The Gift of Presence
For nearly two weeks, those of us in the Saint Paul Area Synod have been blessed by the presence of ou[...]
Sermon for the Synod Assembly 2021
“Waiting in Hope”
Presented May 15, 2021
Grace and peace to you in the name of the Living God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Here we are, friends. Not in person but online. I sure had hoped that we could gather in person for this 2021 Synod Assembly. I know that many of you were anticipating that, too. But as Dr. Michael Osterholm told us when he spoke at the Toolkit event back in February, we have to pay attention to the signs – the infection rates as well as the vaccination rates. And those signs say “not yet” for a large, festive, indoor, in-person Synod Assembly.
Hear these words again. “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 3:24-25)
This text from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans reminds us that we are called to be people of hope. But what does it mean to practice such hope in a not-yet season of pandemic? For that matter, what does it mean in any season for Christians to be people of unshakeable hope?
It certainly does not mean that we have our heads in the sand; that we ignore the knowledge that comes from science; or that we act with a kind of reckless and naïve optimism amid the real threats and challenges facing our world today.
St. Paul, who wrote this elegant epistle to the Christian community in Rome, knew quite a bit about suffering and setbacks himself. He is the Apostle, who once wrote that he himself had been beaten, shipwrecked, faced dangers in his travels, knew much about toil and hardship, sleeplessness, hunger, and daily pressure because of his anxiety for all the churches. Because of his personal experience and vulnerability, today we would say there is authenticity in his witness to the kind of hope that is more durable than any season of distress or personal trials.
And what St. Paul says of himself, we understand to be a grounding value for all of us as Christians. We practice hope. We practice hope – when it is easy -- and when it seems foolish and hard. How do we do that, friends? How do we practice hope today?
For us, the how is actually a why. You see, the future belongs to God. Remember that. Oh, we humans are good planners. We all have dreams – and worries – about the days ahead. We plot out the things we desire to accomplish and at a Synod Assembly we even share lots of those with one another. But beneath our best goals and aspirations rests the reality and promise of God’s future. God’s future for us, for the church, for the whole creation.
And God has already declared the shape and contours of that future in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. A young candidate once put it this way in his first sermon, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The preacher was Jesus himself, the very Word which was there at the beginning of everything. And with the resurrection of Jesus, we are assured that at the very end of everything, God’s creation will be well and whole again. Things may be a real mess right now. We may share with St. Paul the experience of daily pressure because of our own anxiety for all the churches. We may not see how all that is broken in our human institutions and in our society can ever be sorted out and healed. But God does.
When it comes to hope, we remember that we are right there as recipients of God’s grace and mercy for the whole creation. Jesus did not wait to come until humanity grew up and people were at their best. Jesus did not postpone his dying until we ourselves were deserving. No, “in hope we were saved” (Romans 3:24). We Christians live with a kind of inexplicable confidence as we go about our work, because we know that whatever happens – to us, our congregations, the wider world, or even the cosmos itself -- the future is in God’s hands, not our own.
“Now hope that is seen is not hope …” (Romans 3:24b). So true. Yet, as Dr. Osterholm told us to pay attention to the signs when it comes to reading the course of the pandemic, when it comes to the revealing of God’s future, we also glimpse signs along the way. Here are three examples. I challenge you to add to the list.
Recently, two brand-new pastors accepted calls to congregations in this synod. Pastor Tammy Wilkerson is serving at Beaver Lake Lutheran in Maplewood and Teleen Saunders has been called to serve at Fish Lake Lutheran up in Chisago County. She will be ordained next month. All through the pandemic, pastors and deacons have stepped into brand-new roles, often in congregations where they didn’t even get to meet the congregation in person and where votes to call them needed to be held out in the church parking lot. That’s hope.
You’ve seen this, too. Over the past year your congregation stepped forward in confidence that God’s work is not on pause, even if congregational life has been turned upside-down and inside-out for more than a year. You launched new faith formation efforts, started neighborhood food programs, baptized new Christians, and figured out how to gather for worship outdoors and online when it wasn’t safe to be together inside. In this synod, we practice hope every day.
A second example. I don’t know Darnella Frazier but I hope to meet her someday. You have heard about her on the news. Darnella, who was a bystander at George Floyd’s arrest last May, is the teenager who held up her cell phone and captured the whole ordeal on video. She kept filming when it would have been easy to turn away, to be overcome by the injustice and pathos of watching a man die. Her courage was an act of hope-against-hope that justice could come to George Floyd. And it has.
The third example involves all of you. You are – you will be – bearers of much hope when we launch the synod-wide Planting Hope campaign later this morning. In fact, lots of you appear in the promotional video we filmed in February 2020 at our last in-person gathering as a synod.
Now, a capital campaign involves money to be sure, but this campaign is just as much about how we show up for others. We are going to write a new story about being a synod together. We are going to show up for each other – we are going to show up for our nearby neighbors – in a way we have not done before. The Planting Hope campaign is an opportunity to show others what God is already doing to bring the healing, the fresh start God intends for everyone. That is all about practicing hope. You’ll see.
Friends, we live in-between God’s good beginning and God’s redemptive end point. We are not there yet, and we sure feel that tension these days. That is precisely why this is the season to practice hope. Whether we do so with the patience St. Paul describes or the itchy impatience that is characteristic of many of us. We step forward together, even as we wait in hope for God to crack open our own hearts, our lives, so the fullness of God’s mercy and grace – God’s future – can flood in. Thanks be to God. AMEN.
Bishop Patricia Lull