Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Keep on Growing

 Sermon preached December 28, 2014

Texts: Luke 2:22-40

            Derek and the Dominoes, “Keep On Growing”
            I am thinking I could not have chosen a worse sermon title for today – “keep on growing” – really!?  I don’t know about you but a lot of the growth that happens to me this time of you is not necessarily positive.  How many clothing returns do you suppose are of items that would have fit the person when they were purchased, but now after Thanksgiving and holiday parties, well, they just don’t fit now?
            However, growth in girth is not what I am talking about this morning.  In Luke we read of Jesus, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”  In his Notes on the New Testament, writing about Luke 2, both verse 40 and 52, John Wesley wrote, “It plainly follows, that though a man were pure, even as Christ was pure, still he would have room to increase in holiness, and, in consequence thereof, to increase in the favor as well as in the love of God.”
            The Christian life is one where we are encouraged to keep on growing.  There is always room to grow in grace. There is always room to grow in wisdom.  There is always room to grow in faith.  There is always room to grow in hope.  There is always room to grow in love.  There is always room to grow as a person of God and as a human being.  I like to use the phrase, grow as “a person of God” better than “child of God,” because though I like that phrase in some ways, in other ways it might perpetuate the idea that we are always children when it comes to faith, and that is not the case.  Recall that in John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer… but I have called you friends” (15:15).  Paul speaks of Jesus as “the firstborn within a large family” (Romans 8:29).  Jesus is like an elder brother with whom we grow up.  The writer of Ephesians writes, “we must grow up in every way… into Christ” (4:15).
            The Christian life is one where we are encouraged to keep on growing.  We can all say “yes” and “amen” to this easily enough.  At the same time it is good to be reminded what it really means to grow, what it really means to learn, what it really means to mature.  Growth is sometimes easier to say yes to than to actually accomplish, and that’s because learning and growing is not always easy.  I want to say three things about this.
            One, learning and growing involves change, and change is not always easy or comfortable.  Edgar Schein is a well-respected management consultant, and professor emeritus of the Sloan School of Management at MIT.  He is considered an expert on corporate culture, and in one of his books on that topic, Schein writes about change.  “People resist change because unlearning is uncomfortable and anxiety-producing” (The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, 115).  I am guessing that we may not need an MIT management consultant to tell us that we tend to resist change.  Schein digs a little deeper.  He says that for change to take place, we need to keep two principles in mind.  Survival anxiety or guilt must be greater than learning anxiety, and learning anxiety must be reduced through increasing a sense of psychological safety rather than increasing survival anxiety or guilt. (124)
            Schein is arguing that change is uncomfortable.  We’ve experienced that.  To motivate change, we have to introduce another measure of discomfort, some dissatisfaction about the way things are.  That dissatisfaction must be higher than the discomfort of learning.  We could keep raising that dissatisfaction level, but that also produces defensiveness, and so becomes counter-productive.  It is better to provide some sense of safe space for change.  And if all this is not complicated enough, Psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, in their book Immunity to Change, write that even when we want change there are also things in us which resist that change.  “We are a living contradiction” (38)
            Learning and growth require some change, and change is messy and complicated.  Nevertheless, we are invited to keep on growing.
            Learning and growth also mean taking some risks.  In the passage for today, Simeon takes some risks.  Yes, it says that Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit, but God’s Spirit is often a whisper in our lives, and to try and follow the Spirit may mean that we miss the whisper sometimes.  Had Simeon shown up on other days at the Temple, looking for the Messiah?  We don’t know, but learning and growth often require taking some risks, following whispers of the Spirit knowing that we may not hear clearly sometimes.
            Learning and growth involve some risk taking.  We take risks when we ask tough questions of our faith, not settling for the answers we were given in Sunday School.  One of the things I appreciate about the Adam Hamilton book many of us have read, Making Sense of the Bible, and by the way, there are a couple of copies still available, is that Adam invites our deeper questions about the Bible.  I admire the kind of risks Adam took in his own journey of faith, and the kind of risks it took for him to write this book.  Not everyone will agree with him that there are places in the Bible that never really reflected God’s purposes, passages, for instance, that regulate slavery rather than speak against it.
            Learning and growing involve taking some risks, asking some questions, trying spiritual practices that may not always work well and then have to be changed.  How many of you remember our experiment with monthly Sunday evening meditative worship?  When the fourth session came around and I was there alone, it seemed that maybe we were not meeting a need with this, and discontinued it.
            A third thing about learning and growing that makes it challenging is that it often happens through difficult moments, and we learn from such moments when we can lean into them.  In today’s Scripture reading, Anna is a woman who was married for only seven years, and has now been a widow a long time.  At age 84 she fasts and prays often.  You get the sense, here, of a woman who knew difficulty and loss and learned from it, grew through it.  Mary is told that her soul will be pierced along the way.  What a difficult message.
            Parker Palmer, in his book, Let Your Life Speak, writes about the seasons of life.  In the Upper Midwest, newcomers often receive a classic piece of wintertime advice: “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Here, people spend good money on warm clothing so they can get outdoors and avoid the “cabin fever” that comes from huddling fearfully by the fire during the long frozen months. If
you live here long, you learn that a daily walk into the winter world will fortify the spirit by taking you boldly to the very heart of the season you fear.
Our inward winters take many forms – failure, betrayal, depression,
death. But every one of them, in my experience, yields to the same advice: “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.”  Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives. But when we walk directly into them – protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship or
inner discipline or spiritual guidance –we can learn what they have to
teach us. (102-103)
            In her book Necessary Losses, Judith Viost echoes something similar.  The road to human development is paved with renunciation.  Throughout out our life we grow by giving up.  We give up some of our deepest attachments to others.  We give up certain cherished parts of ourselves….  Passionate involvement leaves us vulnerable to loss….  Losing tends to be difficult and painful.  Let us also consider the view that it is only through our losses that we become fully developed human beings.  (16-17)
            Learning and growth often involve loss, or getting out into our loss.  We all experience difficulty and loss.  I don’t think God does things to us for our growth, causes us pain and loss.  That’s just there.  It’s part of life, like the season of winter.  God, however, walks with us as we get out into it, so we can become fully developed human beings, more mature in Christ.
            We want to learn and grow, but it isn’t easy, and we are tempted to stay put, to stay static.  How do we manage the courage to learn and grow?  We know we are not alone.  God is with us through it all.  That Jesus presented at the Temple is a reminder that God is always present to us.  And we are there for each other.  And we know we are loved by God in Jesus.

            Because we are known and loved and not alone, we can grow and become strong, filled with wisdom; with God’s favor on us.  May it be so, otherwise our faith can feel a lot like a dead shark.  Keep on growing.  Amen.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Hopes and Fears

Sermon preached Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 2:1-20

            Those who know me know I really like music.  You know that I often use music to start a sermon, playing a cd or my i pod. But it’s Christmas Eve, and playing an i pod, well, it just seems like I could be a little more traditional today.
            But I so want to begin with a song, and I have been working on one the past few weeks.  The lyrics have been changed to reflect our interesting December weather.
I’m dreading a gray Christmas
With all the fog I’ve come to know
Where the gutters drip
You slide and slip
In all the slush that’s on the roads.

I’m dreading a gray Christmas
With every sermon note I write
May the weather become a delight
And may the moon shine bright on Christmas night.

            Let’s be honest, not about my singing – please, but let’s be honest, the world in which we live inspires some dread in us.  The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, at a poetry reading in Minneapolis in 1996 was explaining a poem he was about to read, and how it contained an image of childhood dread, “that sense of omen that a very young child can have, a sense of the possible dangers of the world, when you don’t actually have content for your dread, but you know it’s there.”  He then went on, “and of course experience gradually supplies you with the content.”
            When we are children, things that go bump in the night may frighten us, though there is nothing there.  As we grow, we don’t need things to go bump in the night to know fear and dread.  Experience supplies us with the content.  All we need to do is turn on the news: think Ebola, think police shootings – shootings by police and shootings of police, think ISIS, think North Korea.
In this week’s Duluth NewsTribune Mitch Albom, a columnist from Detroit, printed letters from children in the Detroit area to “Santa’s helper,” in this case an organization in the Detroit area started thirty years ago by a school secretary who noticed that some kids were coming to school without coats or socks in the winter.
Dear Santa’s Helper: It has been a hard year for me and my parents because… We have lost our home two times…. My Mom couldn’t pay the storage bill so we lost everything.  My Mom has been in and out of the hospital.  We have spent the night in our car, shower in fast food places, lakes and so forth.
Dear Santa’s Helper: It has been a hard year for me because… My father stopped talking to me after my parents got divorced.  He said I was dead to him.
Dear Santa’s Helper: It’s been a hard year for me because… It’s hard to live in a motel.  You would think with my Mom working two jobs a day we wouldn’t be in this situation…. For the first time since I was little, I cried in front of my Mom….  None of my friends want to hang out with me because I can’t do the stuff they want to do….  We never did anything wrong.  Why did we get this lifestyle?
And I know that some of you here have had a year when your heart has been broken, when some of the things that evoke fear and dread have happened in your lives.
One of the things that kind of amazes me is how many Christmas songs give a nod to fear and dread and difficulty.  In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan.  Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone (“In the Bleak Midwinter”).  And ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow (“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”). The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight (“O Little Town of Bethlehem”).  Even secular Christmas songs chime in.  I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.  Have yourself a merry little Christmas, may your hearts be light.  From now on our troubles will be out of sight./ Until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow.
Fears, dread, difficulties, muddling through.  The people walk in the darkness.  Emperors order people to be registered, even if it means traveling for days and for miles.  Here’s the bad news.  Our fears, our difficulties, will not magically disappear during the hour or so we are here together.  Our singing won’t be so loud as to chase all our troubles away.  The difficulties we fear will not just vanish with the lighting of candles.
But tonight is not about that news.  It is about good news, but we hear this good news is a realistic context.  The good news doesn’t come served on a silver platter in a mansion.  The good news comes to shepherds in a field – cold and smelly.  The good news arrives like the messiness of a birth amid the hay and small of animals.  Here’s the good news.  The world may not magically and instantaneously change, but we can be different, and even a little different just because we are gathered here.  We can be different because we can know hope, a hope that is strong, powerful and tenacious.  We can know the kind of hope Anne Lamott writes about.  Hope is not about proving anything. It's about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak stuff [shit] anyone can throw at us. (Plan B, 275; Small Victories, 231 “Falling Better”).
Hopes and fears meet, and hope is stronger because love is stronger, and love is stronger because that’s God’s very nature.  Here’s more good news.  Because we can be different, the world can be different too, maybe not in an hour or overnight, but the world can be different.  No wonder this is such good news.  The word “good news” in the gospel reading is the Greek word used to describe news which affects an entire community, news brought by a runner to a Greek city to share, for example, news about a victory in battle. (John Howard Yoder, in Watch For the Light, December 11)  Because we can be different, the world can be different.  The world can even be a little more like that world described in Isaiah 11 where the wolf and the lamb live together, the leopard and the kid, the lion and the calf, the cow and the bear, and little children are safe – no hurt or destruction, no more letters to Santa’s Helper about why it has been such a tough year.
This is what Christmas is about, about a God who enters our fearful, messy world and touches our lives with all their difficulties, a God whose love is stronger than any grim, bleak stuff life can throw at us.  It is about hope and fear meeting, and about hope being stronger, bigger.
I think we get that.  Even in our non-religious cultural artifacts of Christmas, we get that it is about hope, and the strength of hope.  Think of some of your favorite Christmas movies or stories.  Aren’t they about hope?  Unless your favorite Christmas movie happens to be “Bad Santa” or something like that.  Dickens “A Christmas Carol” is about a man set in his miserly ways who is able to see his life more honestly, and make changes toward kindness and generosity.  It’s about hope.  “It’s a Wonderful Life” is about an ordinary person who realizes just how many lives his life touches even in the backwater town of Bedford Falls.  It’s about hope.  The story “The Gift of the Magi” is about the deep love of a couple, the wife who sells her hair to buy a watch chain for her husband and the husband who sells his watch to buy lovely hair combs for his wife’s beautiful hair.  It’s about hope. “Elf” discovers his family, and eventually finds acceptance.  It’s about hope.  “The Santa Clause” has that wonderful line – “Seeing is not believing, believing is seeing.”  We can see different.  We can be different.  It’s about hope.  “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is about misfits, many consigned to the island of misfit toys, finding a place.  It’s about hope.  “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” is about a scraggly tree coming to life when given love and care.  It’s about hope.
But hope needs to be more than a movie plot and a story line, and it is.  Recently Anne Lamott posted a Christmas reflection on Facebook.  There was a cartoon in the “New Yorker” decades ago, that I’ve never forgotten, of two men chained at the wrists and ankles to the wall, off the ground, in a jail cell, in a cave.  One man turns to the other and says, “Okay, here’s my plan.  When the guard comes in to bring us our meals…”  That’s how I feel about the last two weeks of holidays, the days of death by cookie, bad nerves, tight smiles and overwhelm.  Doomed, like a prisoner, or space alien, but you know what?  Also full of hope.
Lamott goes on to share the story of her last reading for her recent book tour.  She was not feeling well. She had been given an injection that she said made her face puff up like an apple pie.  But at that reading she encountered close friends – a friend since age six, old friends of her fathers – “People who still show up to rally for justice and peace, like poets and do-goods always will, against the myriad endless wars, and oppression, for civil rights and women’s rights and the environment….  They fill me with hope….  Because we are people who show up for peace and each other, this gives me hope and faith.”
Then Anne Lamott remembered how, at this same bookstore, thirty years ago, she got to have tea with the poet and writer Wendell Berry, who was signing books during a mid-December storm.  Berry looked out the window and said, “It gets darker and darker and darker; and then baby Jesus is born.”
It gets darker and darker and darker and then baby Jesus is born.  The hopes and fears of all the years meet at Christmas. Our hopes and fears meet here tonight. And hope is stronger, because love is stronger and love is stronger because God’s nature is love.  Hope is stronger, because the God of love is with us, and when we need God to draw especially close, God just does – even when its messy, even when its inconvenient, God just does.
By the way, those heartbreaking Santa letters, well they go to that foundation started by that school secretary, and the foundation selects the kids it can help, and provides funds for the most needed items like food, clothing, car repair, and educational assistance.  Such things speak to me of Christmas – small acts of hope in a fearful world, small acts of kindness and love that remind us that hope is believing, then acting on that belief, that love is bigger than any grim bleak stuff in life, hope and love made real in the messiness of life.
It gets darker and darker and darker, then the baby Jesus is born.  Hopes and fears meet, and hope is stronger because love is stronger and the God of love is with us.  Know hope, no matter how many fears have touched your life.  Know hope.  Know that you are loved.  Share love with others, because sharing love and hope only increases them.  Tonight, it’s about hope.  Merry Christmas.

Ever Present Past

Sermon preached  December 21, 2014

Text: Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55

            Paul McCartney, “Wonderful Christmas Time”:
Paul McCartney, “Ever Present Past”:
            Paul McCartney sings about how quickly time goes, but the title of his song hints that the past stays with us, the things we did as a kid.  In that sense he echoes the famous line of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” (Requiem for a Nun, 80, voice of character Gavin Stevens).
            The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.  We carry the “whens” of the past into our “now” - - - now and when - - - just as thoughts of the future lure us forward, having an impact on the present – now and when, our Advent theme.
            The past is “massively present” in the phrase of theologian Gordon Jackson, who goes on to write, “the past is not deterministic, but it is determining; that is, it is a vast flow of reality to which every present experiencing moment does conform in effective or powerful ways” (Creating Something of Beauty, 27).  A couple of weeks ago, Pat Miller introduced some of us to Judith Viorst’s book Necessary Losses.  In that book Viorst writes, “our past, with all its clamorous wishes and terrors and passions, inhabits our present” (17).
            The past is massively present, and we cannot change it.  What we can do, however, in the present, is create something new around it.  When I was a boy, I had a basic set of Lego toys.  This was before the Lego toys got as fancy and complex as they currently are.  My Legos had a couple of gray square pieces that could serve as a base for building.  Then I had a few blocks of different sizes that I could use in different ways.  There were limits to what I could build, given the materials I had, but I could still use those materials in more or less creative ways.  Of course, one could always add some new blocks.  That’s what working with our past, our whens, is like.  We cannot change some of the blocks, but we can re-arrange them in different ways and we can add to our set of blocks in the present.
            So let me suggest three things we can do with our past whens in our present nows that open us up to creativity, and that has something to say about the God of Jesus Christ.  My sermon was not simply inspired by Paul McCartney and Pat Miller, but by the gospel reading.
            In the Gospel reading, the story of Mary links past and present, not just Mary’s past, but a longer, wider and deeper story.  References are made to Abraham, to Jacob and to David.  Something is happening now that fits into that longer story of God’s relationship with these important figures from the Bible.  She sings a song which celebrates God’s grace and mercy “from generation to generation.”  God is one who shows strength with God’s arm, who scatters the proud – letting them get caught up in the thoughts of their hearts.  God is one who brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.  God fills the hungry with good things but the rich have to fend for themselves.
            Mary’s soul rejoices in the present because she remembers the grace of God in the past, in the long story of the past.  We are invited to do the same.  We keep telling these old stories from the Bible because we believe they are also a part of our story, a part of our long and broad past.  And the story of the Bible, from beginning to end, is a story about grace, about creativity, about covenant, about love.
            In our own stories, there will be times where we remember that we have not always lived up to who God would have us be.  We have turned away from others.  We may have hurt others.  I can still remember things I said years ago that were not well said, and they hurt, and I regret them.  I can’t change them.  I can’t change the times when I did not live up to God’s creativity, covenant and love.  But then there are the stories of Abraham, who lied about Sarah being his wife, and Jacob who stole his brothers birthright, and David who slept with another man’s wife and had that man sent into the most dangerous part of battle.  And what is God’s response – grace.  Remembering the long story of the past, we can be more creative in putting together the past in the present.
            In remembering the past, remember moments of grace.  These need not be wonderful, thrilling moments.  Sometimes grace is just getting through a hard day.  One grace from this week’s Ruby’s Pantry was just that, we made it.  The truck broke down and arrived at 5:30 instead of 3:30.  I was not feeling particularly good, and I ran a fever all day Friday.  Part of the grace of the evening was just making it through.  We all have days where grace comes in the form of just making through the day.
            But grace can, and often is more.  We should remember not only grace in our personal stories but in our cultural stories.  We need to remember the picture of the white police officer hugging a twelve-year old African-American boy who had been holding a sign that said “free hugs” at Portland protest over a grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. (  We need to remember the story coming from Australia.  As a gunman held people hostage in a cafe in Sydney, thousands of messages of support have been posted online for Muslims in Australia who are afraid of an Islamophobic backlash.  The spark was a Facebook post by a woman , who said she'd seen a woman she presumed was Muslim silently removing her hijab while sitting next to her on the train: "I ran after her at the train station. I said 'put it back on. I'll walk with u'. She started to cry and hugged me for about a minute - then walked off alone'.  It started a whole #illridewithyou  social media movement.  (
            So here’s a moment of grace for me.  Earlier this month I was traveling to make an evening presentation about the Minnesota United Methodist Church effort called “Reach, Renew, Rejoice.”  The presentation was to be made in a church outside of St. Cloud, so I figured I would pick up a meal on the way.  I stopped for some fine dining at the McDonald’s in Mora, disappointed that they were no longer serving the McRib.  While I was sitting there, I saw a woman, her husband, and two children come into the restaurant.  She looked familiar.  She looked like a woman who had attended the church for a year or so a few years back.  Interestingly, this woman had called me earlier this fall to talk about some concerns in her life.  You know the rest of the story – it was this woman at the Mora McDonalds. We talked, we hugged, there was a tear in her eye.
            I need to remember such moments of grace, moments like meeting my wife Julie for the first time.  I was with another girl that night.  I need to remember moments of grace, like the birth of each of my children.  When I mentioned birth stories a couple of weeks ago, it allowed me to think again about the birth of David - six weeks early and with health issues, Beth who arrived on a Sunday morning and I missed worship that day  - the SPRC chairperson gave my sermon, and Sarah born at Baylor hospital in Dallas six years after Beth.
            To make the most of the past in the present, remember the long, broad past.  remember moments of grace, and remember that grace is also the power to create anew.  I admire the wisdom of Jack Kornfield.  Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, 25).  While I would argue none of our pasts is without grace, we should never paper over how utterly terrifying the past is for some.  Some of us carry deep wounds from the past – things we have done, things done to us.  We cannot change the past, but grace is the power to take the Lego blocks of the past and build them into something with a certain beauty.  One of the stories that I have always been amazed at is the story of Betty and Gene Halvorson of this congregation, both now deceased.  Betty and Gene lost three sons on a single night, three sons washed into the treacherous waters of Lake Superior.  I can’t imagine the pain, the heartache, perhaps the self-blame.  Betty and Gene were among the most gracious and caring people I ever knew.  Every time they came into this church, a chapel reminded them of their tremendous loss, yet they were always here.  They took hurt and pain and tragedy and created something beautiful.

            We cannot change the past.  It is ever present.  We can remember that God, in grace, was with us in that past.  We can, in God’s grace take that past and create something more beautiful, knowing that God also invites us into a future that is more just, more compassionate, more caring, more peaceful, more beautiful, and more loving.  Now and when, but then every so often, something happens that amazes, that changes everything.  God’s grace enters our world stunningly and profoundly – but that’s Wednesday’s story.  Amen.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Back to the Future

Sermon preached November 30, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

            Late last week I received a mailing from the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits of The United Methodist Church.  This is not surprising as this is the group with which I have my pension.  I expected it to be general information about the Board or about my account.  So imagine my surprise when I began reading.  Dear David Bard:  According to our records, you are eligible to retire in 2015.
            Yikes!  I need to let you know that I don’t have any plans to retire in 2015.  I am not near ready to do that.  The Board of Pension is doing its job, though, in letting me know that I need to be preparing for that time when I do retire.  I need to be thinking about the future, and that will have an impact on the present.
            The theme we are working with in worship during the Advent season, those four Sunday prior to Christmas, which begins today, the theme we are working with in Advent is “Now and When.”  Today, I want to explore with you the “when” of the future and how it touches us in the present.  We are going back to the future today.
            We are going back to the future because our texts for today are about the future, and about the present.  The Gospel of Mark reading begins, “in those days.”  It is a reference to a future “when.”  It is a bit of a frightening future.  After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  In the midst of these calamitous events, then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory.  Some translations are now using the term “the Human One.”  The Human One is a wonderfully deep and rich image that Jesus appropriated as a term of self-identification.  In Jesus, true humanity, which is linked somehow to the image of God inside of us, in Jesus that true humanity comes into the world powerfully and decisively, but the Gospel of Mark acknowledges that all is not made immediately well.  There is something yet to come.
            Because of this future, our lives in the present need to be different.  Learn the lesson of the fig tree.  Look for the signs of the Human One and know that “heaven and earth will pass away, but the words of the Human One will certainly not pass away.”  So “watch out” and “stay alert.”
            Earlier than Mark, Isaiah also imagined a difficult time, a time in which we would want to cry out “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  The prophet looks around and sees only people straying, people spending their efforts on things which “fade like a leaf” or blow away with the wind.  We cannot read this passage in isolation from others in Isaiah, which, while not negating the difficulty of the present, imagine that future where indeed God does tear open the heavens and comes down.  For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth….  Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight….  No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth….  For like the days of the tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands….  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like and ox; but the serpent, its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:17ff, selected)
            These texts take us back to the future.  They provide glimpses of a horizon of hope even when the present is difficult.  This future hope rebounds into the present.  In the words of theologian Lewis Ford, “Future influence is different.  It is the still small voice that calls the world into being out of practically nothing” (Transforming Process Theism, 18).  God is that voice in the future calling us forward (Ford, 234 – God as future creativity).  It is a call from the future to the present.  Theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts this idea of the influence of the future this way.  The God of hope is himself the coming God.  When God comes in glory, God will fill the universe with God’s radiance, everyone will see God, and God will swallow up death forever.   This future is God’s mode of being in history.  The power of the future is God’s power in time….  By virtue of the hope for the coming God, the expected future acquires an inexhaustible ‘added value’ over and against present and past in the experience of time.  Moltmann, The Coming God, 24).
            We live in a horizon of hope, even when we know the full difficulty of the present, and the present is difficult.
            No matter our particular opinion on the justice of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, the fact remains that an eighteen year-old young man is dead, and a young police office has to live with the fact that he shot and killed this young man, no matter how justified he believes his actions to be.  The world is not yet right.
            In Cleveland this week, a twelve year-old is dead, shot by police who thought the toy gun he was carrying was real.  The world is not yet right.
            Heroin is making a comeback, draining the life out of some, ending the lives of others.  The world is not yet right.
            Last week, two Palestinian militants armed with guns, knives, and axes hacked and shot worshippers in a Jerusalem synagogue as they prayed.  Five people died in the attack.  The world is not yet right.
            A self-declared Islamic State engages in brutal beheadings.  It is encouraging children to witness killings - what happens when someone thinks differently from the Islamic State or defies it in some way.  The world is not yet right.
            After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.  The Bible is not pollyanish.  This kind of literature, which is called “apocalyptic” is frightening, yet it has a purpose.  Scholar Walter Wink, The positive power of apocalyptic lies in its capacity to force humanity to face threats of unimaginable proportions in order to galvanize efforts at self- and social transcendence (The Human Being, 159).  Into a world that is not yet right, a voice speaks to us from the future, inviting us to something new.  The Human One will come.  Here is a reflection from Walter Wink about that.  To be in the image of God is to be of the same stuff, the same essence, the same being, masculine and feminine.  But we humans are clearly not “like” God in our mundane existence.  We are selfish, contentious, brutal, indifferent, vicious, and vindictive.  If we are like God, then, we are so only potentially.  Perhaps someday we might become more fully human.  For now, we are only promissory notes, hints, intimations. (Just Jesus, 105).  Yet the promise is that the Human One will come.
The world is not yet right, but still we live in a horizon of hope, for God is a God who continues to appear, calling to us from the future and present with us now.  Our lives are not yet right.  We still struggle to be more fully human, yet we live in a horizon of hope, for God is a God who continues to appear, calling to us from the future and present with us now.  In words written by Walter Wink, “the Human Being wants to happen in and among us” (The Human Being, 170).
We are a people who live in a horizon of hope.  Nurture that hope.  In this season of Advent, nurture hope.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

            This week, I have nurtured hope in a couple of ways.  On Wednesday afternoon, we opened the chapel, then the sanctuary up for prayer for anyone who wanted to come and pray or meditate or reflect on the events in Ferguson.  Not many came.  I wanted to do something during that time.  Once an hour, beginning at noon, I went either into the chapel or the sanctuary and rang my prayer bowl.  Earlier in the day, I had decided that I would offer a brief prayer service at 4 p.m. if anyone was present.  No one was, but I offered the prayer service anyway.  I rang the bowl.  I used the United Methodist morning prayer, slightly revised.  I read “The Magnificat” from Luke 1, Mary’s powerful words about the horizon of hope in which we live.  I prayed a body prayer.  Then I sang.  I was a little self-conscious about this, but I did it.  I sang “We Shall Overcome” and the last first of “We Are Called” – Sing, sing a new song.  Sing of that great day when all will be one.  God will reign, and we’ll walk with each other and sisters and brothers united in love.  We are called to act with justice.  We are called to love tenderly.  We are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God.  All this was an act of hope, a living in a horizon of hope.
            This week I also celebrated an acquaintance of mine.  Lowell Gess is a United Methodist pastor, who is also an eye doctor.  Lowell and his late wife Ruth established the Kissy Eye UM Clinic in Sierra Leone.  It has had its ups and downs over the years, but it has been a labor of love and compassion.  This week the story broke that Lowell, age 93, is going to return to Sierra Leone on January 3 to do what he can for the Ebola crisis.  He is taking $100,000 worth of medical supplies with him.  Lowell has been quoted as saying, “When you’re at a certain age, you just keep your fingers crossed you won’t have a stroke or heart attack before January 3.”  He has also said that if he contracts Ebola, he will not return to the United States for treatment.  This week I have shared Lowell’s story and I have meditated on him as a sign of hope, a life lived in a horizon of hope.

            The world is not yet right, but we are people who live in a horizon of hope, people with a future that speaks to us, people with a God, who, as the Human One, continues to find ways into our lives and into our histories.  We are a people who hold fast to dreams.  Amen.