So We Do Not Lose Heart

Passage: 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Date: June 10, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

In this beautiful slice from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, the great apostle is making the case for hope. Hope! That thing with feathers that perches in the soul, as Emily Dickinson says. Desmond Tutu says that hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness. Hope is the thing that cannot be seen, Paul reminds us.

Hope is at the core of Christianity. It’s a faith based in the hope that the empty tomb meant Jesus rose from the dead, that life follows death. For some, that’s the hardest part of Christianity to accept. So I was pretty interested when I read an op-ed about all of this. Written by a professor of philosophy, it’s entitled “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t)” and here is a bit of what the author, Dr. Stephen Asma, wrote.

“Despite the very real problems with religion — and my own historical skepticism toward it — I don’t subscribe to that view [that religions should die]. I would like to argue here, in fact, that we still need religion. Perhaps a story is a good way to begin.

“One day, after pompously lecturing a class of undergraduates about the incoherence of monotheism, I was approached by a shy student. He nervously stuttered through a heartbreaking story, one that slowly unraveled my own convictions and assumptions about religion.

“Five years ago, he explained, his older teenage brother had been brutally stabbed to death, viciously attacked and mutilated by a perpetrator who was never caught. My student, his mother and his sister were shattered. His mother suffered a mental breakdown soon afterward and would have been institutionalized if not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife where she was certain his body would be made whole. These bolstering beliefs, along with the church rituals she engaged in after her son’s murder, dragged her back from the brink of debilitating sorrow, and gave her the strength to continue raising her other two children — my student and his sister.

“….No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy. Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson will not be much help, should they decide to drop over and explain the physiology of suffering and the sociology of crime. But the magical thinking that she is going to see her murdered son again, along with the hugs from and songs with fellow parishioners, can sustain her. If this emotionally grounded hope gives her the energy and vitality to continue caring for her other children, it can do the same for others. And we can see why religion persists.”(https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/03/opinion/why-we-need-religion.html)

I would say that Christian religion persists because of hope – hope that there is something more, hope that Something with a power greater than our own loves us, hope that death is not the end. Call it magical thinking or call it plain old faith, hope is what gets us through.

Now hope that something more awaits us after death can lead us down some interesting paths.There are some who believe that this life is nothing – that nothing we do matters, that caring for the earth or for each other is pointless because it’s clear to them that this mortal life is an experiment gone wrong, that God intends to create a new earth, and so we just need to bide our time following the holy rules until we receive our eternal reward in a bright and shiny heaven filled with perfect angels.

The incarnate life of Jesus Christ should put that sort of thinking to bed. God entered into the muck and mire and marvelousness of human existence. God Incarnate went to the outcast and the unclean, to those on the margins and those in seats of power, to change things, to make life a little better, to be the physical manifestation of hope. Just before the Holy Spirit arrived on Pentecost, the risen Jesus charged his disciples to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to care for each other just as he had done those things for them. You don’t ask people to care about the here and now unless you think it matters, and matters deeply.

Perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best. He lived in those dark days of the rise of National Socialism, and he watched Adolph Hitler come into power. Imprisoned for the crime of plotting to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote this in one of his Letters and Papers from Prison:

“There are people who regard it as frivolous, and some Christians think it impious for anyone to hope and prepare for a better earthly future. They think that the meaning of present events is chaos, disorder, and catastrophe; and in resignation or pious escapism they surrender all responsibility for reconstruction and for future generations. It may be that the day of judgement will dawn tomorrow; and in that case, [tomorrow] we shall gladly stop working for a better future, though not before.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew what suffering was – his own, the suffering of the Jews, and that of his fellow Germans who were horrified by what was happening in their nation. You and I know suffering, too. We watch the news of refugees risking the dangerous of waters of the Mediterranean in search of a better life. We listen to stories from Syria about violence against innocent civilians. We watch parents gather at their child’s school where all hell broke loose. We walk alongside our friends who live with terrible disease, whose bodies or minds are indeed wasting away.

But there are people who suffer terribly and are nevertheless utterly luminous. It’s as though they are bringing this scripture to life – their inner natures are being renewed day by day. It’s astounding and makes no sense. How can they glow with an inner light when life is so cruel to them?

It’s hope, I think. It’s hope in something bigger than themselves, and for some, it’s hope that God has not abandoned them, that God is with them, and God is waiting for them on the other side of life.I am mesmerized by these luminous people, a few of whom I’ve had the honor to know. How do they suffer and yet shine? What’s their secret?

For some, it’s about resilience, that ability to keep moving on even though every move is two steps forward, one step back. For some, it is simply their nature, and I think that has to do with knowing that they are loved. And for some, it is a matter of faith. Their religion offers them hope, like the family at the beginning of the sermon.

I wonder, too, if something deeper is going on. Perhaps there are people who shine while they suffer because their suffering has brought them to a thin place, that place between worlds, closer to God. Or maybe it’s as simple as recognizing that because so little is in their control, they might as well let go and let God.

Maybe that is the real essence of faith: letting go and letting God. Putting all of our eggs in an invisible basket, fearing that they will break only to discover that they hatch into little things with feathers.

As a pastor, I often think my job is to be a bearer of hope; I try to do that as often as possible and as authentically as I can. It’s hard some days, in a season of too many memorials, or when this building needs one more major repair, or when the news of the world is once again relentlessly terrible.

It is my hope that this sabbatical time will allow Gregg and me to let go a little bit, to put aside all the details involved with being pastors so that we can experience some of the magnificence of God. I think it will be a time when we rediscover hope that is grounded in God that has nothing to do with running a church and being up front all of the time.

To be honest, about 50% of the hope I have comes from God, and the other 50% comes from people. I watch what people do in kindness and love, with mercy and with grace, and I am overwhelmed. Some people give of themselves sacrificially so that others can have a better life.

I’d like to leave you with a little poem – the non-rhyming kind – offered with gratitude not only for the gift of a sabbatical, but for the gift you all offer the world every day.

Luminous People
Luminous people shine as though their hearts are on fire
Maybe they are– on fire, that is –
On fire with a deep love for all the creatures
A fire that melts away the dross of our petty foibles
So that all that is left is the treasure we carry within us.

Or maybe it’s that they’ve been given the decoder ring,
The thing that helps them make sense of this
Tangled tango of suffering and hope
And they’re not allowed to be code breakers for the rest of us
But they are allowed to shine
and give the rest of us some light in the darkness.

Luminous people
You see them in the day and in the night
You see them on the news and at your kitchen table
You see them in shelters and in pews

You’ll know them by their glow
I see one right now….