Our readings today are all about hope—you can bet on it because our Rev. Lorraine and the weekly Bible study group said so! So that is where I’m going with this sermon today!
Our first reading from Haggai—clearly speaks of hope and moving ahead. The name Haggai means "my holiday", which can only occur if there is hope to look past our daily labors and frustrations. Haggai belonged to the period of Jewish history which began after the return from captivity in Babylon in the 5th century BC. Haggai's message is filled with an urgency for the people to proceed with the rebuilding of the second Jerusalem temple. He said it was time to get on with the rebuilding of the faith and living of the Jewish people—all with the hope of their God who is faithful to them.
Our Psalm today is full of familiar, hopeful messages:
--Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.
--The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
--The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
--The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds, and
--The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.
Paul’s message to the Thessalonians also has hope throughout:
“We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ…Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
Even our Gospel reading somehow gets around to a message of hope! It has this strange interplay between the Sadducees and Jesus concerning a bizarre, imaginary scenario about marriage and who will be married to who in heaven. Jesus cuts through an obvious attempt to tear down the hope in a resurrection, and says we should have nothing to do with 'supposed and imaginary cases'. There will be time enough to discuss them when they really arise. It is a waste of time to speculate about difficulties connected with what could be in a world to come. In the meantime it is better to wait patiently. For all of us at our ages, we will all know this soon enough. To bog down in this speculation is to be dead, but Jesus said, “our God is ‘not a God of the dead, but of the living’".
Our recently returned from sabbatical Diocesan Bishop Greg Rickel talked all about hope in his message to the annual Convention this past Friday. Relax and imagine Greg talking to all of us, as I will now bring up several parts of his message: (sort of a Reader's Digest condensed version)
“ “Diocese continues decline as Bishop surfs” That was the sentiment of one person who responded to the brief survey developed by the Outside Church Walls group which has been working this year to continue the Mutual Ministry Review and the work of Russ Crabtree that we all worked on and heard about at this convention last year. Over 1300 people responded to those small index size cards which asked basically one question, “Do you attend church, or not,” and then asked you to give up to six words, either single words or a phrase that you think of when you hear the word “church.” I thought of this quote which I paraphrase a bit here, “A lot has been said about church; some of it complimentary, but most of it accurate.” - Eric Idle.
It is better when we cop to the things we do, our persona as a church, taking the good with the bad, and then speaking to it, rather than running away. So, when I saw this I thought the same. Actually, that card itself, and many that came from the self-identified church insiders, not the outsiders mind you, represented one of the old ways we go about things, one of the things that I suspect will not help us all as we move forward. It is a symptom of not only our church life, but the body politic in general ... we find blame. We sit in uncertain situations, with uncertain outcomes, feeling helpless in many ways, and we begin to cast blame. There is an epidemic of this in our country, and definitely in our church, of thinking the leaders are the fixers, that it is their job to fix it. We have lost to a large degree the belief that it takes adept followers as well as leaders, working together to overcome our problems.
“Diocese continues decline as Bishop surfs” could be a bumper sticker for this mentality. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “True Terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” - Kurt Vonnegut Jr (My own comment—there is much truth in this statement!)
“Diocese continues decline as bishop surfs” is packed with blame and fear. And that is how we hear it--the church is in decline, we have to change, we are not keeping up. We hear everything I have done, perhaps what I have given my life to, has been wrong.
No. No. I say no to that. That is simply not true. And I want to present a metaphor for this that the Outside Church Walls is going to spend more time with you on. It is similar to the difference between weather and climate. Weather is the situation that presently exists in a local area. It is the storm that has blown in over Aberdeen or Kent, the sunbreak in the San Juan Islands, the hailstorm in Bremerton, the snow in Snoqualmie, and as we all know maybe on the same day and at the same hour!
And then there is climate which is how broader circumstances exist or are changing over time. Climate is the slow, almost imperceptible changes that sometimes just don't seem very apparent in the local, and that is OK. We have to deal with the hailstorm in Bremerton, while also being aware of the climate. A diocese can be about the climate, and to do that well, WE, all of us, need to be good at and know both.
“Diocese continues decline as Bishop surfs” gives power to that notion that we are just not supposed to have any fun while we go about following Jesus. Clergy and bishops should dig out their hair shirts, sit in the rain without an umbrella, and contemplate how they individually are to blame for the lack of world peace. Lay people should not smile, they should not be seen in untoward places, being Christian means being dull, being bored. While you are allowed the occasional enjoyment the majority of your life, to be truly religious, is to be dour, to be valid the walk with Jesus must be seen by all that witness it a forced march. People, let’s get over ourselves!
I know I always seem to try to hit you right between the eyes with reality. But I am a person of hope, of hope that comes with work. I have to say there is no community that can so quickly take hope and turn it into denial than the Church. All our hope may be in Jesus, but even he would not say for us to simply stand by and wait for something to happen, to sit with the assurance that all of the gravity and power of following Jesus Christ that we might have within us will just be miraculously taken in by the passer by and thus they will steer right towards us.
WE are too much operating in the mode of, as one blogger put it when he said we are going out of the welcoming business, no more, we will not be a welcoming church any longer. It has handicapped us. A welcoming church continues the notion that all we have to do is sit here and they will find us, come in our doors. He said, no, we are becoming an inviting church, which means we have to go out of our doors and actually meet people where they are, doing what they do, and living among them as testifying believers. And much, if not most of this, falls on lay people, not the clergy.
The diocese as we know it … maybe it is not all that bad that it is declining, changing, into something different. That may change, but God will surely never abandon us.
Such change comes with growing pains, comes with a shift from what we have always known, to something that we have to learn. We have a choice here, now. We can retreat into what we have and hope, nothing more, just hope that something will happen. Or, we can engage in new places, relearn the depth and wisdom that is the richness of our faith, and our tradition and build the bridge that will share that with a new world, in a new climate. IF we continue to do that, we will become that living word for each other and for our neighbors, living the Eucharist, living our Baptism, Proclaiming the Word, so that all might see Jesus.”
To close, I want to bring up several hopeful signs from Convention this weekend:
--A lot of energy, and huge attendance and participation to the very end!
--Very little arguing, but good discussions from all views.
--The Outside Church Walls group looking at ways for the future church to be (which Sarah and I are blessed to be part of)—fantastic presentation on Friday to the full Convention, and about 150 people attended (with maybe 50 more turned away from our followup discussions on Saturday morning (the room was way too small—I told them but no one would listen!) Strangely, as apologetic as we were to everyone, they were fine to deal with it and participate in the discussions looking forward.
--2 more deacons of the church were ordained—more to go out into the world, find trouble, and bring it back to the church to work on (and we all can do some of this!).
--Passing of a resolution advising the Board of Directors to divest DIF investments from fossil fuel companies, a small step but hopefully a start toward a bigger message to the greed and destruction occurring by these companies all for money.
--Passing of a resolution that changes our assessment base from two years prior to real time-asked for by many people and this allows congregations to be assessed based on their present circumstances—much more fair to everyone. (One retired priest pointed out that the Bible says nowhere to tithe on two years previous gifts from God.)
--More youth presence and participation at Convention than ever before, and reports of several new ministries involving youth and young adults.
Last, one speaker gave us this image to ponder: Our present way to “be church” is like putting an aquarium on the beach and expecting the fish to jump into it, instead of taking the aquarium and ourselves into the water—or go “Wade in the Water”, a song Bonnie really likes. Let’s DO the latter—it could be fun and we’ll hear more about how we can do this in the next two months.