“when anticipation becomes what’s anticipated,” October 11, 2015

Responsive Call to Worship
Given persistent disappointment at faith—
through millennia now—
at the hypocrisy of the “faithful,”
at the corruption of the institution,
at the very vagaries of the undomesticated mystery,
you would think such disappointment would,
long ago, have been the end of such faith.
That’s why it remains so very important to realize and affirm
that hope affirmed
is not hope realized—
that validation of faith
is not fulfillment of faith,
and that neither is excuse
for not living in faith,
with hope, committed to love.
As those who live in the now with a sense of the not yet,
we live toward what we believe—in hope
not within assurance because of what we believe.
Our faith is the assurance of things hoped for—
the assurance of intimations.
And it is enough … usually.
It is enough … sometimes.
May it be so.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
Proverbs 13:12-14
Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
Those who despise the word bring destruction on themselves,
but those who respect the commandment will be rewarded.
The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,
so that one may avoid the snares of death.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
I went about town this week
to verify what I suspected.
Halloween decorations are out.
No doubt they’ve been out for quite some time already,
but my sermon research this week formally verified it.

Beginning this lectionary sabbatical year,
we noted the early church attempting to reboot culture’s stories—
how those Christians tried to reboot pagan festivals of the dead
with All Hallow’s Eve leading into All Saints Day.
Now I think it’s fairly safe to say, in our culture,
our anticipation is oriented entirely toward Halloween
at the total expense of All Saints.
Churches may celebrate All Saints,
but not as the culmination and fulfillment of Halloween.
And so it is in the stores and in the stories—
in the excitement and anticipation of children (and most adults!),
it’s all about Halloween.
In my bout town sermon research, I didn’t see a single All Saints display!

In like manner, our anticipation is for Mardi Gras, right?—
which was originally only prelude to Lent.
Now this focus on the preliminary doesn’t hold true all the time.
Lent is prelude to Easter,
and the focus there is definitely on Easter,
but do notice what is consistent—
the focus is on the happy over the hard,
when the preliminary is happy and the fulfillment is hard.

What a good opportunity to claim—and proclaim:
anticipate going to school, anticipate graduation,
anticipate getting a job, anticipate getting married,
anticipate having children, anticipate the empty nest,
anticipate retirement,
but know that to fulfill these possibilities
will be hard—will take work.
It’s not that each won’t make you happy.
It’s that none will just make you happy.
Don’t expect them to.

I want to play a game now.
Many of y’all will be familiar enough with the Baptist tradition—
some raised in its idiosyncrasies—
to play this game of fill-in-the-blank.
Ready?
So first you’re told the stories—the Bible stories
maybe by your parents at home,
your teachers in Sunday ________ (school)
and Vacation ________ (Bible school).
Hopefully in worship too.
And you learn that Jesus loves the little children
all the children of the ________ (world).
Then you learn that Jesus loves you,
and this you know because ________ (the Bible tells you so).
In fact you learn for God so loved the world
that God gave ________ (his only begotten son).
And you learn more and more about God
and about what eternal life might mean.
And you begin to learn of God’s hopes and expectations of you—
that there are reciprocal expectations in covenant relationship.
And when you’re ready to accept what God has done for you
and commit to what you’re going to do for God,
then you walk the _______ (aisle)
and make a __________ (profession of faith).
You enter the baptistry and are ________ (baptized or dunked—
either answer is acceptable!).
Then, by most reckoning, you’re a _______ of the church (member).

That one’s actually a little complicated
because it really doesn’t feel right to say that those not baptized
aren’t members of this community that is this church—
especially when some such persons are among the most involved
and most committed of us.
We really don’t have good language for this.
Professing and non-professing members?
But important as that is, it’s a little off point which was—the point—
that traditionally, if you’re dunked or baptized
you’re a member of the church (with a little “c” and a big “C”).
Then what?

Now there are good and legitimate answers to that question,
but the evangelical church’s emphasis, implicitly if not explicitly,
has been on getting people down the aisle,
making those professions of faith, and getting dunked.
When traditional, evangelicals ask, “Are you saved?”
that’s what they’re asking.
Did you say the words? Did you go through with the ritual?

And it’s not that that’s not important.
They are—all three things,
but—but they’re all preliminary to a life lived within culture in the way of God.
You can call it discipleship;
you can call it Christian ethics.
It’s your commitment; it’s your responsibility.
And I’m not sure so-called professing church members
do that any better than non-professing ones,
and I’m not always quite sure what to do with that.

But what if we had a more clearly articulated sense
not of an arrival point—
you’ve arrived at salvation; you’ve arrived at church membership;
you’ve arrived at abundant life; you’ve arrived at the kingdom of God—
what if we had a more clearly articulated sense not of an arrival point,
but of multiple departure points—
now departing—always now departing—
the possibility of being saved—
the possibility of being a healthy, functioning part of the body of Christ—
the possibility of abundance—
the possibility of God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
Are you onboard … or not?

And it’s less—it is less that it’s so bad for us—for our “eternal soul,”
as it is unfortunate for creation and for us in the here and now,
that we take one step on a journey of liberation
into depth and wonder and mystery and righteousness
and justice and peace and freedom and praise and promise …
we take one step and then stop, considering ourselves having arrived.

And we even live an anticipatory faith, do we not?
Some call it the “now” and the “not yet.”
Others call it the promise of God.
Some the assurance of faith.
Whatever you call it,
there’s a sense, even within our focus on now,
in which we know there is yet more to come.
There’s the whole promised land theme.
The whole end times theme.

It’s not—never was meant to be—
an excuse not to work at this way of living—
to cultivate the disciplines of such a way of living—
to fulfill that profession we made—
in the time we have, to explore the way
on which we find ourselves with other pilgrims
in the way of mystery and wonder—
to commit the time we have to the way we’re on.

Time—such an odd thing.
Part and parcel of creation
(see also Stephen Hawking, A Briefer History of Time
[New York: Bantam, 2005] 23-25).
Maybe there’s something to that and-it-was-the-first-day part of the story!
Part of creation did, in truth, entail the first measure of time.
It has something to do with the fact
that when you look at the night sky,
you’re looking at space—at creation—
you’re looking at things you see—the light of stars,
but what you’re seeing is time past.
I’ve read T.S. Eliot and Stephen Hawking this week!

And while we live, only and always, in the present,
that present is shaped, only and always,
by both experiences of the past
and hopes of the future.

What’s more,
time future is characterized either by hope or by fear—
I mean, some combination of the two, sure,
but one predominantly.
And whether you live into hope or live in fear
says so very much about your God.

And time past is characterized either by gratitude or anger—
yes, again, some combination, again, one predominantly.
And whether you’re a grateful person or an angry one
says so very much about your experience.

So here’s an interesting question:
are you shaped more by what you’ve experienced
or that for which you hope?
And do you have a choice in the matter?
Does the nature of your experience shape the possibilities of your hopes?
And if you should want to,
what can you do to become more influenced by hope—
which has something to do with trusting God, don’t you think?
More than believing in God—trusting God.
So as to not get stuck in now—which is always preliminary.

I tend to think what’s next and what’s more
are the questions in which we believe—
most of us—most of the time.
Not all of us. Not all the time.
Hope is typically shaped by experience.
We have to know what to hope for.
But nothing’s arbitrarily locked into place.
Some have great experience and yet little hope;
some have the worst of experience and yet know hope.
And we do apparently need just the barest intimation of possibility
to hope for so much more.
We can transcend terrible experience in hope
with but a glimpse of what might be other than what’s been.

But there are times something so important happens
(something so bad or something so good),
its gravitational pull
yanks hope out of its forward progression
into orbit around what was.

And it’s interesting (think about this),
whether that experience is powerfully good or terribly wrong,
either way, it’s the fear that things won’t get better
that stalls hope!
Things are so bad, and you fear they won’t get better.
or something was so good, you fear nothing will be better.

Our faith would seem to run that risk—
oriented toward something that happened in the past.
We look back to particular events (the Jesus story) in the past
and name them key to everything.
Yet we look back to what was
and claim it is yet to be fulfilled in the future.

If that were by design, it’d be brilliant.
That it’s true, we believe,
shouldn’t diminish the brilliance!
In our faith, the present is validated
in and through both past and future.
And we thus have a model for both assessing historical events
and measuring future hope

For example, tomorrow we celebrate Columbus Day—
or don’t … public schools aren’t out around here.
It’s a celebration based on past events—
Columbus’ landing on—well, what were probably
the shores of the Bahamas, October 12, 1492.
Though it’s been celebrated since colonial days,
it only became an official federal holiday in 1937.
In Hawaii, on whose shores, Columbus never stepped,
they celebrate Discoverer’s Day—
acknowledging the ancient Polynesians who first landed on their shores.
South Dakota also doesn’t recognize Columbus Day,
celebrating Native American Day instead.
And since 1992, a growing number of people
have celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day—
rebooting the story, right?
Trying to escape the gravitational pull of the way things were—
the violent, exploitative way things were.

How many current political nightmares
go back to colonialism’s conquest and exploitation?
And the all too often shameful way in which church history
is entangled with colonialism?
Reading this past week, I came across this anecdote again:
an African saying, “When missionaries came,
they had Bibles and we had the land.
When they left, we had the Bibles, and they had the land.”

Yet it is precisely our Bible-grounded faith
that gives us this reboot paradigm
of considering what’s been
(never trying to deny it—distort it—ignore it),
affirming that we’re not defined by what’s been,
but then consciously—deliberately—
beginning again—living into a better future.

And that Bible is full of intimations that can shape a worthy hope,
not of violence and exploitation,
but of a sense of interdependence—
some awareness that what’s good for the least among us
is what’s good for all of us—
full of intimations of grace and blessing
from and for all creation.

I keep coming back to the idea that
the future cannot be
other than
the way we live into it.

And too much, we’re not living the way
I still hope our future will unfold.
So past and present must ever be assessed—
in light of whether they live up to our best hopes.
Do these lead to the tomorrow we want?
And when they don’t,
it is incumbent upon us to keep looking for more—
keep hoping for more—keep working for more—
keep anticipating more—keep insisting on more—
never settling—never getting stuck in what is preliminary
as we too often do.

We, as a country, a culture, and a church,
need to intentionally do more assessing of what’s been.
We need to do more honest repenting,
not because that gets us stuck in the past
but because it sets us free from the past—
because we also need to do more profound hoping—
believing in God, yes, and trusting God’s great faithfulness—
living today into a bright hope for tomorrow—
remembering that even those who anticipated Jesus
(that key event in history)—even those who anticipated Jesus
saw but a beginning
to more than they could ever have expected.

A personal reflection:
in the seventh grade, we were on furlough
in Clarksville, TN having come from Germany
before we moved to Switzerland.
we were the missionaries in residence at First Baptist.

That school year I went to a seventh grade facility—
900 seventh graders.
And I rode the bus—
the bus which picked up not just seventh graders,
but students all the way through high school.
One of my first days being picked up on the bus,
there were no seats at the front,
and I had to make my way to the back—
where the high school students sat.
It was not a good day.
I was bullied.
Not so much physically,
but some of my papers were thrown out the window,
and I cried,
and I was mocked.

I devoted a good bit of time after that
to considering alternative methods to getting to school.
Have to get up way too early to bike,
and there were too many busy streets.
My allowance wouldn’t cover a taxi.
We just had one car and dad was commuting in to Nashville
to work on his doctorate at Vanderbilt.
So I kept getting on the bus—
afraid, angry.

I’d leave school as quickly as possible to get a seat near the front,
and I’d daydream about having responded differently—
having responded with violence, frankly.
Even if I had been beaten up,
surely it would have been better than the disappointment with which I lived—
the disappointment and the fear.

Much later in the year, I was sitting at the front of the bus,
having gotten on the bus as quickly as possible,
and one of the bullies came up from the back.
During that year I got to where I wouldn’t look over my shoulder in a crowd.
He came up and touched me on the shoulder,
and said something like, “Come sit back here.
We won’t do anything.”

It was years later—
decades later,
that in the still-dreaming I had handled everything differently,
it occurred to me
that there was a courage
to just getting on that bus day in and day out—
that maybe there was even some recognition of that kind of courage from the bully.
I don’t know about that.
I do know some hope had been pulled out of my dreams,
caught in the gravitational pull of that past event,
replaced with disappointment and anger,
and to revision those events—
to claim what there was to claim—
released that anger and that disappointment
and restored some of that lost hope.

We, each one of us, have a story to tell of what we have known
that is precious and wondrous—
even through what is tragic and hard.
We have a hope to name that draws us onward
even through the mess we make of things—
event through the mess others make of things.
This we affirm for each other and for our world
that does not know this well.
So we can claim a present in which we can choose
a better hope.
We can choose a better story.
We can choose a better future.

In Jesus’ name,
may it be so.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Luke 2:25-32; 36-38
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon;
this man was righteous and devout,
looking forward to the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit rested on him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit
that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple;
and when the parents brought in the child Jesus,
to do for him what was customary under the law,
Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel,
of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age,
having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage,
then as a widow to the age of eighty-four.
She never left the temple but worshipped there
with fasting and prayer night and day.
At that moment she came, and began to praise God
and to speak about the child
to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Hymn
As we sing this hymn, you may absolutely sing the familiar words
as printed in the hymnbook (and as perhaps imprinted on your heart).
We do also invite you though,
to reflect on the alternative words (in bold) offered below,
and to consider what different theologies are emphasized in the different options.

“My Faith Has Found a Resting Place” [LANDAS]

My faith has found a resting place,
not in device nor creed;
I trust the Ever-living One,
his love for me shall plead.
I need no other argument, I need no other plea,
it is enough that Jesus lived, and that he lives with me.

Enough for me that Jesus saves,
this ends my fear and doubt;
a sinful soul I come to Him,
He’ll never cast me out.
I need no other argument,
I need no other plea,
it is enough that Jesus lived, and that he lives with me.

My heart is leaning on the Word,
the living Word divine,
salvation by my Savior’s name,
for which my life’s a sign.
I need no other argument, I need no other plea,
it is enough that Jesus lived, and that he lives with me.

My great Physician heals the sick,
the lost He came to save;
for all of us He lived God’s truth,
for us His life He gave.
I need no other argument, I need no other plea,
it is enough that Jesus lived, and that he lives with me.

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