Sunday, August 7, 2016

Phil Kniss: Intrepid trust

This is a story full of love...Faith beyond sight
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

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As I think back on my journey as a preacher over 33 years,
    I remember preaching in other times of national distress,
        when we were going through things,
            as a nation, as a church, as a people,
        that gripped us, alarmed us, saddened us, angered us.

I stood before a congregation in Gainesville, Florida,
    at the height of the nuclear arms race in the 80s,
    and preached the Gospel of Peace.

I preached—or at least made a valiant attempt to preach—
    the Good News in the face of all kinds of
        national and global crises and wars and tragedies . . .
    the US invasions of Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
    the Beirut bombing that killed 241 American Marines,
    global famines,
    the rise of AIDS,
    the Iran-Contra scandal,
    the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion,
    the Exxon Valdez, and Deepwater Horizon oil spills,
    Hurricanes Hugo, Andrew, Katrina, and Ike,
    the Persian Gulf War,
    the LA riots of 92,
    the Branch Davidian standoff, and mass killings,
    the storm of the century in ‘93 that killed 300,
    the Oklahoma city bombing
    the 1995 heat wave that killed 750 in Chicago.

And then I arrived at Park View 20 years ago.
And I’ve stood here in this spot, trying to bring good news to you
    in light of airplanes being bombed in flight,
    the start of more wars,
    the tragedy of 9/11,
    Columbine, VA Tech massacre, countless school shootings,
    another Space Shuttle disaster,
    devastating tsunamis and earthquakes,
    the housing collapse and global financial crisis,
    and more, and more.

Always, it seemed, it wasn’t too much of a stretch
    for me to say in those sermons, “Yes, things are bad,
        but it’s not the end of the world.”
I could say, and would say, “God is with us.”
    “Redemption is at hand.”
    “We, the church, are stewards of the Gospel of Reconciliation.”
And it sounded believable.

Something is different today.
    I’m not saying things are worse overall, today,
        than they were during these other global crises and catastrophes,
        and wars, and other human evildoing.

The human race has always been prone to do evil,
    to be destructive, to injure each other in epic proportions.
    That’s not new.

What’s new, it feels to me,
    is a deeper level of despair and hopelessness,
    a broader level of populist rage,
    and for many of us, an insidious emotional numbness to it all.

From the painful conflicts and injuries
    we inflict on each other in the church,
    to the truly shameful state of our national politics,
    to racial injustices,
    to sexualized violence,
    to mass shootings and reliance on guns,
    to the rapid rise of global terrorism . . .

    Any of these, by themselves, creates a crisis.
    But when one piles on another and another and another,
        we have a situation that to this preacher of the Good News,
        seems unprecedented, at least in my lifetime.

I now am forced to wonder.
    Can I be believed anymore, when I stand here and say,
        “Take courage, God is with us.”
    Do my words sound cheap,
        when I preach the Gospel of reconciliation and restoration
            and salvation and deliverance?

There are many who look at the horrific global terrorism,
    climate change,
    a shifting moral landscape,
    the breaking of relationships in the church,
    and the prospect of a Trump presidency,
    (or the prospect of a Clinton presidency),
        and conclude that our world really is falling apart,
        and there’s nothing we can do about it,
        and it’s just going to be awful beyond description.

    People are seriously trying to map out an exit strategy.

        In the 60s, it was “Where have all the flowers gone?”
        Today, it’s “Where has all the trust gone?”

These are the kind of times that lead us into temptation.
    We are tempted to speak, or behave, or interact with people,
        in ways we couldn’t have imagined doing 10 or 20 years ago.
    We are tempted to escape, in one form or another.
        And religion becomes the perfect escape vehicle.
        Especially when one of the core teachings of the religion
            is about another world to come—
            that this world is fading away,
            to be replaced by something better.

Christians have always been tempted to escape.
    That, in itself, is not new.
    I remember the era in our church, the church of my childhood,
        when the end times, and the rapture, was all the rage.
    It was preached from the pulpit,
        and reinforced by slick, and scary, Christian movies,
            that urged us all to be ready
                for Jesus to come and whisk us away.
            Being ready,
                pretty much meant having prayed the sinners’ prayer.

    That was also an era of global and national ferment—
        Vietnam War, race riots, a sexual revolution.
    The idea of being whisked away into spiritual safety,
        was pretty attractive to evangelical Christians like us.

    But that focus on the end times, on the ultimate fix
        for this broken world,
        was also roundly criticized,
            looked down on by Christians with a social conscience,
            by those who believed
                Jesus wanted us to make this world a better place.

    And that divide has stayed with us in the church ever since.
        It’s taken different forms.
        It’s modified itself along the way.

    But there are still these two tendencies, two leanings.
     On the one hand,
        some Christians look toward our future with God in heaven
            as the way to face the ills of this world.
    On the other hand,
        some Christians disparage that as spiritual escapism,
            and instead resolve to maximize the capacity
                of human good will
                to build a beloved community here and now.

    I readily admit I’ve usually been drawn to the second option.
        I have tended to think there is something inherently suspect
            about Christians talking so much about heaven,
            that the real and pressing needs of this world
                don’t seem to demand our attention.

But let’s take a moment to think about this,
    without taking sides.
    Try to reflect, as objectively as we can,
        on the implications, in this life, for taking one side, or the other.

    Does it follow naturally,
        that persons who put their hope
            in a future where God puts everything right,
        will by nature be less involved in doing good now,
            in working for positive social change in this world?
    And does it follow naturally,
        that persons who put their trust
            in the human capacity for good,
        will actually be more personally involved
            in bringing about the social change they believe is possible?

    What are the actual results for our lives now,
        from leaning in one direction, or the other?

Let’s start by turning to today’s scripture readings—
        especially Genesis and Hebrews.

We only read part of Hebrews 11,
    but the whole chapter is a catalogue of stories of the faithful.
Over and over the writer says,
    “By faith, so-and-so did such-and-such.”
        By faith, Abel gave an offering that pleased God . . .
            by faith, Noah built an ark,
            by faith, Abraham obeyed God
                and set out for a place not knowing where he was going,
            by faith, Abraham and Sarah gave birth in their old age,
            by faith, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses,
                the whole people of Israel,
                Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah,
                David, and Samuel and the prophets . . .
                all did things significant for God’s purposes.
    Their stories are only briefly told,
        sometimes only mentioned, with a one-line summary.

    But if we took the time to look at each one, one-by-one,
        and review the stories behind the names,
        we would be amazed.
    This is not a hall of fame for holy people.
        It wouldn’t take much digging to prove that point.
    This is a hall of fame for people who acted in faith.

All of them were called,
    either directly, by the voice of God,
    or through a prophet or prophetess of God,
    to undertake some act that advanced the purposes of God,
        and that to do so appeared at best, foolish,
            and at worst, suicidal.
        But certainly dangerous, and highly unlikely to succeed.

    They were not acting strategically,
        because they thought through in advance,
        what would work to make the world a better place.

    No. They simply were shown to have believed God,
        when God said, “This is what I’m going to do,
            and I want you to participate.”

    They had intrepid trust in God’s future.
        That is, they trusted, without fear, without trepidation.

    And all the deeds of this roster of heroes
        did nothing to advance their own personal interests or agenda.
    In fact, they were usually asked to set aside their plans and agenda,
        and undertake dangerous work for the purposes of God,
        to act in the interest of God and God’s people.

Whether the request was to build a boat on dry land,
    or pull up tent stakes and move to a yet-unknown destination,
    or give up life in the palace, and join forces with the slaves,
    or give shelter to foreigners preparing to attack their city,
         . . . or, you name it . . .
    they acted on faith,
        on trust that God had something in mind they could not yet see.

    And that very blind faith in a future yet unrevealed,
        is what empowered them to be intrepid,
            to act courageously, in the present.

We may wish to criticize, as escapist theology,
    those who are investing in some future that God is working on,
    but what do our scriptures say about the actions of Abraham,
        who shaped the life and faith and character of a whole nation?
    Hebrews 11 says that Abraham lived as if he were a foreigner,
        a temporary resident,
        a sojourner.
    He looked toward a city with foundations.
        Even while he chose to live in tents.
    And it says this not just about Abraham,
        but about the whole roster of faithful heroes,
        the movers and shakers of the people of Israel.
    It says, “All of these died in faith
        without having received the promises,
            but from a distance they saw and greeted them.
        They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners . . .
            [because] they were seeking a homeland.
            They desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”

Think about that!
The spiritual posture of the most effective change agents in scripture,
    is the very posture we criticize as withdrawing or escaping:
    “This world is not my home. I’m only passing through.”

Now, I’m not saying that people who focus on heaven all the time,
    can’t have their head in the clouds,
        and be overlooking positive things they could be doing now.
    But we certainly can’t assume they do have their head in the clouds.

Having a future in which to place our hope,
    can actually equip us,
        give us great spiritual energy and wherewithal,
    to actively engage this world and help it begin to look like
        the future we hope for.

In a sermon this past spring, I read a paraphrase from Scott Hoezee,
    a Christian Reformed pastor, preacher, and author,
    who wrote about the relationship between hope and action.
Let me repeat it here, because it fits. He wrote,

Hope is what got Mother Theresa to bathe the putrid flesh of lepers in Calcutta. Hope is what made Martin Luther King and others walk across the bridge in Selma. Hope is what let Nelson Mandela get out of his prison bed every morning. Hope is what moves every volunteer in a soup kitchen to ladle out bowls of chicken and rice . . . It is not the hopeless who establish hospices and Ebola clinics in Africa, or stand in the breach when rival drug gangs threaten to shoot up neighborhoods, or boldly stand up to power. It is the hope-FULL who do all that, precisely because even now they serve a risen Savior, who even now has all the power to accomplish what will fully come.
I also was recently reading the Herald Press book,
    Rewilding the Way, by Todd Wynward.
    He told about the founder of Outward Bound movement,
        Kurt Hahn, who grew up as a Jew in Germany,
            in the early days of Hitler’s rise to power.
        Hahn spent some time in prison,
            before being forced to flee to Britain.
        He was a harsh critic of society that produced adults who were
            sedentary spectators,
            restless, but without purpose and hope.
        He later converted to Christianity,
            and became a member of the Church of England,
            and developed a philosophy of education that formed souls.

    Hahn wrote, and I quote,
        “I regard it as the foremost task of education,
            to ensure the survival of these qualities:
                an enterprising curiosity,
                an undefeatable spirit,
                tenacity in pursuit,
                readiness for sensible self denial,
                and above all, compassion.”

As I look at that list,
    I see a list of the fruits of Christian hope.
    If we believe, truly believe,
        that God is working for
            the salvation and restoration and redemption of the world,
        and that we have been invited to partner with God in this project,
            wouldn’t such a belief
            naturally produce Christians with these characteristics?

    And isn’t such a collection of Christians, living in community,
        in the kind of world we inhabit today,
        exactly what we need to defeat
            the sense of despair and hopelessness that abounds
                in the world and in the church?
    Don’t we need more radical and hopeful followers of Jesus,
        who embody an enterprising curiosity,
            an undefeatable spirit,
            tenacity in pursuit,
            readiness for sensible self denial,
            and above all, compassion.”

    The kind of world we hear being trumpeted . . . pun intended . . .
        a world where we live in fear and resentment of the other,
        where we take advantage of the weak to secure our strength,
        where we dehumanize the other,
            (which is happening all over the political spectrum,
                by the way, not just by one side)
        that kind of world will not survive for long,
        when the church is doing its job of being the church,
            of being an alternative community,
            operating by a Jesus-shaped political identity,
            living in present hope of the Kingdom of God,
                which, like Jesus said, is near us now.

Is there any defensible reason why we should despair,
    when we worship the resurrected Jesus?

I can’t think of one.
I can only think of reasons to go out of this place full of hope,
    having been reminded of God’s power to turn death into life.
I can only think of reasons to reach out in compassion
    to all souls who are struggling,
    and to be messengers of hope
        who live with an intrepid trust in God’s future.

—Phil Kniss, August 7, 2016

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