Sunday, May 25, 2014

Deep Hope, Not Cheap Hope

Text:  I Peter 3: 13-16                                           
13Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

Ashley Smith had every reason to give up hope.  Nine years ago Brian Nichols forced his way into her apartment after murdering four people in an Atlanta courthouse and then he held this young woman hostage for the next seven hours.  He told her that he had lost all hope. “Look into my eyes,” he reportedly said, "and you’ll see I’m a dead man already.”  But Ashley Smith looked into those eyes, deep and dark as tombs, and told this desperate soul that she saw hope for him. Can you imagine? He could not.  He could not imagine a hopeful outcome. So he demanded—I’ll use the language of today’s scripture—“an accounting for the hope that was in [her].” And she gave her account, with a theological vocabulary you and I might not use, but with a gentleness and respect today’s scripture commends.  The hope she claimed in the midst of fear she then offered to one who was utterly hopeless.

And the pattern of violence ended there.  He called her "an angel sent from God." I offer Ashley Smith as a modern example of Christian hope that transforms fear into love and fosters spiritual imagination.

I’ve been trying to recall if anyone has ever demanded that I “account for the hope that is in me.”  I admit no one has ever literally said: “Wow, Ellen, what’s your secret?  How is it that you seem—even during the tough times—so darn hopeful?”  Yet I look out at you and see folks who regained hope after great disappointments, found hope despite rejection by family or friends or church, lived hope even when disheartened by world events or personal struggles.  We as a congregation demonstrate hope by starting a progressive Christian communion in a conservative culture and at a time when church going is in steep decline.

1 Peter has sometimes been called the Epistle of Hope.  Whereas Paul sums up the gospel with the word grace, the writer of 1 Peter encapsulates all the good news in that tiny word hope.  Resurrection hope of which this epistle speaks sees beyond graves and dead ends to resurrections and possibilities.  Hope happens as the Spirit dances out ahead of us, beckoning us forward.  Hope is that capacity, even when we have no hope, to long for hope at least and to be sustained enough in that longing until real hope can arrive once more, to at least sing the hopeful tune if we haven’t the words, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson.  Hope is rooted in the recognition that you and I are not God; that is, we are not the sum total of life’s goodness and worth, that for all our value, there is more, there is always more beyond us but connected to us and supporting us.  The companion of this kind of hope is imagination, which works alongside our best dreams to show us the world as God might see it.  Let me illustrate the role of imagination in support of hope.

Years ago my mother-in-law gave my husband a waffle iron for his birthday.  George hadn’t requested such a gift.  He hadn’t realized he needed it.  But new culinary possibilities opened up for our family with this simple gadget, and it thrilled our daughter, then about 4-years-old.  Soon we developed a family tradition of having waffles for supper on Sunday evenings.  On that first evening when we sat down to plates of piping hot waffles dripping with melting butter and maple syrup, Georgia prayed this blessing:  “Thank you, God, for giving Gran a brain to know we needed a waffle maker.” It was such an odd way of expressing her thanks that I’ve remembered it all these years.  And I think she was on to something.  What she was realizing is that our gift of the waffle maker came from her grandmother’s gift of imagination.  Her grandmother had to imagine a new good thing for us, a new way for us to have Sunday night suppers, a new paradigm that, from Georgia’s perspective, eliminated vegetables entirely from the dinner table.  She was saying, “Thank you, God, for giving Gran the gift of imagination.  Thank you that Gran was able to imagine something new and good for us.”

Jesus was the ultimate paradigm shifter who confounded expectations and brought new life out of death and imagined a new way.  The table spread before us offers a new kind of sustenance that is imaginatively hopeful.  It defies expectations.  Rather than being trapped in our routines of meat and vegetables for supper, why not have waffles?  Rather than being locked in unhealthy patterns of relating to others, why not experience forgiving forms of community?  Rather than pursuing fruitless goals, why not see the full array of possibilities for our lives?  Jesus opens up an imaginatively hopeful way. 

I want to suggest how we can live out that hope.  But first let me insist we do not live hopefully through denial. Hope is not about feigning a positive attitude with a superficial smile, something my Southern upbringing instilled and I’m trying to unlearn. Cheerfulness, in the face of suffering, is sickness.  Dietrich Bonhoffer coined the phrase cheap grace; I offer the term “cheap hope” to distinguish a romanticized optimism that overlooks human suffering from a deep hope that straightforwardly faces suffering and then grows deeper by seeing God’s transforming presence in the midst of suffering.  Rather than a phony or “cheap hope,” deep hope goes all the way to the grave—and then beyond.  Deep hope is a lens on life that does not block out the ugly but expands the line of vision in such a way that all is seen in proper perspective.  And out on that horizon that Hope permits us to see—is the dawn of resurrection. 

Fear, of course, is what threatens Hope.  That is why biblical angels say “fear not” before bringing words of hope to shepherds or virgins or women visiting empty tombs.  "Fear not" is what modern angels tell men who’ve already murdered. By resisting fear, Ashley Smith was able to become an angel to Brian Nichols.  By using hope to dispel fear, we are able to love.

Deep hope is what poet May Sarton captures in her poem entitled “AIDS.”  Writing during the worst of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, Sarton bore witness to the physical devastation of the disease as well as the emotional despair as family and friends abandoned HIV-AIDS victims and society in general damned the diseased and persecuted the sufferers.  This poem offers a poignant image of one friend regularly giving his dying friend or lover his nightly shot of morphine.  But Sarton’s poem, which you’ll hear in a moment, also testifies to the transforming power of hope that stretches people to move beyond fear into an imaginative kind of love to receive a new grace.  Thus, “we are blest”—echoing I Peter’s phrase “you are blessed”—even though we suffer. 

We are stretched to meet a new dimension
Of love, a more demanding range
Where despair and hope must intertwine.
How grow to meet it?  Intention
Here can neither move nor change
The raw truth.  Death is on the line.
It comes to separate and estrange
Lover from lover in some reckless design.
Where do we go from here?                               
Fear.  Fear.  Fear.  Fear.

Our world has never been more stark
Or more in peril.
It is very lonely now in the dark.
Lonely and sterile.

And yet in the simple turn of a head
Mercy lives.  I heard it when someone said
“I must go now to a dying friend.
Every night at nine I tuck him into bed,
And give him a shot of morphine.”
And added, “I go where I have never been.”
I saw he meant into a new discipline he
had not imagined before, and a new grace.

Every day now we meet face to face.
Every day now devotion is the test.
Through the long hours, the hard, caring nights
We are forging a new union.  We are blest.

As closed hands open to each other
Closed lives open to strange tenderness.
We are learning the hard way how to mother.
Who says it is easy?  But we have the power.
I watch the faces deepen all around me.
It is the time of change, the saving hour.
The word is not fear, the word we live.
But an old word suddenly made new,
As we learn it again, as we bring it alive:              

Love.  Love.  Love.  Love.

The consequence of living hopefully is that love, not fear, rules our lives, and this transformation will so startle others they’ll demand to know the reason for our hope.  Christian witness is simply living hopefully, not debating antagonistically.  We are not told to shove Jesus down someone’s throat.  Listen once more to our central verse and don’t miss its final phrase: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” or, as others render the last phrase, “with meekness and respect.”  We are not told WHAT to say, in accounting for our hope, but HOW to explain why we have hope: respectful of another’s faith perspective, humble about our own.  We are challenged to imagine and prepare our response in case we are asked.  Each of us has a different story that can be shared about hope we have found in this place, perhaps, and among these people and through our Resurrecting God.  Whatever our explanation for our hope, we should respond respectfully to those of a different version of our faith, or of other faiths, or of little faith—or people no faith.  But primarily we are simply to live in such a way that hope itself becomes a compelling witness.  Our hope during adversity will attract attention —and produce a new kind of love that will change us and others.

Death IS on the line.  The gay community Sarton paid poetic tribute to faced and still faces suffering and persecution—as we’ve heard today from our friends at UCC Pensacola.  Death WAS on the line.  The recipients of the letter we call I Peter risked deadly persecution when they were baptized.  Death is CONTINUALLY on the line for us: the death of relationships, of self-images, of the world as we have known it.  But God’s hope can enlarge our imaginations, break open constraining prejudices and self-perceptions, rewrite the stories of our lives.  The world will be astonished to see this work of Jesus the Christ in us.  We, an Easter people, will face suffering, our own and that of others, but DEEP HOPE can move us from fear to love.

We can cultivate a holy imagination to see that a man who has just been on a shooting rampage in an Atlanta courthouse--a man who has just invaded a home and taken a new victim--is nevertheless a man capable of relinquishing violence.  No one else thought that event could have ended without more bloodshed.  Only deep hope could have planted that possibility in the imagination of a young woman—at a time when Death was on the line.  Many likewise doubt that the Church will survive. Only a new discipline of imagination can take us through the “hard caring nights” into a "new union" we might still call church.

Thank you, God, for giving Ashley Smith a brain to know that a desperate man needed a word of hope.  Thank you, God, for giving us brains and spirits to imagine something beyond suffering, something deeply hopeful that moves us past fear all the way to love, something past me all the way to the More.  Amen

Monday, May 19, 2014

"My Way or the Highway?"

On third Sundays we offer a more contemplative service. Instead of a sermon, there is a briefer reflection on one of of the lections and silence.  We usually conclude with options of several prayer stations that allow us to engage in active prayers. What follows is an excerpt from our contemplative service with my reflection on the Gospel reading included.

Texts:    I Peter 2: 2-5, 10;   Acts 2: 55-60;   John 14:4-11

*GOSPEL READING              John 14:4-11                               
Jesus said, “4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.”

REFLECTION                    “My Way or the High Way?”                                 

“It’s my way or the highway," said Jesus never.  But many readers of John’s Gospel hear something very like that in one of the Bible’s most divisive verses: “I am the way, the truth, the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” And usually people emphasize the article “the” in quoting it. The community who composed the Gospel of John seventy years after Jesus was crucified wanted to convey something vitally important about the one they still devotedly followed. They were valuing and sharing his living-giving way and truth. But were they intending to say that followers of all other spiritual paths were damned?

Many Biblical scholars insist, with a range of arguments, this verse was not intended to signal that only those who believe in Jesus will know God. Marcus Borg passes along a story about a Hindu professor in a Christian seminary who insisted on the rightness of John 14: 6 with this explanation: “'This verse is absolutely true—Jesus is the only way.’ Then he continued, 'And that way—of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being—is known in all the religions of the world.'  The ‘way’ of Jesus is a universal way, known even to millions who have never heard of Jesus.” (

Look back at the context for this verse that many use to prove they’ve cornered the market on God.  Jesus had been lecturing about his impending death.  And then he opened for Q and A.   Hoping the disciples were tracking his spiritualized language, John’s Jesus asserts: “And you know the way to the place where I am going, right?”  “Uh no,” Thomas admitted. “I mean, how can we know the way if we don’t know the place where you are going?”  Which was a logical question if John’s Gospel is referring to a literal destination for Jesus.  If the point of Jesus’s lecture had been to direct them to a particular literal place, then, yes, the disciples would need to enter that address in their 1st century GPS to know the way.  But the book of John is high flying, spiritualized poetry.  John seems interested in a spiritual journey, not a literal destination.  Jesus says the destination isn’t the point. The point is the way.  Follow my way, he says. And Jesus’s way is the way of death.  Or actually it’s the way of death that leads to new life. Jesus is teaching this lesson as he anticipates his own death.

The saving work of Jesus’s life and death, according to John’s Gospel, is not about believing certain factoids about Jesus.  Jesus offers a saving way of living—which is to be on this path or way to God, a way of hard truth, a way of abundant life—after a death of the old life.  It’s the way of loving one another as Jesus loved us, even to the point of death. 

No sooner had Jesus corrected Thomas’s literalism than another disciple, Phillip, demanded to see “the Father.” Jesus said Phillip was also literalizing the spiritual lesson.  “It’s like this, Phillip: If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God. This is as close as we’re going to get to seeing ‘God.’ Because the divine is in me and in you—when we love.  Being on this path of self-giving, loving relationships in a sense makes God visible.”

Thomas wants to make discipleship into a place.  
Phillip wants to make salvation into a person. 
Jesus—whom John sees as the embodiment of God--makes the life of faith all about the journey, the way.  A way of truth.  A way of Life, a life that defies death. 

Look back at George Herbert’s lyric we sang earlier: “Come, My Way.”  This poem, based on John 14:6, is a love song.  Herbert understands that John 14:6 has nothing to do with who is in with God and who’s out. 

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a way as gives us breath;
Such a truth as ends all strife;
Such a life as conquers death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a light as shows a feast:
Such a feast as mends in length;
Such a strength as makes a guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a joy as none can move;
Such a love as none can part;
Such a heart as joys in love.

Open Table’s mission statement says we strive to follow in the way of Jesus.  We require no subscription to dogma, no test of faith.  We’ve been as general as Jesus in simply rallying people around a way.  That way is both simple and hard.

What does that mean to you?   Has your understanding of the way of Jesus evolved?  Why?  How?

Where are you now in this life-of-death journey? What have you lost and what have you gained because of that loss?  Is there some “truth and life” for you in this Easter-y way of life-out-of-death?

What do you hope will be the next stage of your faith journey?  


PRAYER OF THE PEOPLE OF THE WAY  a paraphrase of The Lord’s Prayer        
Love’s Source and Sustainer, hallowed be your ways.
Your realm should come, your ways be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins
As we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the times of trial and deliver us from evil
For the power of love and mercy is yours now and forever.  Amen

Review Acts 2: 55-60, which we read earlier in the service. Remember the dying forgiveness of Stephen--and Jesus. 
The stones on this table represent words or actions that have been thrown at you, harming you emotionally, spiritually, maybe even physically. Call to mind a fresh or an old hurt for which you may not have yet fully forgiven someone. Now choose a stone that represents that hurt.  The stone may seem small for the injury it represents. Simply hold this symbol. At this point you could choose to throw it back, figuratively, in retaliation. Or you could choose to hide it from sight and hope you can forget it.  Or you could acknowledge the hurt and forgive that person. Feel the stone’s smooth surface, its solid but light heft.  This is a real hurt you are remembering, but you can choose to deny this stone its continuing harm if you hold it with compassion for the one who threw it and compassion for yourself. Take this stone with you to the next prayer station.

Prayer station 2:  CONSTRUCTING THE WAY
Recall the metaphor from I Peter about our lives as living stones. You are invited to incorporate your stone into the pathway we are paving with the events of our lives.  To forgive means we don’t forget the past or deny harm but we use past injuries in healing ways.  To make this stone part of your journey, place the stone decisively but gently on the path.  Imagine yourself using this gesture toward forgiveness as a move forward spiritually.  Pray for ongoing compassion for yourself and for other flawed but beloved children of God.   

Prayer station 3:  OFFERING OUR GIFTS
I Peter 2 :5 urges us to “let [our]selves be built into a spiritual house, . . .  to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  We offer our now our spiritual and material sacrifices because this discipline strengthens us and the spiritual house of God.  Pray for those your gifts will reach in love.

Prayer station 4:  RECEIVING GOD’S GIFTS
I Peter 2: 2-3  helps us imagine the Eucharistic cup as milk from a mothering God:  Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

Julian of Norwich, a 14th Century English mystic, wrote: “The mother can give her child suck from her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with Himself; and He does it most graciously and most tenderly with the Blessed Sacrament which is the precious food of true life . . . . The mother can lay the child tenderly on her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can more intimately lead us into His blessed Breast.” Words from scripture and Christian mystics have described Jesus as a mother.  Does your experience of the presence of Jesus change when you image the Christ as feminine, as Mother?  How does your experience of Holy Communion change If you imagine the chalice brimming with Mother’s milk (rather than the Son’s blood)?  Taste and see that God is good.