Sermon for July 16, 2017: Hope, the long game (preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Martinez, CA)

You can listen to the sermon here:

One of the great privileges I have as a clergy person is to spend time with people during significant moments in their lives.  Sometimes these occasions are full of joy – such as seeing and blessing newborn babies – and others are quite sad, like when I visit with people who are seriously injured or ill.  These opportunities are one of the reasons that it is a blessing to be a priest.  But it can be difficult – and one of the hardest things to witness is the moment when people begin to lose hope.

I have been confronted with this loss of hope several times recently.  Many of you know that this past week the Canon to the Ordinary of the diocese, Stefani Schatz passed away after a long battle with ovarian cancer.  Stefani was first diagnosed while on pilgrimage in Iona, Scotland in May of 2016 where she collapsed and was subsequently and shockingly diagnosed with cancer.  Early this year, after having significant surgery, Stefani was doing well enough to return to work full-time and appeared on the road to recovery.  Unfortunately, in April Stefani was found to have a new tumor which was growing aggressively.  After a visit to Texas to meet with specialists she was told that “cure” was no longer an option. They were told there was no hope.

Many other people face hopelessness. There’s James, “a single, 60-year-old man…diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer” who lives in fear that Congress will enact a new health care bill which will dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and without its benefits he will “be bankrupt.”[1]  Janice is a homeless woman who was recently “cleared out” of a Martinez s encampment by police just two days before her appointment with an agency that places individuals in housing, and now believes she will never find a permanent place to live.  And there’s Donna,[2] whose spouse has been fighting chronic illness for years, and whose eyes I looked into this week and realized that she has begun to lose hope.

In such situations as these, it has always been hard for me to know what to say or do to help someone, and this feeling has intensified since I became a priest.  Perhaps it’s just my perception, but it always seems like I should have the ultimate answer to that omnipresent question, “Where is your God now”? Where is your God when people go hungry?  Where is your God when people are homeless?  Where is your God when people become sick and die?

For me, the answer to that question lies not in deep and complex theology, but in the realm of human experience – the place where fear, anger, and despair originate -and in our holy scriptures, which frequently and fearlessly address the struggles of humanity.  And, sure enough, today’s psalm responds to that desperate question, “Where is your God”?  The answer is “right here.”  Because the God described in Psalm 65 is not a clockmaker God who created the world, wound it up and stepped back to see what would happen.  The God of Psalm 65 is an active God – a god who visits, prepares, provides for and blesses the world he created.  This is not a god who takes away; this is a god who gives. And one of the things that God gives is hope.  And hope, I think, is what today’s lessons are all about – which is good, because we can all use more of it about now.

When I was a child and I would say my prayers, I would always ask God to bless things, “God bless Mommy.  God bless Daddy. Etcetera.”  And then I would ask for things.  “God please give me a new bike for Christmas.”  “God make my grandma better.” And when I got a little older, “God, help me to meet my one true love Jimmy Osmond.”  It didn’t occur to me until later that I almost always said the exact same things when I wished on a star.  “I wish so-and-so was better,” “I wish I could have thus-and-such,” “I wish Mr. Perfect loved me the way I love him.”  My wishes were prayers without God in them, and my prayers were often merely wishes.  “So what,” I began to wonder, “is the difference”?  The difference is faith.  Faith is the thing that says you believe that whatever you wish – whatever you pray for – is possible – and it’s possible for a reason.  It is possible because there is someone out there who loves you enough to listen to your desires – even the stupid ones like meeting Jimmy Osmond – and to give you what you need.

Notice I said, “what you need,” and not what you want.  Because, as we well know, believing in God does not mean you will get everything you want.  Believing in God does not mean we will not suffer.  Believing in God does not mean we will not die. Believing in God means that all things are possible.  Believing in God means that we have hope.  If we have faith – if we believe that God can and will give us what we need, then we will always have hope.  This is what Isaiah means by saying that the word of God does not come back empty.  Hope says that even in the midst of struggle, we expect that good will be the ultimate outcome.[3]

But hope can sometimes be hard to find- and hard to give.  As it was when I recently looked into the haunted eyes of someone whose beloved is emaciated, weak and laboring to breathe.  “We live on this side of the veil of heaven and can often see only pain and loss.  We do not see all that there is in creation.”[4]  We do not know the reason for what is happening to us.  We do not know God’s purpose.  That makes it challenging to see the possibilities for our lives – to envision an outcome without pain or fear or grief. That’s because we are always thinking in human terms.  And the greatest power that human beings ever experience is death.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about sin and I said that sin is separation – separation from God and one another.  In today’s reading from Romans we hear Paul tell the early Christians that we are condemned when we try to earn salvation through our own power –when we decide that we don’t need God to help us – when we separate ourselves from God.  But our power is limited. We are bound to this world and its restrictions, and ultimately there is nothing we can do to overcome death. But God has already overpowered death.  And if we believe that then we will have faith that anything is possible.  We can hope.

It’s a difficult concept to understand – that the things we think of as most valuable – money, power, fame, beauty – are ultimately unimportant and that giving up power could lead to life and peace.  It seems impossible to think that suffering could ever be a good thing.  We simply cannot accept that a god who is both loving and all-powerful would allow good people to suffer.  But God does not make sense.

The parable of the sower is familiar to most of us as a story about what makes a good Christian.  We have all heard the story of the seeds and the fates that befall them, and we have all been told that we need to careful not to be “bad seeds.”  Don’t be the seed on the path; deeply engage with God’s word, lest you be swayed by those who don’t believe in God (the birds).  Be faithful to your belief in God, or else when times get tough you will give up on her (like the seeds on the rocky ground).  And watch out for the hot sun, otherwise known as the worldly dangers of money, fame, sex, and pride.  Focus instead on the right things, and you will grow and thrive.  In other words, being a Christian, like anything worthwhile, requires effort.  It requires us to do our part – to be good seeds.

But I think that when we focus on the seeds we miss something important about the sower. What this sower does does not make sense.  This sower does not act like a rational farmer.  Think about it: instead of sowing seeds only on good ground, this sower sows seeds all over the place.  This sower throws seeds in bad and broken places.  This sower throws seeds out as if he believes that all of the seeds – no matter where they are planted – have the same potential to grow and thrive – that even in rocky, dry, thorny ground surrounded by predators, something wonderful can grow.  This sower believes that even when we are surrounded by illness, fear, poverty, and immanent death, something amazing can happen.  In other words, this sower, our sower, our God, has hope.  And so should we.  AMEN.

[1]The Editorial Board of the New York Times, (June 24, 2017) “If we lose our health care…” The New York Times Online, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/24/opinion/sunday/obamacare-repeal-health-care-bill.html?mcubz=0.

[2]Pseudonym

[3]John L. Thomas, Jr., (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 218.

[4]Thomas W. Blair, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 222.

 

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