More Hope

Edina Morningside Community Church

Today’s scripture reading:
Luke 1:5-25, 57-66
Sermon audio:

By January of my senior year in high school, there was so much to be afraid of. I was approaching graduation and should have been looking forward to college, but all I could think about was how I didn’t fit in, and my fear that I would never fit in. For years I’d known that something was different about me; I didn’t match the cultural expectations of my surroundings in Great Falls, Montana. Months earlier, I’d finally dared to name the difference: I was having crushes on men rather than women. But this realization brought no comfort—it set off waves of daily, fervent prayer. Admitting I was gay would make me a target for bullying at school, would cost me relationships with family members and classmates, and would not fly at all in the church where I’d become a youth leader. So night after night I prayed for change, but the change never came. I feared I would always be as I was then—confused, hidden and alone.

One Saturday night in January 2001 I again found myself praying to be something I was not. I was thinking ahead to church the next morning, and how I’d feel like a fake when I showed up to sing pious hymns to a God who I feared would never answer my prayers. But that night, painful isolation opened to a new possibility. It was as though I heard God saying to me: “If I haven’t taken this gay thing away after all your prayers, it’s not because I’m not able to, but because I don’t want to. What if this is a gift, rather than a curse? What if you are supposed to learn to live with this, rather than flee from it?” In my youth group, I’d learned that God was sending messages all the time, and my job was to pay attention so as not to miss them. So I took it as a clear sign when I opened my clothes drawer and lifted out to wear the item which happened to be on top. It was one of the many evangelical Christian t-shirts I had in my collection then. Under a great yellow cartoon smiley-face were the words of a psalm: “He has made me glad.” That morning getting dressed for church, I read it in a different way: “He has made me gay.” God had answered my prayer, but not in a way I could have imagined or accepted at first. Fear at the ways I didn’t fit—and dread of a friendless future—would pass. I could be myself, and God would make me glad.

Have you ever had a moment like that, when you turned around a corner inside from dread to possibility? Can you recall times of such transformation, when life seems to divide into “before” and “after”? Was it a diagnosis, a birth or death, news of a job, a meeting of the eyes, or a paradigm-shifting conversation? Such moments are daunting because they call for us to change, yet they are also exhilarating because they unlock new paths for the future. They are glimpses of divine possibility which give us cause for new hope. This is our faith that God’s tomorrow may transform our today. It is the hope with which we start every Advent season, anticipating the coming birth of Christ. As Marcia McFee writes, “Advent can remind us that God makes us ready for whatever unknown may come our way, and calls us to be messengers of #morehope in an ever-changing world.”[1]

Zechariah knows what fear and dread of the future are like. In his day, Israel had been reduced from worldly success to a conquered people. Roman rulers called the shots, and Hebrew worship continued only because Rome allowed it. That’s how it had been Zechariah’s whole life. Every revolution for freedom had failed, and the temple priesthood was complicit in propping up Caesar’s power. Even when Zechariah was chosen to perform the ultimate duty, to enter the holiest of holy rooms in the middle of the temple, he did so with little expectation that anything would change. Rather, he entered with dread that things would always be the way they had always been.

No wonder he was dumbfounded by the angel’s appearance! Even this man of God could not believe the future foretold here. An old man just going through the motions, Zechariah receives Gabriel’s announcement that he’s a part of something much greater—God is doing something new. Zechariah and Elizabeth will bear a son in their old age. Their child is the one we call John the Baptist, a messenger for the coming Christ who will be a savior for the people. Elizabeth and Zechariah learn that God does not just go through the motions. Rather, when divine angels arrive they come with unexpected power, and a transforming call to become carriers of hope in God’s name.

But’s it’s hard to believe, isn’t it? No wonder Zechariah lost his voice at first. This faith we follow is so often unspeakable when hope-less-ness and cynicism are widespread in the land. Then especially, we struggle to believe for ourselves, or at least to voice what gives us faith, hope, meaning and purpose. Zechariah’s protest that he is old and beyond the age of raising children is just another form of what we start to believe ourselves. “I’m not good enough.” “God couldn’t really be interested in my life.” “What can one person do?” Fear that the future will be like the past leads to hope’s opposite: despair. We become complicit in silencing ourselves, in foreclosing possibilities by telling ourselves how great are the troubles, and how overwhelmed we already are. That is precisely the moment we need to hear the message of the angels: #DoNotBeAfraid.

I suspect for most of us, the angels do not show up in ethereal, feathery form. In my case at least, tidings of #morehope came from physical and familial messengers. God may have been telling me that gay was okay all along, but even though my heart was changed in prayer, I couldn’t really believe it until angels in human form showed it to me. Until my mother said, “Are you sure you’re gay? Okay, maybe we should go shopping sometime!” Until my grandmother said, “Of course you can be gay and a pastor; there’s nothing wrong with that.” Until my mentors in faith helped me find welcoming congregations. Until the United Church of Christ said “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Until I’ve been transformed into a messenger too, with the promise that God offers us #morehope this Advent season, and we need never be afraid.

As we begin this Advent season of anticipation, whether we are daunted by all that is afoot in the world or still high on the best of Thanksgiving—family, turkey and cranberry wine—we are called to receive and share the same message of the angel to Zechariah, #morehope. Advent starts with this extraordinary story of God at work in the midst of very ordinary people. One person can and does make a difference, no matter how insignificant our contributions seem. So consider one another as we close, and consider this world in which we find ourselves now. Consider how we might share more hope in the next hour, next day, next week, and all this next season. There are angels among us, with a divine calling. God is making us ready to be messengers of hope through our words and actions, flying in the face of fear in an ever-changing world. Amen.

[1] Marcia McFee, “Angels Among Us” worship series (Worship Design Studio; 2017).

Future-Tense Faith

Edina Morningside Community Church

Today’s scripture reading:
Isaiah 9:1-7
Sermon audio:

One of my friends, Scott Spence, is also the pastor of a UCC church. He sent a message this week asking how I was handling this text, since both our churches use this schedule of readings called the Narrative Lectionary. We’ve preached on Isaiah, chapter 9, but it’s usually in a different context. It’s usually read alongside another story, famous for its shepherds, stable, manger and baby. Scott asked what I was thinking about preaching this week because, he said, “I just keep wanting to preach a Christmas Eve sermon.”

Scott might be a month ahead on the calendar, but it’s easy to understand the connection to Christmas. This is the very text set to glorious music in Handel’s “Messiah”, used as foreshadowing for Jesus’ birth and sung so frequently in the holiday season. But Scott’s getting ahead of himself is a more profound impulse also. There is a deep current of forward movement, of anticipation, in the Christian faith. We are always looking ahead to the fulfillment of God’s promises. Christianity looks around at the world as it is and proclaims that there is more than meets the eye. Not this only, or this, or this, but that off in the future, envisioned with the eyes of faith and held in the heart. It’s the sense of ultimate hope depicted at the end of the Bible, in those words of Revelation promise so often read at funerals: “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” The Christian faith is lived with future tense.

We get that future faith from our Hebrew ancestors, including the prophet Isaiah. He too looked around at the world of his day and looked ahead to something else. The two Hebrew kingdoms of his day, split by civil war, would not be divided forever. The foreign adversaries with boots of war and garments soaked in blood would not prevail forever. Listen to the future tense with which Isaiah prophesied here: “there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.” God “will make glorious” the lands of Palestine. Isaiah can see the light of tomorrow dawning though the times he lived in were bleak as midnight.

Except for this. If we start studying the grammar of Isaiah’s prophecy, we’ll recognize that future, present and past tense get all mixed up. The future is being realized even now, and has been realized already! So Isaiah says, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”; “on them light has shined”. He says to God: “You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy.” “You have broken” the yoke of burden, the bar across shoulders, the rod of the oppressor. Isaiah recognizes God’s action in the past, raising up a savior—in this case likely a military ruler, though Christians connect the prophecy to Jesus. “A child has been born for us, a son given to us.” But the future fulfilment is not yet realized: “his authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness.”

Isaiah shows us what is sometimes called “the now and the not yet” of Christian faith. God is present and active right here and now, but the full realization of God’s promise is not yet at hand. We hold with one hand “in the sweet by and by when I die”, and in the other hand “down on the ground while I’m still around”! The faith that there is more to come carries us through seasons of heartsickness when all seems in trouble. Yet the promise of God’s manifesting right here and now can keep us from being “so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly use”. “Now” and “not yet”—held in faithful balance with one another.

This season in the church’s life feels full of such promise and realization. With Thanksgiving Sunday and all the gratitude that we extend this week, we number the blessings of the past year: abundance in capital campaign generosity, growth in worship, Spirit and members, those in need of care held with perpetual love and prayer. Over coffee and conversation each week in Bible study and at fellowship time, we name the brokenness of the world as it is, yet also point with gladness to what hopes are being born anew in it. Our confirmation youth—on an urban retreat this weekend—have experienced firsthand how hard it is to live in poverty in Minneapolis, yet also volunteered to make it better, serving food and cleaning at a homeless shelter yesterday. The Divine Design Task Force has been meeting with possible architects this week, interviewing candidates to help us remake our entrance and narthex to be more welcoming and serviceable. We are counting the blessings of the past and acknowledging limits of the present, while building with our pledges and hopes for the future. We are practicing both the “now” and the “not yet” of our faith.

Listen in closing to these words of wisdom in a hymn by Natalie Sleeth, which sees the future in the present moment.

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Faith that God holds the future is what gives us hope in the present moment, while knowledge that sees God among us even now spurs our participation to join God in making the best possible tomorrow. This is the faith that we inherit from Isaiah, Jesus and all our ancestors. This is the faith that we live by, pulling us into tomorrow. This is the faith by which we share every good thing. This is the faith that helps us trust the promise of Christmas Eve, even in the days before Thanksgiving. For such faith, we give all thanks to God. Amen.


Silence Before Action

Edina Morningside Community Church

Today’s scripture reading:
1 Kings 19:1-18
Sermon audio:

I had a friend in college who worked as a personal care attendant at a local nursing home. She was going to be a nurse, and at this position learned firsthand some of the hardships that come from being in that caring profession. Conversations at the nurse’s station let her in on some of the less rosy parts of the job. So that year for Halloween, she went as the “inner nurse”. She wore a pair of scrubs inside out, and wrote on it all the things that nurses might want to say but that they keep inside for the sake of maintaining a cheery disposition. For example: “Living the dream!…said no night shift nurse, ever.” “I’ve seen it, smelled it, touched it, heard it, and stepped in it. All of it.” “Only two things are guaranteed in this life: death and staying after shift to finish charting.” “For someone who’s short of breath, you sure do talk a lot!”

If that costume opened my eyes to what nurses go through sometimes, today’s Scripture is a similar glimpse into the prophetic life. We overhear the prophet Elijah’s harried and overwhelmed self-talk, or what we could call the “inner prophet”. Elijah is on the run from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, really feeling sorry for himself. First he lays down under a shrub and asks to just die, but God sends an angel to feed him. Then he marches through the wilderness forty days and nights to get to the mountain of God. Finally he gets to Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. This is the mountain of Moses and the Ten Commandments—this is God’s home.

And sure enough, God finds him there too. “Hey, Elijah, what are you doing here?” Then Elijah’s self-centered “inner prophet” complaint comes pouring out. “I have been very zealous for you, O God. The Israelites have done all sorts of terrible things to your prophets and your name. I’m the only one left of all your prophets, and they’re hunting for me right now.” Poor Elijah—he’s practically hysterical.

And then God does a most interesting thing. God says, “Hey, stand here and pay attention, because I’m about to come by.” Elijah is going to get the chance to see God, in the same place that Moses once saw God. Elijah knew what to expect when God showed up. This is Yahweh—who led the people of Israel by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. There could be lightning, thunder, and a great storm—it might be a burning bush, or fire from heaven. It would surely be the greatest thing Elijah ever experienced.

A great wind comes up, so great that it breaks rocks open and splits mountains, but God is not in the whirlwind. And then an earthquake shakes the whole land, but God is not in the earthquake. There is a blazing hot fire, but God is not in the fire. Finally after all of these incredible experiences, there comes a sound of sheer silence. Then Elijah lifts his mantle—his prophet’s robe—and covers his face. It is a fearful and holy thing to come into God’s presence. For Elijah, God is not in all the fancy pyrotechnics. God arrives in the sound of sheer silence.

Silence can be a pretty powerful experience, especially when everything else has been noise. How often do we truly find silence in our lives? If your life is anything like mine, it’s not often. And not all silence leads to Elijah’s kind of spiritual encounter with God. His is a deep kind of silence, restful stillness after all the over-the-top activity has stopped. It’s a kind of peaceful awareness, watchfulness because God is going to show up. It is nothing less than the holy appearance of God. This is why retreats are so important to the spiritual life. They are a break from all the hustle and bustle in our lives, a chance to step back and pay attention, because God just might show up. It’s another reason for coming to church—it’s a regular spiritual practice of stillness, centering ourselves to be aware of God’s presence. Sometimes, we are like Elijah: on a mission, or running from something, or caught up in the fire, the wind, and the earthquake. We need periodic times of silence and stillness, to balance out all the other activities that can distract us from the things that matter most.

Now this is not to say that all silence is created equal, or that silence is good all by itself. Sometimes silence can be oppressive, such as silence about sinful injustice. Silence around the ecological dangers of our consumption habits. Silence around the inequalities that women face in our society. Silence around the ways corporate greed takes advantage of human need. No, silence is not always good in and of itself.

For silence to be divine rather than deadly, it must lead into something more. Holy silence, like that which Elijah experienced, begins with stillness, but it doesn’t stay there. This kind of silence is preparation for the sake of action. It involves stepping back from all the other noise in our lives in order to listen for God’s call underneath everything else.

The Hebrew phrase for what Elijah hears is a bit ambiguous. The translation we read from renders it “the sound of sheer silence.” But other translations call it a “still, small voice.” The Hebrew word qol can mean either “sound” or “voice,” so both translations are right. Deep within the silence, there is a still, small voice of God. Divine silence helps us hear God speaking about where God wants us to go next. Notice that Elijah does not stay in the silence. He is commissioned and sent out again. By the end of the passage, he hears God say, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.” There’s a list of the kings Elijah is to anoint, and a promise of seven thousand others who are faithful like Elijah. A new call comes out of the silent encounter with God, and a gentle reminder that Elijah is not in fact all by himself in the work.

Such clarity and purpose awaits us too, and while it’s on its way we are invited to rest in the silence. The silences between the sounds here, and in the gentle bread and cup that will be passed through the pews. The silence of putting your feet up at the end of a long day of service. The quiet stillness of telling stories to children at bedtime. It may be as simple as deep breaths while sitting at a stoplight. Or even the tiny break for breath in the middle of a sentence.

Trust that these times of silence have God written all over them. Let them be a pregnant pause, a chance for us to hear the voice of God. Something new is coming to life inside the silence. There is a still, small voice—God’s call that gives us strength to go out again. May God find you with the sound of silence. Amen.