Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Path of Life

A few years ago, I was walking through a marshland. It was one of those boarded walkways, raised up a few inches above the mud so you don’t have to worry about the muck ripping the shoes off your feet. The marsh was filled with tall grass, 6 to 7 feet in height, and cattails, and so the effect of walking along the boardwalk was like walking down a hallway, with a very restricted view to either side. I could hear the birds and frogs singing, but unless they joined me on the path I couldn’t see them.

Ahead of me the path took a turn, a bend to the right, and because of the tall plants, what would emerge ahead of me was a mystery. Perhaps around the corner was a pond, or a coyote, or remote beaver dam. It could be a place of peace and serenity where I could sit and relax, it could be something frightening where I would need to turn and run, or it could be more of the same tall grass with little to see. I had no way of knowing. Yet not knowing made me want to go on, to seek that which might be a new adventure, to explore and discover. I began to enjoy the twists and turns on the walk, whether they revealed anything new or not.

At one point I looked back to see where I had been, and I realized that not only could I not see where I was going, but I could no longer see the path that I had just walked. It was just as obscured as the path ahead – except for my memories. There were the places the dragonfly nearly crashed into me, where the flowering bush bloomed, and where some of the wooden boards were broken and needed to be repaired. I could remember them, but I could no longer see them.

As I reflected upon this, I thought about how often life is also like this. We look ahead of us, we can predict a slight change of course, but we really don’t know what lies around the corner. It could be more of the same with tomorrow almost a mirror image of today, it could be a special time of joy and celebration, or it could be that which brings tears and sadness. Not knowing is part of the adventure of life.

Looking back, we depend upon our memories for where we have been. The times when we clashed with a loved one, when life truly blossomed, where the way seemed broken and in need of heavy repair. Some of these memories bring us sadness, some we treasure.

What is vital for us is to be aware that God was with us along the path. Every step we have taken in the past and every step that we will take in the future is walked with God at our side. As Psalm 23 says,
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
    he leads me to restful waters;
        he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
    for the sake of his good name.
Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no danger because you are with me.

Never forget that, my friends!

Sermon: Faith Behind Locked Doors

John 20:19-31

Every year on the Sunday after Easter, we read several passages about what the disciples did following Jesus’ resurrection. One of them that is part of our readings most years is from the gospel of John on how Thomas misses the first appearance of Jesus to the disciples, and when the disciples tell him about it -- Thomas doesn’t believe them. So we usually talk about doubt and the role it has in faith. But the thing that I want to focus on today is the rest of the disciples. Not Thomas. They are all locked up in a room because they are afraid.

Listen to the story and think about that as I read it. John 20:19-31

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”

But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”

After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”

Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.

So what does it mean that the disciples were all together behind locked doors? You see, locked doors don’t sound that weird to us today, because we lock our homes, we lock our cars, we lock our churches. Everything is locked up, because we are concerned about theft, about crime, and so locked doors have become normal, even in the daytime. But in Jesus’ era, during daylight, doors were usually opened and unlocked to allow in light and air. It was a sign that friends and guests were welcome. So the fact that the disciples are behind closed doors, and in fact locked doors is a bit surprising. Clearly they were in hiding, they were afraid, and they were not ready to receive friends or guests.

So what happens? Jesus appears to them anyway. Even though the door being closed clearly conveys that visitors are not welcome. He then speaks to them words of peace. He tells them that they are sent out into the world, and he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, telling them that if they forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven.

Jesus is being very pastoral here. The disciples were keeping their faith behind locked doors for fear of the anger and judgment of other religious people. Jesus is telling them to get out from behind the locked door, that they have a job to do. They have to live their faith, not hide it.

[shocked] But then 8 days later, the disciples are still hiding behind locked doors. They still aren’t doing what Jesus told them. Even after he gifted them with peace and the Holy Spirit. They aren’t going out to the world, they aren’t forgiving sins, they are just hiding. This time Thomas is there too.

Again Jesus speaks peace to them, and then he spends time directing his speech at Thomas, but I actually think he is speaking to all of the disciples.

He shows them his hands and feet, he shows them the wound in his side. And he says, “No more disbelief, believe!” If he isn’t just talking to Thomas here, what he is telling the disciples is, “Look at me. I am still alive. God has brought me through the crucifixion. I have suffered and died, and yet I am here with you. What do you have to fear? What reason could you possibly have to hide behind these doors? Stop disbelieving the power and promises of God. Get out there and live your faith.”

You see, Thomas wasn’t the only one struggling with disbelief. Jesus’ speech is for all of them. Thomas is just the object lesson for all of them. And for us. Thomas is still an object lesson for all of us today, especially those many religious people who hold their faith fearfully and cower behind locked doors.

The fact is that there are many Christians who are afraid to express what they really believe for fear of the consequences. This can happen in countries where it is illegal to express certain religious beliefs, or where it is unsafe. Look at the recent bombing of the churches in Egypt.

Even though a bomb had been found in one of the churches the week before, and security officers were at the doors, they made no effort to stop the bomber who can be seen on camera walking through the front doors, and moving to the front of the church. Attenders say the security forces don’t really try to protect them. Because of this a number of churches in southern Egypt cancelled their Easter celebrations last week. Fear stopped them from celebrating the resurrection of Christ. It is hard to imagine a more fitting parallel to the disciples hiding in a room following Jesus’ resurrection.

But it isn’t just in places like that where people are afraid to express their faith. It can happen in places where we think free expression is the norm, like here in our country. It can even happen in the church.

What happens is that people who have very deep beliefs are afraid to express them because they may not match exactly the official or predominant view. Perhaps they view the bible as a human book, or they question what the divinity of Jesus really means, or they don’t really believe that heaven is a place but instead it is a state of unity with God. And so they hide, because they are afraid of being condemned or kicked out of their religious communities because of the questions they have.

It can even happen due to politics. I actually know a pastor who was fired for expressing concerns over President Barack Obama’s policies soon after he was elected, and I know a pastor who was fired for expressing concerns over President Donald Trump’s policies. Such actions leave us as leaders of the church in a fearful position. When our faith obviously believes something that is a critique of the culture, should we hide behind locked doors, or should we speak up? Like the early disciples we often choose to hide rather than be honest with our thoughts. I know this is true of many people who find themselves afraid of the consequences of speaking and sharing their true belief.

In our Wednesday night classes we have talked about the ways to create safe places where people can honestly share the depth of faith, struggle with its questions, so that we can have dignified and honest dialogue, and so that the peace of Christ empowers us to do the work of the church – proclaiming forgiveness and hope.

Creating such a safe atmosphere allows us to do is to actually talk about the hardest parts of our religious faith without fear of judgment, it also builds up the whole community, filling us with a spirit of renewed belief. So for example, because Thomas is willing to disagree with others in faith, and not be afraid of condemnation, Jesus is able to come to Thomas and move him into a new belief. At the same time the rest of the disciples are also encouraged to grow in faith so that they have the courage to live their faith.

Of course it can also happen that one person’s questions challenge the whole community to reevaluate their faith and priorities. 500 years ago Martin Luther courageously nailed a list of 95 issues he had with the church to the door. The result of that act was reform, and the greater Christian church was reminded that we are saved by faith, not by works. We needed the reminder, so that we could spread the message of forgiveness to the world.

It is important that we don’t hide our faith behind locked doors, even in the face of violence, even in the fear of condemnation. We are carry the message of one who was arrested and crucified, died and was buried, and yet he lives. Why are we afraid?

The courage to step out and speak boldly can lead us personally to deeper faith when we find ourselves corrected by Christ, or it can lead the community to revitalization as we challenge false beliefs that have become the norm. And so because of this: I pray we may be able to welcome the Thomas’ who disagree and doubt, while also being open to correction by Christ on our beliefs. May we have the courage to come out from behind our locked doors so that we can proclaim the forgiveness of Christ. Then as people find that forgiveness, we can all have life in his name. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Sermon: Not About the Empty Tomb

John 20:1-18

As I was reading one commentary (Seasons of the Spirit), I was shocked by what it said. It said that Easter is not about the empty tomb. Like I said, that shocked me, because it seems very much like Easter is about the empty tomb. If the angels hadn’t rolled the stone away, if Jesus’ body were still in the tomb, then there would be no resurrection, no hope, and well, Easter would be pretty meaningless. So how can it not be about the empty tomb?

What the writer explains is that Mary arrives at the tomb and it is empty.

If Easter were about the tomb being empty, she would have immediately celebrated, the body was gone, Jesus was raised. Hallelujah. But instead she is disturbed, she is upset. She does not assume that Jesus has risen, but that someone has taken the body, moved it, or stolen it.

Which is a pretty natural reaction, honestly. Graves are pretty different now and in our area, they aren’t just niches cut into the stone, with the body placed in a stone box, and then the niche covered with a heavy stone. Still we now bury people in stone vaults, but we cover the graves with dirt. But the effect would be much the same if I were to walk up to someone’s grave and all the dirt around it have been dug up, and the stone vault opened, and the body gone. My first assumption would not be that the person had risen from the dead. No, most likely I would assume that someone had dug up the grave, and well, I don’t know why they would do this, but they had taken the body out for some reason.

So Mary has seen the empty tomb, and it worries her. It doesn’t give her hope, it doesn’t make her happy. In fact, she is so concerned that she runs to tell the disciples.

Two of the disciples, Peter and the one Jesus loved run to the tomb.

The first to arrive looks in the tomb and sees the linen cloths lying there. Peter then arrives and goes right in. The other disciple then joins him in the tomb. And they acknowledge it is indeed empty. The gospel of John then tells us, “They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.” So they went back to the place where they were staying. You see, they also saw the empty tomb, and it didn’t impress them. They didn’t understand.

No one understood just from seeing the empty tomb. Not Mary, not Peter, not the other disciple. Easter isn’t about the empty tomb because simply witnessing the empty tomb meant nothing to them.

So what is Easter about? Easter gains its meaning when Christ appears to Mary.

That is when it gains its power. It is in the moment when she thinks he is the gardener, and he speaks her name. That is the moment that brings the goosebumps and the tears of joy. Oh, that is when everything changes for her. She believes in the resurrection when she meets the risen Christ. That is the moment that changes everything. When she looks upon his face, and wants to grab him and hug him, but he says, do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to God. Go and tell my disciples what you have seen, and so she does, she runs to them and she shouts, “I have seen the Lord.”

Which must have been quite a shock to them. I am sure they looked at each other with questions about her sanity. Peter and the disciple that ran with him to the tomb must have thought, “Is it possible? His body was gone? Could he be alive?” But their questions would be answered soon when Jesus would come to them and meet them. He would even offer his forgiveness to them for how they had run away on the night he was arrested and abandoned him. And then they would believe too.

In each of these situations, belief in the resurrection doesn’t come from the empty tomb, but in reunion with Christ and a restored relationship with Christ. Easter is in Mary’s shout that, “I have seen the Lord”. It is in Peter hearing Jesus say, “Feed my sheep.” Thomas having Jesus tell him, “Put your hands in the holes, if you doubt that it is me.” Easter is about meeting the risen Christ and the relationship with him that is built or rebuilt in that moment.

So here is where that gets personal. What that means for us is that for us Easter is not simply about celebrating an empty tomb.

For one thing, just talking about that can leave us mystified, and worried and upset as we try to figure out the details.

For example we could study the shroud of Turin. If you don’t know what that is, it is supposed to be the cloth that Jesus was buried in. And on this cloth is an imprint of a person, supposedly of Jesus. It is now housed in a cathedral in Turin, Italy. Several times throughout the years, international teams of scientists, consisting of Christians, Jews, Moslems, and non-believers, set about to prove or disprove the story behind this ancient cloth. The results of their findings have been published over and over. There are doubts, there are possibilities, and there are those that believe and those that don’t. Looking at the information about the shroud leaves us mystified, in good and bad ways, but all of that looking is meaningless unless in looking at it we meet Christ.

That’s where Easter is. In seeing the face, and then finding ourselves journeying to meet the risen Christ in our lives now.

The same thing would happen if we went and visited the place where Jesus was buried, or if we could see the stone that was rolled away. When we focus only on the details of the story – the empty tomb, how the cloths were lying there, how the stone was rolled away, even how Jesus could have possibly come back to life. When we put all of our energy into studying those things, we miss the true meaning of Easter.

Easter is about you and I hearing Jesus call our name, like he called to Mary, and about how we respond to him.

You see, Easter is about us meeting the risen Christ, it is about you and I having a restored relationship with Christ. It is about us being able to say, “I have seen the Lord.”

But how do we see the Lord today?

I mean, without hallucinating. How can we honestly see Christ, meet him, have him call our name, and not be called crazy by the psychologists?

Well that is where it gets tricky, because usually we don’t literally see Jesus, although some have. Usually we don’t hear Jesus, although some have. Most of us end up meeting the risen Christ in what can only be called a moment of spiritual mystery, a holy encounter sometimes brought on by worship, sometimes by prayer, sometimes in conversation with another, sometimes in looking at artwork depicting him.

And like the first Easter, if we get caught up in the details of trying to explain it, we simply can’t. Except that we come away knowing that Jesus was there. Touching our hearts in a way that nothing else can, restoring our lives in a way nothing else can. Offering us forgiveness, and relationship as a gift from God.

It is a moment when John Wesley says our heart is strangely warmed, a moment in which songs speak of Amazing Grace, or Blessed Assurance. It is a knowledge that if nowhere else in the world is there evidence of Christ being alive, there is evidence in our heart – clearly he is alive there, because we can feel him so close to us.

That’s Easter for us. It isn’t about the empty tomb, but the filled heart, the one that recognizes he is alive because it has met him, encountered him and been changed by him. That’s how we know he lives. Because he has come to us and is in relationship with us – even today, 2000 years later – changing hearts, and restoring hope. And I pray, I pray, if you have never had that moment, that you will soon. Perhaps in worship, perhaps in prayer, perhaps in conversation with another, or while looking at artwork – and you will find yourself in a heart to heart spiritual conversation with him that leaves you shouting, “I have seen the Lord!” Oh, I pray that for you. Because that moment will change your life!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Sermon: Hard to Celebrate

Matthew 21:1-11

There is a part of me that loves Palm Sunday.

It is a story of a hero’s welcome, with Palm branches waving as a king comes riding into town. There are the shouts of hope as people pray for change in their lives, and the amazing promise that this king is one who can actually deliver them. It is like a parade, and a party, and a word of hope all in one, so the scriptures of the day have all of the elements of a huge celebration.

And yet, in the back of our minds, we can’t really celebrate with “unbridled joy”[1] because we know what is about to happen. We know that the crowds of today become the crowds of Friday, and their words are very different. From Hosanna, people’s cries change to crucify. So it is hard to celebrate this palm branch welcome because it feels so temporary, with the people in it so fickle.

Some people have trouble believing this change.

There are those who say that people don’t change their minds this quickly. That it couldn’t have happened this way. That there is no way that crowds welcomed Jesus so happily early in the week, and then demanded his crucifixion later in the week.  Even the gospels struggle with that a little bit, saying that the people were stirred up by those who opposed Jesus to cry out for his death. You could go so far as suggesting that the leaders played on mob mentality and with a few carefully placed people in the crowd riled them up. At least that is probably what people would claim today when a crowd gets angry.

But here is the thing, I don’t think we are supposed to hear the story that way. I don’t think you are supposed to read it as a great conspiracy against Jesus. Rather, this is a story of human infidelity to God. One minute we love God, the next we turn our back on God. It is a story about how temporary our commitments are.

You see, many of us live in this fickleness of life. One day everything is fantastic, one day we are celebrating, and the next is tragedy. One day hope seems to shine eternal, and the next it looks like hope is dead. As one person said, “Even though nearly 2000 years have passed since the events recounted on this day, for many the story is as real and as present as if it were being reported in real time. On the one hand, these are historic events, but on the other hand, in a very real way they are a description of the life we live each day.”[2] That’s true.

Look at the news this last week. Children struck by chemical weapons, bombings in Egyptian churches. In one moment, those people's lives changed.

Ruth Johnson tells how, in five minutes her life was turned upside-down when her schizophrenic adult son killed her mother as she was eating breakfast. Never before had he raised a hand in violence, but a hallucination that his grandmother had tried to kill him brought a drastic change in him.[3] Life and people can be fickle.

It can happen when a person we love violates our marriage vows, or when alcohol or drug addiction changes a person’s personality. It can happen when a community gets caught up in blame and targets a person or family to turn into a scapegoat for their problems. For some people, they have no problem believing the crowd changed without calling it a conspiracy. It seems far too familiar to their daily life.

It makes me wonder what Jesus thought that day

as he rode into town. He knew what was coming, he had foretold his death in Jerusalem many times. Yet on this day the people cheered him. He knew that there was a change of tone yet to come, and that their loyalties would not hold.

Father Henri Nouwen found a sculpture of Jesus on a donkey in the Augustiner Museum in Frieburg. He says, it “is one of the most moving Christ figures I know. I have sent many postcards of it to my friends, and I keep one in my prayer book . . . The fourteenth-century sculpture originally comes from Niederrotweil, a small town close to Breisach on the Rhine. It was made to be pulled on a cart in the Palm Sunday procession.”

“Christ’s long, slender face with a high forehead, inward looking eyes, long hair, and a small forked beard expresses the mystery of his suffering in a way that holds me spellbound. As he rides into Jerusalem surrounded by people shouting “hosanna,” “cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in his path” (Matthew 21:8), Jesus appears completely concentrated on something else. He does not look at the excited crowd. He does not look at the excited crowd. He does not wave. He sees beyond all the noise and movement to what is ahead of him: an agonizing journey of betrayal, torture, crucifixion, and death. His unfocused eyes see what nobody around him can see; his high forehead reflects a knowledge of things to come far beyond anyone’s understanding.”

"There is melancholy, but also peaceful acceptance. There is insight into the fickleness of the human heart, but also immense compassion. There is a deep awareness of the unspeakable pain to be suffered, but also a strong determination to do God's will. Above all, there is love, an endless, deep and far-reaching love born from an unbreakable intimacy with God and reaching out to all people, wherever they are, were, or will be. There is nothing that he does not fully know. There is nobody whom he does not fully love."[4]

As wonderful as Nouwen’s reflection is:

He forgets to mention that Jesus also knew that his death would not be the end of the story. Not only does Jesus predict his death, he also predicts his resurrection. Although his death would be awful and painful, he knew that Easter Sunday would follow. So add that additional emotion to the face of Christ, and it is no wonder his face is so reflective.

And it is also no wonder that on a day like today we experience a weird contrast of emotions. What should we do? Should we celebrate the coming of a king? Should we mourn what is about to happen? Should we look forward to next week? Or should we simply stand in awe at the unfolding events and how God used them to rescue us from the pit of despair, and the finality of death? Should our face look like that image from one artist who caught a moment of reflection, or should we think and feel something else?

I for one, think we should take the time to celebrate the true king – even if the events to come will bring sadness—today is a day to recognize Christ as the ruler of heaven and earth. It is a day to welcome him into our presence, and giving thanks for his saving work done on our behalf. Today we should cheer. But if we do, we cannot skip the rest of the week. We cannot skip the pain of a Thursday betrayal by Judas, and a denial by Peter. We cannot forget the Friday crucifixion. We must shed tears for these things when it is their time, otherwise our celebration today fails to recognize the fickleness of life that we often face. This week we must allow our hearts to be rushed through the emotional whiplash of a hero’s welcome, a touching meal with friends, a horrible death, and ultimately the hope filled resurrection.

So celebrate today. Remember that Jesus is a king that brings hope, shout to him for his saving grace and power, wave a branch of a palm to honor him. Recognize his leadership and lordship. But I understand if it is hard to throw yourself completely into it, because it is hard for me as well. Just as Jesus knew, we know what the future holds for him, and it can make today hard to celebrate.

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017
[2] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017
[4] A Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, by Henri Nouwen. Entry Saturday February 8 – The Compassionate Eyes of Christ.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Sermon: When Life Seems Impossible

Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45

In life, there are days when it seems like all hope is lost.

There are days when it feels like we are walking through a valley of dry bones, where everything is dead. It could be physically that our bodies are just plain wearing out, or beaten up, or broken down. It could be emotionally, where our feelings are depressed, dry and even our dreams and wishes are dead. It could be spiritually as though we have lost our connection with the life-giving presence of God.

But you should never count out the possibility of resurrection. Even the government keeps the option open. Many years ago, a letter appeared in the national news because it was so funny. It was sent to a deceased person, a dead person by the Indiana Department of Social Services. It read as follows: “Your food stamps will be stopped in March because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances."[1] Even the Indiana Department of Social Services thought it was a distant possibility.

Our scriptures today take it a step further. They don’t talk about it as a distant possibility, rather they tell us that there is never a point where we are beyond hope. Even when bones are dry and rattling in a desert, a wind of hope can blow through and restore life. Even when it seems like we have been grieving forever, and Jesus should have shown up yesterday, he can come bringing life and resurrection.

Now I admit, these stories can stretch the limits of our belief

and our imagination. The first story, was the valley of dry bones. Of course, Ezekiel is telling us about a dream or a vision, not a real occurrence. But in the dream God speaks to Ezekiel and tells Ezekiel to make the bones live again. Put yourself in that place. Here you are looking out over a valley of dried bones, and God says, prophecy to the bones and make them live again. Wouldn’t you for just a moment at least say, “God, I can’t do that. It isn’t possible. That is beyond my abilities.” The valley is a place where it looks like death has had the final victory. But God leads him step by step through the process, bringing the breath back into the bones, so that they come back to life. And while this is a vision, the passage is meant to teach us that no matter how overwhelmed we are by our situations in life. No matter how impossible it seems to overcome, when God commands us and walk alongside us, life is always possible.

But just in case that story doesn’t stretch the limits of our imagination enough, because we say to ourselves, “That’s nice, but it is just a dream. It is a story to give us hope, but it isn’t real life. In real life, dead is dead, and nothing changes that.” Until we read about Lazarus. Now we really have to struggle with the limits of our belief. You see, Lazarus has been in the tomb so long that his body stinks – in other words, we are meant to understand that there is nothing but a decaying corpse there.

Mary and Martha and the family members that have gathered are angry with Jesus, perhaps even angry with God, for taking too long. They believed that if Jesus had come while Lazarus was just sick there was still hope. Jesus could heal him. They say, “Lord if only you had been here, our brother would not have died.” There would have been hope. How many of you have heard the phrase, “Where there is life there is hope.” That was their attitude. But now that he was dead hope was gone.

Lazarus becomes a metaphor for every situation in our life where we used to have hope that God could help us, but God took too long, and now we have lost hope. There is nothing that even God can do. Our situation is so far gone, so dead, that it stinks, like a rotting corpse.

So what happens with Lazarus? Jesus commands him to come out. And out steps Lazarus, alive and well. Metaphorically we get it – God is saying to us, there is always hope. Even when there isn’t life, even when death has won, even when the situation is beyond every conceivable hope that we human beings can have – God says, I can fix that. Metaphorically we get it. The problem isn’t the metaphor, the problem is the reality.

Does God honestly expect us to believe that there is always hope?

Even when everything we know, everything we have experienced says that hope is useless? Apparently, yes, God does expect that. God expects us to look at the world and say, “All things are possible.” If God wants to change the rules and laws of nature, God can. Who are we to say God can’t?

The thing is, as we live we develop certain expectations. We expect that when one jumps into the air we will fall back to the ground. We expect that when we get cut, we bleed. We expect that when we die, we stay dead. Those expectations usually make sense, but sometimes these expectations put us into bondage, they imprison us, because we lose hope in the miraculous power of God.

In the image on the screen, an anonymous street artist known only as Banksy has captured a moment of seeming hopelessness. A girl with the wind at her back, a heart shaped balloon blowing away from her. The words in the darkness and the dirt of the wall stand out, “There is always hope.” So we wonder, did the girl release the balloon? Is she filling the world with love? Or if the wind has stolen her balloon, like we have seen happen to many small children, is the artist telling us that even in the loss of love, there is always hope? Just like God says, All thing are possible, dry bones can live, death is not the final word.

In a sense these are God’s answers to the question everyone asks, how can a loving God allow people to die in earthquakes or tornados, or why do people get cancer, or . . . To these questions which rise from our lips like the condemnations of Mary and Martha that shout at Jesus for being too slow, God answers, “Your expectations are too small.”

Because in these stories of these hopeless and lifeless situations,

God does the unanticipated. God breaks our expectations so that we can be set free from our hopelessness. God takes thousands of bones and brings life, Jesus shouts at a stinking corpse and says, “Come out.” Now, I am not saying that your dead loved one will suddenly get out of the casket and rejoin you – I still don’t expect that to happen, yet. At least not like that. But we are meant to expect that God will do something so beyond our experience that it will baffle us. We are expected to believe that resurrection is real, somehow, someway. That life is an unstoppable force brought forth from the hand of God.

The point is that no matter how hopeless the situation life brings us to, God is not finished yet. Things may take longer than we want, but God’s Spirit still moves through the world with power, breathing life into dry bones. It may actually be that God plans a resurrection and a world changing moment where the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven and in that day there will be no more weeping. It may actually be that God has a spiritual place reserved for us in heaven where all the dead discover life that is perfect in God’s presence. It may even be that inch by inch God is walking the road toward our homes and hope is just around the corner for us in this life. But we cannot give in to hopelessness, because as Isaiah 30:18 says in the Message translation: “God is not finished. God’s waiting around to be gracious to you. God’s gathering strength to show mercy to you. God takes the time to do everything right. Those who wait around for him are the lucky ones.”

 “We celebrate that even in despair, even when the world seems to be plotting against God, still God says, “I will bring life.”” (Seasons of the Spirit)

It is the fundamental promise of God. One on which we cannot give up hope. Because we never know what God has planned for tomorrow. He just may call us to prophecy to the bones, to prophecy to the breath, and to be the vessels of resurrection.

[1] Traditional story, source unknown.