Message for May 17, 2020
Texts: John 14:15-21 and 1 Peter 3:13-16a
All around us — and, I suspect, within us — we are seeing evidence of the effect this extended stay-in-place order is having on our collective psyche. We are hearing about angry protests and noticing crazy drivers (have you been on the road? On the 101 just outside of Windsor, the electronic sign message now reads, “If you must drive, please don’t speed”). Social media has been buzzing with conspiracy theories and people have been unfriending others who post such things on their timelines. And increasingly I am hearing of people — loved ones,church folks, and fellow clergy included — who weeks ago had settled into a reasonably calm routine, but who now are changing those routines. Some are venturing out for the first time. Some are having socially-distanced visits. And some are losing their focus and motivation. The days spent in isolation or cooped up with the same people, hours spent in Zoom meetings or otherwise in front of screens, either scrambling to do work differently or having way too much time on their hands, are taking a toll — on our energy and our thinking. For many, sleep has been disrupted. For others, eating patterns have changed, not always for the better. Varying levels of stress, even desperation, are eating away at folks, as the indefinite timeline of the measures taken to keep the maximum number of people safe, and uncertainty about what the world will look like when we emerge from this period, however long it may be, is already altering us.
One verse from today’s scripture readings leaps out at me, and has long lived in my consciousness as both a call and a challenge: 1 Peter 3:16 — “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”
Several years ago I led a small group, in one church I served, through a 25-week study called Witness. If you’ve heard me or others talk about Disciple Bible Study, this, for me, was the equivalent, in terms of intensity and commitment, to that course, but it was devoted to the topic of evangelism. There was Bible study, journaling and some very challenging action homework every week — things like striking up conversations with coworkers, family and even strangers about spiritual topics. It moved the participants — myself included — decidedly into our growing edges. This hard work helped us re-frame the concept of “evangelism,” as most of us had very pushy, negative images imprinted on us from earlier life experiences. In the safety of our group, we shared our fears of rejection, the stories that turned us off, and the sense of “burden” we felt — the way scriptural mandates could trigger guilt in us, and the pain of holding back, repressing, not talking about the very thing that gave us strength and courage and hope in the face of adversity, because sharing that is so often frowned upon in our culture, and we nurtured a sense of empathy for those who don’t have hope, who don’t feel the warmth of belonging, who haven’t gained a sense of purpose — those things that carry us through when life is hard. Our honest sharing, and practicing with baby steps, helped each of us grow a little more confident, and little more open. No one turned into a “cold call door knocker” or a “street preacher” type of evangelist. I never heard accounts of “souls saved” or “leading people to accept Christ as Lord and Savior” or “praying the Sinner’s Prayer” — that simply wasn’t our approach. But I did witness transformation and deepening friendship, and a sort of relaxing around these matters, which I believe translated into a readiness. The participants became church leaders of deeper character whom I saw (and actually continue to see, for a few have found me on Facebook), time and again, responding to the invitation, according to their giftedness, to various forms of mission within and outside of the church. As hard as it was, I remember that as a very fruitful year in my ministry.
So here’s the conundrum: How do you go about this hope business in a time when hope is very hard to find? How can you be “ready with a defense and an accounting for the hope that is in you” when it is difficult to muster up even enough hope to get through your own day?
There is so much in our world and in our lives these days that challenges the very notion of hope. The scope and scale of changes that we have seen in our lifetime is astounding, and if we are to listen to the news, to “keep up with the times” or with “current events,” there is ample and compelling evidence that many of those changes are not for the good. It actually takes a pretty disciplined spirit — or, it could be argued, a dose of foolishness — to win an argument asserting that the majority of changes are positive, especially in these uncertain pandemic times. Even if we emerge from COVID-19 with our economy and society intact, considering the challenges that the next generation faces, it is easy to see that hope is a hard sell for many, many people.
Is “being ready with a defense for hope” a burden to you? I will freely admit that it can be for me, especially when I’m tired, when I’m in pain, and on days made gloomy by inclement weather or an abundance of bad news.
But. Isn’t that the key word, “but?” Or maybe the better word is “and.” Yes, it can be extremely difficult to keep the flame of hope alive. Bad news permeates the very air we breathe. Many people in our society are not primed to receive a word of Christian faith in a positive way; they are suspicious of organized religion and fearful for the future. All these things are true … AND we are people of faith. AND God is with us. AND the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus called “the Comforter,” is still at work in the world and in the hearts of those who believe — and even in the lives of those who do not yet know that Comforter by name.
If this call to “be ready with a defense, an accounting for hope” is a difficult thing for you, let me offer a few observations.
First, the words are not expressly found in the Bible — though, I imagine, many people think they are, and I’ve heard them spoken by many a wise and faithful Christian — they actually first appeared in the writings of the medieval Persian Sufi poets: “This, too, shall pass.” The transitory nature of our human striving and struggle is referred to plenty of times in scripture, though the means of expression is a bit different; most used is the imagery of humans being like flowers or grass, destined to grow and thrive, and then fade. This is true of each of us as individuals, and of one kingdom after another; it is true of our own accomplishments, and those of our enemies. Likewise, our difficulties do not last forever. And in contrast to the transient nature of human life and human struggle, the scripture proclaims, over and over again, that God’s love is steadfast and endures forever.
Second, all of us are hard-wired for connection — connection to others, and connection to God. Because of this hard-wiring, hope rises in us when we make a connection — by greeting someone we pass on the street, by picking up a phone, by saying a prayer. Hope rises not only in the person with whom we connect; it rises in us, as well. Such connections create the conditions for readiness. They make room for the Holy Spirit.
And finally, I want to tell you that some of the most grace-filled things that have come out of my mouth have not engaged with my brain beforehand, but just seem to flow out unbidden. One example is the phrase you hear me say often: “We are in the grace business.” I still remember the place and situation, years ago, when I found those words on my lips, and I remember the response they evoked, not only in the person to whom I said it, but the heart-warming I felt inside. It’s a phrase that has stuck with me, and it’s become one piece of my “readiness kit.” And there are so many prayers that I’ve spoken that also have just bubbled out of my mouth and seemed to be the right thing for the right time. This is a practice I learned — or a “relaxed and ready” stance I’ve learned to take about prayer — from a layperson I admired for her ability to “pray at the drop of a hat.” This is how I’ve found the Holy Spirit often works.
All around us, I see a hungering for hope. And when I listen to my heart, I hear the Comforter whispering to me not to worry so much about what words might form that “defense for hope.” The Spirit will be there with the words, I just need to show up. I need to show up, practice making connections, trust that “this too shall pass,” and open my heart. Amen.