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Embody hope

Art by Banksy, photo unknown

Art by Banksy, photo unknown

A sermon for the 4th Sunday in Easter.

Revelation 7:9-19

John 10:22-30

It is part of a preacher’s job to bring good news, and have I got some good news for you: today is Sunday. That means that last week is over and we have a new week with new possibilities ahead of us. Wahoo!

Weeks like this past week are the weeks, the days, the times when it is most difficult to come up with good news and, simultaneously, the weeks when sharing, hearing, partaking in the good news is vital. When everything seems to be spinning out of control, that is when we need the good news of Jesus Christ more than ever.

I really wish I could just come up here, say, “Jesus loves you!” and sit back down. I’m angry and I’m sad and I’m frustrated with the state of the world. I’m tired of watching innocent people die, angry about the role money plays in politics, tired of people who prefer their own version of liberty to the safety of others. I’m incredibly sad that every time a terrorist attack occurs on our soil, someone decides to just start beating up anyone who looks like what they think the terrorists may have looked like (usually someone with brown skin). I’m very much over companies that complain about regulations, don’t abide by them, and then have horrific accidents that kill people. I’m outraged at the way our elected leaders have violated human rights accords and human decency. I’m kind of tired of it all. I want to take my ball and go home.

Then I am reminded of the reasons to hope, the reasons to stay and keep playing.

I have read a ton of great mini-sermons this past week that are springboards for hope and optimism. One of my favorite memes going around right now is the quote from Fred Rodgers that says, “”When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Look for the helpers. They are everywhere. Not only in times of tragedy, but in every day life. We are surrounded by people who teach, who heal, who serve and love boundlessly.  But these aren’t the news stories. The news stories celebrate the ugly, the inhumane – the news stories celebrate our sin and keep us in a state of fear. Fear of our neighbor, fear of the other, fear of this world.

As the 24 hour news cycle rolled on and on this week, they managed to highlight the helpers, but still kept a lazer focus on the gore, the blood, the death that happened on our own soil, with nary a mention of the daily reality of terror that exists around the world or the terror that our nation has inflicted on other nations and individuals.

Sorry, I’m going down the spiral of negativity again. My bad.

Here’s another mini sermon I read this week, a quote from comedian Patton Oswalt:

I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, “Well, I’ve had it with humanity.”

But I was wrong. I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”

 

There is a lot of gospel truth in those words. The prices and penalties incurred Oswalt is talking about is what we, as Christians, call sin. We are all broken, but every once in a while someone (or some ones) get more broken than the rest of us or they act out on their brokenness in ways most of us would never dream of.

In our brokenness, in spite of our sinful nature, most of us still try to do right. Most of us still try to follow Jesus, most people still try to do the right thing. We hear his voice beckoning us, trying to call us out of the darkness and into the light, calling us away from our self-serving ways and towards God-serving ways.

The helpers, the people who run into the violence, the people who open their homes to strangers and immediately donate blood: these are the people who follow the voice of the Good Shepherd.  These are the people who give us hope that not all is lost, that there is still love and decency in the world.

I have seen these helpers and felt sparks of hope for the world in the world. Where do I, in my cynical, irritable state, look to find hope right now in the word of God?

Revelation? Yeah, that’s totally weird for me. Revelation has never been where I have gone to for hope. Weird stories? Yes. Tales of bloodshed and war? Yes. Hope? Not usually.

But it’s right there. John has been writing for quite a few chapters about all kinds of horror. Then he takes a break and reminds us that horror, even of the kind of horror he describes in his Revelation, has an end. Pain has an end. Hunger has an end. And we have a God who wants to end all of these things for us and to wipe every tear from our eyes.

We could argue all day about what Revelation is. Is it an accurate prediction of what will happen when Jesus comes again? Is it a hallucination brought on by seizures or eating the wrong berries on the island? Is it a political tome to provide courage and hope to the Christians in the diaspora? Does it matter? However literally it is meant to be taken, Revelation is still a book of hope, of renewal, of encouragement for us when we go through our own tribulations. It is a story for when we see our worlds falling apart around us we can take a moment to remember that it hasn’t always been this way and it won’t always be this way. We can take a moment to remember that God wants to wipe every tear from our eyes.

The cynic in me asks, “If God wants us to not have any pain, then WHY IS THERE PAIN?” The cynic in me asks that a lot.

But the answer is sin. Our world is a broken place. Not everybody hears the Good Shepherd, and not everyone who hears follows. God doesn’t force us to listen. We get to make our own choices. And, sometimes, we make some really, really bad choices.

The root of our bad choices is, usually, fear. We fear for our lives, our livelihood, our safety, our belongings. In order to stay safe, to protect what is ours, we put ourselves first.

This is how common sense gun regulation supported by an overwhelming majority of the American people gets voted down. Representatives afraid of losing money, of being primaried, afraid for their careers (more so than for the lives of their representatives). This is how our leaders justify torture of prisoners – they are afraid of more injuries, more attacks and will use any means necessary to get the information. Information that usually ends up being useless. This is how terrorists rationalize what they are doing – they are protecting a way of life they fear losing. Fear is what drives racism, homophobia, misogyny – the list goes on and on.

When we trust in God, we are able to lose that fear. When we follow Jesus, we are able to let go of our fears for our own lives and worry more about the lives of others and the life of Christ.

Our world will never be free from sin. It will never be not broken. But it can be less broken. There can be less violence, less hate, less anger, if we truly hear Jesus’ voice and follow. We are called to be the helpers, we are called to be beacons of hope when the world gets dark. Our knowledge of salvation in Christ in both this life and the next allows us to hold on to hope when the rest of the world can’t, to be hope for others when their worlds are falling apart. We are called to be hope, to embody it. This is the call of the good shepherd. We are able to do this, to follow Jesus, to be hope as a gift of God in Jesus Christ.

I am still angry, I am still sad, I am still hurting for the world. But I can hear the voice of the good shepherd calling me, calling us to follow and I know that, in that call, lies hope.

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These gifts are not for you alone

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This is a sermon from Sunday, January 20.

Isaiah 62:1-5
Corinthians 12: 1-11

John 2:1-11

The world in which we live is a messed up, violent, broken place. In 2012, 43 of the worlds nations were in some state of war or conflict – not including nations that may have been participating in covert operations. Daily violence threatens the livelihood of families and the future of generations who are being left uneducated, poor, jobless and angry. Around the world, women live under the threat of domestic violence and other forms of abuse – in some countries, women are actually losing rights they once had to go to school, to drive, to leave the house unaccompanied. 6.9 million under the age of 5 died in 2011, and half of those died due to malnutrition.

In our nation, the political divide seems to grow deeper every day. We appear to have largely lost the ability to engage in civil discourse over topics upon which we disagree. The divide between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate – and it is getting harder for poor children to bridge that gap through obtaining a college education. There are shootings in schools, in workplaces, in malls and movie theatres. Almost 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream with America, we may have a black president, but racism is still alive and well. Women have made great strides, but sexism is by no means dead.

The world we live in is a messed up, violent, broken place.

Gee, thanks Vicar Elizabeth! I feel great now!

I come to bring the cheer.

But, seriously, this is but a sampling what we see around us every day. And what are we to do? We have no prophets anymore. Who is leading the way? Anyone? Bueller? When we look back at history, we see all of these great people leading the people out of misery. In our tradition have the stories of Abraham and Moses, the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible. In today’s reading from Isaiah he is bold! He is standing up and shouting out – that’s his thing! We have Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple, talking back to the established powers of the day. We have the disciples and Paul spreading the word of God.

In more modern history we have Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It was only 50 years ago that Dr. King and his colleagues inspired – and demanded – change from the world. And they got a lot of it. But who do we have now? We can’t find that person, that leader. Everything is awful and no one is helping us get out of it! Like musician John Mayer says, “We’re just waiting on the world to change.”

Waiting, waiting on the world to change. Because we can’t possibly do it ourselves, can we. I mean, none of us is Dr. King, Susan B. Anthony, or Gandhi. None of us is gifted enough to change the world, right?

Wrong.

I hate that John Mayer song. What happened to “A change is gonna come” or “we shall over come?” We can’t wait for the world to change, because then it never will. Change doesn’t come in a world of passive observers.

There is a theory that we have no great leaders of change these days because no one can envision themselves there. That when we try to stand next towering figured like Dr. King, we see ourselves as small in comparison, figure that we can’t do anything, and we just give up.

But we can do so much. We can make concrete changes in the lives of those around us and in the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world. We have been given the gifts, we just have to use them.

In this reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he spells it out for us. Each of us has a gift and, not just any gift, a gift bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit herself. Some of us have the gift of knowledge, some the gift of wisdom, some the gift of teaching, some gifts of healing, the ability to prophecy, the ability to interpret tongues. Each of us has a gift. And we were given that gift not for ourselves but, as Paul writes “for the common good.” They weren’t given to us so that we could be awesome on our own, or so that we could use our gifts to receive praise, status, money and power for ourselves. Our gifts were given to us so that we might use them for the common good.

What are your gifts? How are you using them?

Are you using your gifts to glorify God or are you using them to glorify yourself. Because one of those stances concerns the common good, and one cares not a whit for common good. One of those stances is the path to peace, and the other is the path to war. One seeks to erase the divisions in our society based on class, ethnicity, color, sexual orientation, gender identity and more.

For as long as we are continually looking out for ourselves, as long as considerations about the common good fall behind concerns for self-preservation, our divisions will stand. The gulf between rich and poor will continue to grow. Violence will be the rule of the day.

We are called to use our gifts for the common good, to boost up all humankind. To do otherwise is an affront to the gifts we were given and, most of all, the one who gave those gifts, the root of all that is. God.

Now, this is sticky. Because I don’t want to come off like I’m saying you have to do these things to get God’s love or to get into heaven or like God will curse you because you don’t listen. God’s people have been ignoring God and putting themselves first for the better part of human history. God’s love endures. God keeps redeeming us. That’s God’s thing.

But to respond to the gifts God has given us by using them for the common good is to make faith more than words and to make the phrase “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” more than a passive platitude. It makes it real. God gave us our gifts out of God’s unending, abiding love and calls us to use those gifts for the good of all of God’s children – an extension of God’s love

There is a school of thought that we should not try to fix anything because our world is broken and we are to wait until the second coming of Jesus and everything will be fixed or God will fix the things God wants fixed. The God of the Bible is not a God who asks people to be passive. Jesus repeatedly instructs people on kingdom living and asks them to implement it in their lives this very day. God doesn’t ever tell us, “Hold up, do nothing, I’ll be by in a while and I’ll fix it.” Through Moses, Abraham, the Prophets, and the life and death of Jesus Christ, God repeatedly instructs us to not just change our ways to save ourselves, but to change the direction of the world. Or, as Dr. King wrote, “…we must never feel that God will, through some breathtaking miracle or a wave of the hand, cast evil out of the world. As long as we believe this we will pray unanswerable prayers and ask God to do things that he will never do. The belief that God will do everything for man is as untenable as the belief that man can do everything for himself. It, too, is based on a lack of faith. We must learn that to expect God to do everything while we do nothing is not faith, but superstition.”

We have been given these gifts by God to be participants with God in preparation for the coming of the kingdom. We have the gifts.

In reading the story of the wedding at Cana, we read of the first time Jesus was asked to demonstrate his particularly unique gifts in front of what we can assume is people he knew. He was, after all, at a wedding with his mother. There is so much I find fascinating about this story. First, I love the way his mother asks him for things without asking. She simply makes statements. But he knows what she is up to.
Second, I want some backstory. I want to know how Mary knows that this is something Jesus can fix. Has he been practicing changing liquid from one thing into another for a long time? Was this old hat to him by now, or was he new to this particular facet of his Godliness? Finally, why does he say that it is not yet his time? Is it because God has revealed to him that his time will come later, or does he just not feel as though he is ready? I don’t have much for the backstory but what my own imagination will provide. But I do have thoughts on Jesus’ response to Mary’s observation. I think this was a deeply human moment for Jesus. I think that he just didn’t feel ready. He had been teaching for a little while now, he was getting used to having a following and being listened to for his wisdom. There had always been whispers that there was something special about him, but this, he knew, would change everything. Even if no one knew what he did, this would be the first moment he does something big and God-like outside of his house. And that was a lot for him to handle. Besides, he was just at the wedding for fun.

He did the math in his head and decided that it was not the time for him to do it. But Mary knew something different. She knew that her boy was ready. And all she had to do was nudge. In the way that only a parent or spouse can. So she nudged. Someone had to get this thing started, after all.

Every day we are presented with opportunities to use our gifts for the greater good and, once in a while those opportunities are obviously intimidating or life-changing. All too often, we look at the opportunity and decide that we aren’t ready yet. We aren’t ready to help anyone but ourselves. We don’t have enough savings. We haven’t built our portfolio. We aren’t ready to teach, we aren’t ready to share our wisdom or knowledge, we aren’t ready to lead, to heal, to make a difference in anybody’s life, not even our own. We want to stick to status quo.

But we are ready. God gave us these gifts for the express purpose of contributing to the greater good and there is no better time than right now to use them.

Our world may be messed up, violent, broken place, but we are its stewards. God has given us gifts to use for the common good. We are ready. We have to be.

Somewhere in Jesus’ heart, he knew it actually was his time. He knew he was ready. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have this story. We might not have many of his stories. But he just needed a little nudge from his mom to perform the first of his signs and begin his path towards Calvary.

God has given us gifts. We are ready. God has given you gifts. You are ready.

But God is like Mary – the parent who will nudge us to do what we know must be done. God will present us with opportunities to use our gifts for the greater good. Sometimes these opportunities won’t even be that obvious – like a statement rather than a question. We may have the opportunity to tell someone that that joke was racist, to confront our own racism, or to reach out from a position of power and privilege to pull someone up. We might be faced with a dilemma at our work that forces us to re-evaulate whose glory we are really working towards. We might have a nagging in our heart to mentor a kid, to serve at a shelter, or to offer our gifts to an organization that needs our help. We may be able to use our minds to cure disease or to bring an end to war – or we may be asked to care for someone who is sick or stop a fight. Each of these is ways to use our gifts for the common good.

But we must not let ourselves be stopped by fears that we aren’t ready, that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t really called to do that. We must also not let ourselves give in to society’s theme that we look out for ourselves first or fall victim to the lie that we are each independent people totally reliant on ourselves for our successes. God has given us amazing gifts and the opportunity to use them for the common good, to heal the worlds brokenness and work towards becoming one people, under God. We are called to use them. We are ready to use them. Let us join together in song, prayer and sacrament. Then let us go out into the world as a people equipped by God for the journey ahead, equipped by God to counter the cultural narrative that it is all about the individual, equipped to make a change.