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Stories of Hope: Not About Circumstance

July 8, 2018 Sermon
Stories of Hope: Not About Circumstance

Scripture Reading: John 20:19-21

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

Stories of Hope: Not About Circumstance

Back in May of 2015, I attended something called The Festival of Homiletics in Denver, Colorado.  In simple terms, the Festival of Homiletics is a national conference for preachers from a great many Christian denominations.  I remember arriving in Denver with great excitement to attend my very first Festival of Homiletics. I remember arriving in Denver with great anticipation of being taught by some of Christianity’s greatest preachers.

I remember arriving at that conference with great hope, only to have that hope somewhat dampened more than a little during one of the first lectures.  On the same day as we held our first lecture, the Pew Research Center released the results of a massive study about the changing religious landscape in the United States: Pew reported that in less than a decade, the number of Americans who call themselves “Christian” had declined from 78% to 70%, while the number of Americans who don’t affiliate with any religion increased by almost the same amount.  Care to guess what the focus of most of the lectures and conversation was about on that first day of the 2015 Festival of Homiletics? And while most of the lecturers by the following day had recovered from shock to address other topics, topics those lecturers had INTENDED to discuss before arriving at the conference, the release of the Pew Research Center’s results dampened the mood of what was otherwise an amazing conference.   I sensed it, I’m sure everyone there sensed it: a conference that had begun with a hopeful and energetic mood on the night of our first worship service together had ended with an altogether different kind of mood. Circumstance had dampened hope.

Circumstance had dampened hope.  Those are the exact words that come to mind for me every time I read John’s description of the disciples on the evening of the first Easter, the description found in chapter 20, verse 19: “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders…”

Can you imagine the change in mood for the disciples from hope to despair and fear over the preceding few days?  Can you imagine having spent years following One you believed to be the long-awaited Messiah, One you believed might even be MORE than what was expected of Messiah, more than a mere human being but possibly even Immanuel, God-with-us, God-in-the-flesh, only to see this One who should have been all-powerful, this One who should have overthrown the Roman oppressors, die at the hands of those same Romans and at the instigation of the Jewish leadership, the people who claimed to be the leaders of God’s people?  Even with the strange reports of Jesus’ tomb being empty, even with Mary Magdalene having told the disciples, “I have seen the LORD!” upon returning from Jesus’ empty tomb, circumstance had completely changed the mood of the disciples from hope to fear…so that they were locked away in a room, wondering about their future, wondering not so much WHETHER they would be next to share in Jesus’ death but rather WHEN they would share in Jesus’ death. I imagine each one of them wondered, “How much more time do we have?”

“How much more time do we have?”

During the past 3 months, I’ve found circumstantial reasons to be a little fearful of what I would find when I returned to First Christian Church, Grand Junction.  I’ve found circumstantial reasons to fear I might find the hope of Easter, the hope of 134 years of ministry, flagging just a bit. (Oh, by the way, if you’re a visitor this morning and you’re wondering who I am and where I’ve been for three months, let me introduce myself.  I’m Rev. Brad Barton, Senior Pastor of this congregation; I’ve been on a pastoral sabbatical for three months, and today is the first Sunday of my return.) Here are some of the circumstantial reasons I’ve found to be fearful that the hope of Easter, the hope of new life, we celebrated on my last Sunday with you just might have faded a bit:

    • Too many dear friends – family members for us as congregation –  have died;
    • Too many dear friends – family members for us as congregation – have moved away from Grand Junction;
    • Those who remain are aging – we’re ALL aging – and some are getting to the point where their bodies tell them regular attendance means something different, something with less frequency, than it did in the past, and so there are more empty seats than we’re accustomed to seeing;
    • In addition to all these things, it’s summertime, a time when so many members and friends of our congregation take extended vacations, anyway, which means the sanctuary has yet another reason to be getting emptier and emptier on Sunday mornings;
    • The upshot of all this is that we find ourselves in a circumstance in which it definitely APPEARS we are shrinking.  In fact, the reality may very well be that we ARE shrinking. More importantly, the empty seats, the declining worship attendance, provides another reason for you, for US, to grieve: you are very likely grieving the loss of your EXPECTATIONS of what would be happening around here this year.  And, let me be clear on this, the loss of what we EXPECT from the future can be just as painful as any other kind of loss;

Y’all, in just three months, the circumstance of our congregation has CHANGED; it has changed enough to where it’s very possible some of you are feeling less than hopeful about the future.  Even though I’ve been away, I’ve received regular reports of what’s happening here…and so I FEARED I might find hope to be in short supply upon my return.

But let’s change the conversation a bit from what I feared I would find here to what I was finding in my own personal relationship with God over the past three months.  During my sabbatical, my daily prayer life was guided by a book entitled, A Guide to Spiritual Discernment.  The book, compiled by a man named Rueben Job, offers daily scripture readings, prayers, and readings for reflection for 40 days as a way of seeking God’s voice, God’s will, and discerning what God calls us to as individuals and as congregation.  

I’m not sure what was happening HERE at First Christian Church, Grand Junction, during the first week of May, the second month of my sabbatical, but I can tell you what was happening in my relationship with God that week.  When I arrived at the fifth week of my sabbatical, during my prayer time I very clearly sensed God calling to me to change the sermon series I would preach during my first month back with all of you; I sensed God calling me to change the sermon series to be based on the theme of the fifth week of Rueben Job’s book.  The theme for week 5 is called, “A Time of Hope.” In his introduction to Week 5, Reuben Job writes about hope as a defining and even dominant quality of the universal Church throughout its history and life. As I thought and prayed about hope as a defining quality in the life of the Universal Church, I kept hearing God telling me to share these words with First Christian Church, Grand Junction: “Hope should be the defining quality of OUR life.”  

But how do we get there?  How do we move from so many circumstantial reasons to LOSE hope to fully living out of hope in every moment of our communal life?  That’s what this sermon series will be about.

Let’s get back to John 20:19-21.  I said a little while ago that John 20:19 portrayed a situation in which circumstance had dampened hope.  All the hopes and dreams Jesus’ disciples had for Jesus – and for them as Jesus’ disciples – had seemingly been crushed by circumstance.  That’s how this passage BEGAN.

But by the time we’ve read just two short verses further along, the message has changed…DRAMATICALLY.  I begin the series with John 20:19-21 not because it’s a reminder of how circumstance can damage hope but rather precisely BECAUSE it’s a reminder of how the opposite is really true. Y’all, this describes a scene in which the ETERNALLY AVAILABLE hope of God’s work in the world invades the fragile circumstantial darkness of despair.  In three verses, God transforms the disciples from a seemingly hopeless group, locked away in a room, to a group that is both rejoicing in hope and filled enough with hope to be ready to continue Jesus’ ministry of transforming the world.

Isn’t that what WE want?  Don’t we want for Jesus to walk in here and turn our belief that our CIRCUMSTANCE dictates that we despair into a CONVICTION that everything is about to be so amazing that instead of this being a time to despair this is instead a time for us to start dancing and singing and praising and whooping and hollering for all the world to see?  Isn’t THAT what we want?

SO, I’ve got a secret for you.  Jesus already DID that. He didn’t walk into THIS room, specifically for us, THIS morning – not physically, anyway – but Jesus DID walked into that room of fearful disciples so long ago, and God’s Spirit led the gospel writer John to record that instance so that we would write ourselves into the story, so that it’s like WE…WERE…THERE; WE…ARE…THERE!  It’s like Jesus DID walk in here and give us the hope we crave.

So let’s consider what happened back then, for those disciples, and, really, for US.  How did they go from being locked away as a fearful and hopeless bunch to becoming a few moments later a group of people ready to be God’s instruments of change throughout the entire earth?  Quite simply: Jesus’ resurrected presence provided the assurance they needed that God was STILL at work. That’s ALL they needed – just a simple reminder that God wasn’t done, that God was still WITH them…because they knew then, like we know today, that if God is with us, there is NOTHING they could not accomplish, there is nothing WE cannot accomplish.  And Jesus’ resurrected presence reminded them of exactly that…and it should remind us of the same. Every single time we gather together to worship, we also gather around this communion table, as a reminder of Jesus’ resurrected presence with us, so that we will ALWAYS REMEMBER God is STILL with us…there’s no reason to fear. There IS reason to hope.

By the way, in that encounter with Jesus, did you notice, nothing about the disciples’ circumstance had changed? Jesus had STILL been crucified three days earlier. Jesus had STILL died and been buried in a tomb. The Jewish leadership STILL wanted those disciples dead, every bit as much as they had before Jesus walked into that room.  In fact, it wouldn’t be too terribly long before the Jewish leadership got what they wanted in that regard. And, Jesus had already been resurrected. Y’all, absolutely NOTHING had changed with regard to the disciples’ circumstance between verse 19 and verse 21.  

Their circumstance hadn’t changed, but the hope Jesus brought changed everything for them, and it can for us, as well.

Reflecting on scenes like this one from scripture, Reuben Job writes: “The source of [Christians’] resolute hope was never found in the surroundings or how things were going for the Church.  Rather, hope was found in God and the assurance that God was at work in the Church and in the world.”

Y’all, our hope should have NOTHING to do with our circumstance.  Rather, our hope should have EVERYTHING to do with our trust in God and God’s assurance that God is at work through us, that God will continue to be at work through us, that God will fill these seats again if we trust and listen for what God calls us to do individually and collectively.

I want to finish with a story I’ve told you before, a story that’s probably more of a modern day parable, a story that bears repeating.  The story goes like this:

There was once an old stone monastery tucked away in the middle of a picturesque forest. For many years people would make the significant detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul.

In recent years however fewer and fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited.

The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to his good friend Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. “Please do” responded the Abbot. “Anything you can offer.”

Jeremiah said that he had received a vision, an important vision, and the vision was this: the messiah was among the ranks of the monks. The Abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks.

The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah?

From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Joseph and Ivan started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Pierre and Naibu left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offence had been given.

As one traveler, then another, found their way to the monastery word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them.

During my sabbatical, every time I started to fear that I might find despair instead of hope in this place when I returned, I kept receiving the message from God: don’t despair, the Messiah is among you.  There is reason to hope!

(Go out into the congregation, proclaiming):  “The Messiah is among us!

Amen.