Hope, Love and Thanksgiving
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the Stewardship Theme:
Changing the World: Who Else Has the Privilege to do that?
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
November 15, 2020
Romans 8:18-21, 24-28, 31-32, 35-39
18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?
35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Ready for Christmas? What, pastor, not you too! We haven’t even gotten to Thanksgiving yet. I know, I know. Haven’t they already got all the decorations, the sales and the songs on the radio? What are we waiting for? My favorite theologian Jimmy Buffett even has a song, “Santa Stole Thanksgiving for Christmas.” Ok. It’s a terrible song title but you get the point. What? You aren’t ready for Christmas yet? Ok, point taken, let’s talk about Thanksgiving first.
What would really make you thankful? Ok, you can’t have that, so let me tell you what I think would really make us all thankful. It starts with hope and love. I believe when you know the love of Christ you naturally want to give others hope and in giving hope you discover the power of thanksgiving. This passage of Scripture leads me to some thoughts that I believe speak to this time of our lives and our world.
Imagine being 19 or 20 years old, thousands of miles from home, a student at UNF, and the pressures of normal college life. Now add COVID and all its stress. Rev. Sarah Locke who is serving as the Campus Minister for this recently wrote about handing out a boxed lunch to one of her regular participants in the ministry, one who had always been “successful,” at college. She sat down and began to share with Sarah that she was skipping class. She said, she never skipped class, and wants to be there but she “just didn’t have the mental or emotional capacity to even go to class” that day. She said, “It’s all too hard right now.” I know many of us have felt that way. That’s when we need to know there is someone there to listen, to care, and to understand. That’s a lot of what ministry is. And Sarah was there for her, and because we support her ministry, so were you, in a real sense. Thank you. Our theme is “Changing the World, Who else has the privilege?” In her letter Rev. Sarah wrote, “These relationships [that our ministry creates and support] are changing lives and your financial support helps us continue.”
One of the most important and least appreciated of our missions over the years has been Jacksonville Campus Ministry. The wider church has never given this mission the attention it deserves. We have said we want young people but we have spent very little effort over the years to support those in transition from childhood to adulthood. As I have said before, now we look around and wonder, where are the young adults? It is a case of “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.” But we have done what we can. We have provided resources, participated in the ministry and sought to offer support. You all have made dinners, sat in on meaningful conversations, even been part of a grant process where we explored how to engage college age young people in worship. So this church has done more than many. The challenge of this mission, like many, is the need for a clear vision for how to do this faithfully. Let’s hope we have the opportunity to continue to offer a ministry that welcomes young adults who truly do come from diverse and often difficult faith journeys. That has been the unique and important contribution Jacksonville Campus Ministry has offered. Where others have only wanted to “convert” or make young adults “conform” to their version of faith, we have supported the one ministry that has been willing to say each person’s journey is valuable and meaningful, even if it is not just like mine or yours. Thank you for continuing to believe in the value of this. It is another way you are changing the world.
Imagine being 16 or 17, being black, and being thrown out of your house and living on the streets because you are left-handed, or because you have blue eyes, or because you have really big feet. Or imagine it’s because you are gay or lesbian or otherwise struggling with your sexual identity. I don’t imagine most parents would throw their own children out of the house for the first couple of issues that are just a part of who you are, how you were born. Well, a lot of people still don’t understand that one’s sexual orientation is no different, it isn’t a “lifestyle choice,” or a “perversion,” and if you still believe the Bible says that, meet me after, quote all the verses you want to and I will tell you why that is wrong. Still there are hundreds if not thousands of minority youth who are living on the street or in similar at-risk situations because of who they are. And if you think it would be tough living as a person of color in this openly racist culture today, imagine also being LGBTQ.
JASMYN, the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network, has been helping these young people by providing medical care, food, clothes, a safe place to hang out, help finding housing, safe social opportunities and more. They are literally saving lives every day from death. That is life changing. That is world changing. And again, I want to thank you for being a lifeline, a world changer. Our mission giving to this work has changed the world for hundreds of teens. We’ve made meals before, too. Right now, thanks to Mr. COVID, we can’t do that, but we will again soon and I know you will step up and help again. Thank you in advance.
Now imagine you are a teenage boy and you can’t quite get your life to work in any way shape or form. Maybe you have gotten in trouble with the law. Maybe your family life is so chaotic that it feels like you really don’t have a family. Imagine being at the point where it feels like everyone is giving up on you, maybe even you are about to give up on yourself. You are angry, scared, don’t know what is right or wrong or good or bad. Somehow you find yourself at a place called “Safe Harbor Maritime Academy.” You find a place where there is structure, so you know what is right or wrong and there are consequences for doing wrong, but they still love you and treat you with respect. You learn how to succeed in school and you learn how to work on boat motors, electrical work, paint and repair, skills that you can use to go into the armed services or into a trade or even go to college. But Christmas can still be a hard time. Then some church you don’t even know about steps in and gives you a gift card. $100 – maybe not much when you and I go Christmas shopping, but to that teenage boy it is a sign of grace, of love, of Christmas. It is a sign that there are many reasons to be thankful, to have hope.
Bruce Epperly, besides having a great first name, is also a pastor and writer. In his newest book, “Hope Beyond Pandemic,” he writes “I have been asked if there is hope in this time of pandemic, and my answer has been, ‘yes, if.’” He says, “I am hopeful because I look at the long span of history… [and] I believe that God has a bias toward healing, justice and reconciliation and that God is working within the events of our lives and nation, not coercively but provocatively, in terms of possibilities.” That’s an interesting word – “provocatively.” He says what he means is that he doesn’t believe God caused the pandemic, the wildfires, the changes that are ravaging our world. “God is not the source of the racial unrest or the injustices in our systems. God is present [with us] in all of these, lamenting, challenging, and providing possibilities for healing and transformation. God is suffering in our suffering.” While many sit and wait and ask why doesn’t God change the world? I would say God is waiting for us to change the world. If we believe in a God of hope, of love and a God to whom we give thanks for life and for a reason to live a meaningful, valuable life then we have to seize the privilege of working to change the world. Not change it back to some mythical past when things were “great” for some, but change it forward to a new reality where things can be great for ALL.
In the face of all these things Bruce Epperly adds, “Hope is profoundly realistic.” You may say, “What?” He adds that the prophets of the Bible were “fact-checkers. They looked at the suffering of the powerless and poor, the unjust actions of kings and priests, and proclaimed that God would not bless that mess or allow it to stand. He reminds us that much of our Scriptures were written “in times of struggle.” He says, “Hope is grounded in recognizing that we can never – and should never – return to the old normal but must forge new pathways.
I believe authentic hope can outlast the pandemic and these other problems if we change and develop new ways of being. Hope in the face of suffering comes from recognizing what we should be thankful for and what we need to do to show God’s love to others and to the world. That means the church needs to be committed to faithful missions and ministries.
So all that turns me to the words which Paul writes about hope, about a world changed, lives transformed, and the promise of God’s love to get us through difficult times. It is that love that makes true thanksgiving possible. It is that love that makes healing possible in times of suffering. Listen again to what Paul wrote:
18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. …24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience…. 31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? …. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …. 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If you are struggling to find reasons for thanksgiving this year, know this. First, off thousands of people in Jacksonville and around the world are thankful for you! I am thankful for you! I believe we can give thanks that we have a God who gives us reason for hope, reasons to love, and reasons to give thanks. As you decide what to give for the mission and ministry of Arlington Congregational Church, I hope you will know that what you give is the kind of hope and love and thanksgiving that echoes on in lives of thousands of people in the coming year, and in years to come. You are Arlington Congregational Church and you are changing the world. What a privilege! AMEN.