Posts Tagged ‘Hope’

Hope After Easter

“Hope After Easter”

Luke 24:13-35

Daniel J. Ott

Eatser is such a hopeful time.  We come together as Spring is blooming.  We wear bright colors and adorn our sanctuaries with beautiful flowers.  We sing hymns about Jesus’ victory over sin and death in the resurrection.  Our hearts and minds are buoyed by the festive atmosphere and we almost can’t help but feeling hopeful.

But what about hope after Easter?  How do we sustain that hope after Easter?  Actually, the liturgical calendar tells us that there are seven Sundays of Easter, of which we are celebrating the third today.  Perhaps we’re supposed to sustain all of the colors and music and festivities of Easter throughout these seven weeks.  But even if we did that, would that keep hope alive?  It seems to me that it can be difficult to keep hope alive after Easter.

One reason that it’s difficult to keep hope alive after Easter is because there are so many reminders that evil persists after Easter.  While we testify that Jesus’ resurrection has destroyed the powers of sin and death, we also know that we do not live in the fulfillment of this victory.  Our minds are quickly pulled away from the mystery and splendor of Easter back to the real world where examples of fear and hatred and violence abound.

The two travelers in our story today had this problem too.  They had heard the first Easter proclamation.  The women had told them that the tomb was empty and that angels had appeared telling them that Jesus was alive.  But when Jesus visits them unawares as they walk and asks them what they’re talking about, it’s clear that the horrific scenes of the week before were foremost in their minds, not the hope of resurrection.  Luke says they stood there sorrowfully when Jesus asked them what had happened.  And we can surely sympathize with them.  They had thought that Jesus would be the prophet for which they were waiting.  They thought that this one finally would be the one to liberate Israel, to get rid of the Roman occupiers, to cast out the forces of evil and to restore Israel’s faith in God.  But the unthinkable had happened.  Their leaders had become fearful of Jesus.  Their own leaders turned on their only hope.  They gave him over to the vicious Romans who tortured and executed him.  Their savior had been killed and their hope had been crushed.  The women’s story of an empty tomb was simply not sufficient to move them past the horrors of the cross.  The reality of violence and evil kept them from fully embracing the mystery of Easter.

I felt sort of jolted out of the mystery and hope of Easter myself as, early this week, I booted up the computer and saw the headline that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  This news immediately brought back to mind the events of September 11, 2001, of course.  I remembered the scenes from that day as I read further into the article:  the planes hitting the buildings, the people running through the streets covered with soot, the rescue workers scrambling about trying to do what they could.  Soon I reached the part of the article that described crowds who spontaneously gathered at the White House and at Ground Zero to celebrate bin Laden’s death.  It brought back to mind the scene shown after 9/11 of Palestinians flooding into the streets to dance and cheer.  I remember trying in vain to understand what kind of hatred and fear could inspire that sort of response to violence and death.  This week I was forced to wonder the same about my own compatriots.

It seems that we live in a world so consumed by hatred that not only do we perpetuate violence, but we revel in it.  It seems that we live in a world so clouded by sin and evil that we think its right to celebrate violence and death rather than striving with all our hearts for reconciliation and new life.  It’s hard to have hope after Easter in such a vicious and violent world.

But I suppose Jesus would admonish me as he did his disciples for losing hope even in the face of such evil.  “You fools,” he scolded them, “how could you be so slow of heart and not believe.”   I’ll be honest – I would rather Jesus would have been a little more understanding of the disciples.  After all, they were being asked to believe something completely unfathomable.  The resurrection is hard to believe.

I’ll tell you, I’ve heard at least one too many Easter sermons that tried to explain or even prove the resurrection.  The preacher takes you through the events almost like a detective or a lawyer would, showing how the resurrection was completely plausible.  But when I read the Easter stories in scripture, what jumps out at me is how even the first disciples had a hard time believing.  Nobody was completely sure they should trust the women’s story.  Everyone – Peter, Thomas – wanted first-hand proof.  They wanted to be able to see and touch the resurrected Jesus.  And we’d like to have some sort of confirmation too, but the truth is that believing in the resurrection is not a matter of proof – it’s a matter of the heart.

Jesus doesn’t admonish the disciples for being dumb or for ignoring the facts.  He admonishes them for being slow of heart.  And notice what he does to help them.  He doesn’t recount the details about how he was raised from the dead.  In this story, he doesn’t invite them to touch his hands and his side.  In this story, he hasn’t even yet revealed his identity.  Instead, in order to build back their faith and their hope, Jesus takes them through the scripture.

I imagine that he started with Moses and reminded them how the people were brutalized and enslaved, but they had faith and called out to God, so God delivered them.  He asked them to remember that they wandered in the desert for forty years, and even though they had their weak moments, their hope for the Promised Land kept them going.  He opened the prophets to them.  He reminded them that even in the face of foreign aggression, exile and defeat, the prophets implored the people to turn back to God and put their trust in God alone.  I imagine he got all the way into Isaiah and reminded them that there would be one who was despised and rejected, wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, sent to the grave with the wicked even though he had done no violence.  But out of his anguish we would see light.  I imagine Jesus closed his sermon with Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth wherein hunger and violence and sin and death will be stamped out forever.

But, you know what, even at the end of that rousing sermon, the disciples didn’t yet fully understand.  They didn’t recognize Jesus yet.  They still didn’t fully believe that resurrection story.  They still hadn’t yet found their hope after Easter.

But they did like Jesus’ message, so they invited him to dinner.  Then a marvelous thing happened.  They sat down to a meal.  Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Sound familiar?  Well, it did to them too.  It was then, that they recognized him.  It was then that they realized why that sermon on the road was so heart-warming.  It was then that they hurried back to the others gathered in Jerusalem.  It was then that the shout went up, “Christ is risen indeed!”

And this is how it happens for us too, I think.  This is how we keep the hope alive after Easter.  We gather here together and we remember God’s presence with God’s people.  We open the scripture and remember how God has always sided with the humble and the meek.  We read these stories about how the faithful always somehow sustained their hope even in the face of sorrow and tragedy and evil.  We gather together and we support each other.  We lift each other up and give each other an encouraging word.  We gather together and we break the bread and we say our prayers and we sing our hymns.  And some how, mysteriously, when we do these things are eyes are opened and our faith is renewed.  Our hope is reborn and we’re inspired to shout, “Christ is risen indeed!”

I had a colleague who taught politics at the college where I taught in North Carolina.  He was a Marxist and an atheist, but he went to the Presbyterian church in town almost every Sunday.  For some reason, none of us ever really asked him why.  One day when a bunch of us were sitting at lunch it finally came up.  “Why do you go to the Presbyterian church?”  Like a good professor, he answered the question with a question of his own, “Where else, today, do people get together to talk about things that really matter.”

Friends, I want you to know that I do believe that what we say and do here really matters.  Rehearsing these stories of faith matters.  Repeating these prayers of confession and forgiveness and reconciliation matters.  Singing these hymns of assurance and joy matters.  Breaking the bread in commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection matters.  Washing ourselves in the waters of rebirth matters.  Most of all, keeping hope alive – keeping hope alive even in the face of sin and death, and violence and hatred – keeping hope alive even though it’s not easy – keeping hope alive even though it’s a great mystery – keeping hope alive after Easter matters.

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Christmas Eve — Isaiah 9: 2-7

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Isaiah 9:2-7

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

December 24th, 2010 – Christmas Eve

Ebeneezer Scrooge was a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”[1]

Ebeneezer Scrooge is, of course, the creation of Charles Dickens, and the character whom we know best for his degradation of Christmas.  “Bah humbug!”  Ebeneezer cries!  “Bah humbug!” Don’t you dare try to wish Ebeneezer a Merry Christmas.  He doesn’t believe in Christmas.

As I considered the scripture texts for tonight’s service and as I considered who might all be gathered in this sanctuary tonight I wondered to myself if there might be some Ebeneezer Scrooges in our midst.  I wondered if there might be someone who is here…but not really here.  I wondered if there might be someone here who is cold through and through because life hasn’t given him much to warm himself by.  I wondered if there might be someone here who thinks Christmas is really just a big sham, a holiday marketed out the wahzoo to steal our time and our money and our attention for far more than a month.  I wondered if there might be someone here tonight who might want to believe…who might want to let go…but who knows better and therefore doesn’t.  I wonder if there are any Ebeneezer Scrooges here tonight.  If I’m speaking to you…don’t worry…I imagine you’re not alone.

In fact, I imagine there might be a little of Ebeneezer in us all.  He’s like our dark side, our shadow side, our pessimistic side, that’s not supposed to see the light of day…especially during Christmas.  Yes, at Christmas everything’s supposed to be bright and shiny and happy.  No Scrooges allowed.  Right?  Well…I don’t know about that.  Actually, I do know about that.  I know that Christmas is not just for those who are bright and shiny and happy.  It’s for the Scrooges among us / within us, too.  But it doesn’t feel like that, does it?  It doesn’t feel like it’s okay to be a Scrooge.

The week before Thanksgiving I caught that nasty stomach virus that was going around.  For about 24 hours all I could do was lay in bed as my head throbbed and my stomach churned.  To distract myself from my agony I decided to get up for a while and watch a little T.V.  And it just so happened that Oprah Winfrey’s big “Favorite Things” giveaway show was on.  So I watched it.  You know, this is Oprah’s final season so she had to make this last giveaway show a big one.  And boy did she.  Everyone in her audience that day went home with a brand new Volkswagon Bug along with tons of other really cool stuff.  You should have seen the people on her show.  They were so happy!  They were jumping up and down, weeping with joy, hugging their neighbors, and falling on the floor in the sheer ecstasy of the moment.  Seriously!  It was like a Pentecostal church gathering with all that carrying on.  They had to have medics on hand in case someone had a heart attack.

The whole thing turned into a very good distraction from all that was ailing me. The hour went by fast.  But then it was over.  And I was still sick.  So I crawled back into bed, exhausted from all that happiness, and threw the covers over my head.

Later on, I pondered to myself…is Christmas supposed to feel like this?  Like a happy celebration of happiness?  Like one long month’s worth of ecstatic merry-making that distracts you from all that ails you?  I don’t think Christmas is supposed to feel like this.  But I know, for many, that this is exactly what it is.  It is a season of happiness.  And it doesn’t go a hair deeper.  It doesn’t touch the inner Scrooge.  It doesn’t penetrate the darkness.  And for these unfortunate souls Christmas soon comes to end; the distraction is over and we are back to what ails us.

Of course Christmas could be more.  Christmas could be much much more.  But in order to get us to that “more” we need a prophet to name what is real and point us toward what is possible. We need a prophet who is not peddling happiness all wrapped up in silver and gold…but is proclaiming hope in the form of light that transforms the darkness.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.  For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

The prophet Isaiah is not addressing a people who are happy for happiness’ sake.  He is addressing a people who are walking in darkness; a people who are heavily burdened; a people who are beaten down, and weary, and oppressed.  They are cold through and through because life hasn’t given them much to warm themselves by.  They want to believe…they want to let go…they want to hope that something better, something beautiful is around the corner….but they just can’t…they just can’t shake the darkness to believe in the light.

It’s to these people that Isaiah cries out.  I know you are tired, Isaiah cries.  I know your burden is heavy.  I know you are sick of all the war and all of the violence and all of the problems that are too big and too impossible to solve. I know you are tired of trying to make ends meet…of cutting back…of trimming when there is nothing left to trim.  I know you are tired of the grief…of the loss…of the wounds that time just can’t seem to heal.  I know you are tired of being tired…and of feeling so scared and so anxious…I know!  I know!  Isaiah cries.

But, I imagine Isaiah then saying, you have come. You are here. Tired as you may be.  Scared as you may be.  Walking in darkness as you may be.  You are here.  And I imagine you are here at least in part to hear these prophetic words…

A child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests on his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

In 1964, when Nelson Mandela was forty-six years old, he was sentenced to life in prison for fighting apartheid in South Africa.  In his autobiography Mandela describes his prison cell on Robbins Island.  “I could walk the length of my cell in three paces.  When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side. This small cramped space was to be my home for I knew not how long.”[2]

When Mandela first entered that cell his daughter, Zeni, was a very young child.  During his imprisonment she grew up, got married, and then had a child of her own.  By 1979, South African authorities had loosened some of their restrictions on family visits, so Mandela was granted the opportunity to briefly see his daughter, her new husband, and their newborn baby.

“It was truly a wondrous moment when they came into the room,” Mandela writes.  I stood up, and when Zeni saw me she ran across the room to embrace me.  [It had been fourteen years since I had seen and held her.]  I then embraced my new son and he handed me my tiny granddaughter, whom I did not let go of for the entire visit.  To hold a newborn baby, so vulnerable and soft in my rough hands that for too long had held only picks and shovels, was a profound joy.  I don’t think a man was ever happier to hold a baby than I was that day.

Mandela continues, “The visit had a more official purpose, [though], and that was for me to choose a name for the child.  It is the custom [in South Africa] for the grandfather to select a name, and the [name] I had chosen was Zaziwe—which means ‘Hope’.”[3]

There in a dark prison cell not much bigger than many of our closets, a prison cell from which Mandela (for all he knew) might never be free…he names his newborn granddaughter, “Hope.”

Ah…there is something about a newborn baby that inspires hope.  Even in a cramped prison cell…even in a land of deep darkness….even in a heart that has grown cold through and through…a newborn baby inspires hope.  And that, my friends, is what Christmas is all about.

A child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests on his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Christmas isn’t a happy celebration of happiness.  Christmas is hope. Christmas is the hope that comes with the birth of a newborn baby; the hope for a future, the hope for possibility, the hope for a new beginning, the hope for new moments of joy and grace, beauty and love.  Christmas isn’t something that merely distracts us from what ails us.  Christmas changes us.  Christmas transforms us.  Christmas dives deep and penetrates the darkness because Christmas is hope.  Christmas is for real people with real lives who struggle with real darkness.  Christmas is for the Scrooge within us all.

Perhaps you know how the story goes.  How Scrooge, that old curmudgeon, is taken on a tour of Christmas past, present, and future.  He is taken on a tour and shown how dark the darkness can really get.  But the tour is also a chance…the tour offers Scrooge an opportunity…the tour of Christmas offers Scrooge the gift of hope.  And that hope changes him, that hope warms him, that hope transforms him.

Ebeneezer Scrooge emerges from his tour of Christmas past, present, and future a changed man and he can’t wait to tell the world.  It’s a new day…it’s Christmas day…he scrambles to get himself dressed…he shaves so quickly he almost cuts off the tip of his nose…and he bursts out of his house onto the city streets.  He bursts out of his darkness into the marvelous light and shouts out to anyone who will listen, “I don’t know what day of the month it is!  I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits.  I don’t know anything [because] I’m quite a baby; [quite a newborn baby.]” [4]

“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy.  I am as giddy as a drunken man.  A merry Christmas to everybody!  A Happy New Year to all the world.”[5] And God bless us, every one!

Christmas is for real people with real lives who struggle with real darkness.  Christmas is for the Scrooge within us all because Christmas is hope.

May we all be transformed by this hope tonight.  May we all be transformed by the light of the newborn Christ child who has come to penetrate our darkness.

Now to the God who gives us this child, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” first published in 1843, Kindle locations             44-60.

[2] As quoted by Donald Shriver, Jr. in “Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds,” (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2005), pg. 63.

[3] Ibid, pgs. 69-70.

[4] Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” first published in 1843, Kindle locations             1261-1262.

[5] Ibid, Kindle locations 1177-1179.

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Luke 21: 5-19–End Times

Sorry I am late in posting this week.  What follows is the sermon from the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“End Times”

Luke 21: 5-19

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

November 14th, 2010

So, truth be told, after last Sunday’s sermon I really wanted to avoid today’s text from Luke.  Sometimes the lectionary calendar doesn’t do us preachers any favors, and this was one of those weeks.  If you recall, last Sunday I preached on the prophet Haggai who encouraged the people to rebuild the Temple by offering them a beautiful vision of hope.  “Take courage!” Haggai said.  “God will shake the treasures loose!  God will restore this Temple!  The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former!  So get to work!  And rebuild God’s Holy Temple!”  It was quite the motivational speech Haggai gave us last Sunday.

But now we turn to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and what do we hear?  Referring to the Temple, referring to the beautiful Temple that the people had rebuilt and of which they were so proud, Jesus says, “As for these things, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  Sigh.  Jesus can be such a downer.

But, of course, he was right.  Speaking historically, the Temple was rebuilt after Haggai motivated the people with vision and hope.  Then in the 1st Century around 20 BCE, King Herod took it upon himself to build again and he made the Temple fabulous.  King Herod was known as a cruel, oppressive, and overly paranoid ruler…but when it came to building Temples…he was really good.  So the Temple, rebuilt again under King Herod was beautiful.  At the beginning of today’s text the disciples are distracted because they are so taken with the beauty of Herod’s Temple; “the enormous stones of its walls; the wealthy worshipers coming to dedicate their gifts.  You can look up pictures of Herod’s Temple.  There are many renderings of it by artists.  When you see it, you will be impressed too.  Everyone was.”[1] But, less than a decade after this beautiful Temple was finished it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

So Jesus was right.  He was right in saying that the Temple would come to an end.  Can you imagine how disappointing this news was to those who loved the Temple?  And Jesus doesn’t just stop there.  As the passage progresses, we realize that he is not just predicting the end of the Temple, but the end of everything; the end of the world, the end of these times, the end of life as we know it.  Can you imagine what the disciples were thinking about all this?

I’ve been very pleased with the Presbyterian Women’s study on the Book of Revelation this year.  The authors of the study do a good job of conveying Revelation’s message of hope for the persecuted Christians.  But even with a good study like this, I’ve found that it is difficult to convince people that Revelation is ultimately about hope because it is packaged in a book or a vision full of confusing, scary, and yes, even violent images.  Revelation is difficult to understand, and when it fills our head with these crazy, symbolic images, it also tends to scare our pants off.

This is what Jesus does to us in today’s text.  He scares our pants off.  He tells us that the Temple will be destroyed.  He tells us that false prophets will arise and try to lead us astray.  He tells us there will be wars and insurrections, where nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  And if this wasn’t bad enough, he then says that there will be earthquakes, famines, and plagues.  You will be persecuted and betrayed, he says.  Everyone will hate you and some of you will be put to death, he says.

Okay Jesus.  That’s just about all we can take now.  So where’s the good news?  Where’s this so-called message of hope?

It’s hard to hear any hope in the midst of Jesus’ words to us today, because by speaking of the end he taps into and tweaks our greatest of fears.  We are afraid of the end.  We are afraid of The End, or the End Times, and we are afraid of all the little ends that inevitably take place along the road of life.  We are afraid of the end of life.  We are afraid of the end of relationships.  We are afraid of the end of our youth.  We are afraid of the end of an era or a generation or a period of time in which we have been so happy.  We are afraid of things, of people, of good times, of great experiences that will, Jesus reminds us today, all eventually come to an end.

Do you ever sit back and take stock of your life, count your blessings, and wonder (or worry) when it might all come to an end?  My life is so good.  I grew up in a loving home with more privileges than I ever deserved.  I have an amazing husband and two beautiful, healthy children.  I have great friends and professional opportunities that bring meaning to my life.  I have it so good.  I have it so good…especially when I stop and think about the kind of pain others have had to endure that I have not; or when I stop to think about the kind of life I could be living if I had been born in the Third World instead of the First. I wonder sometimes, “When are things going to change?  When will I experience the painful endings of life?  When will, as Jesus says, all this come to an end?”  My goodness….all this fear and worry…it’s so disturbing…it’s a wonder I ever sleep at night!

Maybe you’re like me.  Maybe life is good right now and you are afraid of it coming to an end.  Maybe Jesus’ talk of endings keeps you up at night in worry and in fear.  Or maybe you’re more like Jesus’ target audience in this passage.  Jesus’ audience was made up of people for whom life was not good; people who were ready for things to end; people who were ready for this time to end because any time would be better than this time.

The people hearing Jesus’ words here through the Gospel of Luke were, at the time, living through false prophets, wars and insurrections, persecution and arrests, betrayal and hatred, and some were even being put to death.  They were ready for all this to come to an end.  They were ready because they were suffering.

To these people, these suffering people, Jesus’ talk of endings was Good News.  Jesus’ talk of endings was not something to fear, but something to look forward to.  Jesus’ talk of endings was a message of hope.

Do not be terrified, Jesus says to those who are suffering.  I will give you words and wisdom, Jesus says.  You can endure, Jesus says, and I will be with you.  Not a hair on your head will perish.

Jesus’ words are good news to all those who are suffering, to all those who must endure these times while looking forward to the end times.  Jesus’ words are good news because he promises to help us through all present realities….all present sufferings and all present fears….while also promising us a future beyond all the endings.

And so Jesus’ words are good news for all of us today, no matter where we are or what is happening in our lives.  Jesus’ words are good news because within his message that all things come to an end, lies the hope of new beginnings in God.   I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord our God, I am the Beginning and the End.  In Christ, there is no ending that does not have a new beginning.  When one part of our life dies, a new part begins.  When our old life has gone, a new life has begun.  When our bodies fail us, and our organs stop working, and we become one again with the ashes and the earth, we know that death does not have the final word, we know that there is life eternal, we know that there is hope for all of God’s people.  Jesus’ words to us today are words of hope.  They are not meant to keep us up at night for fear of what life brings.  Instead, they are meant to give us the peace and assurance of knowing that our endings are really just new beginnings in this life and in the next.

This past summer, I decided for fun to go back to some of the books I read and loved as a teenager and a young adult.  Some of these books included Emily of New Moon, A Wrinkle in Time, and Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, Gone with the Wind. I read Gone with the Wind, even though I remembered hating its ending when I read it back in high school.  When I read Gone with the Wind the first time I remember getting completely engrossed in the story.  The picture Mitchell painted of the Old South, of the red earth of Georgia, and of the tension-filled times of the Civil War took my imagination there as if I were really living it.  But of course, it was the love story that kept me reading.  For 1,000 pages I waited for Scarlett O’Hara to realize that she loved that scoundrel Rhett Butler with all her heart.  For 1,000 pages I read and I waited for the moment when Scarlet and Rhett would finally be together and be happy….and perhaps ride off into the sunset as all good endings go.  For 1,000 pages I read and I waited for the perfect ending that I was sure would come if I only kept reading.  And when I finally got there, to the end, to the point when Scarlet finally realized that she truly loved Rhett…Rhett decides that it’s too late…that it’s not enough…and so he leaves her…Rhett leaves Scarlett in the end!  I remember reading this back in high school and getting so upset!  This was not the way it was supposed to end!  This was not a love story!  And then there were Scarlett’s last words…the last thing she had to say…do you remember what she said?  Rhett rides off into the sunset…alone…and Scarlett wipes the tears from her eyes….decides to go home to Tara, to her home where everything seems to make better sense….and the novel ends with her saying, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

I hated that ending back in high school.  But now, now that I have lived a little more and learned a little more, I know not to put all my hope in the perfect ending.  Instead I put my hope in the knowledge that there is a tomorrow, that there is a new beginning, that there is a new life waiting for all of us.  Today may be good or it may be bad.  But regardless of our present reality, we can live in hope because tomorrow is another day.

Now to the God who grants us such tomorrows, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Patrick J. Willson, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, pg. 309.

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Glory Days–Haggai 1:15b-2:9

Thanks be to God for these glorious days.  What follows is the sermon from the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Glory Days”

Haggai 1:15b – 2:9

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

November 7th, 2010

Bruce Springsteen, that All-American icon of rock music, tells a story in his hit song, “Glory Days.”  He tells a story of a friend of his who was a big baseball player back in high school.  His fastball was so fast the batter was bound to look like a fool.  He saw his old friend the other night at a roadside bar.  He was walking in while his friend was walking out.  They went back inside, sat down, and had a few drinks.  But all his friend kept talking about was, “Glory days.”

Then there’s this girl that lives just up the block.  Back in school she could turn all the boys’ heads.  Sometimes on Fridays he stops by to have a few drinks after she has put her kids to bed.  Two years have gone by now since she and her husband Bobby split up.  Now she just sits around talking about the old times.  She says when she feels like crying she just distracts herself thinking about those, “Glory Days.”

Then we get the chorus.

Glory Days / well they’ll pass you by

Glory Days / in the wink of a young girl’s eye

Glory Days / Glory Days

I’ve had that song in my head all week.  It’s a great song, but a really depressing message.  It’s depressing, because it’s about people who are so stuck in the “glory days” of the past that they can’t live in the present or look forward to the future.

This is the context for our scripture passage today.  The Israelites, who have been granted the right to return to their homes after being exiled for about 50 years, are depressed.  They are disappointed.  They thought that once they returned to Jerusalem that they could rebuild their Temple, rebuild their community, rebuild their way of life and make everything exactly as it was before.  They thought they could go back to those good ole glory days.  But reality has now sunk in and they realize that nothing will ever be exactly as it was and that they simply can’t go back in time.   The glory days are just a distant memory now…a memory they might recall or sing about over a few drinks…but far from the reality of life as it really is.

Gosh, don’t you feel for them?  I do.  I understand that desire to go back in time.  I understand wishing you could recreate a time in your life when things were really great.  I mean, don’t we all do this?  When the pressures and stresses of adult life weigh heavy, we might reminisce about our childhood days, longing to go back to a time in life when things were simpler, when our parents took care of everything, when growing up safe, and strong, and healthy was our only job.  Or maybe we reminisce about our high school or college days; fun times hanging out with friends, first boyfriends or girlfriends, being the hot shot on the basketball team.  Or maybe it’s that precious time when your kids were little to which you wish you could return; that amazing time when they were so cute and cuddly and you could still control what they ate and what they wore.  Or maybe you’d just like to go back to a time when all your loved ones were alive and well, a time of life when you weren’t reminded each and every day that you are getting older and that life is just too darn short.

We human beings have long memories, and it is only natural to reminisce and wish, at times, that we could go back, that we could go back to those good ole’ glory days.  But the people of Israel did more than simply wish they could go back.  They had gotten stuck.  They had become immobilized by the desire to have what they simply could not have.  They wanted to rebuild the Temple.  But they wanted to rebuild it in such a way that they could return it to its former glory.  And when they realized that they couldn’t recreate the past, they gave up, went home, and spent their days reminiscing rather than really living.

This is when the prophet Haggai comes on the scene.  Haggai’s got one job and one job only; to get the people unstuck.  God’s given him about three and a half months to get the people moving again and living again.  He’s like the interim pastor whose assignment it is to help the people let go of the past, get unstuck, and get moving again rebuilding the Temple and their future together.  It’s quite an assignment.  Let’s listen to how he tackles it.

Speaking to Zerubbabel, the governor, and to Joshua, the high priest, and to the remnant of people who have returned from their exile, Haggai begins his prophetic work by saying, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?  How does it look to you now?  Is it not in your sight as nothing?” Referring to the Temple that the people had abandoned, referring to the Temple that still lay in ruins because the people realized they couldn’t restore it to its former glory, Haggai basically says, “So how does this look to you now?  What do you make of this pile of rubble that is supposed to be God’s Temple?”  Haggai makes them take a good hard look at the present situation.  He focuses them on what is rather than on what was.  He makes them acknowledge the fact that they are stuck, that they are in grief, and that they need to do something about it.

One thing I have learned over the course of my years in ministry is that grief really needs to be honored.  We need to give our grief its due time and space and attention in order to work through it and move forward in spite of it.  If we don’t give our grief the time and attention it warrants, then it will arise later in a variety of complications such as physical stress or illness, emotional outbursts or depression, or in a Temple that lays in ruins because its people can’t let go of the past.

I remember discussing transitions a lot while in seminary.  I remember one time in particular, as I was concluding a year-long full-time internship, when my seminary had me meet with a special counselor to discuss how I was going to say goodbye to the people whom I had grown to love, to the space in which I worked and lived, to the whole experience in general.  This counselor advised me to be very intentional in my goodbyes.  To spend time recognizing who and what I was going to miss and to let myself feel the pain that inevitably comes when you have to leave someone or something behind.  It was great advice, because when we allow ourselves to feel the pain that accompanies grief, when we acknowledge it, and honor it, giving it the space and the attention it deserves, then (and only then) can we begin to heal and move on.

I have applied this advice a number of times in my ministry.  Ministry often leads you to some very painful goodbyes.  I will certainly be intentional in honoring my grief as I prepare to say my goodbyes to you.

So Haggai makes the people acknowledge their pain and their grief, he leads them to intentionally give their grief the time and attention it deserves.  But he doesn’t just leave them there.  He doesn’t just leave them in that place of intentional grieving.  No, like all great prophets, he then proceeds to move the people forward with inspiration and with an imaginative vision.

I have been preparing to teach the women’s circles a lesson on the book of Revelation tomorrow.  Their study is excellent this year as it teaches that the symbolic images and the extravagant visions recorded in our scriptures, the visions of the prophets and the visions of John in Revelation, are not to be understood literally.  Instead they are to engage our imaginations, to shake us out of all our stuck / closed places, to open us up, and to inspire us with courage and hope.  By tapping into our imaginations, then, these visions take us places we can’t go in a black and white world.  They take us and connect us to that which is deep, to that which is all-mysterious, to that which can only be creatively imagined.  These visions take us to God and they remind us that God is creatively and imaginatively at work on our behalf.

At the conclusion of our scripture today the prophet Haggai offers us one such vision.  Haggai paints a picture of God shaking the heavens and the earth… of God shaking all the nations, all the lands, all the seas…of God shaking all of creation and all of us creatures… of God shaking us out of our grief, and our despair, and our immobilized places….of God shaking the treasures loose… silver and gold, glory and splendor, love, and grace, beauty and hope.  God shakes and shakes and shakes until the treasures are unleashed, until the people are set free, until the glory of the Lord fills his holy Temple and his holy people.  And the prophet Haggai says, “Take courage!  Take courage!  Take courage!  And get to work rebuilding God’s Temple.  For the Lord of hosts is with you.  God’s Spirit abides among you.  Do not fear!  Treasures still abound.  Honor your grief, but move forward in faith, in the faith that shakes you loose and sets you free to embrace the glory days that lie ahead and to embrace the treasures of life that are yours today, tomorrow, and for all eternity.

Thanks be to God for prophets such as Haggai.  Thanks be to God for visions of hope that shake us loose, unleash God’s treasures, and set us free to move forward in faith.

Now to the God of all grace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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All Together in One Place

God leads us in many ways.  This week God led me to leave the lectionary texts behind and preach on the Pentecost text for my congregation.  Dan and I recently announced that we have accepted new positions at Monmouth College in Monmouth, IL beginning in January.   I will be the college chaplain and Dan will be teaching.  We are excited and hopeful about this move, but we are also grieving the goodbyes that will soon need to be said to our friends, our colleagues, and our church. So in the midst of this congregational context, God led me to preach on our Pentecost text that offers the church, and the church’s people, a vision of hope.

“All Together in One Place”

Acts 2: 1-21

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

September 26th, 2010

It’s tough being the church.  It always has been.  Throughout our history as Christians who are called together to worship and serve, we have had some glorious moments and some not-so glorious moments.  Some of our not-so-glorious moments might include the times when we misinterpreted God’s will by endorsing slavery, or when we forced indigenous people to accept Christ at the point of a sword, or when we subjugated women saying they had no right to speak and lead in the church.  Some of our glorious moments, though, include when the Confessing Church courageously stood up to Hitler in Nazi Germany, when the African American churches led this country in a Civil Rights revolution, when the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century led us to affordable, public education for God’s children.  We’ve had quite a history, we, the church.  There have been low moments and high moments, dull moments and exciting moments, joyful moments and painful moments as we traversed through history as a group of fallible human beings trying to be faithful to our specific mission of BEING Christ’s body in the world.  Such a mission brings difficult and unique challenges.  Such a mission brings risks that we might not otherwise take if we were not called to be the church.  Yes, it’s tough being the church.  It always has been.

Today’s passage of our Pentecost story celebrates what we consider to be the birth of the church.  In today’s scripture we hear of a disheveled and mournful band of disciples who gathered together for worship.  They were a religious minority at the time, easily persecuted for their “strange” beliefs, easily eliminated had they not had each other.  But they did.  They gathered together in one place for support and for comfort and for accountability.  They would remain faithful, they promised each other during worship.  They would not let the Good News go unproclaimed.

We often bemoan the secularization of our society, the fact that more and more people are “unchurched,” that more and more people do not consider themselves the “religious” type.  But rather than bemoaning this fact, I’d like to celebrate all the faithful people who gather together, week after week, month after month, in this community and around the world, to keep the mission and ministry of the church of Jesus Christ going.  I’d like to celebrate this fact, because it is tough being the church.  We have had our ups and downs over the course of history.  But….we keep coming back.  We keep gathering together.  We, like those first disciples, keep gathering together in one place.  Why? Many might ask.  Well, first of all, because Jesus promised to meet us here.

Ronald Byars, in his book on worship, writes, “I know a couple who have a son who is developmentally disabled.  The family is active in the church, and they seldom miss worship.  One winter Sunday morning they awakened late and breakfast took longer than usual, and everything seemed a little off-balance.  So the parents decided, for this one Sunday, to stay home from church.  They told their son, who seemed to accept their decision.  But after pondering this news for a while, he asked his father, “Won’t Jesus miss us?”

Byars continues, “I think this young son may have grasped something that many others have not quite grasped…that the Sunday assembly is about meeting the risen Lord.”[1]

Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.[2] Jesus meets us here, as promised, in the community of faith, in the Word read and proclaimed, in the bread broken and shared, in the water poured out like a never-ending stream.  Jesus meets us here and even the children know it.  They know it because here they are loved and here they too participate in rituals that bear the spiritual weight and spiritual significance of rituals that have been practiced for generations, for centuries, from the very birth of the church by faithful people who gathered together.

We gather together in one place because Jesus promised to meet us here and because the Holy Spirit promises to move us here. I know I’ve told you before that I consider it an awesome privilege and an incredible responsibility to stand up here and proclaim God’s Word.  So I take great care in crafting these sermons.  As I sermonize I think about you.  I pray for you.  I pray over a certain scriptural text.  And then I write, and rewrite, and then I practice preaching my sermon in front of the mirror.  On Saturday night, after the kids have gone to bed, I preach my sermon in front of the bathroom mirror with the bathwater running so Dan won’t complain about all my shouting…. I practice all of this.  But you know what?  It’s not the same.  It’s not really a sermon until I preach it in front of you.  And more often than not I get this feeling while I am preaching here, with you…it’s a feeling I don’t get when I’m preaching at home all by myself….I get this feeling of energy, and passion, and adrenalin that I know is the Holy Spirit.  I know it in my heart.  The Spirit promises to move us when we gather together.  It’s not the same when we’re all alone.  There’s something about gathering together, there’s something about assembling on Sunday mornings in the name of Christ that fosters the Holy Spirit’s work among us.

On that first birthday of the church, on that Pentecost day, the Holy Spirit arrived, as promised, and moved the faithful disciples who had gathered together.  When we gather together in God’s house the Holy Spirit promises to move us through the words of a hymn or a prayer or a neighbor’s voice.  The Holy Spirit promises to move us through an anthem that raises us up or through a word of scripture that hits the mark. In this place our hearts beat a little stronger. In this place our eyes get a little clearer.  In this place our hands reach out a little easier because the Holy Spirit moves us here.  And so we come.

We come, and we are met here by Jesus, and by the Holy Spirit, and by the God who ties it all together in a vision of hope.

In today’s text after the disciples had gathered, and after they had been moved by the Holy Spirit at work among them, Peter stood up to preach.  For his text he chose the prophet Joel who reminds us of God’s promise to pour out God’s Spirit upon all flesh.  Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.  Your young men shall see visions.  Your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit…and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

I imagine Peter standing there, preaching these words, sharing this vision with all the disciples and all of the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia.  I imagine Peter all full of energy, and passion, and adrenalin…I imagine Peter reminding his people of God’s vision of hope and…I know how he felt.  I know how Peter felt because I feel it every Sunday with you.  I feel it every Sunday when we gather in this place.  I know how Peter felt because I know God’s hope for you, for me, for the church of Jesus Christ, and for Cameron Presbyterian Church.

I will admit, though, that I floundered a bit this week…I wasn’t sure what I should preach on this Lord’s day….but by about Wednesday it became pretty clear….it became pretty clear that God wanted me to remind us of all that is not changing in the face of all that is. And what is not changing is Jesus’ promise to meet us here, and the Spirit’s promise to move us here, and God’s promise to offer us hope here, in this place, when the people of faith gather together.  Yes, it’s tough being the church.  It always has been.  There are highs and lows, exciting moments and dull moments, joyful moments and painful moments. But through it all the people have gathered, and gathered, and gathered because we know we do not gather alone.

Now to the God present with us in this place, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Ronald P. Byars, The Future of Protestant Worship: Beyond the Worship Wars, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2002), pg. 72.

[2] Matthew 18:20

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What does God provide?

What follows is my sermon from the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Grace and peace, everyone.

“What does God provide?”

1 Kings 17: 1-16

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

September 19th, 2010

John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and the editor of the Christian Century wrote once that “every now and then I read a book for the simple reason that everyone else is reading it.  After all, a faithful preacher needs to exegete the culture and the congregation as well as the lectionary texts.”  Working on this theory, Buchanan picked up a copy of the popular TV evangelist Joel Osteen’s book called Your Best Life Now. Of Osteen’s book Buchanan writes, “I had trouble with the initial pages and had to put the book down after two chapters.”  “Enlarge your vision,” Osteen urges in his book. “If you develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace, and happiness, nothing on earth will be able to hold those things from you…God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas, creativity.”  As Buchanan read these words he said he kept thinking about all the people he knows who face challenges that do not and will not respond to such an “enlarged vision”.[1]

I too, have trouble with such simple, formulaic, and one-size-fits-all theology as Osteen’s.   It may sound good, but it doesn’t hold up in the real world.  I cannot stand up here and preach that if you have faith or if you “enlarge your vision” then God will provide you with health, happiness, and financial abundance.  I cannot preach this because I know and you know that this simply isn’t true and it simply isn’t how life works.  Osteen’s theology ignores the plight of good faithful people who have lost their jobs, of good faithful people who have suffered tragedy and loss, of good faithful people who are suffering with interminable health issues, of good faithful people who no matter what they do, or no matter how hard they work cannot escape the cycle of poverty. Bad things happen to good people.  We do have to suffer through things that we can’t explain.  And no one can easily explain away such sufferings through a simple formula of faith.

A commentary I recently read warned against preaching such a simple, formulaic sermon on today’s text from 1 Kings.  An obvious sermon theme from this text is simply that “God provides.” When Elijah, the widow, and her son were in need in the midst of a terrible drought, God provided them with food and water. But, as this commentary warned, preaching the obvious point often reduces a text and runs the risk of making a wrong point.  For instance, we cannot reduce this story of Elijah and the poor widow to the assurance of God’s provision.  The text does not speak of God providing unconditionally, or in all cases.  Here, God provides in one instance, to one prophet, a widow and her son.  The ravages of drought are not abated beyond the provisions for these three.  We can presume that many others suffer the full weight of the drought, and among them may well be widows and children.[2]

After reflecting on this commentary’s warning, I decided to focus my sermon not on the simple assurance that “God provides”, but on the more practical question of “What does God provide?”   With this question I believe we can return safely to our text without the risk of reducing it to a simple formula and take something away that we can all apply to our lives of faith.

So what does God provide?  Well, let’s see what the text has to say.  In the midst of a terrible drought, our story begins with God sending Elijah eastward to a brook named Cherith.  God tells Elijah that he should stay there drinking from the brook and being fed from the ravens.  But, after a while, the brook dries up and Elijah is once again threatened by the drought.  So God sends him to a poor widow in Zarephath who will continue to provide him with food and water.

Today’s text, then, does not deny the difficulties or the struggles of life.  We know there are times of drought in life.  We know that the brooks by which we plant ourselves or on which we learn to rely sometimes suddenly dry up.  But, according to our text, when these difficult times arrive, God does seem to provide ways to persevere.  God provides ways to persevere through guidance and direction.  God leads us to new sources of life or new resources for help.  The trick is, though, that we need to be open to where God is leading us.  Because sometimes God guides us to sources of life and help that are completely unexpected.

The widow to whom God guides Elijah would be completely unexpected.  In the fight for survival during a time of drought, this widow would have been in worse shape than Elijah.  In a time of national crisis, her needs (as a widow) would be considered last, especially under the regime of arrogant King Ahab.  When Elijah shows up and asks this poor widow for a drink, she is in the process of gathering sticks to warm a last supper for herself and her son.  The widow wants to be hospitable, but when Elijah asks for bread to go with the water, it’s too much.  She tells him that she’s gathering wood to bake the handful of meal and bit of oil that’s left for herself and her son, and that they will eat this meal and await death.[3]

This was who God expected to help Elijah?  If we were Elijah, which one of us would have thought that this poor widow was the one to whom God was guiding us?  But, as it turned out, she was the one with the resources.  She was the one willing to take a risk, willing to trust in Elijah’s God, willing to try just about anything to get her through one more day.  God provides us with guidance and direction, but we need to be open to the unexpected in order to follow where God is leading us.

This reminded me of a day when I was chased down by a cute little boy on roller blades as I was driving into our neighborhood.  He was trying to raise money for his church’s mission trip.  At the time, we were also in the midst of planning for a mission trip so I was very interested in hearing about what this boy and his church would be doing.  I asked him where they were going and he said that they were going to a Native American reservation.   Wonderful!  I said.  Then I asked him what they were going to do on the reservation.  And the little boy responded, “We’re going to go teach the Indians about God.”

I admit at this point I had to bite my tongue because the preacher in me wanted to preach.  I thought about all that I have learned and appreciate about Native American spirituality and I thought of the beautiful book of Native American prayers sitting on the shelf in my office and I wanted to ask this little boy, new in his own faith, how he knew that the Indians didn’t already know about God?  But I didn’t.  I held my tongue… until this sermon.  Because it seemed pretty obvious that this boy was simply sharing what the adults in his life had taught him.  I did give him some money, though, in the hopes that God might provide an unexpected moment through an unexpected person (such as a Native American) who might teach him something about God, and life, and faith.

The character of the widow in this text certainly is an unexpected provider for Elijah.  She is also a woman of great faith.  She is a woman of great faith who accepts God’s provision of a new vision.  We need to recognize that this widow was resigned to her fate of death by starvation before Elijah came into the picture.  But through Elijah God awoke her to a new vision for her future.  God provided her with a new vision to see a hope for survival that she had not seen before.  God provided her with the understanding that what she believed was inevitable, may not really be inevitable.  God provided this widow with hope.  And with this new hope kindled within her, she found a way to persevere, she found a way to carry on.

So God provides us with a way to persevere through hope and through a vision to see hope in situations and circumstances where there seems to be none.  Such provisions enable us to carry on…to move ahead in life, day by day, and step by step, even under the most difficult of circumstances.

Heidi Neumark, the pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx, writes that this poor widow of Zarephath bears witness to a death-defying hope.  This widow’s story reminds her of the story of a woman in her congregation named Burnice.

Neumark writes, Burnice was a single mother who’d dropped out of school when her first baby came along.  A series of men battered her, just as her alcoholic father had done.  She sought relief in beer and crack, and ended up selling her body to get more.  She moved to the Bronx to escape an abusive husband, but she couldn’t get away from drugs.

One day, after dropping off her children at school, Burnice came by Pastor Heidi’s office.  She’d heard that they gave out Christmas gifts to children.  Burnice’s plan was to pick up presents for her children and then sell the presents to buy enough drugs for an overdose.  She told Heidi later that she was sick and tired of being sick and tired.  On Christmas morning, she came to get the gifts and met the church intern named Janell.  Janell saw something in Burnice’s face that made her stop and invite conversation, listening and prayer.  When Heidi noticed them, they were sitting in a wordless, tearful embrace.  Burnice later said Janell’s tears opened her heart.

Burnice came back for their women’s Bible study.  They focused on women whose messed up lives had issued forth miracles.  Hagar, Tamar, Ruth, Rahab and many others who are not prominent in our tradition, but whose stories resonate with marginalized women.  She asked if she could detox by sleeping in the church and everyone agreed.  She slept on the rug by the altar and made it through that first week clean.  By Easter, she was baptized.  Then Burnice began to help other women, reaching out to addicts as they hit bottom and listening and counseling them into detox and rehab programs.

Burnice’s story is a real one, so her struggles didn’t simply go away.  Her own relationship problems continued.  One man she’d been with broke her ribs.  The next one was unfaithful.  Hoping to hold him closer, Burnice became pregnant.  Twice.  The apartment they shared became infested with rats.  When city officials didn’t respond to the situation, Burnice took her children to a shelter.

She went through training and found a part-time job as an HIV/AIDS outreach worker and met her future husband.  But before long, he began using crack.  Later she found that he’d infected her with the HIV virus.

Still, Burnice did not give up.  She began working on a GED in preparation for a full-time job.  And she serves as the president of Transfiguration Lutheran Church.  “From crackhead to council president,” she likes to say, “Transfiguration has made a transformation in me.”

On Sunday, she stands before the altar of her church holding out bread to share with all who come to receive it from her hands.  Just as Elijah received the bread of life from a widow who defied the certainty of death, the folks of Transfiguration Church come to take the bread of life from Burnice, a woman who carries on day by day, step by step, with a death-defying hope provided by her church, by her faith, and by her God.[4]

Our God may not provide us ways to escape the pain or ways to avoid the tremendous challenges life brings, but, according to today’s text, God does seem to provide a way for us to persevere through that pain.  God provides us with guidance and direction, often leading us through the unexpected.  And God provides us with a death-defying hope, a hope that can lift our heads and lift our spirits when everything else in life is dragging us down.

To this God, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] John M. Buchanan, The Christian Century, (Editorial, May 1, 2007), pg. 3.

[2] David Greenhaw, “Preaching 1 Kings 17:8-16”, Lectionary Homiletics, found on http://www.textweek.com.

[3] Heidi Neumark, The Widow’s Hand—Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath, The Christian Century, Sept. 27, 2000, found on http://www.textweek.com.

[4]Heidi Neumark, The Widow’s Hand—Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath, The Christian Century, Sept. 27, 2000, found on http://www.textweek.com.

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Waiting on God–Luke 12: 32-40

Worship felt good today.  Thanks to everyone who was able to come and participate.  Worship wouldn’t feel as good without you.  What follows is the sermon from the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Waiting on God”

Luke 12: 32-40

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

August 8th, 2010

Be ready.  Be dressed for action.  Have your lamps lit.  Be alert. For centuries our written Word has told us that we need to be vigilant, watchful people as we wait on God to give us the kingdom. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done we pray as we wait, and wait, and wait some more.  We have been waiting for centuries.  And waiting is, simply put, just no fun…no fun at all.

I don’t know about you, but I get tired of waiting.  I get tired while waiting.  I cannot wait forever.  It’s impossible.  One cannot sit on the edge of their seat, waiting and watchful and alert, without at some point falling on the floor from exhaustion.  So at some point something’s got to give.  At some point something’s got to give, and in my mind that something needs to be God.  Okay, God.  Where are you?  Where is your Kingdom?  Where are those days when you will wipe every tear from our eyes?  Where are those days when you will bring an end to all our warring madness and your peace will reign?  Where is your Son promised to come?  Where is my hope now that you have tuned my eye to the horizon?  I can’t wait forever, God.  No one can wait forever.

Being in a state of waiting is terrible and even torturous at times.  While you wait your mind can drive you nuts as you imagine what might be around the corner, as you imagine how your life might unfold, but also as you know that the circumstances of your life are completely out of your control.  And so you just wait.  And that waiting makes you feel useless.  In fact, according to the ever wise Dr. Seuss there is no more useless a place than the Waiting Place.

In his book, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,” Dr. Seuss writes, “A most useless place [is] The Waiting Place…for people who are just waiting.  Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow.  Everyone is just waiting.  Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.  Everyone is just waiting.”[1] Yes, the waiting place is a useless place in which none of us wants to find ourselves.

So, what’s the point?  Why do we wait if waiting is so useless?  Why don’t we just quit waiting?  What are we waiting for anyways?  Well, Jesus reminds us today that we are waiting for something much more important than the bus to come, or the plane to go, or the phone to ring.  We’re even waiting for something more important than the Better Break or the Second Chance.  Jesus reminds us today that we are waiting on God’s Kingdom, our unfailing treasure, and an event as worthy of celebration as the wedding banquet.  We are waiting on that which is good and that which is of God.  We are waiting on the Kingdom, which is God’s good pleasure to give us.  God knows we’re going to love it, so God is looking forward to giving it.  But when it will arrive is a mystery; a mystery that we simply cannot solve.  And so we wait.

But for those who worry that their future does not look promising, God’s promises of a good kingdom to come ring hollow.  Old Testament professor J.G. Janzen writes of a day in his life that he will never forget.  “It’s Thursday morning, November 9, 2006,” Janzen writes.  “It’s ten after nine.  I’m at my desk, working through Ecclesiastes for a book I am to write.  The verse I’m working on goes like this: ‘Better a handful with quietness than two fistfuls with toil and a chasing after wind.’  In the middle of this verse the phone rings.  ‘This is Dr. S., [says the person on the phone]. Your biopsy has turned out positive, and it’s bizarre.’  It’s a rare, aggressive cancer of the prostate.  I’m to come in for a CT scan.”

“Suddenly everything has changed” Janzen continues.  “In a split second I have become one of ‘them’—a cancer patient.  Suddenly I find myself encapsulated in the present moment.  Suddenly I find that my past—last year, last week, yesterday, an hour ago—is a country I used to live in.  And I am unable to imagine the future.  There is just the present moment.”[2]

For those who are living with bad news today, for those who are dying of loneliness now, for those who can’t see any good coming on the horizon, there is no future, only the present moment.  There is only the present moment, which is an all-consuming moment because it is so full of pain and heartache. So oftentimes for those whose future feels so bleak God’s promise of a beautiful kingdom to come just isn’t good enough.  God’s good news isn’t really good unless it delivers today in the here and now.

But we can’t disregard the Gospel’s appeal for us to look forward in hope, to wait on the Kingdom in hope, because such futuristic, apocalyptic appeals are actually more about how we live today, how we live in the here in now, than about anything that’s going to happen in the future.  By reminding us to watch and wait for the kingdom to come, Jesus is offering us hope for the present moment because he reminds us that the Waiting Place isn’t as useless a place as it might feel.  Jesus reminds us that how we spend our time while we wait matters. It matters for us.  It matters for others.  It matters for God.

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. By this image Jesus reminds us that we are to spend our days like the faithful servant waiting for his master to come home.  The faithful servant does not spend his time sitting by the window, watching and waiting, being and feeling useless.  Instead, the faithful servant is dressed for action and has his lamp lit.  The faithful servant is busy preparing the house for his master.  The faithful servant is making good use of his ‘waiting’ time.

Sell your possessions, and give alms.  Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven. As God’s faithful servants we are not to spend our ‘waiting’ days being and feeling useless.  Instead we are to be preparing the house for our master.  We are to be making each moment meaningful.  We are to be honoring our humanity and the humanity of others by reaching out in care, and concern, and compassion.  We are to be living this waiting time, not wasting it.

As J.G. Janzen struggled to comprehend the news of his cancer diagnosis, as he struggled to endure the waiting such a diagnosis inevitably brings, he wondered to himself how he should approach the surgery and whatever might follow.  Then he recalled hearing an interview on National Public Radio with a man who was an Arab storyteller and teacher.  This man was telling the story of a young Arab woman in his class who spoke of her experience living in a war-torn country.  The title of her story was, “How I Lived the War.”  When Janzen heard this on the radio, his first impulse was to correct the woman by saying that she must have meant, “How I Survived the War” or “How I Endured the War.”  But then, in a great moment of clarity, he realized that the woman’s title held great truth.  Because the war for her was not some extraneous event impinging on her life, but rather it was a war that was now shaping the life she was given to live.  “How I Lived the War.”[3] After this moment of clarity, Janzen realized that this was how he wanted to approach his cancer.  He wanted to live his cancer.  He wanted to make meaningful each moment of his waiting.  He wanted to honor the humanity of those around him and allow them to honor his.  So he lived his cancer by going to his treatments and engaging all the young, medical professionals in conversation.  He lived his cancer by allowing his friends and family to care for him, and by allowing them into his world of hope and fear, of joy and pain.  He lived his cancer by writing of his experience in honest, genuine words.  He lived his cancer.  He lived his waiting time.  He worked to prepare the house for his master.

By living in such a way, by living knowing that each moment is meaningful and valuable, by living striving to prepare the house for our master, our waiting place isn’t a useless place, but a place full of promise, and hope, and possibility.  Our waiting place is a place where people are brought together and where Good News is served up like a feast.  Our waiting place is a place where love and faithfulness will meet; a place where righteousness and peace will kiss each other.[4] Our waiting place is a place where the rough places will be made smooth, and where, by faith, mountains can be moved.  By living knowing that each moment is meaningful and valuable, by living striving to prepare the house for our master, our waiting place isn’t a useless place, but a kingdom place, where one day God will unexpectedly knock, and we will suddenly realize that God– our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, our Great Hope and our Promise of good things to come—we will suddenly realize that our God has already come.

Now to the God of this promised Kingdom, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”, (Random House, New York, NY).

[2] J.G. Janzen, “Here I am: How shall I live my cancer?”, The Christian Century, August 10th, 2010, pgs. 28-32.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Psalm 85

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