Own Your Hope: The Future Factor
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
1 Peter 2:1-13; Jeremiah 13
She was one of my frequent flyers; one of those people who would regularly come to my office looking for assistance. We will call her Linda, though that is not her actual name. She had grown up in a dysfunctional home in which she had been told that she was worthless and would never amount to much of anything. And Linda did her best to prove them true. She never graduated from high school and began having babies in her teens. When I met her she was barely twenty and had two children by two different men…neither of whom were around or could help support the children. Over the course of the years she had two more children, by two still different men, who were not around and could not help support the children. Linda was very nice and always appreciative of the assistance we gave her. But we could both sense that there was an inevitability about her; her upbringing, the choices she had made and the choices she continued to make that said this is where she would always be; always having to find a way to survive. There was no hope.
This is where we find ourselves in our Old Testament story. This story is about a people whose continuing bad choices had so shaped their lives that there would be no escape. The prophet Jeremiah had been trying to help the people of Judah, Gods people, make better, more God-like choices. He wanted them to worship God, care for the poor and trust that even in difficult times God would come through. But time after time they refused to listen and made a series of ever poorer choices. Finally, it was too late. Their kingdom would be destroyed. In the face of their pleading for help Jeremiah uttered these famous words. “Can an Ethiopian change his skin? Can a leopard change its spots?” In other words, you all have become who you are and you cannot change. There is no hope.
For many of us, this idea that we become who we are and that there is no possibility of being something else, of improving, of breaking past patterns is disturbing. We want to believe that there is an opportunity for change; that there is hope. If this is what you are hoping for…so to speak…then Peter has something for you this morning. This small section of Peter’s letter is all about how change is possible. And it is possible because of what God does, what we do and then what we do with God.
First it is what God does. Peter opens this part of his letter by reminding the people of what they once were…or perhaps still were. They were those who had been consumed by malice, guile, insincerity, envy and slander. In a sense they were ordinary people whose lives mirrored the society around them. They had been raised in a particular way, in a particular society and there was little they could do about it. What Peter tells them though is that while they might not be able to do anything about it, God could…and God did. God began by taking them out of their spiritual location and placing them a new one. They were now “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” What the Apostle implies is that by being part of a new Christ empowered society they were given new options. They could make new and different choices. Many of us understand this. Sometimes when we have changed relationships, jobs, or companies there opened before us opportunities to make new and better choices. For me this happened when I went to college. Prior to that moment I had always been David Judson’s little brother. And David was brilliant. He was always the best student in the schools he and I attended and he even graduated number one in a class of 1,200. My homeroom teacher, who had had my older brother, called me David for three years. Going to college allowed me the freedom to be me, and not a mini-David. This is what God does for us. God offers us a new beginning in a new place.
What comes second is what we need to do. Peter tells his readers that, while being part of this new community in a new location is great, it is still up to individuals to take advantage of the possibilities that the new location offers. Peter writes, “Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that you may grow into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” The implication here is that even though these people had been chosen by God to be part of this new community, it would do them no good unless they chose to learn and to participate in the process of spiritual renewal and formation. I believe this is one of those places where Christians have always struggled…we like being part of the community but we are not sure we want to spend the time to develop new and Christ-like habits. For me, this meant making the best of my new opportunity at college, which at first I did not do. After my first year, I dropped out. Fortunately a very wise man with whom I worked drew me aside one day and reminded me that, unlike many of the men where we worked, I could still take advantage of my choices and return to school; which I did. This is what Peter is reminding us of. We have been placed in this new community but we still need to take advantage of the choices before us
The final piece of Peter’s hope filled change process is what we do with God. He writes, “Come to him, a living stone…and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, a royal priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” For Peter, the reality of change was that even as part of God’s new community, even as those who choose to learn and grow, we cannot in and of ourselves become wholly different. We have to allow God room to work in our lives. As people of the Enlightenment we have come to believe that we ought to have the will power to change. We ought to be able, given the correct information, to make the kinds of choices that enhance our lives. However, study after study has shown that without help, people usually do not take advantage of opportunities for changes in finances, relationships or most other areas of life. Change, significant change, is difficult. This is why, I believe, Peter tells us that we have a partner in our change process. God is present desiring to build us into new people. Even having gone back to and graduated from college, my life was not where I knew it ought to be. Finally I asked God for help…to take control…and in so doing allowed God to set me on a new course; one that has brought me here. Peter tells us that if we allow God room to work, God will indeed help us with a new beginning, just as God helped Peter…and me.
The trajectory of Linda’s life had been and continued to be on a downward cycle. Trapped into living with her family that truly despised her, there seemed little hope. Then one day she showed up in my office and said she had moved out from her family and had decided to become a medical assistant. A friend had told her about how she could change her life. She was coming to me, to my church for help. Though she was taking out loans for tuition and some to live on she needed help getting started. She needed a bridge gift. Would we help her? I told her we would…though I have to admit I was dubious. Her past track record was not great. However we saw less and less of her. She would only drop by when she was in desperate need. Then one day she showed up in my office and handed me a picture. It was her graduation picture. I asked why she was giving it to me and she said because no one else cared. No one in her family would even come to her graduation. She had made it. She had a new trajectory.
In a sense, Linda has become for me a living metaphor of change. God changes our location. We choose to take advantage of that change. We allow God, both directly and through others to help us change. Then change happens. A new trajectory becomes possible. My challenge for each of us then this week is to ask ourselves this, “How am I working with God in order to continue to change into the person God intends me to be.”
Rev. Amy Morgan
May 18, 2014
Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22
I’m going to start with one of John Judson’s “survey says” questions. Raise your hand if you are, or ever have been, a teenager.
So, it looks like most of us can empathize with the teenage experience. For those of us for whom this is a distant memory, I want you to take just a minute to put yourself back to your 14-year-old self. What did you long for at that age? What did you wonder about and question? What did you worry about or fear?
One study found that mothers of 14-year-old girls are statistically the most unhappy people on the planet. And there’s a very good reason for that. Being 14 years old might just be the very definition of suffering.
By the age of 14, teens are smack in the middle of the three P’s of adolescent misery: Puberty, Popularity, and Parents.
Their bodies are undergoing all kinds of uncomfortable, unmanageable, and, frankly, embarrassing changes. They don’t know how to move in their bodies, how to hold themselves. Their discomfort is on display for all the world to see as their skin breaks out and voices crack. I remember feeling betrayed by my body as it grew and behaved in ways I couldn’t control.
And all this happens at a time when popularity becomes the most important thing in our lives. As teens begin to develop their own identity, they do so in the context of their social relationships. They want to identify with a group of peers. And since human egocentrism is at its apex in middle adolescence, they want those peers to like them, to affirm their new identity. The really sad part is, no matter how “popular” a teen might be, popularity still contributes to suffering. Teens suffer because they are unpopular or don’t fit in with their peer group. But teens also suffer because they are popular, because they have a persona or reputation to maintain that is often unrealistic or simply too static for the dynamic process of identity formation. So where popularity is concerned, no one wins. Everyone is miserable.
As much as parents try to love and nurture their children through this challenging time, it is a certainty that they will contribute to the suffering of adolescence. Teens push against boundaries and family identity and obligations as they grow into independent young adults. Meanwhile, parents are stewards of these unwilling captives and responsible for steering them toward healthy and life-giving choices. Friction, conflict, and sometimes outright hostility seem to be an inevitable part of any parent-teen relationship.
And so it is at this tender age that we invite them into the Confirmation journey. As a church community, we offer to walk alongside them in their suffering. We share our faith stories with them, and we listen to their stories. We teach them, encourage, support and guide them, but we also “demand an accounting for the hope that is in them.”
This hope looks different for each and every person, and the variety we hear in the Confirmands’ faith statements reflects that diversity. This year’s Confirmation class has truly wrestled with their faith. Some students struggled to reconcile religion and scientific inquiry while others were challenged by friends who expressed a lack of faith. They found God in the beauty of creation and the love of family and friends, through God-given abilities and even our very existence. They questioned who Jesus is and what his death and resurrection meant. They felt the Holy Spirit at work in them in times of struggle and doubt, in discernment of right and wrong, in moments of surprising courage and strength, and in insights and inspiration. Some of them are confident in the next steps of their faith journeys while others aren’t sure what’s next. We are truly blessed this year to have a Confirmation class that has expressed their faith with raw honesty. Their statements of faith are full of wonder and longing, challenge and hope.
Maybe requiring them to write faith statements, demanding an accounting for the hope that is in them, only contributes to the suffering of adolescence, but I think there is a redeeming outcome. In making an accounting for their hope, in articulating their faith, our Confimands are able to claim a hope they can count on.
Our text today from 1 Peter talks about accounting for our hope, but it also talks about counting on our hope.
The end of the passage has this strange bit about Jesus making a proclamation to the “spirits in prison,” referencing those who were wiped out in the great flood. Noah and his family were saved (along with the animals, of course), which, the writer says, prefigures God’s saving grace in baptism. This passage has been challenging for scholars to interpret, and there are at least 4 theories about what exactly it means. However, the underlying takeaway is that the hope we have in Christ is more powerful than death or sin. There is nothing we can do, and there is no power in the universe, that can diminish or destroy God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. If Christ can bring the good news of the gospel to the most sinful and dead people, is there anyone Jesus cannot claim and make his own?
This is good news for teens, and for their parents, and for all of us. When we are in the depths of our suffering - whether it be the suffering of adolescence or the suffering of parenting an adolescence, the suffering of illness or grief or shame, the suffering of what we have done or the suffering of what has been done to us – no matter what our suffering may be, we have hope in the God who has saved us through the waters of baptism. Baptism invites us to perceive our lives through a new lens, from a broader perspective. We endure suffering by connecting to a larger purpose and meaning, something greater than that which oppresses us. And so, in baptism, we’re invited to step out of that ego-centric 14-year-old we never quite grow out of in order to experience, through the lens of Jesus Christ, our intrinsic value to God, who, as one Confirmand wrote, “showed his undying love for us by sacrificing part of himself.”
The young people who will be Confirmed this morning are confirming the vows made on their behalf by their parents in baptism. They are claiming for themselves a faith that, fragile and uncertain, confounding and mysterious as it may be, is a faith they can count on, a faith in a God of love, a faith full of hope and possibility.
“Baptism,” our text tells us, “now saves you-- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” One of the best parts about our faith, and something our Confirmands connect with powerfully, is the fact that what we do, how we live, matters deeply. This class articulated a desire to live compassionate, generous lives, to show kindness, and to love others. A good conscience is a clear indicator for them of faithful living.
And our text this morning asks, “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” We all know that the truth is that we may suffer for doing good – for standing our ground against bullying or for setting boundaries as parents, for “rooting for the underdog,” as one Confirmand pointed out Jesus did, or for living according to our values, though they may be different from the surrounding culture. But even in this suffering we are blessed because, as this text points out, “it is better to suffer for doing good than it is to suffer for doing evil.”
Every year, when the Confirmands read their faith statements to the Session, adults in this congregation say to me, “that must have been so difficult for them! I’m not sure I could write a faith statement myself.” Well, I can tell you, it is difficult for them. It takes a lot of courage, thought, time, and prayer to write a faith statement, especially when you are 14 or 15 years old. But what I hope our Confirmands have gained from accounting for the hope that is in them is a hope they can count on, in good times and bad, through joy and suffering.
I also would challenge any adult in this congregation to follow their lead. As we tell our Confirmands again and again, our faith continues to evolve over time. We learn and experience new things, and this impacts what we believe. So those of us who have escaped adolescence might have a different perspective to share. I am challenging any and all of you to compose your own statement of faith, to account for the hope that is in you. I have added a page on the church website that will guide you through the process we used with the Confirmands, and I am happy to meet with you and work with you through the journey. As our Confirmands will tell you, it’s not easy. But I think you’ll find it is worth it. Because accounting for your hope will give you a hope you can count on. Amen.
Own Your Hope: The Righteousness Factor
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:8-25
He was their darling for a few short moments. For all of those who believed that government had overstepped its bounds, had grown too large, or was simply trying to oppress the little guy, he was their darling. Clive Bundy, the Nevada rancher who had been running his cattle illegally on Federal land, our land, for years threatened to kill agents of the Bureau of Land Management if they tried to take his cattle off of land he did not own. His stand was supported by politicians and pundits across this nation. They trumpeted him as being as heroic as the founding fathers. He was their darling until he said these words, “And I’ve often wondered, are they (meaning African Americans) better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.” Suddenly many of those who had proclaimed him to be the paragon of freedom backed away as quickly as they could. And regardless of what they thought about his fight with the Bureau of Land Management they could not believe he could say such a thing…that slavery was not all that bad.
It is in the same vein that many of us approach Peter’s words about slavery in our morning’s text. We wonder, how could Peter say such a thing? How could Peter tell slaves that they were to, “Accept the authority of their masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you, if being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.” This seems to make no sense on so many levels. It makes no sense because Jesus came to set people free, not make them slaves. It makes no sense because these words have been used to oppress people of color, of lower social status, of women and anyone else who was relatively powerless. And just as Bundy’s supporters were embarrassed by his remarks, the church is so embarrassed by these words that it does not include them in the list of its official readings, called the lectionary. If I had followed the official reading I would have skipped the verse that mentions slaves. So why did I include it? I did so because without it we cannot understand what Peter is trying to tell us.
In order to understand my point we need to take a quip trip back to the Roman Empire and learn something about slavery in that context. Slavery was ubiquitous in the Roman Empire. Estimates are that in Rome itself, one out of every three persons, was a slave. In the larger Empire, slaves were essential to commerce and agriculture. Slavery was not racial. Slaves came in all races, nationalities and educational levels. Slaves could be teachers and doctors, or day laborers. Romans could even sell themselves into slavery in order to pay off debts. Sometimes owners were kind and benevolent. At other times though, owners could be brutal and cruel. But here is perhaps the most important things we need to remember about slavery. A slave who tried to run away or rebelled against his master, or anyone who advocated such resistance, faced the real possibility that they would be caught and crucified. And the Romans did so because one of the things they feared the most was a slave rebellion. And so anyone even hinting at a general liberation of the slaves was bound for trouble. With that in mind let’s return to Peter’s letter.
Why would Peter say such a thing? He would do so because he was trying to build a basis for owning hope even in the midst of slavery. The early church attracted not only free people but slaves. They came looking for the same hope as those who were free. In this short section of the letter Peter gives the slaves, or if you will, anyone who is stuck in a situation in life from which they cannot escape, a word of hope.
The first word of hope comes from a choice the slaves could make. They could choose to act as Christ acted in the face of his oppressors. They could choose righteousness. Righteousness here does not mean some sort of spiritual perfection. It means living in imitation of Jesus. Peter writes, “When Jesus was abused he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” In other words, Jesus chose the way of non-violence. He chose the way of suffering rather than the way inflicting suffering. He chose the way of love rather than hate. This is the choice Peter asks the slaves to make. And he does so not only because it reflects the heart of God, but because in making this choice, slaves have the ability to demonstrate that their human owners are not really their masters. Jesus is their master and the slaves will choose to follow him. So, just as Jesus obeyed because he was following God’s way, the slaves are to obey not because they are slaves, but because they belong to Jesus. In this there is hope that even though they are owned by a human being, they belong to Christ.
The second offer of hope to those who are slaves or who are stuck in a life situation from which they cannot extract themselves, is to know that they have not been abandoned. Any of us who have ever been stuck in a time and place of pain, not of our making, knows how easy it is to feel as if we are alone. Peter reminds the slaves that they are not alone. He writes, “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have been returned to the shepherd and the guardian of your souls.” In slavery, in our dark moments when escape is impossible, they and we are to remember that God has not left us on our own. God has not cast us aside. But instead God is powerfully present drawing us back to God’s own self and guarding our essential selves, our souls. In a sense Peter is calling them to reread the 23rd Psalm. For in that Psalm, the writer realizes that even in the most difficult of times, in the shadow of death, we do not have to fear evil, but can rest assured that God is preparing something better for us…even in the midst of our enemies.
In some ways the gift of both the Psalm and Peter’s letter is that they both address reality. They address a world in which life is often hard and oppressive. They do not pretend that there is some magic prayer that will make everything better. Instead they make it clear that God is in the midst of tough times and that even in the worst of situations we can choose to be Christ followers confident in the presence of the Living God at our side. In this there is hope even in the darkest of moments.
My challenge to you on this Sunday is this, to ask yourselves how I am choosing the way of Christ even in the most difficult of situations in order that I might own the hope that God offers.
Own Your Hope: The Trust Factor
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Exodus 32:1; Peter 1:13-23
He was their last hope. They had seen him on television promising that regardless of their circumstances that God was ready to help them. All they had to do was send in their faith pledge along with a description of their prayer request, and he would pray over those cards and God would fulfill all of their hopes. And so the money came, by the thousands, tens of thousands and the millions. The letters arrived as well with heart rending stories of families losing homes, of children struggling with drug addiction, of jobs lost, of health failing. The people trusted him. After all he was a man of God. After all he was on television so God must have blessed him as well. After all he said that he had gotten blood poisoning from laying so many hours in prayer over their cards and letters. But then the rest of the story came out. Outside of his headquarters were dumpsters filled with the cards and letters people had sent. The money inside was gone, but the notes and pictures remained. Suddenly the trust was gone…and so was the hope. It too was lost.
Hope can only be found where there is trust. If there is no trust then hope cannot grow. To have hope people must believe that there is someone or something out there that can be trusted to offer them a better future; that can offer them a solution to their dilemma; that can save them in their time of need. Without that kind of trust there is no fertile ground for hope. We can see this clearly in our Old Testament text. The Hebrew people had been enslaved for hundreds of years. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had set them free with acts of power and might. Moses had been God’s spokesperson. But now Moses was gone. He had gone up to the mountain and had not returned. Whatever trust they had had in either Moses or God was now gone. And along with it went their hope in a new and better life. Along with it went their hope that they would inherit the land of promise. Their response to this vanished trust was to create a new god; a new god in whom they could trust and thus renew their hope. The golden calf was their attempt to rediscover a hope that had been lost.
The issue of trust lies at the heart of Peter’s letter to the church. Peter understood that trust was essential if Jesus’ followers were to claim the hope that was theirs. Thus he offers two reasons why Christians of all ages ought to be able to trust in God and thereby own the hope that is ours. First, God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Peter writes, “Through Jesus you have come to trust in God, who raised Jesus from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.” Peter’s argument goes something like this; by raising Jesus from the dead, God not only fulfilled God’s promise to Jesus, that he would be raised on the third day, but God also broke the powers of sin and death. In a sense this means that, as we discussed on Easter, there is a new and better future for us. There is hope that the powers of this world are no longer fully in charge. Instead the Kingdom of God is breaking into this world in a way that offers us new possibilities for life, love and community. We can own our hope because we can trust God.
Second, we can trust God because we have seen the fruits of this new and better world in our own lives. The example that Peter offers is that because of faith in Jesus Christ, because of what Jesus and God have accomplished, they possess genuine, mutual love. “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth (meaning you trusted in God through Jesus Christ to change your life and change the world), so that you have mutual love, you love one another deeply from the heart.” Peter takes it for granted that the recipients of his letter have been changed for the better. Their being born anew by the work and love of God was not simply something that would get them into heaven, but was something that changed them now; that made them people whose lives demonstrated this new and better future. But it does not stop there Peter writes, it makes it possible for us to love others with the same love with which God in Christ loved us. He wants us to know that we have been made capable of forming this better community and better world. We can trust God, Peter tells us, because of what we see in ourselves…and therefore we can own our hope.
The television preacher asked people to place their hope and trust in him to secure what they needed from God; to trust him so that they could have hope. Peter did not. Peter reminds us that our hope is in God, not in a human being, because God can always be trusted. We human beings…we will always fail one another. So our challenge is not to place our trust in a television preacher, or in me, or in the church or in any other person or institution. As one of my pastor friends always said to his new member classes, “Sooner or later we will disappoint you.” Our trust and hope is always in God, the one who never fails.
My challenge to you then is to ask yourselves, “How am I trusting in God’s life changing presence, in such a way that I can own my hope?”