Sermons

Things Hoped For

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

This time last year, I first started hearing about the newly opened Broadway show, “Hamilton,” when some friends of ours went to see it and declared it amazing. The composer went to the same college as my oldest, so I knew a little bit about him. Excitedly, as I do, I started reading all about it, and then reading news about it out loud. Kathryn thought it sounded weird. Why would you want to pay good money to see a musical about the Founding Fathers? Wasn’t that just for history major nerds … like me? It might as well be in French.

Whenever the subject came up, she would give me that look that says, “I don’t want to hear about it.” So I would listen to the music online, and read articles about the composer and performers, but I would close the browser window or turn off the sound whenever she came into the room.

I had no hope of going to see the show, which was getting more and more popular. The seats were being bought up and resold by ticket brokers, and the cost kept getting higher and higher. The only way to get the already expensive tickets at the list price was to watch the Hamilton website to see when new blocks of tickets were released, and to act fast. This all felt beyond my powers, especially since Kathryn didn’t care about going.

It wasn’t the first time I had wished for something that seemed unlikely, even impossible.

It didn’t stop me from enjoying the music, though. And my loftiest Hamilton-related hope was that somebody would think of giving me the original cast recording for Christmas.

When we don’t think something is possible – well, when I don’t think something is possible, I do two things. On the surface, on the outside, for public consumption, I resize my expectations. I might dream a little about what I would love to do, how I wish things would turn out. It’s easier to protect yourself. Don’t hope for too much, and you won’t get hurt.

That sounds pragmatic, and safe, doesn’t it?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1 is a famous verse, the kind of thing preachers proclaim and other people embroider on pillows or decoupage on wall hangings. It sounds poetic, lyrical, but what does it mean? Faith is the assurance of things hoped for? If we’re going to get the things we hoped for, if they are assured, then why do we need faith?

I feel dissatisfied with this sometimes, with these smooth words that slide off my tongue.

And I wonder how God’s words sounded to Abraham, big, crazy promises about descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand at the seashore, a ridiculous promise to an old man with not one single child, and a wife too old to have a baby. Leave what you know, go out into the unknown lands, old man, and I will give you a legacy that will never die.

What made that old man think the Lord would come through?

It’s a slightly bigger trust fall than imagining going to see a Broadway show.

A lot bigger than hoping for a CD under the Christmas tree.

We take turns opening presents, and we weren’t too far into the rotation when I opened the Broadway cast recording of Hamilton. I was super excited! When you keep your hopes low, it’s not so hard to exceed them.

When it looked like everything had been opened, I still didn’t have a gift from Kathryn. She pointed to something I hadn’t seen, and Will brought it to me. Edward, our oldest, was sitting on the couch beside me, and as I unwrapped the flat present, I found a nice file folder. I mean, it was a high-quality folder, with elastic things to hold it shut, but…

Inside it were some paper file folders, also nice ones, and inside each one a sheet of paper, with something printed out. The print was small, and I had trouble focusing to see what it could be – tickets? To what?

He didn’t say anything, but Edward shifted beside me, and then my eyes found the word: Hamilton.

Kathryn had been saving up for two months to buy the tickets. There may have been a little subterfuge, a little feigning of disinterest in Hamilton, a little secret listening to the music when *I* wasn’t around.

It’s easy to see these things in hindsight.

By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:7-10)

Hear that: “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Faith is not about ephemeral possibilities and fantastical dreams-come-true. Faith is not an act we perform for God. Faith is knowing God cares for us, even when we can’t see the things we hope for yet.

Abraham struck out into the wilderness with his wife and his servants and his flocks because that’s how faith works. He knew God had his back.

The ticket and the cast
The ticket and the cast

Those Hamilton tickets had to be purchased way in advance. The date on them was July 27th. In the meantime, we celebrated the Grammy the show won, and in June, so many Tony Awards. Then the announcements began of cast departures. I won’t pretend; there were a few moments here and there when we lamented. But by the time we climbed the stairs to our seats in the rear mezzanine of the Richard Rodgers Theater, we were beyond excited to be in the room where it happens.

The whole experience exceeded our hopes.

That’s not just a measure of how the actors performed. We worked through our doubts and came to the encounter with faith it would be a good thing.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

Faith Church is in a time of uncertainty, hoping for a future you can’t quite see yet. Each of you has things hoped for in a new pastor. No one is more aware of that than the members of the Search Committee, who will soon start reading candidate profiles and watching for the one who will be right for all of you.

Hebrews was written to encourage new Christians who also lived in a time of uncertainty. Their community of faith formed with enthusiasm, then suffered negative social consequences – never a happy thing, their friends and neighbors thought they were strange. The early glow wore off, and that group of people they had to live with were clearly not all gathered in the perfected kingdom of God. They were flagging, and they needed a word of encouragement, to remind them of the firm foundation laid for them.

I imagine they wondered why they lived in the time they did, why it was they were the ones up against it, having to defend what they believed.

This letter reminded them of the truth about faith. Assurance and conviction don’t come on our own power or by our own effort. They come from God. They come in knowing God.

Jesus’ own disciples worried about how they would survive in the face of hostile authorities and unpredictable crowds, people they previously knew as neighbors. At the beginning of Luke 12, the gathered crowd was so large and unruly that people were trampling each other. After teaching the people and taking questions from the crowd, Jesus turns to his inner circle.

It is the disciples Jesus reassures in the passage we read this morning, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not be afraid, he says. Then he goes on. Do not be afraid, but do be ready. Be aware. Be sure what you treasure, what you are keeping close to your heart.

Know who your God is.

Jesus tells the disciples, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”

What more could we hope for?

Faith is not an act we perform for God. Faith is knowing God cares for us, even when we can’t see the things we hope for yet.

Faith, Generation Hug, If I Were Preaching, Mothering

Loving Ferociously

At Confirmation class the other night, we did an exercise called Spiritual Gifts Bingo. I'm not sure I ever understood the rules as laid down in the teacher's book–my co-teacher has taught this for so many years, I get to skate on some of those details–but what we did in practice was go around and suggest to one another which of the gifts listed the person might have, and if they agreed they put their initials in the appropriate square.

I loved seeing the reactions of the students when I suggested to them they were "fair" or "empowered others," the smiles that crossed their faces in surprise or appreciation. I liked the things they thought I might be: "caring leader," which I accepted, and "patient," which I did not. Sometimes I'm patient…but not always. I'm quite patient with them, but generally not at all patient with myself.

And I wonder if these aren't things so programmed into us from early life that they are nearly impossible to change, at the same time I would, no doubt patiently, encourage the Confirmands that our faith is all about the possibility of transformation.

A long time ago, so long ago it seems like another life, I moved to Maine and started attending a church where they used Inclusive Language for God. What that meant most of the time was leaving out the masculine pronouns. We still sang from the very old-fashioned Pilgrim Hymnal (which I love in many ways), but our Doxology spoke of Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost rather than Father and Son. Coming from a Baptist background, I didn't have much experience with liturgy, so that part didn't throw me. 

But later, later, I realized there were people around me thinking of Goddess rather than God, of Mother rather than Father, and I had to grapple with my understanding of God. It was the beginning of a long period of transformation, a spiritual turning point with no apparent destination at the moment the turn began. I came to love the idea of God as Mother, and eventually I moved onto a place where I could see both masculine and feminine characteristics in the First Person of the Trinity, but to have neither of them feel very important to me.

Jesus, however, remained a guy.

George_HenWithChicks_Large  Today I talked with a group of women about the feminine image of God in tomorrow's gospel lesson, when Jesus speaks of feeling like a mother hen, wishing to gather her chicks beneath her outspread wings. I shared a Barbara Brown Taylor piece from the Christian Century that pointed up how brave the hen is as she defends her young with nothing but her body. She has no weapons to use against the predators. She puts herself in the way to give the little ones a chance to escape. 

I struggle when I hear of the triumphal theology that some contemporary Christians have, the kind that says Jesus is the buff defeater of evil. 

No. His wings are spread, his chest exposed, his life given vulnerably, going down without a fight. 

It's a ferocious love, that willingness to sacrifice yourself, to be hurt yourself.

At the end of our session this morning, I asked the group, and I'm asking myself, to look around us this week and see who or what needs our ferocious love? Now, I'm not suggesting we can be Jesus. We can't. Everyone in the room identified with that image of the protective mother, of doing that protecting, and I'm pretty there's a place for us to employ it.

But I'm not sure I've ever been on the receiving end of such love in this life.

And in a phase when I am quite impatient with myself, I wonder if I don't need to show it to me, to fend off my own predatory perfectionism, to own my vulnerability as a shield instead of a weakness.

Faith

“An Unusual Patois”

The December after Hurricane Katrina, I went down to Mississippi
to volunteer, mostly by filling in for a Methodist pastor whose home had been
flooded. It seemed like a great idea at the time; I really wanted to go to the Gulf
Coast, but I have very few
practical skills in the area of demolition or rebuilding. When a blogging
friend
asked for preachers to come and give a break to her colleagues who were
in distress, I thought that might be something I could do. I had the
opportunity, thanks to Small Church,
to take ten days for the mission trip. This gave her two Sundays off in a row,
a huge gift of time for a preacher.

But shortly after I offered to go, I began to worry. I
looked ahead to see what texts I would be preaching, and they offered little
comfort. Instead they contained references to God in the mighty waters of a
storm (Psalm 29) or the water coming over Jesus’ head as he was baptized.

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was
baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart
and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” (Mark 1:9-10, NRSV)

Water, water…everywhere.

What made me think I had anything to say to people whose
lives had been quite literally covered by the storm surge? I began to think I
should be sending a plumber instead.

In the end, I realized that if I truly believed the Holy
Spirit had nudged me to go to Mississippi,
I ought to trust that the same Spirit would be with me when it came time to
preach on those Sunday mornings in January.  The first was New Year’s Day, 2006, and I
remember having a sense that although the weather seemed bleak, hope could be
found in the community of that Methodist church. The pews in the back third of
the sanctuary were filled with donated food and clothes; a teacher arrived
early to teach Sunday School on New Year’s Day, which amazed me; and the people
came eagerly to worship, to sing and pray and give thanks to God.

I’m not sure I had anything brilliant to say that day, but
people definitely noticed the way I said it. As one older gentleman put it, my
Maine-with-notes-of-Virginia accent made for “an unusual patois.”

And that’s the dialect of faith, isn’t it? We speak an
unusual patois of fear and hope, of death and life, of disconnection and
reconciliation. I’ll be in Mississippi
again, on my fifth annual trip, from January 1 to 6, and I promise to bring
back stories to share with you. The people who hear them in person will no doubt chuckle to hear my languorous vowel sounds.