Tuesday, 15 December 2009 16:55

December 13, 2009 Sermon

Zephaniah 3:14-20
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 13, 2009
“Rivers of Hope”
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

This is the season where we hope.

Children hope that Santa recognizes all of the good things they have done throughout the year and that he has a very short memory of all of those times they have stepped out of line.

We hope that we will get what we want.

We hope that there will be enough funds to pay off our Christmas bills.

We hope that the temperamental UBC boiler will produce heat on a consistent basis.

We hope that our car will simply start in this cold winter weather.

We hope that friends and family near and far will travel safe this Christmas.

We hope that we can make it through finals.

We hope that we can make it to Christmas break.

But more than that, we hope beyond ourselves.

We hope that the economy will really change and that there will be a better job market out there.

We hope that there will be a health care bill that will actually make health care more affordable and available to all.

We hope that the climate talks in Copenhagen will yield more than lip service to reform.

We hope that the surge in Afghanistan will bring an end to the war.

We hope that Iran or Pakistan don’t develop and use nuclear weapons.

We hope.  We pray.  We give voice or thought to our sincerest longing.  And yet, sometimes it seems like just wishful thinking.  Can we, like the band in The Music Man make great sounds just using the “think system”?  Can we hope it into reality?  Of course not.  Hope needs to have legs.  It needs to have commitment behind it.  It needs to have some evidence.

Let’s face it.  There are a lot reasons these days for us not to hope.

The wars and rumors of wars are rampant.

There are still religious zealots who are hell-bent on sending others to hell.

There is a horrible vote in Uganda supported by too many US conservative Christians that call for the death penalty for homosexuality or the harboring of homosexuals.

There are still too few jobs and too big bills, no matter how much education we have.

Two thousand years ago, there was little to hope about either.  In fact it was a bit like our world: empires were occupying countries with hated armies, resistance movements used terror tactics, refugees needed to hide in other countries to escape death squads, there were extremes of wealth and poverty.  There was paranoia and fear by the high and mighty.   The hopes for peace and justice by the poor threatened those who benefited from the inequity.  (Thanks to Michael Westmoreland-White for some of the language in this paragraph.)  It was into this world that Jesus came.

So why not despair?  Why even give in to hope when all of the evidence says that we shouldn’t.  It’s a waste of time and energy.  It won’t do any good.  It’s just naïve optimism.

But I do hope.  And I do so because I can.  And I do so because to not hope, to lose hope, is the surest way to ensure defeat.

So, what his hope?  Is it blind naïve optimism?  Is it a surreal Pollyanna belief that everything will work out?  Is the pressure to hope a way of cutting off true and inconvenient criticism?

No, hope is a counter-cultural, counter-intuitive choice to live by possibility rather than impossibility.  It is a thumbing of the nose against violence and evil and it is saying that as long as people are around who have a little bit of faith, things may just turn around.  Maragaret Mead famously said, “Never believe that a small group of committed people cannot change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Think about the crucifixion of Jesus.  I know it’s the wrong season, but think of what Jesus brought to people.  He brought hope.  He brought dangerous hope.  This hope was the hope that empowered people to believe in themselves.  It empowered people to question authority.  That’s what Jesus did throughout his ministry and it really upset the scribes, the Pharisees and even the Roman occupying army.  Jesus welcomed everyone to the table, even the so-called unclean and the outcasts.  Defying tradition and even religious practice, he embraced lepers, women, people with diseases, corrupt tax collectors, the socially and politically outcast and showed them by example that they could have life and have it with abundance.  They could redefine power.  They could set the world right.  They could show the rulers a thing or two about justice and love and true leadership.  He lived into the hopeful words his mother Mary sang during her pregnancy: “God has looked with favor upon the lowly outcast.  God has brought redemption to Israel.  God has brought down the mighty from their thrones and has sent the rich away empty.”(Luke 1:46-55)

Now what this has to do with the crucifixion is that this hope was too powerful and potent a force.  So the rulers trumped up charges and brutally executed Jesus as an example.  “This is what happens when you hope.  Your hopes get dashed.  You can’t go on anymore.  Better not hope at all.  Go back to your little holes, you minions.”

But they didn’t go back to their holes.  They carried on the story.  They got all of their bravery and their hope back and they rose just as much as Jesus rose from the dead.  The resurrection is not so much about Jesus living.  It’s about hope living.  That’s the message of Christianity.

And here we are getting ready once again to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  And what do we have?

We have angels singing, “Be not afraid”.  We have prophets proclaiming that the heavens are telling the glory of God.  And we have people gathered here who may just possibly be willing to give hope a chance.

Andrew Sullivan wrote this week in the Atlantic Monthly, “Hope is not optimism. We have little reason for optimism given the first decade of the twenty-first century. Hope is a choice. As much a choice as faith and love.”

Hope can’t be blind optimism.  Clarence Jordan said “Faith is not hope in spite of the evidence.  That’s not faith, that’s foolishness. Faith is action in spite of the consequences.”  And that kind of faith gives me hope.

Hope takes bravery.  But hope by itself is wishful thinking.  Hope in community makes a real difference.  Isolated prayer is good, but prayer by many people changes attitudes.  It becomes a force, a movement.

Where do you see hope these days?

Do you know the name Annise Parker?  As of today, she’s the new mayor of Houston, Texas.  She’s the first openly gay or lesbian mayor of a major American City.  She was elected in Texas!

I see evidence of hope in these gifts at our altar.

I see evidence of hope in the safe space that we make here at UBC for people to work out their salvation with fear and trembling.

I see evidence of hope in the ways that people are a bit more patient and forgiving of each other during the holiday season, at least if you’re not vying for the last coveted gift on a shelf.

I see evidence of hope in beautiful music, inspiring us to imagine things beyond ourselves and touching a place beyond reason—something of spirit.

I see evidence of hope in the young people advocating for environmental justice and the peaceniks decrying military escalation, and even a president explaining the complexities of war and peace.

What was left out of most reporting about the president’s Nobel speech this week was the last third where he talked about creating peace, not only through military means, but also through education, through moral authority based upon law and justice—peace based upon respect for human rights.

Where do you see evidence of hope?

Last Sunday, Mindy Lee stood up and shared that a Karen refugee family from Burma did not have a church sponsor nor adequate winter clothing.  In a matter of minutes she was flooded with offers of donations.  Within a couple of days she was delivering carloads of donations from UBC people.  And more of you brought some today.  We’re now the church that will sponsor this family and maybe in a couple of months we’ll sponsor another family.

Harvey Milk said, "Hope will never be silent."  It will bubble up and resiliently inspire people to respond with compassion and commitment.

My friends, I encourage you to embrace hope.  Let it flow through you like a river.  Let it wash over you and remind you that you are not alone.

We hope, knowing that we follow one who knows our every weakness, every joy, every sin, and every failure and still loves us and promises to stand by us.  May we surf on this river of hope and share hope with someone else who really needs it.  I don’t mean by simply being hopeful around them or trying to get them to drop their negativism.  I mean be hope for someone.  Be present with them.  Believe in them when they can’t believe in themselves.  Then we are really living the incarnation of God.

And the words of Zephaniah become true:

“God will rejoice over you with gladness, renew your in Divine love, and exult over you with loud singing.  God will remove disaster from us, and will deal with all of our oppressors.  God will save the lame and gather the outcast and will change our shame in to praise and renown in all the earth” (Zeph. 13:17-19)

May the river of hope empower and gladden our hearts as we anticipate the coming of Jesus.  May we witness Jesus’ Christmas arrival with renewed minds, hearts and souls.