20. Juni 2019

Sermon on December 16th, 2018

Sermon: Esther Handschin

Dear Sisters and Brothers!

Towards the end of each year I am curious to see which words and expressions will be chosen as Word of the Year. This year it has become the „Chancellor of Silence“. This comments on the behaviour of the Austrian Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz with regard to some statements made by members of the Federal Government. He is silent. This is not new. Already 13 years ago „Chancellor of Silence“ made it to the Word of the Year when another Federal Chancellor of the ÖVP in a coalition with the FPÖ liked to keep silent. Three years ago in 2015 the word of the year in Austria was „welcome culture“ while the word of the year in Germany was „refugee“. Both words remind us of this time when many refugees came to Europe. They are close to each other and yet they show an essential difference. But what is the difference?

I became aware of it through an article by a friend. She is a German scholar and repeatedly deals with the subtleties of the German language in her newspaper articles. So she wrote something about the final syllable „-ling“, to which some German words end. She called it „the mean -ling“. Why? Let’s listen to some words that end like this: Foundling, infant, prisoner, apprentice, newbie, weakling, coward, softy, handsome, upstart. Their summary: Everything that is called -ling weakens what it is called, often in a negative sense. The boulder, a polished boulder from the Ice Age, has been left lying somewhere, is passive, cannot move. The infant is often just as powerless as the prisoner. Every apprentice is at first a newcomer: inexperienced and sometimes awkward. The weakling, coward, or softy also has an incompetence. In the case of the beautiful or the upstart, it is rather the fake that we emphasize.

And what about the refugee? These people are also dependent on the help of others. They or their families have decided that they are on their way. But this is not possible without traffickers to whom they pay a lot of money. It is not possible without people who give them water, food, clothes and shelter. As people who can carry their belongings in a plastic bag, they have to start all over again: learning a new language, often also a new profession; organising a housing facility, finding their way around in terms of waste separation or dealing with the authorities, getting to know the school system or the health system. Everything is new and different and overwhelms the refugees. Because the word „refugee“ has this tendency to devalue the designated, it is probably better to speak of „fugitives“.

In this respect „welcome culture“ sounds better and it pleases with more. It looks at the other side. It does not focus on the weakness of refugees, but on what those who live in countries where refugees seek protection can do. It is about making the arrival good and facilitating the arrival. The word „culture“ comes from Latin and means „to nurture“. That means not to let it happen somehow and see what happens, but to consciously set signs, take things by the hand and give them a shape, a certain imprint. Those who cultivate a welcoming culture do not leave the first encounter between two foreign people to chance, but shape it in such a way that fears are reduced. For fear in the encounter with something that we do not know is normal. I don’t think it’s normal that these – I call them „natural fears“ – are inflated and whole doomsday scenarios are developed from them: We are flooded with refugees. The Occident will perish. Everything changes and we are on the side of the losers.

The apostle Paul expected the end of this world and time in his time. We hear this from the Letter to the Philippians when he writes: „The Lord is at hand. For him there was no question that Jesus would return during his lifetime. It only takes a short time until he comes and the Great Judgment begins. So it is all the more astonishing that Paul’s words to the church in Philippi do not stir up fears and increase insecurity. It seems to me that he rather works against all this and thus creates a kind of „welcome culture“ for the coming of Jesus. I think we can learn a lot from his „program“ against fears that plague us. Be it small fears, e.g. whether I can cope with everything in time for Christmas, be it bigger fears, as some of our fellow men experience when the doctor has to give them an unfavourable prognosis for the course of their illness or be it the great insecurities, which we are currently experiencing in our society due to the climate catastrophe, migration or the current anti-social politics.

What does Paul say to us in all these uncertainties? What does he encourage us to do? What is his program against big and small fears? First of all, he invites us to rejoice, not simply, but twice, even for those who cannot yet really believe that joy changes life: „Rejoice in the Lord all the way and once again I say: Rejoice! Joy is similar to laughter. You can’t just command it like that. It takes a good reason for us to start laughing or to rejoice in something. That’s why we tell each other jokes. Paul calls this good reason a little later: „The Lord is near! That is his reason for joy. For some people this is rather a reason to be frightened or to be afraid. For with the coming of the Lord there is also judgment. But for Paul it is the Lord who comes again, not the judge, before whose judgment he must tremble. In other letters of the apostle Paul we can read that he sees in Jesus Christ the lawyer who will represent us in the process which lies before us with the judgment and will bring us through all the instances. So he writes in his Epistle to the Romans: „Is God for us, who can be us again? That is reason enough to rejoice and be happy.

But what is to be done until the Lord comes again? What will help us to overcome our fears and deal with the uncertainties that affect us here and there? What „welcome culture“ can we cultivate until then? At this point Paul encourages us to be fellow human beings: „Let your goodness be known to all men“, says Luther. In other Bible translations the word „goodness“ is also translated as friendliness. For where we meet other people with kindness, fear disappears. You probably know this: It is extremely difficult to remain grim when you are smiled at in a friendly way. The old Luther translation uses at this point a word that fascinates me because we hardly know it any more: „Let your limpness be known to all men! But this gives us to recognize what kind of kindness and goodness is meant. „lind“ means „mild“, „tender“ or „gentle“. In Swiss German, „lind“ is also used when it is a little cooked or soft. So: Encounter the person in a pleasant, courteous, not repulsive way. Do not apply harshness or severity, not agitation or abuse, but approach them in such a way that their fears fall away and they become open and ready for what you have to say to them. Or somewhat casually and formulated in the Swiss way: „Cook them softly with your kindness!

But Paul’s program against fear and insecurity goes even further. I paraphrase: „Don’t worry about anything, but if you ask God for something, don’t forget to give thanks“. Those who practice saying thank you change their perspective in a targeted way. Fear brings with it the fact that it makes one’s gaze narrow. We feel like the rabbit in front of the snake, become paralyzed and unable to act. We only see in front of us what we lose and no longer what we have. We only see what we would like to win, but no longer what we can achieve. But if we consciously pay attention to what we can thank for, then we suddenly discover the possibilities that lie ahead.

The fear whether I can cope with everything paralyzes me. Actually, I would be dependent on the help of others. It is difficult for me to ask them for it. But it is here that new relationships open up that I might not have established or cultivated. A difficult health diagnosis makes me realize that I will no longer be able to do many things the way I have done so far. Maybe I should think about what else I can do and where I have talents that I haven’t pursued yet. People who immigrate to our country do not just take away jobs or housing. They also have talents and gifts that we can discover with them. They contribute something to the enrichment of our society. Not necessarily in the material sense, but certainly in terms of language, cultural diversity, the joy of celebrating parties or simply in terms of interpersonal contacts. 

Furthermore, the Apostle Paul recommends: „Practising thanksgiving takes away some of your worries and sorrows about the future. The horizon, narrowed by fear, becomes wider again. The narrowness on the chest dissolves. The certainty returns: I am not lost. I can trust in God who cares for me and gives me what I need to live. In this respect one could say: Thanksgiving causes the removal of my fears.

Finally, the last point in the anti-anxiety program of the apostle Paul: He awards the church in Philippi the peace of God. This peace is greater and higher than all the arguments and counterarguments that my reason makes up. This peace does not care about for or against, receiving refugees or closing borders. It is a peace that applies to people on both sides, that is, to all people. It is a peace that encompasses me as a whole person, with all my senses and with all my heart, me as a whole person. And it is a peace that has its foundation in Jesus Christ. Because there is Jesus Christ, that is why there is peace for me.

This peace given to us in Jesus is the real foundation for the joy to which Paul invites us. This peace allows us to look calmly at what is happening in this world around us and with us. If we remain anchored in this peace of Christ and accept this peace, we can look to the future with confidence. Amen.