Behind our church there’s the walking bridge over Mill Creek. For a good while now there has been this message up on the bridge – some anonymous angel put up a work of art: eleven square paintings of letters on the chain-link fence spelling out “NEVER GIVE UP.”
I’d be interested to hear different people’s takes on what this means to them, but I take this as a good word of encouragement. Keep hope, persevere. Whenever I saw it, it caused me to think, In what ways can I give up on myself or give up on humanity. Where can I find the courage to not give up.
Now, if you’ve been walking by that bridge the past few months, you’d have seen that some point the “N” disappeared. The message turned into, “EVER GIVE UP.” I went and snooped around the bridge and it was clear it was sabotage. It’s not like something had broken and the “N” had just fallen off; someone had gone out of their way to undo the wires that hold the painting and, I presume, throw the “N” off the bridge into the creek. “EVER GIVE UP”.
I wonder about who did that and what was going on for them. If they were feeling despair or if they were angry at someone or at everyone or angry at fate or at God. Or maybe it wasn’t as serious as that and they were just taken by the mischief of their own clever idea. Or I could really give them the benefit of the doubt: maybe the saboteur was making a more existential point that, ultimately, we all must surrender. This universe if full of tremendous forces outside our control and true faith is surrender to a God beyond our understanding. A lot of times it’s wise to just let go. But, somehow, I doubt that was the point of cutting down the “N” and dropping it into the creek. If someone’s going around popping kids’ balloons, I doubt their motivation is to help people be more at peace with the fact that life is fleeting. They’re just being mean. I think that’s how most people felt when they saw that someone had vandalized this word of encouragement.
Actually, I’m grateful to the person who cut down the “N”. Most of us have probably felt that way at one point or another: Just give up already, you’re not worth it, or this world isn’t worth it. That’s a message we can get from other people, that’s a message we can tell ourselves, that’s a message we can convey to other people. There’s a lot we could feel despair about, defeat, dread. And we may all know what it’s like – the shock – of finding that something you really care about has been sabotaged. This week we may all be feeling the impact of the fact that there has been yet another deadly school shooting. Helplessness is the hardest rock to run up against. The question is, how do we respond to this message of despair?
What the Mill Creek saboteur didn’t know was that their deed was not the end of the story: it was just the set up for a much more powerful expression of love and hope.
A couple weeks ago – two Mondays ago – it had been cold and rainy overnight and into the morning when I first got to the church. But then by late morning the sun had come out and it was becoming a beautiful spring day. There were a handful of things I had to mail from the office and I figured that was a good excuse to go out into the sun and walk to the mailbox on Boyer at the college. When I left the church and headed toward the footbridge I saw there was someone there on the near side of the bridge stooped over working at something. There was this shock of grey hair. I saw she was busy fixing a wire behind a square canvas on the fence. It was a new canvas, where the “N” used to be. And as I got closer I saw that she had also put up a bunch of flowers – cloth and wire flowers – on the chain-link. I thought, “Now here is someone I need to meet!” It turns out she was not the person who put up the initial “NEVER GIVE UP.” As a matter of fact, she had never seen the original un-sabotaged “NEVER.” She was just in town that week visiting family. She had gone on a walk and she came to the bridge and saw “EVER GIVE UP” and she thought, “Hmm, something’s missing here.” So, she went to Goodwill and found they had a cheap blank canvas that was exactly the right size and she bought it and painted an “N” on it and got some wire and some flowers and set to work.
And as we talked I realized I was in the presence of a genuinely magical and goodhearted person – she was grandmotherly in a plucky and puckish kind of way. The kind of wisdom that’s wily and has got its own kind of mischeif. We talked a little about church and faith, and it was clear to me: Now here’s someone for whom the Kin-dom of Heaven is real. “Thy Kin-dom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Not just a hope, not just an ought or should – and that’s important, don’t get me wrong – but there’s the next step, the true leap of faith where it becomes simply real. The Kin-dom of Heaven is real. It’s here. And we just live into it, as a daily leap of faith like our daily bread. A matter of fact. And when anything tries to sabotage this, we just deny it’s power over us. So, when you come across a message that’s just one letter away from saying “Never give up,” you just naturally set about putting it right again.
Now, this person, this anonymous angel, could have been any of us. Any of us who felt some loss with the lost “N”, we could have just set ourselves like she did to not giving up and just putting up a new one. It takes a fighting spirit. (By the way, I trust the “give up” camp will take their own advice.)
I’m so glad I got to witness all this because this is an object lesson. Hope, faith, love: they take a community, they take kindred spirits … sometimes these kindred spirits don’t know each other: the person who put up the message on the bridge didn’t know the person who set it right again, but they were part of the same conspiracy, working to the same aim, over time. These anonymous angels tag-team through the generations. But when you do know your kindred spirits, it’s very important to claim that and to work together as allies in the same sacred struggle. We need each other to keep hope and to fight for hope.
A Conspiracy of Hope. That’s what I’m inviting you into; that’s what you have invited me into: A Conspiracy of Hope.
Now, conspiracy literally means: sharing the same spirit.
For Christians, that’s the Holy Spirit, the breath of our Creator, the living urgings of our sole sovereign and authority. It’s the Holy Spirit that blew and burned through the followers of Jesus when they gathered in a circle together to figure out what to do now that Jesus was gone. The powers of evil had killed him – his message of hope had been sabotaged … despair, defeat, dread reigned that day. But it did not reign for long. Christ rose again. And with him the Savior’s Conspiracy of Hope. But after Christ then ascended into Heaven, as we say, his followers were alone again. They were not in despair anymore, but they were still wondering, “What do we do now? What does this all mean?” Then there was something like a great wind, and something like fire – and they knew the Kin-dom of Heaven is real and it is here. And they were compelled by a power beyond themselves to became ambassadors of this Realm, messengers of the Good News that came with Christ, speaking and reaching across all that divides humanity to invite folks into this Conspiracy of Hope. Healing wounds. Living and sharing the gifts of creation as one. And so it has passed down through the generations, weathering countless acts of sabotage. Generation after generation, when someone sought to tear down what is good and true and just, and despair and defeat and dread seemed to reign, anonymous angels stepped in again. And the Spirit stayed alive.
One example from this past week: There’s a religious movement in America today that has revived MLK’s last campaign, the great conspiracy of hope that an assassin’s bullet sabotaged. The Poor People’s Campaign. MLK in his last years was working to build a movement of folks struggling with poverty across racial divides. Now 50 years later some ministers, led by Rev. Liz Theoharis and Rev. William Barber, have revived it across the country. There have been events in Aberdeen and Olympia and Spokane. I will share more in the coming weeks.
The Spirit that comes with trying together to follow God’s will through the Way of Jesus, this Conspiracy of Hope, is something we receive from past generations of anonymous angels. It’s our task to mend the places where there has been sabotage, to mend bridges, and to pass this Spirit on to the generations to come.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered May 20, 2018, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)
First Reading Acts 2:1-11 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
Second Reading Acts 2:36-39,43-47 [Peter said,] “So let the whole nation of Israel know beyond all doubt that God has made him both Sovereign and Anointed – this Jesus whom you crucified.” When the people heard this, they were conscience-smitten, and said to Peter and the rest of the ambassadors: “Friends, what can we do?” “Turn yourselves to God,” answered Peter, “and be baptized every one of you in the faith of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And then you will receive the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children, and also for all those now far away, who may be called by the Supreme one, Our God. … A deep impression was made on everyone, and many wonders and signs were done at the hands of the ambassadors. All who became believers in Christ held everything for the common use. They sold their property and their goods, and shared the proceeds among them all, according to their individual needs. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the Temple, and to the breaking of bread at their homes, while they partook of their food in simple-hearted gladness, praising God, and winning the goodwill of all the people. And the Holy One daily added to their company those who were in the path of salvation.