Harrowing Of Hell
December 24, 2015

What if Mary Knew?

Preacher: the Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

What if Mary knew her son, born in a manger in Bethlehem, would unleash upon the world the greatest power it had ever known, the greatest power there is? What if that is what Mary saw in her child’s eyes, the power of the love of God? Is it possible that is what Mary saw: the power of the love of God?

I think anyone who has ever looked into the face of a newborn infant knows the answer. So, in light of that contemplate this: What does the child see when he or she looks back at us? Consider the bond that is made and the manner by which the love is shared as the parent gazes upon a child, and the child gazes upon a parent.

So here is the question: What does that love look like as it lingers throughout a person’s life? I wonder, might that lingering love look like the unseen hope that Paul writes about in his letter to the Romans? Might the presence of the power of love look like hope unseen, waiting to be unleashed upon the world?

I’ve been wondering about unseen hope pretty seriously in anticipation of talking with you all tonight. Paul writes, “Who hopes for what is seen?” And I keep thinking, “Well, I do.”

Hope is imagining a future that looks different than the present, and when I imagine this future I see things…like a new car, or paying off my mortgage, or the recovery of my daughter from a knee injury.  These are things that I can see, and I think they are good things to hope for. So what the heck is Paul talking about when he claims we should hope for things that are unseen?

So in my confusion I took my question to God in prayer.  It is what I do, not because I’m a priest, but because God is here and near, and always available. Prayer is super easy, anyway.  It requires just sitting down and asking God. So I do it a lot, because it is actually helpful. Sometimes I get clear insights; sometimes my mind just wanders around, and that’s OK. In this case it just wandered around.

It went to a story I heard years ago about a man in New Orleans named John Keller.

Before I tell you about John Keller, I want to tell you something I suspect about John Keller: that there was a moment in time when he was an infant, held in the arms of his mother, held in the arms of his grandmother, that the power of the love of God was alive and electric, galvanized in their gaze, and it formed within John an unseen hope that lingered until it was unleashed.

John is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. You may remember that big storm 10 years ago. I watched it on TV from Beverly Hills, as it ripped through Louisiana, and devastated New Orleans. It looked bad, and it was bad. The word hopeless came to mind particularly as images of the Super Dome streamed into my living room.

John Keller saw that Super Dome. He kayaked there from his apartment at The American Can. It got its name because it was a factory before it was an apartment building; owned, you guessed it, by The American Can Company. John Keller grew up in New Orleans and had returned there after serving in the Marines.  He is veteran of the Iraq War.

John was at home the night Katrina hit.  It was fierce. After the storm subsided and the levies broke and the water evened out John found a kayak and rowed to his mom’s house 9 miles away. It was flooded; she was gone, and he assumed she was safe.

While he was out and about he saw utter destruction; and bodies floating in the water. He rowed to the Super Dome; it seemed a hopeless mess, so he returned to The American Can. Things weren’t all that good there either.  Some hoodlums came by and John and others chased them away. It helped that John was 6’8” and a solid 250 pounds.

For three days they all hung out and waited for the water to recede, but it remained.  As time passed things got complicated.  Some unsavory neighbors moved in. Some racial tensions flared. The young people hung out on the roof and watched the helicopters drop food and water on buildings nearby.

It was terribly hot. John got a fire extinguisher and wrote on the roof of The American Can: H2O and MRE’s, but the helicopters kept flying by. Tuesday passed, there was no help. Wednesday passed, there was no help. Things were growing hopeless. There were many old people in the building. There were many people in wheelchairs in the building.

They turned to John.  He was a natural leader and a trained military man, but he didn’t want to lead. He didn’t want the responsibility. And yet that love lingered, unseen hope stirred, the power of God pushed and prodded, and John found himself in a conversation with his Lord. It wasn’t the first time. John knew God-that introduction had been made by his mother and his grandmother, the women who held him as an infant and shared the gaze of the power of the love of God. And that love lingered.

John sat there with the old people and the crippled people. He could have left, but he didn’t.  He sat there watching hopelessness set in. Food was scarce, water in short supply. Many people were running out of their medications. And it was hot, it was New Orleans hot.

And as he sat there, John wondered about his grandmother. He wondered if someone was taking care of her. He hoped someone was.  And that unseen hope, it lingered, and as it did John turned to God, like an intimate friend who is right here this near, and said, “God if you appoint a person to watch over my Grandma, I promise you, I’ll watch over all of these people.”

And on that day the power of the love of God was unleashed anew in the life of John Keller. It was Thursday, four days after Katrina hit, and John Keller stepped up. First he put a stop of racial divisions there were happening.  Then he took stock of the situation.  It is what he was trained to do as a US Marine. He discerned the pattern of the helicopters, and what he saw broke his heart. Still he asked all of the able bodied men to bring all of the white people up to the roof. And he asked all of the black people, himself included, to hide from the helicopter sight lines. They did.

Within 15 minutes, after three days of nothing, within 15 minutes, a helicopter set two wheels down on the roof of The American Can.

John stepped out to meet the crew chief, and said, “Lance Corporal John Keller reporting for duty, Sir” 15 minutes after that they had their first drop of food and water. Then the helicopter started lifting people off the roof, but at a rate of 6 per hour, John knew it was too slow.  244 people needed evacuation; 170 of them urgently.

So John found two boats and hotwired them.  And with the help of the other young men he carried all of the old people and all of the people in wheelchairs down to the boats, and ferried them to a dry spot where the helicopters could take them to safety.  On that day John Keller loved 244 people to safety.

John placed his hope in the unseen, and that unleashed within him the power of the love of God. You know, I never heard if John’s grandmother was OK.  He never said in any of the interviews that I saw because I suspect the covenant that John made with God was not really about a quid pro quo, it was about love, the love that John saw in the faces of all of those people God providentially set him in relationship with at The American Can.

What he saw is what his mother saw, and his grandmother saw. It is what we have seen. It is what Mary saw… God’s love, the most powerful force in the world. And it is what God sees in us as God gazes back.

Jesus is God gazing back at us. Jesus came so we could see what the love of God looks like face to face, person to person, parent to child, child to parent.

Jesus makes it possible for us to see the unseen hope that lingers in our lives, and lingers in the lives of those we love, and lingers in the lives of those we meet along the way. This love is real, alive and lingering in us because God set it there. We can see it, and when we do, it unleashes in us the power of the love of God. It doesn’t have to be as big as it was for John Keller, maybe thousand little ways is more your style. Maybe love leaks out in smiles, and open doors, and kind comments. Maybe it leaks out as a listening ear, or a meal to a sick friend.

It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we know where to look to see the eyes of God gazing back at us. That is what we celebrate today in the birth of Jesus.

Jesus is where our gaze meets the reality that there is nothing more powerful than the love of God.