dark with no idea of where we were going to actually spend the night. I also realized that, among my traveling companions, I was the only one who had studied any amount of French. My friends both had a working and useful knowledge of Spanish. I had a generally sparse collection of French vocabulary and phrases all of which conveniently left my brain in a moment of culture shock when I realized that my friends were counting on me to be able to make arrangements for us and be the primary communicator in France.
I fell into a state of quiet panic. Looking out the train windows I no longer saw the beauty of paintings brought to life. I couldn’t actually see much of anything – I was too distracted by a pit of nervousness growing deeper and deeper inside of me the closer we got to Paris.
Sitting across from me on the train was a friendly young Frenchman. He smiled at me and I smiled back and we struck up a small conversation about this and that, in English, of course because I was too terrified to even attempt to use the French reserves within me and he was delighted to have an opportunity to make use of his English skills. The conversation distracted me from the anxiety within me and before I knew it we arrived at the station.
The young man gave me a quick good-bye and hopped off the train. Walking down the platform with my friends, they turned to me and asked, so will you call and find us a place to stay? And panic once again set in. Me? Call? Who? How? You mean speak to someone in France in French?! My friends had held faith in my ability to speak French and I had lost mine. My friends had been free from anxiety on the journey because they held a belief in my ability, they had placed their trust in me and, in that moment, I had nothing to offer.
We all stood around looking at each other in a moment of uncertainty. They kept waiting for me to step up to the phone booth, find a hotel or hostel name in the phone book, and call to make arrangements. I looked out the door of the train station and saw the dark sky, the bustle of traffic and people and felt hopeless.
As I turned back from the door toward the phone booth to attempt to come through for my friends, my new friend from the train walked up with a big smile and said hello and asked where we were heading. I told him we had no idea. We had no place to go and, in honesty, I admitted that, in that moment, I didn’t even know how to call and ask for a reservation at a hotel.
Without hesitation, he pulled open the phone book, dialed a number and asked the voice on the other end if they would have space for 3 people. After a few additional arrangements he hung up the phone and said – “it is all arranged. Walk a couple of blocks straight and then turn left for a couple of blocks and on the right side of the street you will find the Perfect Hotel” – and he wasn’t saying it would be the perfect hotel for us – he was saying that the hotel was literally named: The Perfect Hotel.
And it was the perfect hotel, both in name and in presence. It was a landing pad of hope for our little party of traveling companions. It was a direction to head to in the darkness of the night and it had been handed to us through an act of unexpected generosity and kindness in a moment of fear and hesitation. It was a living presence of the word love.
For the last 3 weeks we have been exploring the concepts of faith, hope, and love. Each week we have heard from several individuals who have reflected on these themes with personal reflections, testimonies of experiences, and poetry. It has been a treat and a gift to hear reflections from a variety of perspectives and to be reminded once again, as we just talked about during children’s time, that faith, hope, and love are interconnected and take many different shapes in each of our lives as individuals. And yet, there is something in the pattern of our nature that allows different expressions of faith, hope, and love to be recognizable, to ring true to our own experiences, when we stop and share those stories with each other.
As I thought about encounters of faith, hope, and love in my life, the experience on the train to Paris kept coming to mind. It wasn’t a religious experience of faith, hope, or love, per se, and yet it tapped into each of those themes for me in one way or another. In a sense it was an act of faith to head to Paris with poor planning and expect, or perhaps I should say live in the hope, that all would work itself out. In the experience of losing perspective on my own abilities to communicate in another language, I also lost sight of the faith and hope that had carried me to that moment and yet in so doing, I unconsciously created a space to receive a gift of love from an outside source.
One of the things I have heard in the stories of the past weeks and see in my own experience is that faith, hope, and love are intertwined. When we try to talk about an experience of one of them, the other two are close at hand. Faith, hope, and love seem to be a support community for each other and when we lose sight of one or more of them, the others step in to bolster our spirits and make space for the others to once again flourish. Faith, hope, and love highlight the presence of each other. And we, highlight the presence of all of them for each other in relationship as we care for and let others care-take for us.
In Paris, it was humbling to experience a moment of culture shock, a sort of temporary incapacitation, in front of a complete stranger and to let him help me. It was even more so humbling and vulnerable to have it happen in front of my friends. It was full humanity in action.
I think I say this quite often, and I will say it again, one of the things I love about Jesus is that his witness in this world is also one of full humanity in action. He experiences the highs and the lows of the human condition, and for the most part he is able to show us an honorable path through the tough moments of being human. But every once in a while, his human shows. Like in today’s scripture for instance. In the Matthew text…Jesus gets hangry. For those not familiar with the term it is a mix of the words hungry and angry. It is an acknowledgement that if we are hungry in body, it has the tendency to make us temperamental in spirit. To be hangry is a supremely human experience.
And Jesus does a pretty stellar job of being hangry. Walking down the road, Jesus becomes hungry, spies a fig tree and when it turns out there is no fruit on the tree he curses it so that it will never bear fruit again!
It appears he had this little episode with the fig tree in the presence of his disciples because they marvel at the incident. I wonder, if perhaps, Jesus felt humbled and vulnerable about his cursing of the fig tree in front of his friends. Whether he did or didn’t, he turns the thing into a teaching moment for the disciples when they question how the fig tree withered at once. He assures them that there is power in unadulterated faith. One could almost say that it sounds like he is still on a hangry rant when he gives them the example he chooses – like he is taunting them – if you have faith – you could move that mountain into the sea. And yet, I don’t think this is a taunt, or even a judgement on their lack of faith, I think it is a simple statement – that when we find ourselves in, even the smallest, moments of open faith we become powerfully connected to something much bigger than ourselves.
And in that space of connection hope and love also thrive. Which brings us back around to the I Corinthians text that started us down this path of exploration for the past couple of weeks. Verse 13 of chapter 13:
There are, in the end, three things that last: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Leave it to Paul to tack a sort of showdown on the end of the verse by lifting love above the others. We could probably spend a lot of time exploring the implications of that, but I don’t think we need any more showdowns in this particular moment of time. This week we have been surrounded by the all too real implications that come when ideals vie for supremacy and power. It’s one thing to empower a position of love and quite another thing to empower racism, anti-Semitism, historical idolatry, and religious fanaticism. So I will not offer a showdown between faith, hope, and love because, this week, when I read the addendum to the verse that says: the greatest of these is love, I don’t read it as a prize or a judgement, I experience it as a reminder of the all-encompassing nature of love.
I read it as encouragement, and more than that, I read it as an assignment to each of us to engage love in our lives. Not for the betterment of ourselves, but for sake of all selves to have space for faith, hope, and love to flourish. And to particularly live love that creates safe and life-giving spaces for those who currently live in the very real grips of fear, violence, hatred, and rejection because of who they are. In the noise of these days, in the brokenness of injustice thriving around us, in the uncertainty of what might be coming down the path, it is easy to lose faith, it is a ripe time for hopelessness – yet in the face of all of that, we can still choose to create spaces to let love to thrive.
May we choose to be people who engage love in our lives all the time. Not just in response to a dramatic situation at hand – although as our hangry Jesus example of humanity shows us we are wired to and should be moved to action by unjust situations. For the faith, hope, and love of all who daily suffer injustice, may we also be people who choose to live out love at all times fully anticipating in faith and with hope that through living love above all else, justice will find a foothold.
Faith, hope, and love are interconnected and they connect us to each other. As we draw these weeks of storytelling to a close, I want us to end as we began, by sharing stories of faith, hope, and love with each other. So I invite you to turn to one or two people sitting around you and briefly reflect together. And because there are three topics I give you three options for reflection [you can pick any one of these]:
- Share one thing that has struck you from hearing the faith, hope, and love stories of others over the past few weeks
- Share a memory, or experience of faith, hope, or love from your own history
- Share a moment of seeing or name a struggle you have had in experiencing faith, hope, or love in the past week
As we gather back together from our small conversations, may we trust that these conversations, these moments are sharing are not finished – they are on-going as we continue to live this journey together.
There are, in the end, three things that last: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.