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Living In Hope

Sermon - 12/03/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Jeremiah 33:14-16

[Editors Note:  today was the annual "Hanging of the Greens" at First Christian Church -- photos are included in the sermon below]


The sermon text for our reflection this morning comes from the prophet Jeremiah, the 33rd chapter, verses 14 through 16:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

Advent is the season of hope.  The scriptures used during advent season, such as this text from Jeremiah, all speak of the hope of a messiah who will usher in a new age of God's reign here on earth.  And so the prophet Jeremiah is very hopeful, and his hope is not just that Jerusalem will once again have a king on the throne who is a descendent of David.  Note the character of this government that this king shall bring -- that he shall execute justice and righteousness, and the assurance of peace, that Jerusalem will be saved, and Judah will live in safety.  I mean, isn't that what we all hope for of our government and of our time?

And so we use this hope of the prophet to express our hope of what the coming of the messiah will mean for all of us and for the whole world.

The irony, of course, in using texts such as this, is that's not the way it worked out for Jeremiah and for the people of his time.  During the life of Jeremiah, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians.  The temple of Solomon was destroyed.  The people carried into captivity.  And even after they returned from that exile of 70 years, they still did not have a descendent of David upon the throne of Jerusalem.  And for 500 years, that hope was kept alive of such a time.  And those hopes were kindled anew around the time of the first century, during the reign of Augustus Caesar, that finally a messiah would come and overthrow the Romans.  But those hopes, too, were dashed.  First on a hillside outside of Jerusalem, and then later when the city itself was destroyed.  Once again, the newly rebuilt temple destroyed yet again.

Would there ever be such a reign?  Would there ever be such a time of peace and security for God's people, for all people?

That sermon that Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave on that first Sunday of advent in 1933 also spoke of that kind of hope.  And yet also the reality was completely the opposite.  Indeed, it was worse than Bonhoeffer could have ever feared, with the start of a world war, and the holocaust that happened soon thereafter.  And Bonhoeffer's life, as well, given to that cause in the last few months of the war, martyred by Hitler.  And on the morning of his execution, he sent a message to Bishop Bell, a friendship he had made during that year and a half he spent in London, and he told one of his prison colleagues:  "Tell Bishop Bell that this is the end.  But for me, it is the beginning of life".


So where shall we find hope in our time?  Is there no hope for us in this world and place?  The Democrats are very hopeful right now, they're downright giddy now that they've been given the keys to Congress, and that power.  But frankly, I wouldn't be so happy myself, it's kind of like being made the captain of the Titanic.  You think about the journey, the voyage ahead, and all of the dangers.  The unstoppable rise in healthcare, and folks think the Democrats are going to fix that problem.  Financial solvency of Social Security.  The challenges of global warming that they have said they're going to do something about, as if such a solution would be easily obtained in just a few years.  And the quagmire in Iraq continues to get worse and worse and worse.  The ongoing genocide in Darfur, and so on.

There are times when I get really discouraged.  When I try to think -- what's going to happen in 10 years?  20?  50 years from now as this continues?  And on top of all of that, we here in Oregon have the additional worry of whether or not the Ducks can ever win a bowl game J.  Things are really looking bleak sometimes.  And it's too much.

I was feeling somewhat hopeless this week, trying to figure out where would I find a concrete, real-life example to give us hope in this time.  And I found it in a place I did not expect, when I went to City Club on Friday and heard Bob Welch talk about one of his great messages of hope.  Welch of course being a columnist for the Register Guard.  And he delivered this message, which rather than just re-tell, I'll simply play it for you:

I learned a little bit about this giving community a few years ago when I met this woman in a bar.  I'll explain J.  Her name was Kaylee Johnson, and she's a bartender out at the Shooters Pub & Grill on River Road.  One day she overheard that one of her customers, his wife needed a kidney transplant.  So Kaylee said to somebody 'what would I have to do to be a donor?'  The person said she'd have to contact an agency, and said 'you would do that?'  And she said 'Yes, I would like to see if I could be a donor'.

So she went and filled out the stuff and met and they said she had the right blood type.  So she went to another doctor and they did some tests and said "Well, you've got the right blood type, but you've got some stuff in your blood that isn't good, so you really wouldn't be a good candidate".  And she said "What would I have to do to get rid of that bad stuff, so I could be a donor?".  Well, she'd have to stop smoking, you'd have to stop taking prescription drugs, you'd have to quit drinking.  She said "I'll do that".  The doctor said "You would?".  And she said "Yeah, I would".

And so she got into this process, and she's driving around town with her urine samples that she's got to turn in every week.  And they're monitoring her blood pressure during the day and she has to keep a diary of what's going on to make sure she's an OK candidate.  And she tells me "Whenever it would be really high, I would just lie on the thing -- 'took dog for brisk walk', or something like that".  All so she could give. 

And then it was time to go to Portland to do this transplant and the woman who was to receive the kidney got sick with heart trouble so they postponed it.  And a friend came to Kaylee and said "You know, you've given it the old college try, why don' t you just let this go at this point?  You still kind of come out looking like the hero without having to go through all the hard stuff".  Kaylee said "What about the woman who needs a kidney?  What about her?"

And so she hangs in there, hangs in there, and finally they go to Portland.  And they do the transplant.  Those of you that know anything about that know that it's far harder on the giver than on the receiver, because they have to crack your ribs to get that kidney out of you.  And so what did she get in return for this?

Well, she came back, and she had 6 months without work -- she could not work because of her health.  But then an amazing thing started happening.  Every week or so there would be a letter that would show up addressed to the 'Angel of Shooters Pub & Grill'.  I had written a column about it in the meantime.  There would be a check for $50.  And then there'd be a check for $100 or $200.  Over the weeks, she ended up with something like $6,000 from people in the community who just simply said "We affirm what you've done here.  We probably don't even know who this woman was that you gave the kidney to, but we just think it's neat, and here's some money for you".

And so I asked her what's she's going to do with that money, and she said "You know what, I'm going to quit my job here and I'm going to go to nursing school, I'm going to become a nursing assistant".

I love to tell this story, because to me it's the perfect way a community should work.  It's people helping someone, sacrificing, expecting nothing in return.  And yet when something does come, when the community says "We affirm you, we thank you for what you did, we value people and you've helped a person", and the person that helped is plowing back what they got into something good that makes the community better.

I love to tell that story.  I'm privileged in my job to hear all sorts of stories about people flying under the radar all the time and doing great things in our community.

I think of Ellen Schlessinger, this woman who, a homeless man died in the Whiteaker area this summer, and she was not going to let that man die without having a memorial service.  And darn it, there were 5 of us there that Saturday morning, but there was a memorial service for that man, he wasn't forgotten.

David Robertson, this guy who goes around in his pickup handing out peanut butter sandwiches and coffee to the homeless.  Darlene Walker, a woman I wrote about recently who made 700 stockings for soldiers in Iraq so they won't be forgotten this Christmas.

The point, of course, is that one person can make a difference.  We can make a difference.  I wrote a book a couple of years ago called "American Nightingale", about a woman who made a difference during World War II.  The first to die after the landings at Normandy.  And in her stuff back in Boston, I found this poem that says:

Drop a pebble in the water 
There's a splash and it's gone
But there's a half-a-hundred ripples
Circling on and on
Spreading from the center
Flowing to the sea
There's no way of knowing where the end is going to be

Our hope, you see, is not some fanciful wish, but rather it is based in the promise of God.  Because faith is filled with hope given by God it is never satisfied with the present reality that is always less than God's vision for the world.  German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who is often called the theologian of hope, says:  "That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest.  Not patience but impatience.  Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, contradict it.  Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present".


It is precisely in that contrast, you see, between what is and what God intends to be, where Christ comes to us to point out for us the possibilities that are in God.  Hope comes not simply from knowing that there are great possibilities for us, but in acting on such hope and living out such possibilities, as that story of Kaylee (that Bob tells).

Hope is not passive.  Those who sit and home and hope for peace, for success, for a better job, for prosperity, for love, and then do nothing about it are engaged in nothing but wishful thinking.  Hope, when based in the promise of God, is something that we can act upon.  And to not act is to do less than what God expects.  Until we have that courage and hope to act as if the reign of God really can come on earth as in heaven, we will not be ready for the coming of Christ.

We are called to be, as Moltmann says, the community of those who on the ground of the resurrection of Christ wait for the kingdom of God, and who's life is determined by this expectations.

So let us live in hope, that God's realm can be experienced in this world, beginning right here.  Let us live in hope that the world will be one by living as one people, here in this place.  Let us live in hope that conflict can be resolved peacefully, by peacefully resolving conflict in our own lives.  Let us live in hope that love is the strongest force in the universe by showing the power of that love ourselves.  Let us live in hope that justice will prevail by fighting injustice whenever and wherever it occurs.  Let us live in hope that the wolf shall live with the lamb, by loving our enemies and praying for those who would harm us.  


Let us live the hope of the coming messiah and to expect no less.  May the God of hope fill you with all the joy and peace and acting on these things, so that by the power of the holy spirit you may abound in hope.

This is our hope.


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