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"Gestures of Hope"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 18, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Isaiah 7:14

It was a small gesture on this man's part, but even a small gesture can come with great promise. Some may have said it was an empty gesture, sentimental and inconsequential. What good did it do?

It was the winter of 1856 in the city of Liverpool, England. A tall gentleman in the dark coat of a diplomat, with long tails and a starched collar is visiting the Liverpool workhouse, a state-run home for the poor, for people who had nowhere else to go, for the unemployed and unemployable, the elderly and the infirmed, unmarried mothers and orphans. Picture Charles Dickens' character, Oliver Twist, in the grimy dining hall requesting an extra helping of watery gruel, and you'll have a working image for this workhouse.

In the center of the scene, that diplomatic-looking gentleman is holding a child, somewhat awkwardly holding the child. The gentleman is in his 50s. He is reserved, unaccustomed to actual contact with humans. And when he put on his long-tailed dress coat and top hat that morning to fulfill his duty, he hadn't expected that it would include this. The child he was holding was not attractive in any way imaginable. He couldn't tell whether the child was a boy or a girl. So, in his mind, he assigned the pronoun "it." He guessed that it was around six years old. And out of all the guests who toured the Liverpool workhouse that day, this wretched, sickly orphan with sores on its face and scabs on its mouth wanted to be held by him. So he did. It was a small gesture, but with some promise. Because this seemingly inconsequential act of kindness was observed and vividly described by the famous American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was there in the room where it happened that day in the winter of 1856.

At the time, Hawthorne was in the prime of his career as a writer. His famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, published six years earlier, had already become a best-seller. And now in 1856, Hawthorne was serving as an American diplomat in England. His lifelong friend, Franklin Pierce, had just been elected the 14th president of the United States. And as a favor to his old friend, President Pierce gave Hawthorne the job. Hawthorne wrote about his experience in England in his book titled Our Old Home. Most of his diplomatic duties involved attending parties and giving after-dinner speeches. But he also mentions this visit to the Liverpool workhouse in the winter of 1856, the scene we just observed.

Here's how Hawthorne described it: "This child, this sickly wretched offspring of unspeakable sin and sorrow took an unaccountable fancy for the gentleman just hinted at. It prowled about like a pet kitten rubbing against his legs, following everywhere at his heels, pulling at his coattails, and at last got directly before him and held forth its arms mutely insisting on being taken up. It was as if God had promised the poor child this favor, and this gentleman was bound to fulfill the contract. I watched the struggle in his mind with a good deal of interest and am seriously of the opinion that he did a heroic act, and affected more than he dreamed of towards his final salvation, when he took up the loathsome child and caressed it as tenderly as if he had been its father."

It must have been a remarkable sight and clearly had a profound impact on Nathaniel Hawthorne, but it didn't last. It was only a gesture. A few minutes later, the gentleman left the child in the workhouse so as not to be late for his next dinner party, where he was most likely expected to give a speech.

Because a gesture doesn't last, it may seem inconsequential. A gesture may be like a sign on the highway pointing to the destination, but not the vehicle that will take you there. And because of its humble nature, we might decide that a gesture must be an empty gesture, like a road sign without a real destination. We want more from our works and the works of those around us. We don't just want gestures, we want our works to take us somewhere, somewhere worth going, and to believe that our actions are part of a program to better the world, to save it from whatever we think it needs saving from.

In 1844 Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story to illustrate this desire to make the world a better place. In the story, the great reformers of the world got together. Dissatisfied with mere gestures, they decide to purge everything that was morally ugly and unattractive, to make the planet safe from all forms of greed and discrimination, from all bullies and bad influences, from every act of vandalism and microaggression. So, they built a bonfire, and they burned it all, all the objectionable artifacts, they incinerated the offensive relics of old and the new machinery of immorality. And when everything was burned and the world was practically pure, in the darkness, there came a sinister laugh from a dark figure whose eyes glowed with a redder light than that of the bonfire.

"There is one thing these wise acres have forgotten to throw into the fire," the dark visaged stranger says, "and without it, all the rest of the conflagration is just nothing at all."

"And what may that be?" A bystander asks.

"What but the human heart itself. And unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery, the same old shapes or worse ones."

Hawthorne's parable illustrates what the ancient prophets of Israel had said long ago. Jeremiah said, "The heart of humankind is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. Who can understand it?" Ezekiel said that the heart was as cold and as dead as stone. Isaiah said the human heart was afflicted, callous, arrogant, and far from God, even among those who honor Him with their lips. This is why the prophets proclaimed, "Our works won't carry us to a better place." This is why our efforts to reform the world not only break down, they take us in the opposite direction. It's because we trust in created things rather than in our Creator. And when our grand projects fail, we hunker down in fear. We hide and we hoard. And then we tell ourselves that all gestures are empty well-wishers, stock phrases, cliches, mail-order flowers wilted before they arrive.

The prophets of Israel, like a Hawthorne parable, put us in this place where we confess along with the narrator in the conclusion of The Scarlet Letter, we are sinners, all alike. We admit the foolishness of the dream that our works can take us someplace better, and we name the fear that confines us in this stagnant workhouse, to hide and to hoard the little that we think we have. But then He enters the scene, not just a man, but our Creator, born a human being to embrace us in our wretchedness. Not just a gesture, but a work with real consequence. Through the prophet Isaiah 7:14, God spoke this beautiful promise; "The Lord Himself will give you a sign. The virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son, and will call His Name Immanuel, which means 'God with us.'" God in His Son, Jesus, came to be with us, crucified, dead, and buried for us, raised in His body on the third day for us, returning for us to give us new hearts and a new creation, to turn our ashes into a crown of beauty. In Jesus, small gestures come with great promise.

Nathaniel Hawthorne saw life, if not always from a Christ-centered perspective, he nonetheless saw it as Flannery O'Connor once said, from a Christ-haunted one. When Hawthorne observed that scene in the Liverpool workhouse with the distinguished gentleman holding that wretched orphan, he saw a gesture from God. And that gesture was particularly poignant because, as we learned from Hawthorne's private notebooks that were published after he died, that distinguished gentleman so unflatteringly described was Hawthorne himself.

That winter in 1856, recollecting that moment he wrote in his journal, "I held my undesirable burden a little while. After setting the child down, it still followed me, holding two of my fingers and playing with them just as if it were a child of my own. I should have never forgiven myself if I had repelled its advances." That scene haunted Hawthorne. It reminded him that he was responsible in part for all the sufferings and wrongs of the world in which he lived and was not permitted to look upon any of it as though it were none of his concern. Like many of us raised in or around the Christian tradition, Nathaniel Hawthorne saw life with a Christ-haunted perspective. And if by grace he saw it also from a Christ-centered one, he would've known that no such gesture of ours could ever shoulder such an awful responsibility. But it could come along carried by a greater promise.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's youngest daughter, Rose, thought that this account in the Liverpool workhouse contained the greatest words her father ever wrote. Rose Hawthorne had a rocky and sometimes wretched life. The demands of her father's literary fame left him little time for her. He died when she was only 13. Rose's mother died when she was 20. Rose got married six months after her mother died, but neither she nor her husband had a steady source of income, which put strain on their marriage. She and her husband had a son together, but the boy died just before his sixth birthday. Rose's older sister died that same year. Rose and her husband both struggled with mental and physical health. They separated for a time. Her husband died when she was 47.

Rose had trained as a nurse. In midlife she began the work that would occupy the last 30 years of her life: small gestures of kindness, offering hospice care to incurable cancer patients. She recruited other women into this work. Rose had become Roman Catholic by then, and she and the other women eventually became a congregation of nuns. They ended up founding seven free cancer homes throughout the United States.

When people ask Rose Hawthorne about her choice to give her life to caring for the incurable, she often referred to that story of the ragged little orphan her father encountered in the Liverpool workhouse. That seemingly insignificant gesture came with great promise for Rose. It revealed the heart of what it means to live as a follower of Jesus Christ. Embraced by God in our wretchedness, we learn to embrace others.

In last week's message, I told you a story about Mary Ann, a three-year-old girl whose battle with incurable cancer left her with a horribly disfigured face. What I didn't tell you was that the nuns who embraced Mary Ann and cared for her until she died were sisters of one of the cancer homes founded by Rose Hawthorne. Mary Ann, if you remember, proved to be a remarkable child. The doctors had given her six months to live, but she stayed with those nuns for nine years. And when she died, the sisters were so inspired by her brief and beautiful life, they wrote her a memoir. In it they told of how a man who called himself a faith-healer once came to visit Mary Ann. "The Lord Jesus can heal you Mary Ann," he told her. Mary Ann didn't answer. He said again, "The Lord Jesus can heal you."

"I know he can," Mary Ann said.

The man said it a third time implying that she could be healed if she had enough faith.

Mary Ann answered, "I know Jesus can heal me. I know He can do anything. It doesn't make a bit of difference whether He heals me or not. That's His business."

See, those nuns had taught Mary Ann the Christ-centered Creed of the early Christian Church. The words of the Creed she internalized taught her not to put faith in her faith, but in God, and to look forward, not to grand reforms and sensational healings, but to Jesus and His return, to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come. Jesus' promise freed Mary Ann to use whatever life He gave her to gesture towards this hope.

The summer before Mary Ann died, a five-month-old girl named Stephanie came to stay at the home. When Stephanie was born, it was immediately clear that something was wrong with her. After running the initial tests, the doctor broke the bad news to the mother, referring to the child as "it." "The kindest thing to do," he said, "is just to let it die. It's useless to itself and to everyone else."

When they brought Stephanie to the home, she stayed in Mary Ann's room. Mary Ann loved her like a sister. She couldn't do much, but she did what she could, small gestures mostly, sewing a nightgown for Stephanie, helping wash her cloth diapers, patting her back to help her fall asleep.

Mary Ann's memoir was published a few years after she died. The sisters dedicated the book to the memory of Nathaniel Hawthorne and they persuaded Flannery O'Connor to write its introduction. In the introduction, O'Connor wrote, "There is a direct line between the incident in the Liverpool workhouse, the work of Hawthorne's daughter, and Mary Ann, who stands not only for herself, but for all the other examples of human imperfection and grotesquery, which the Sisters of Rose Hawthorne's order spend their lives caring for. Their work is the tree sprung from Hawthorne's small act of Christ-likeness, and Mary Ann is its flower."

Whatever Jesus does with our small gestures, that's His business. And so, wherever you are, preparing again to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who holds you in His promise, what's something small that you can do for someone to share what you've been given? Our works aren't for saving the world, but they aren't for nothing either. They are gestures for others, toward the One who has, who is, and who will. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Reflections for December 18, 2022

Title: Gestures of Hope

Mark Eischer: Now, back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Today, I'm visiting with Dr. David Schmitt. Welcome back, David.

David Schmitt: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Mike Zeigler: This year for Advent, many churches in the Christian tradition follow readings from Isaiah, and we are doing the same. And in these messages, I'm working with ideas that I've learned from Dr. Schmitt—about how Christians can respond to the experience of beauty. So, David, to get us started, could you briefly summarize what we've said in our earlier conversations about beauty and how that shapes us, in that experience?

David Schmitt: Yeah. I'm basically thinking about how the three Articles of the Creed can give us a way to think about beauty. So creedal reflection on beauty. And if you think about that, the First Article, there's a created beauty. That's a beauty we can see. This is First-Article beauty, woven throughout creation, and it causes us to stop and see and receive creation as a gift with a sense of aching awe—awe because of the wonder of it, but ache because it is passing away.

Then the Second Article is of a broken beauty, and that's a beauty that we cannot see. This is Second-Article beauty. This beauty is found in the broken body of Jesus on the cross for our redemption and it's there in every broken place that Jesus fills with His presence. So it awakens us to a life of trust in God's suffering love that enters into places of evil and suffering and brings about redemption.

And then the Third Article would be the promised beauty. That's the beauty that God promises us we will see in the new creation. This is what I called Third-Article beauty. This is woven throughout the Christian imagination. This is where the language of Scripture just bursts forth with all sorts of images, trying to tap into our imagination and open our minds and hearts to see this beauty that is yet to come.

Mike Zeigler: How does that kind of beauty, that promised beauty, shape us as Christians?

David Schmitt: I believe it shapes us to live with gestures or small acts of courageous hope. Because we see this promised beauty, we are certain of it. It's a promise, we're certain of it. And yet there's this now-not-yet tension. We're not yet experiencing it now.

Mike Zeigler: You used the word "gesture," and that was a central idea or metaphor that I was working with in this sermon. And, again, another idea that I got from you. So I'm so grateful for it. Why is that word, gesture, the right word, an appropriate word for this kind of response to promised beauty?

David Schmitt: Christians, I think, are ones who live by gestures. It's not the grand activity that we're trying to accomplish something, we're trying to feed everyone in the world and establish God's kingdom, but rather it's a very small gesture, we're feeding this one person. And you think about, in Scripture, it's interesting the way in which we're told of these small gestures.

Mike Zeigler: One of my favorites from the Old Testament is when the Lord has Jeremiah by the field after he's told that the Babylonians are coming and they're going to destroy everything, now's the time to invest and buy this field as, again, as a gesture.

David Schmitt: Right, and in the prophets, so often they're talking about really tangible activities that God's people do. So having just weights and measures so you're not stealing from the poor, you're being just in terms of what you're selling. And yet when the prophets speak about these activities, they use this grand, beautiful language of righteousness flowing down like streams. Right? So these very small ways of life, these small gestures, are depicted by the prophets with language of promised beauty. And I think that's trying to call attention to the power and the greatness of the small gestures and acts.

Mike Zeigler: And as you said, these things don't save us or save the world, but maybe you could also think of them like signs, they point.

David Schmitt: Right. They're pointing beyond us to a promise that we've been given and that we know to be true even though it is not yet fully revealed.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you so much for being with us during these conversations in Advent, and Merry Christmas!

David Schmitt: Oh, Merry Christmas!

Mike Zeigler: Coming up.

David Schmitt: Thank you very much. It's been wonderful to be with you.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel" setting by Carl Schalk. From Hymns for All Saints: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (© 2005 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

"Once He Came in Blessing" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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