Living with Hope
Living with Hope has been our theme all year.
We are hopeful about our church, about our friendships and families, even about our country. More than that, we do what we can to keep hope alive for the thousands around the world who are fleeing poverty, violence, and danger. We have prayed all year for the Ukrainians, hoping with them that they can repel the evil army that has invaded their country. We think about people in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea where people were once free and prosperous but now in danger of losing these gifts. All over the Middle East, people are hoping for a safer, freer, more safe communities. On our southern border, hundreds of thousands of people remind us what it means to be pulled forward by the hope of a better life.
We want our country to be a beacon of hope. We want our religion to be a voice of hope. We want our church to be a place of hope.
Last week, I came into the pulpit unaware of the violence in Club Q in Colorado Springs on Saturday night. I regret this, and I apologize. We want to be a voice of hope for LGBTQ people everywhere, including here in our county.
In this spirit and with this intent, we enter the most wonderful time of the year. We want all that we do over the next six weeks, from Thanksgiving to Epiphany, to radiate hope. We want to send the gospel message of hope as far as we can with your thoughts, our prayers, and our gifts; and we want to envelop our own congregation in a fresh experience of hope. We want to live with hope, work for peace, serve with love, and sing for joy.
Reading Psalm 136, telling the story of the birth of Jesus, and celebrating the power of God in us, around us, through us, and for us will keep us living with hope.
It is popular these days to say, “I am spiritual but not religious.”
I take that to mean a person prays regularly, meditates occasionally, seeks to be a virtuous person, treats people with respect and kindness, and as often as possible, joins in a service project. But what the “spiritual but not religious” person avoids is an organization committed to any of these things. No church for me, he says. “No meetings, or committees, or campaigns for me,” she says.
All of us feel that way sometimes, don’t we? Organizations can and do get in the way of living in the spirit. In the same way, a school can undermine the love of learning, a political party can destroy our desire to serve our nation, and a corporation can negate the motivation we have to seek prosperity for all people.
But I want to offer a different way to think about religious and spiritual. Sometimes, we think of “religious” as being affiliate with one of the great, organized religions of the world—if not Christianity, then Judaism, or Hinduism, or Sikhism. Beyond that, a religious person sees and embraces something beyond this material world.
A religious person sees and knows that God is everywhere. An irreligious person or an un-religious person ignores the presence of God, even disputes the presence and power of God all around us, often denies the presence of God.
But for us, God is the unseen mystery of all creation. God is present: creating worlds, shining light, healing hurts, resisting evil, inspiring ideas, music, and movements of all kinds.
Wherever there is love, there is God; wherever there is peace, and joy, and kindness, God is at work. Wherever people are sacrificing for the wellbeing of others, there is God.
God is the presence that brings to life all that is good and gracious and glorious. God is the power that suppresses violence, and hate, and anger and ignites peace, love, and friendship. God is the person who calls you to be the person you were created to be. This is what it means to be a religious person.
Yes, sometimes these things give rise to organizations and institutions, and these also can be channels of divine goodness. But when these human creations lose their connection with the divine, religious people sense it, and move away, and open themselves to new expressions of the wonder working presence of the ever-living God.
God is making history right now as we speak. Converting people, redeeming families, protecting villages, pushing back against the wickedness in the world.
Christmas is a celebration of the history God made two thousand years ago, but God is making history right now somewhere for somebody—maybe here, for you and me. God is here today, helping us sing for joy, serve in love, work for peace, and live with hope.
Psalm 136 is an ancient but inspired poet that reminds us what it means to be religious. It is to believe that God is present and active in all of nature, in the events that swirl around us, and also in the ups and downs of our own lives.
This psalm breaks down nicely for the preacher accustomed to three parts of a sermon.
The first stanza celebrates God in nature. “Give thanks to God who made the heavens.…Give thanks to God who placed the earth among the waters….Give thanks to God who made the lights of the heavens….Give thanks to God who made the sun to rule the day and the moon and starts to rule the night.”
To believe in God is to make room for science.
Science is a process of seeking a natural cause for every natural event. This is good and we rejoice. We are not going to curse the science because it challenges some traditional way of thinking or living. But we are going to assert that before, around, and after all the natural laws that shape things there is God, the creator of all these laws, the sustainer of every brilliant mind that looked into the mysteries of the universe, the One who blesses all those who teach our children to study the mysteries of the universe.
But science cannot explain everything.
Science cannot explain love, beauty, and why a mother sacrifices for her child. Science cannot explain music and art and dance. Science cannot explain the love of liberty and the grace of kindness. Science cannot explain the joy of birth and the grief of death. Science cannot explain the wonder we feel when we gaze into the night sky.
The second stanza of this ancient psalm turns our attention to the God of history. “Give thanks to God who rescued the Hebrew people from Egypt…. Give thanks to God who acted with a strong hand and a powerful arm to liberate his people…. Give thanks to God who parted the waters of the Red Sea and led Israel safely through the danger…. Give thanks to God who hurled the armies of Pharoah into the very trap they had set for the Hebrew slaves, who led his people through the wilderness, and who gave to them the promised land.
It is this God of history that inspires us to live with hope.
Stanza three of this ancient poem turns its attention to us, to our weakness, to our needs and aspirations. “Praise the God who remembered us in our weakness, who saved us from our enemies, who gives good to us and to all people. Give thanks for the love of God endures forever, to all generations.”
Here, finally, we come to testimony time. It is when we, one by one, tell our story. God gave me someone to live with and love with. God gave me friends to stand by me when I was in a terrible situation. God gave me courage to tell the world the truth, to resist the prejudice that wells up within me, to give my best to care for the least among us.
God, that unseen mystery at the center of all things, is also at the center of my soul, calming me down, lifting me up, helping me sing for joy, work for peace, serve in love, and live with hope.
God is the one who pulled me out of my self-centered ways and brought me into a good place, a place of forgiveness and kindness and courage.
This week a friend sent me a poem. It is not John Prine, but it is good.
I turn my inmost being back to you
To magnify and praise you from my heart,
Whose heart is loving and whose word is true,
Delighting in this psalm, which played a part
In my conversion, forty years ago.
An unbeliever then, I thought I'd start
To read the Bible as a poet, so
I started with the psalms. And I recall
The single verse that changed me and would show Me hope at last:
“The Lord upholdest all,
All such as fall, also he lifteth up
All those that are down...the eyes of all
Wait upon thee.” And then a sudden hope
Sprang up in me, that somewhere in that all
I might be found. I knelt down, and looked up!
She found her salvation in psalm 145. But she could have found it here, in psalm 137; or in the daybreak bright with color and stillness; or in the love of a woman, or the kindness of a stranger, or the courage of a soldier, or in a single word, one single word.
God is everywhere, in all things, calling us to life, to love, to grace, to God. God is everywhere, all the time, around us inviting us to sing for joy, work for peace, serve in love, and live with hope.
I am a religious person. Not because I attend church or preach a sermon or join this organization. I am a religious person because I live as if God is present everywhere, around me and you, in me and you, through me and you. That is what makes me religious.
It is also what makes these stories of Christmas so powerful. God planned the whole things: the young woman in Nazareth, the star over the Middle East, the old woman in the temple who watched as Joseph and Mary dedicated their newborn child. The Bible says she praised God. Her name was Anna.
God named him Jesus, which means he is the savior of us all. God gathered the angels to welcome him with song. God sent those magi, wise men we call them, astrologist some people say, with their wonderful, eternal question: “Where is he who is born king of the Jews? We have come to worship him.”
God was in the sky and in the song. God was in the woman and in the man. God was among the shepherds and also the angels. God was in the dream that pushed Joseph to take his wife and baby and get the hell out of town. God was in the child, Jesus, filling him, protecting him, guiding him, preparing him to live, to speak, to suffer, to die.
God was in Jesus Christ, reconciling all of us to God, not counting our sins against us, but forgiving us and removing our sins as far as the east is from the west. This is our religion.