Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Hope in our Hearts, April 27 Sermon

Texts: Lectionary from 1 Peter and Acts

Always be ready: pass the mic around for people to say what gives them joy. One sentence. After a few, what gives hope.

Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all. ~Dale Carnegie

If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream. ~King

Today’s letter from Peter focuses our two related ideas, non-violence and hope. And so, it is fitting we hear from the implementer of both of those ideals in our culture.

Among Christians who are or have been the victims of abuse and oppression, the call to non-retaliation has of late had a bad reputation. Cannot this represent the means by which oppressors play on the piety of the oppressed simply to prolong evildoing? As usual it is easy for those of us who are relatively powerful in our society to urge non-retaliation on those who are relatively powerless. Nonetheless the larger context nuances the claim that Christians are to suffer for doing right rather than to return evil for evil. Within the context of 1 Peter, Christians are to suffer if need be, but not to suffer silently. They join the struggle against oppression by speaking honestly and powerfully of what they hold dear, making their defense unapologetically. Christ himself becomes an example of this activity, of course, and when we read the Gospel accounts of his passion we note that he was by no means altogether passive. His silence and his speeches manifest power in weakness, and that power is as clear as the weakness. Thus for Christians the unwillingness to abuse and to slander does not mean the willingness to take abuse and slander without speaking the word that might convict or even convince those who do the abusing and slandering.
In twentieth-century America, the great example of non-retaliation is Martin Luther King, Jr. But his nonviolence was not non-resistance. On the contrary, the courage he and his followers showed was the courage of active, and risky, faith.

Hope has two daughters: anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and the courage to change them. ~Augustine

So to bring us back to the subject of hope, I’d share the story of 7 year old Katherine Commale of “Hopewell” UMC in Downingtown, PA. Raised $10,000 for mosquito nets to send to Africa helped push our denomination to partner with NBA and Sports Illustrated to found the Nothing but Nets Campaign, which to date has raised more than 2 million and has received a $3 mil challenge grant from Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

You see, hope isn’t just pie in the sky idealism. Hope is what prompted Paul to appeal to the Athenians with the good news of a loving and hopeful Creator “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Hope prompted Katherine, at age 5, to rally her friends and family to the cause of alleiviating malaria.

Talk about “bearing witness to the hope that is within you.” How we should be prepared to do this, how we should have something ready to say to others if they ask us about our faith so that we don’t stumble in sharing the good news. It shouldn’t be a long, drawn out exausting narrative. To be more effective at sharing the gospel, we should remember that we live in a sound bite culture. We should be able to sum it up in under a minute, even if it isn’t a full picture of our hope. It should be tantalizing, leaving the hearer ready to hear more. It should engage the culture of the hearer, like Paul does in his speech to the Athenians.

Difference between religion and faith

R. Garland recently has demonstrated that three claims were necessary to establish a new religion in Athens: (1) the sponsor must claim to represent a deity; (2) he must provide evidence that this deity is eager to reside in Athens; and (3) the deity’s residence in Athens must benefit Athenians as a mark of its goodwill.580 In this light, Paul’s Areopagus speech may be read as an apologia (however subversive!) in response to these three criteria.581 Accordingly, Paul introduces himself as an authorized herald (22-23) of a living deity whose transcendent residence above the earth requires no Athenian residence, priesthood or religious practices (24-29). Paul’s deity does not therefore seek formal induction into the Athenian Pantheon–of this the Areogapus need not worry; rather, his God seeks to judge and save all repentant Athenians as disclosed in the Lord’s resurrection–and of this they need worry (30-31)!

At our worst, we Christians have isolated and insulated ourselves from our culture's mainstreams. We can be inward-looking, self-absorbed, self-important, and cloistered, instead of engaging people at our modern day Mars Hills

Second, as Paul preached to the Athenians, he believed that God "made the world and everything in it," and that every single person was "God's off-spring," so in his mind there was no person or sphere of influence outside of His care and concern. All of so-called "secular" life, and not just "sacred" realms, were spheres of God's loving presence, or at least potentially so — law, literature, medicine, education, the arts, business, government, science, quite literally anything and everything. So, in his own Christian way, Paul viewed the venerable Areopagus as just another place where the Lord of all creation had gone before him and was already present; indeed, said Paul to the Athenians, "He is not far from each one of us."

Changing allegiance from many gods to God. Athenians had a god for everything. They believed their lives were a web of allegiances to the different gods that made important decisions about their lives.

Likewise, we place our allegiances in many different directions. We may not appeal to gods of those different areas of influence in our lives, but we give them our time and mental energy and concern and worry. Though there may not be a carved statue that we believe embodies those different areas of our lives, we sacrifice to them nonetheless.

Paul and through him God are appealing to us to instead focus our energies in devotion to him. Focus our attention on serving God by spilling over with the love and grace we sense coming from him. Spill over this love and grace into our relationships, and God will take care of the web of allegiances and attention. Give our sole attention to God, and God will meet our needs.

Paul appealed to the idea of a creator God, and this is a sign of hope. By harkening back to our creation, we say something of hope about our future. The Gospels show that God isn’t interested in merely creating and then watching how things play out. God is interested in creating new possibilities, God is interested in turning us into reflections of him. This is our hope, that God created and then redeemed humanity. Though throughout history the world has failed to live up to what we were created to be, God has not abandoned us. God reshapes us and continues pouring love into us. Our hope is that we can be changed.

"Be ready to give an account for the hope that is in you." That hope for us is rooted in the same hope and trust that Jesus had: the strong belief that God is faithful. God will always be God for us. Dr. Scott Hahn in his book, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, tells how on December 7, 1998, in Northwest Armenia, 25,000 people died in an earthquake. A distressed father ran frantically through the streets to the school where his son was. He kept remembering that he had said: "No matter what, Armand, I'll always be there." His heart sank when he saw the school in rubble. He darted toward the east corner where he knew his son's classroom had been and started digging with his bare hands. One of the bystanders said, "Forget it, mister, they're all dead." He looked up and replied, "You can criticize me or you can help lift these bricks." A few pitched in for a time, but the man kept digging: 12 hours, 18 hours, 24 hours, 36 hours—and finally he heard a muffled groan. He pulled the board back and cried, "Armand!" From the darkness came a slight, shaking voice, "Papa?" They found 14 of the 33 students still alive. When Armand emerged he turned to his friends and said, "See, I told you my father wouldn't forget us." Dr. Scott Hahn who told the story said: "That's the kind of faith [and hope] we need, because that's the kind of Father we have."

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