catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 22 :: 2007.11.30 — 2007.12.14


Reality and hope

Adapted from a sermon given at Extended Grace, a ministry in Grand Haven, Michigan, in the middle of the supporting denomination’s decision-making process about whether to continue upholding the ministry financially.


Unlike the world’s movement of light and color and sound as it pummels headlong toward Christmas, we have been walking slowly, silently into the dark, watching the nights lengthen and become darker still. This week it is dimmer yet: quieter, starker, slower. Together we continue to walk in uncertainty toward the darkest night of the year, the winter solstice, when we will wait in silence for the first hint of light to return to our darkened lives.

Despite the demand for merriment around us, we have not sought to hide the pain we carry or the troubles that burden our hearts and our minds. We have looked upon this world of greed and envy and despair and realized that we are indeed living in dark times. We have called out to our God for help, remembering that we have been saved in the past. And yet finding God unresponsive to our pleas of today, we have begun to let go—to let go of our ideas of love and faith in order to become virgins, empty of our false notions about our God, so that we might feel the real light and life that is Christ being born in us anew.

Still, we have clung to hope—the hope that maybe we’re wrong. Maybe God does work the way we want God to. Maybe our good deeds will receive the world’s rewards. Maybe it is enough to have faith in the promises of the world. And so we need to be challenged to let go of even that—even our hope. Surrendering completely to the dark and the unknown, we acknowledge finally that we are not in control. And we do the only thing we can do—we wait. We wait for the savior we so desperately seek in dark and frightening times.

We wait and we look toward the future.

In the church there’s a fancy word for looking toward the future—eschatology. It has to do with believing that ultimately God’s peace and love will fill this whole earth. It’s a different way of looking to the future than much of the world these days.

Out there, in the hustling, rushing, consumerist world, the future is taking on the shape of a dizzying mix of hope and expectations. Kids hope they will get lots of fun stuff on Christmas morning. Families hope loved ones will be able to journey home for the holidays. Lovers hope they are choosing the right gift and spending the right amount of money to demonstrate their love. The lonely are hoping that this year someone remembers to send a card or call them to say “Merry Christmas.” And the very first twinges of panic are beginning to be felt as people hope that they’ll be able to pay their credit card bill when it comes due.

Extended Grace is an eschatological community, we live in and move toward the reign of God in the ever-increasing span and depth of the work we do. This Christmas we understand that there are two different futures we can pursue—and we are well aware of the cost. For we know that following the way of Santa will cost us a fortune. Following the way of Christ will cost us our life.

Even as we wait with uncertainty upon the decision of our Synod Council wondering in the dark if we will live or die as a ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), we also remain convinced that we must follow our call as the Spirit continues to work in and through us in the days to come.

Last week, I was asked to describe what happens in me through the course of preparing and writing and delivering a sermon. This week I’ve been paying attention and I can tell you. I started the week thinking about hope and how we use the word and what we really mean by it. I read. I talked to people. I began to form ideas and came up with a pithy saying or two. Then I sat down at 8:00am Friday morning and I started to type. I spoke things as I was typing, trying to find the right words and intonation to express whatever is trying to be released. And about 10:00am, I was at exactly this point in the sermon when I was overcome with tears and I began to sob.

Because I have no hope. The church in which I was raised seems to be turning its back on me and I feel so alone. I don’t even know what to call myself if I’m not a Lutheran. I feel core pieces of the ministry we do being tugged out of my clenched hands and I just don’t get it.

And still I knew that I would stand before you Sunday night and know how much we love each other. And I hear the words of a Vienna Teng song telling me, “It’s the season of scars and of wounds of the heart and knowing we are not alone in fear, not alone in the dark.”  And I know that God is with us. And I know that the Gospels tell me that if we’re doing it right it’s supposed to be this way. We are supposed to be misunderstood and criticized and maybe even killed.

And then I ask, “What am I supposed to preach and what do I need to hear preached to me? What do I need to listen to in order to share those words with those who will gather? What is Spirit saying to me?”

And what I hear Spirit saying to me and to you is, “Don’t deny reality.” The reality is that it sucks. It hurts. It really, really does. The reality is that I’m sad and angry and that this fire of pain is transforming us all. Because the reality is also that this is God’s. I am God’s and you are God’s and God’s peace and love will ultimately fill this world. In fact, God’s peace can fill our little part of the world right now, tonight. God’s peace can come into our hearts and give us the courage and patience to wait out these long nights of Advent when it feels as if the sun might never rise. 

The reality is that the real spirit of Christmas isn’t about a blazing collection of brightly colored presents and decorations, but about claiming life that arises out of the ashes.

The reality is that we are struggling financially. And that there must be an alternative to living according to the economics of the empire. There must be an alternative to allowing scarce economic resources lead to spiritual bankruptcy. And so here we will not allow that to happen. We will continue our ministry and we will do so knowing that our faithfulness just might serve as a witness to an institution that too often operates out of fear and the belief that there just isn’t enough to go around.

As my own family adjusts to losing my income and benefits, we are being challenged to let go of the myth of scarcity in our own lives. And as a faith community, we need to continue to challenge each other to let go of the myth. Everyone of us, no matter how much or how little we have, can claim the powerful truth that all we have comes from God, and to practice the spiritual act of giving back by supporting this ministry with whatever gifts and resources we are able. 

We have a big dream—a larger than life vision for the work of Extended Grace. Why do we even think we can do all of this?  Because we have already done that which couldn’t be done.

I continue to be amazed as I recount the number of people who have come through the doors of Extended Grace, some touching base on their way to another faith community, others staying quite a while before moving on, sometimes quite literally to another city, another state. This is a ministry that has had a profound impact on many people with the possibility of affecting many more in positive ways. We have created a faith community in which individuals are safe to share their own journey and to express their own beliefs and doubts without fear of embarrassment, rejection, or proselytization. And we have also deeply honored the faith journey that does not come without crisis or doubt. It will be a loss if we lose the support of the ELCA who birthed us and gave us the freedom to live out our faith fully and authentically in a rapidly changing paradigm of culture and faith. But it will not be the end.

Beyond hope, beyond faith and beyond love, beyond any emotion or thought at all, lies the light we seek. Yearning, longing, pressing on in the dark we move against impossible odds daring to hold within our hearts the promise of Christmas. Strip everything away from us—and still something remains. Maybe a story of a young girl and her husband and the terror and fear of being outcast from their own people and everything they held dear only to bear a child who would bring light to a whole world. For that light we wait, my friends, together we wait. Knowing we are not alone in fear, not alone in the dark.

The hope we let go of is that of wishful thinking, unending optimism, the hope that some Prince or Princess Charming will recognize the value of what we do and come rescue us or that some intervening miracle will change the past. The hope we let go of is that someone will pay the price for us—for the cost of following Christ doesn’t appear on our credit card statement in January; instead it compels us, a little more each day, to lay down our whole lives.

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