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.

Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Faith, Grace, If I Were Preaching, Midway, Psalms

Oh, crap!

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."

The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126, NRSV)

One of the things that gives me hope is quite simply the flip side of the thing that makes me frustrated about my own life and the lives of those around me: we tend to repeat ourselves. Sometimes I wonder if I am caught in a feedback loop, and I really worry when it sounds like I am my mother or my father having a conversation with me when I so strive to be a more awake and enlightened parent than they ever were, in my opinion. Although looking back I guess they didn't do such a bad job, really–after all, my brother and I are both productive members of society, raising kids who are thriving in one way or another, smart kids with interests and talents, and even one adult among them now, gone out into the world with his own harvests to anticipate.

But I don't love it when I hear frustration creep into my voice, when my old wounds and rejections become part of my parent-child relationships.

In fact, I hate that crap.

I'm pretty familiar with crap this morning. Sam strained or sprained something the other day and has been on a regimen of Tramadol and rest since Thursday afternoon, and this has thrown off his schedule of "bidness," and this morning I came downstairs to find a big pile of…that stuff. It cleaned up easily enough, but it served as a reminder of the way we all have habits to which we return unconsciously, primal tendencies that assert themselves in moments of stress, or exhaustion. 

They're not all as charming as the way I slip back into my Southern accent at the end of a long day or when speaking to an unknown group of people.

Communities have habits, too, patterns of relationship to which they revert when things aren't going well, or even when they are going *too* well. Even churches do this. If things aren't going well, God must not care about us, we think. Or if things are going extremely well, we may neglect the life of the spirit in favor of the more visible successes of life.

This psalm provides a vehicle for getting back on track. It's a song that says, oh, yes! We have become disconnected at times, and we thought God might be neglecting us or punishing us, and we plodded along watering our work with our tears–but we came back from the field with shouts of joy!!!

It sounds simplistic. God took stuff away, then for some reason God gave it back. I sometimes think we don't give those ancient writers of hymns and psalms full credit for the ritual nature of their compositions. Come back to God, they are saying, knowing full well that even a faithful person may have a bad crop or a dry season. Come back to God, because why ever you do it, it's a good thing. Come back to God, because believing you can handle it all yourself will surely lead to saying, "Oh, crap! Why did I think that?"

Come back to God, and be renewed by the natural mystery of cycles and seasons. Come back to God and give thanks that going away was always part of the human condition. Come back to God and give thanks that it is never too late to rejoice. Come back to God and give thanks that it is never too late to return.

Faith, Friendship, Marriage Equality, Politics

My Cup of Hope

Light Princess came downstairs this morning as the kitchen counter TV, tuned to the news, blared a commercial with Christmas music.

Offended, she exclaimed, "It's not even Thanksgiving yet!"

I agreed. "I got a Christmas cup at Starbucks yesterday."

I prepared for her disgust, but instead she smiled.

"Well, they sort of put me in a good mood, so I guess it's okay."

And it was true, that on a morning when I felt discouraged, my first response to a Christmas cup was to cry out, "No! It's barely November!!" But then I noticed the words on the cup, which include "Wish" and "Joy."

And the first one I saw was "Hope."

Some of us might be about up to here with the idea of hope. We hoped and hoped all last year, and we rejoiced on Election Night, but on the other side of the country, people felt then the way my friends and I feel now.

It's possible that word got to bound up with a human being, one who doesn't share my position on the issue of marriage. I mean, he really, really doesn't. 

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. (Psalm 146:3, NRSV) 

I don't like thinking of this verse in reference to a President for whom I voted. It felt like a *great* verse six years ago, when we were going to war and the colleagues in my preaching group were still trying to figure out how to talk about it in a sermon. He even acted like a prince, that President–in my opinion–but I see how inclined we are to make them into princes, all of them, even if only the ones we prefer. Princes or fools or mustachioed villains, however we dress them in our minds, do not put your trust in them. They cannot manifest our hopes single-handed. They may not share them. They may not even care about them.

We've got to find our hope in other places. 

I start with my kids. They are 23 and 19 and 14, and two of them voted, and all of them are angry. They're learning a hard lesson that other Christian people did not hear the gospel the same way they heard it in this house and in the churches that formed them. It makes no sense.

LP will go tonight to the big GSA meeting where LGBT students and their straight allies from many schools will gather to unpack what has happened.

For my No on 1-voting neighbors and the onlookers from away who don't reckon these things from a faith perspective, it's almost easier. They can shut out the religious voices, or try to, and make plans for the next campaign. They don't have to figure out a way to talk to the ecumenical colleagues at the next community event or clergy group meeting.

My friend, RevFun, went to see a priest yesterday. God, he's brave. He's braver than I am. He wanted to tell a priest how this felt and why it was wrong.

I know the priest he went to see, not as well. I've met him once. I wonder if he felt equipped to have the conversation. I wonder if any of them do.

My friend E wrote a beautiful reflection on the power of the widow who gave her mite, and another E wrote he would "watch the sun come up tomorrow, and go back to work repairing the world. Who's in?"and my musical colleague J used Facebook to share his feelings about how this experience led to deeper self-acceptance and my friend B simply said in a status update, "B W is not going away…"

We are all in some way part of the United Church of Christ, and we are motivated by our understanding of the gospel message that we are to love God with all our hearts and all our souls and all our minds and our neighbors as ourselves. Make no mistake about it.

That's my cup of hope this morning. I put no faith in princes, but in the next generation and in the people of God, who are not going away.

Faith, Family

Yes, I’m a Spong

It's not hard to find out who I really am, since I link to my newspaper columns and have been none-too-secretive over the past couple of years. I still use a nickname simply because I *enjoy* using a pseudonym. My kids have a different last name, so I'd like to think they are somewhat shielded.

But one thing from which I cannot be shielded despite pseudonymity is the way other bloggers talk about someone I love a lot, my Cousin Jack (Bishop Spong). I don't agree with everything he's written–I'm a solidly Trinitarian Christian, but I find his post-theistic understanding of the Divine not only informative but inspirational. I admire the way he continues his lifelong spiritual practices, such as the reading of scripture and prayer, even though he has long since left behind the childhood faith experiences in which they were based. I have been the recipient of his hospitality, eaten meals he has prepared with his own hands, hands which have held mine and my children's as grace has been spoken around a family table.

Anyway, it's a popular thing to give him crap. I hope you won't mind if I skip those discussions at your blogs. In fact, I'm likely to stay away for a while. I find the hostility people feel toward him mysterious and troubling. I'm reminded of the death threats issued against my dad, Jack's first cousin, when he did not toe the white, conservative line in his political career, when he fought the people who thought closing the public schools in Virginia and opening "private" white schools would be the best way to fight integration and when he voted against a Supreme Court nominee who belonged to an all-white country club.

We need people who push the edges of how we think and what we believe, or we grow stagnant. We may not agree with all of their conclusions, but they stretch us. Without such people, we wouldn't be voting to affirm the new law allowing same sex marriage here in Maine. We wouldn't think twice about the Louisiana Justice of the Peace who recently refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple.

We need prophets.

I believe the world needs Cousin Jack. I believe God works through him, even if my understandings, some of them, differ from his. I hope you can understand. He poured the water of baptism on the head of my oldest child. In my home he is beloved.

Faith, Living in This World, Politics

Over Coffee

I'll confess it. There are a lot of days I have my coffee with Morning Joe (brewed by Star$$$$$).

Some of those days I have to change the channel due to the palpable rise in my blood pressure. This was one of them. On the subject of President Carter's remarks on racism being directed at President Obama, the Morning Joe regulars seem unwilling to accept the notion that racism plays any part in objections to and demonstrations against the current administration.

I think it's very easy for comfortable white people to deny racism. I say this as a person who grew up in the virtual apartheid of otherwise genteel Jane Austen's Village. I say this as a person who realizes that she often *doesn't* realize her own internalized racism.

This morning I would probably be happy to smack the smug faces of the Morning Joe crew. They're describing the vitriolic attacks against President Bush. Why, someone once called him a monkey, too, says Maria Bartiromo. Is it possible someone needs to explain to her the difference between an insult and an epithet?

They're talking about poll numbers and saying "It can't just be racism. He used to have 70% approval and now it's only 50%." But if racism drives the debate through its ugliness, does it matter what the percentage of racists is?

They're asking, if we were so enlightened in November, how is it that we're so backwards now? It seems to me we were always both, in some measure.

They're saying President Carter shouldn't have said it, that he's making trouble for the ever-so-careful Obama administration in its insistence that race has nothing to do with these things. I like their post-racial attitude. But we live in a world that is both modern and post-modern (right, church people?), where some people continue to fight battles that other people want to insist are no longer relevant. Maybe both things are true. And among the "moderns," there is still racism. I'll admit it, even if Joe and Mika would rather I didn't.