Preaching hope in bleak times

Sermons: Religious leaders present messages of spiritual solace against a backdrop of war and violence.

April 11, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Every Sunday since the beginning of the war in Iraq, the Rev. John R. Sharp has asked his parishioners at Govans Presbyterian Church in Baltimore to pray for American troops.

Today, as his congregation of more than 300 gathers for Easter Sunday services, Sharp will ask his parishioners for more than a prayer. He will ask them for hope.

"The country is at war, terrorism is unabated - these things are on people's minds," Sharp said. "We need to hear a story of hope right now, and the story of Easter is that no matter how bleak things get in our family lives or in the war, God will bring us through it."

While Christians celebrate Easter and the Jewish community nears the end of its eight-day Passover observance, religious leaders are charged with a challenging mission: Preaching hope in a time of loss. Joy in a time of sadness.

Peace in a time of war.

"News about the war is on TV and the radio every day, so you can't get around it," said Samuel J. Neal, pastor of Edmondson Community Baptist Church in Baltimore. "When there is trouble all around us, it's our job to bring the word of good news."

It's a job made more difficult by the increasingly violent conflict in Iraq - particularly for congregations with ties to the troops stationed there. At First Presbyterian Church in Annapolis, four parishioners were recently deployed to Iraq, and many others have friends or family there.

"There's a great level of concern about those individuals, as well as questions about where the war is heading," said the Rev. William L. Hathaway, pastor of the 670-member congregation. He was to deliver a sermon relating God's word to the troubled times.

"I have a reference to the dark clouds of warfare, and my trust that God is working in the midst of this darkness to bring about new life," Hathaway said. "Many people have experienced dark moments of the soul or tragedy in their own life, and have turned to God to find comfort and strength as well as new beginnings."

For Christians, Easter celebrates a new beginning - Christ's resurrection after the crucifixion. For Jews, Passover is an eight-day observance commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and to freedom.

The hopeful message of both scriptural stories is one many religious leaders are eager to bring to a country at war.

"It's definitely a good time to bring this message," said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh, an Orthodox synagogue in Pikesville. "But if you stop and think about it, the news is rarely good, so it's always a good time for it."

`Trying times'

Wohlberg, a rabbi for 26 years, said he recalls sermons being delivered after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, during Watergate and after 9/11.

"These were all trying times for our country," he said. "Yet they were also the times when our country was strongest."

Although Wohlberg addresses the conflict in Iraq in his sermons, he said he is careful to avoid too much commentary when preaching on the topics of war and peace.

"I'm a rabbi, not Walter Cronkite," he said. "In church, people are looking for what insights their religion can bring to what's going on. If they are looking for political commentary, they can find it on TV."

Political views

For Hathaway, however, the pulpit is a place from which he feels comfortable sharing his opposition to the war.

"One of a pastor's jobs is to relate faith to the broader societal and political changes," he said. "Yet the prophetic role is always complicated and vulnerable to concern and criticism."

Ellen Talley, a member of St. Ignatius Church in Baltimore, said that while she looks forward to topical sermons, she draws the line at preaching politics.

"My own spirituality becomes more alive when it's part of the real world," said Talley, 38, of Baltimore.

But, she added, "I hesitate to advocate for some type of theocracy with religious leaders telling our government what to do."

To avoid offending the political persuasions of parishioners, some religious leaders - such as the Rev. Andy Aaron of the Church of the Crucifixion in Glen Burnie - prefer oblique references to the war.

"I don't get into saying whether we should be there or not," Aaron said.

"I tend to focus on wanting God to intervene and bring peace to Iraq and minimize loss of life."

Aaron also said that although the struggle in Iraq is a tragic one, he is careful to focus on the daily struggles faced by members of his congregation.

"I tend to talk about not just the news, but the personal news as well - broken families, lost loved ones, people in nursing homes," Aaron said. "The stories of our lives are also ones of suffering."

Victory over suffering

For Julie Mauck of Deale, Easter is a celebration of her own family's triumph over suffering. Mauck was moved to tears by a Good Friday service held at St. Anne's Church in Annapolis.

Mauck's daughter, Madeline, was born with such severe disabilities that doctors said she would never walk or talk. Now 5, the little girl runs so much she's hard to keep up with.

"It's very easy to be hopeful," Mauck said. "You look around day to day, see things that are imperfect, and see there is hope to make them perfect."

Sun staff writers Rona Kobell and Ryan Davis contributed to this article.

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