worship notes: hope (part three in a series)

Note:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, February 16, 2014. I am moving away from the lectionary this week to deepen the on-going series re: humility, hospitality and hope.  
Introduction
The late Roman Catholic theologian and pastor, Henri Nouwen, once said: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God's incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”  I think that is brilliant – clear, concise and completely challenging to any and all illusions of self-sufficiency!  We can never fully comprehend the magnificent abundance of God’s grace and love.  Never.

·  For now we see as through a glass darkly – said the apostle Paul – only later shall we see face to face.

·  Or as South African Bishop Desmond Tutu put it:  when it comes to knowing the fullness of God’s grace and love we are like people sitting in front of a fire in the winter; all you can do is sit there – you don’t have to be smart or anything – you just sit there and the fire warms you.

This morning I want to share with you some theological thoughts about hope – and specifically Christian hope – a hope that empowers us to live by faith beyond the darkness of our limited comprehension and also the totality of our fears.  And because I am going “theological” on you today, I wanted to remind you that a mature grasp of theology always recognizes and honors God's incomprehensibility. 

·   +  A wise and faithful heart, you see, humbly accepts our limitations even while striving for greater truth: True theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God's incomprehensibility.

·   +  Simultaneously a wise and faithful heart continues to be creative and curious especially when it comes to God’s grace.  That’s why I have taken as my foundational text for today the words St. Paul wrote to the young church in Thessalonica in about the year 52 CE: We do not want you to be uniformed, sisters and brothers, about those who have died – or fallen asleep – so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we trust that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring him those who have died.

In what is recognized as the first book of the New Testament, Paul is concerned that the young church in Northern Greece is confused about a few essentials.  After founding the church, Paul quickly moved on to Athens, sending his associate evangelist, Timothy, to fortify and encourage the Thessalonians.  And while their love and passion for God was strong, they were perplexed and worried about how to live their new lives within the counter-cultural claims of Christian hope.

In this, the Thessalonians were much like many of us who love God but also worry and fret about how to live faithfully.  So with the awareness that recognizes that now we see only as through a glass darkly, I am going suggest three insights about what it means to live into God’s hope for our generation. Truly we do not want you to be ignorant or uninformed, sisters and brothers… so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

Insights   

So let’s cut to the chase and wrestle with the hardest part first:  Christian hope is built upon trusting that after his execution on the Cross, God raised Jesus from the dead.  The resurrection we celebrate on Easter Sunday is where all Christian hope begins.

·   + Contrary to what most liberal Christians want us to believe, the testimony of those closest to Christ as well as the consistent message of the Scriptures states that the resurrection was not an idea – nor an emotional response to grief – nor even a poetic metaphor about new life(although all of those things can be true.) No, in some way beyond our ability to comprehend, God’s love raised Jesus from death into new life and Jesus walked among us, taught among the earliest disciples and even ate with Peter and the others on more than one occasion.  Paul, who met the resurrected Jesus, refuses to pull his punches about the source of our hope when he puts it like this in I Corinthians 15: 

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. So if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 

·   + At the same time, contrary to what most conservative fundamentalits want us to believe, the form and nature of Christ’s resurrection is never fully described in ways that we can comprehend. The resurrected Jesus that greeted Mary Magdalene in the garden, ate a fish breakfast with a despondent Peter by the shores of the Sea of Galilee and encouraged a doubting Thomas to place his hand within his wounds was neither some resuscitated corpse nor a ghost-like, disembodied phantom. Again, the apostle Paul tells us that in the resurrection we shall be raised up into spiritual bodies as the perishable puts on the imperishable:

How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that 3of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.

This is our first challenge – not to comprehend or control the truth about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead – but rather to trust that it is true. We cannot figure out answers to all of our questions about this one.  It is too vast and we are too limited – and it will make us crazy if we persist in trying.  Which means, dear people, that only those who have been humbled and brought low – those who have lost all hope in their own ability to fix their problems or heal their lives – those who have come to surrender all illusions of control are empty enough to trust that God’s love is bigger than both death and our imaginations.

·   + Like I have been saying for the past few weeks, there is an intimate interweaving of humility with hope and authentic hospitality – they are kindred – and one strengthens the other.  So much so that I have become convinced that only the humbled can trust God enough to stake their lives on the resurrection.

·   + Remember the way Jesus himself put it in the Sermon on the Mount:  You are blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

So let me play the role of Paul with you for just a moment and tell you how I came to trust that God’s love is great and vast enough to fill my emptiness and push me to accept the resurrection of Jesus as my source of hope.  There were two factors:

·   + First, is the testimony of those in the faith I have trusted:  over the years I’ve met men and women of integrity and courage who trusted God’s love as their source of hope. Some have been in AA, some were peace activists, a few were conservative Pentecostals and a number were nuns or priests. As I watched how they lived – how they shared real compassion with people who were hurting and took incredible risks with their safety and resources – I found that at the very least I was willing to listen and learn from them.

Historically that is one of the ways people discover Christian hope:  from watching and learning and listening to others who have trust and faith.  Like the old preachers used to say:  I am just one hungry beggar telling another starving soul where to find bread.  That is one of the ways I came to trust God’s grace.

+  The second came in the form of the Serenity Prayer when my life was falling apart.  Like some of you, my life has fallen apart a few times – divorce, workaholism, shame and abuse – and I have to say that when I was at the end of my rope, when there was nothing to do to fix my pain except surrender to a love greater than myself, that was when I was lifted up and given another chance. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. 

That’s the first part – and it was crucial for me to accept that there
were realities that I could not change or fix in my life – but God could.  And once I accepted that I was not God, then I could embrace the second part of the prayer that goes: Living one day at a time;  enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as Christ did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen. 

The witness of loving and faithful people in my life AND crashing and burning so that I HAD to trust God is how I came to rely on Christ’s resurrection as the source of my hope.  That is what Paul taught the Thessalonians 2,000 years ago and it is what I share with you in 2014: we do not want you to be ignorant or uninformed, sisters and brothers… so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

There are two other parts to a mature Christian hope, however, that I want you to know about and consider, too.  For once you start letting yourself trust that God’s love raised Jesus from the dead, then you start seeing how this truth plays out in other parts of life. The second text that I find essential comes from the words of Paul in the book of Romans – chapter five – verses one through five.  And for me it has become a way to practice trusting God’s resurrection power.

We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope for hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  

Here’s what I make of Paul’s wisdom:  nobody is exempt from pain or suffering – it s a fact of life that is inescapable – so the question becomes what do we DO with our hard times?  We can give in to complaining and become cynics.  We can carp and moan and demand that we are suffering like no one else in creation has ever known and act like we’re something special.  Or we can use our hardships and challenges as a pathway through the Cross towards resurrection.

·   + Suffering produces endurance – that is strength and humility and the ability to keep on loving even when it hurts.  This isn’t doctrine or theology, it is applied spirituality: practice transforming your suffering into endurance and before you know it you will be living as a person others trust because your character will look something like Christ’s.

·   + Endurance produces character:  Paul doesn’t say endurance produces characters, he says it can result in fortitude, honesty, faith, hope and love – moral and ethical qualities that you can make real in your own flesh by giving shape and form to the character of Jesus through your suffering.  This isn’t automatic and we don’t always get it right.

·   + But the more you practice transforming your suffering rather than complaining about it the stronger the character of Christ grows within; and the stronger the character of Christ lives within you the more you will see and experience signs of hope in your world. Because hope is not merely a feeling; Paul tells us our ability to see and experience hope in a broken world is actually God pouring the Holy Spirit into our lives. 

Did you get that?  Hope is God pouring out the Holy Spirit into our hearts – the same Holy Spirit that brought order out of the chaos at the beginning of time – the same Holy Spirit that gave Jesus his strength for ministry out in the wilderness and that gave courage to the disciples after the Lord’s death on the Cross.  Remember how Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit in John’s gospel as “the comforter?”  I will send you the Advocate – the Comforter – who will lead you into new acts of love greater than anything you can imagine.

Earlier this week we held our first new church council meeting with David Noyes as the Moderator. It was a wonderful and spirit-filled meeting:  we sang and prayed, we laughed and wrestled with hard choices.  At one point, we were talking about our finances and a plan we are working to apply that is totally built upon Christian hope as made flesh by Christ’s resurrection. Over this next year, you see, we will be talking with people all over the region in pursuit of a mission partner with deep pockets.

·   Based upon the work and encouragement of a financial investor – who will be helping us – we are going to look for a mission partner who not only wants to help keep First Church strong but will help us find the financial resources necessary to make this happen.

·   Now to some people – maybe even some in this room – this sounds crazy. Improbable. Maybe even magical thinking that is totally delusional.  And that’s why I said out loud to Council:  Look, some around this table might think it sounds impossible and crazy to believe that God’s Holy Spirit is going to bring to us mission partners willing to help us grow even stronger – people with deep pockets and open hearts – who want to become allies with us.  But I believe that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead – and if God can do that then it isn’t too hard to believe that God’s Spirit is going to lead us to the mission partners we need.  What we have to do is have faith – and do OUR work.

The second truth is applied resurrection living that practices transforming suffering into an occasion for the Lord to pour the Spirit into our hearts.

Conclusion

And the third is what the disciple Bono of U2 says about grace:  grace trumps karma.  Grace is bigger than sin, greater than history and completely under God’s authority and control.  Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 11 that he understood that they were tired and weary.  He got it that sometimes they were discouraged.  So, using Peterson’s reworking from The Message, he said: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. And you will learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

You will learn to trust that grace trumps karma.  You will learn to count on the fact that even in the worst suffering God will pour the Spirit of hope into your heart. But you have to come to me.  You have to quit acting like God. You have to be still – and surrender – accept and listen so that grace can teach you the unforced way of living even in these dark days.

Beloved, I don’t pretend to understand WHY God works this way.  Like Nouwen said, it is truly incomprehensible to me.  But as I trust it – and practice it – and build my life on it as a real foundation, it works.  It is better than living in anxious and fear. It is superior to acting like I have to figure out every answer for myself.  And it is liberating in a gentle, merciful and hopeful way.  That’s what I sensed I needed to share with you today so let those who have ears to hear, hear and you, too will learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

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