December 17, 2017
Hope is Putting Faith to Work (when doubting would be easier)
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, who was a descendant of King David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
When the angel came to her, he said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Then Mary said to the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God. Look, even your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age. This woman who was labeled ‘barren is now six months pregnant. For nothing is impossible for God.”
Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
* * * * *
I received a lovely Christmas card in the mail this week from Mark and Linda Giles. In it was a hand-written message saying, “Hope is putting Faith to work when doubting would be easier.” And I thought, isn’t that the absolute truth?
Hope is putting Faith to work when doubting would be easier.
This Advent we’ve been doing a worship series about hope. The irony was not lost on me when we learned that Trip’s son Ward has cancer. Seldom does hope seem more important, and more impossible, than when you’re diagnosed with a life-threatening illness – and 1,000 times more when it’s your child. It’s even more poignant that Trip was scheduled to preach next Sunday, and the theme he picked was “Finding the light of hope in your darkest hour.” So that’s what we’ll be looking at together next week. It’s an unusual Sunday in any case – both Christmas Eve morning and yet still the fourth Sunday of Advent. Maybe it’s fitting that tension is there… I think of the line from the Carol: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” How do we live when both our hopes and our fears are very, very real?
We’ve been thinking a lot about hope. How our hope isn’t something we manufacture; it’s not optimism that everything’s going to be all right. As Christians, our hope comes from God: God’s vision for the world, God’s dreams for the world, God’s actions in the world. As people of faith we learn to look for those signs all around us: to see hope realized in small, brave acts of courage, in brilliant, beautiful, small signs of goodness. In God’s light, we learn to see light.
But how do we live into that hope and embrace it? How do we show the light of hope to a world that badly needs it? As Christians, how do we demonstrate hope, and live? How do we reflect Christ’s light in the dark places of this world? This is our calling, our purpose, our work: putting faith to work, when doubting is so much easier.
In an interview on the radio show On Being, Parker Palmer gives these wise words about hope. He says,
Of all the virtues, “hope” is one of the most-needed in our time. When people ask me how I stay hopeful in an era of widespread darkness, I answer simply: “Hope keeps me alive and creatively engaged with the world.”
But then he issues a challenge. He says,
When privileged people like me choose hopelessness over hope, it’s not a reflection of the state of the world. It’s a reflection of the state of our souls.
If I were to lose hope and turn to cynicism, what would I do? Sit in a corner, stare at the wall, and suck my thumb? When people like me allow ourselves to become hopeless — while there’s so much we can do for those who are truly suffering — we need to remind ourselves that opting out is not a fit way for a grown-up to live.[i]
Doubting is so much easier than hope. But faith needs to go to work, and opting out is not a fit way for Christians to live.
Our scripture this morning issues that same challenge, I think. It’s the challenge of Gabriel to Mary. The angel appears and announces to Mary that she will bear a child, that his name will be Jesus, and that he will be called the Son of God. It’s a lot like Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah, announcing that his wife Elizabeth would bear a child in their old age, and that this child John would be the forerunner of Jesus. Zachariah, too, points out the impossibility of what Gabriel tells him. But Gabriel will have none of these protests. “For nothing is impossible for God.”
When Mary hears this pronouncement, she says, “Yes.” Yes. Let it be to me according to your word. Yes, I will be part of this grand scheme of God’s. Yes. Even though it would be easier to doubt, she says, “Yes.” She knows her role in God’s grand story. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she says.
I am the Lord’s servant. And I know God has work for me to do. Yes, I have my doubts. Yes, I have hesitation. But at the end of the day, I know who I am: I am a servant of the Lord.
This is what God hopes for, I think. That we will be like Mary, and know we are God’s servants for the world.
In her essay, “We Were Made for These Times,” Clarissa Estes offers these words of challenge:
We are needed, that is all we can know… Didn't you say you were a believer? Didn't you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn't you ask for grace? Don't you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?[ii]
Like Mary, we are needed. We are needed for God’s purpose in this world. And our role, our work, our purpose, is to bear hope. To live in it, show it, reveal it, share it.
You know, I look at this church, and I see people living this hope, putting their faith to work over and over again. This last week Kathleen Dean and Sally Stilwell hosted a dinner for our Stephen Ministers, and I was struck by the presence of God in the faces of these people, knowing how hard they have worked to bring life-giving hope to their care receivers. These are our own church members, serving with quiet faithfulness, giving hundreds of hours for training and supervision, meeting with people 1:1 each week, listening, praying, reflecting Christ’s light. Every Stephen Minister I know will tell you it is deeply spiritual, life-giving work, worth every moment.
At the heart of their ministry, and what sustains them, is the knowledge that it is not their work to solve the problems of the world. They work with humility and purpose, trusting that God is the cure-giver and they are the care-givers. They are not there to “fix” people or make everything better. They are present to witness to God’s hope, God’s presence, God’s promises. They shine light in the darkness.
They know they are needed. And they said ‘yes’ to God’s call. They are living signs of hope, faith at work in the world.
It’s like what Clarissa Estes writes:
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.
I’m reading a book about launching young adults toward success and self-reliance. It’s not a religious book, but the author talks about a word in the Hebrew Bible, “ezer, which has two seemingly unrelated meanings: ‘to rescue’ and ‘to be strong.’” In order to help, you have to be strong, he says. But even more importantly, “help, at its best, should increase the strength of the person you are helping.” [iii]
So how do we help increase strength? How do we bring that kind of hope?
A couple of weeks ago I attended a Presbytery training event about the opioid addiction ravaging so many communities. The author of the book Dreamland Skyped with us, talking about the roots of this scourge, and some solutions. Then a man named Skip Livisay led a discussion about substance abuse prevention work he’s doing in Columbus. You know what their work focuses on? How to become resilient, how to deal with pain without numbing out. How to be a community. How to connect. How to be healthy. How to have fun.
He said something I thought was telling. He said, “It doesn’t help to take a sick tree out of the forest, get it well and put it back into the same forest where it got sick, and then expect it to stay well.” We need to make a healthier forest. When I heard him, it made me think of the youth groups here, and the fun and connections Ellen and Trip and Joy and Carol and our youth leaders create. That’s what they’re teaching. They’re teaching hope. Creating a forest where healthy trees can grow.
Maybe that’s where we start to live hope.
Not by trying to save the world, but by strengthening each other, and the people and communities around us. Not by seeing others as needy or weak, but as fellow travelers who carry God’s light and life. What if what we offered first was our own determination, and encouragement, and strength?
Clarissa Estes encourages us to see hope this way. She says,
One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul…. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these - to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.
Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.
There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.
The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here.
The One who teaches us hope, who helps us see hope, who calls us to hope.
Friends, go put your faith to work. Of course doubting is easier. Of course it is. But that’s not what we’re here for. We are servants of the Lord. And God has given us good words to say and good deeds to do, hope for the world. There is so much we can do. It’s time. It’s time, God’s messenger tells us. The time for hope is now.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church
[i] Parker Palmer, “Hope Is the Place Where Joy Meets the Struggle,” https://onbeing.org/blog/parker-palmer-hope-is-the-place-where-joy-meets-the-struggle/
[iii] Brad E. Sachs, Emptying the Nest: Launching Your Young Adult Toward Success and Self-reliance, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 95.