A Community of Hope

Primary Text: 2 Cor 5: 14-21  (Sermon 3 in a series, starting here)

In addition to being a community of faith, the church is to be a community of hope.  This is the second attribute that the Book of Order lists as it describes the church as the Body of Christ.

This hope comes from the same promise we can each claim, the promise of new beginnings.

The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation.

This was supposed to be an easy one… of course the church is a community of hope.

As a community of faith, we offer access to hope that is different from the world’s hope.  We offer to anyone who has ears to hear the truth that God’s grace is available,  that God’s kingdom is at hand. We offer sight to the blind, healing to those who suffer, freedom to those oppressed by sin.

Not because we have life all figured out, but because we have faith in and can point to the One who came to forgive the world:Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus the Christ. It is his offer of grace and forgiveness, his promise of abundant life that gives us hope in this world and in the next.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “It is the love of Christ that urges us on” that drives us to share this good news.  Because Jesus has died – the one who died for all – and because Jesus lives – the one who was raised in victory over death for all – we live for Christ.

When we claim our place as followers of Christ, we are living for him and he is living in us. We become part of the Body of Christ.  All that we have, all that we do, all that we say and think…. all of it… is a reflection of how we understand our connection to God through Jesus, how we understand our connection to the other members of the Body through Jesus, and how we understand our connection to the world.

When we come together to sing hymns…
When I get really ticked off at the person driving too slowly on the highway (or too quickly through my neighborhood)…
When we feed folks in need on Friday afternoon…
When the session meets to discuss policies about using the church grounds or sort out the budget…
When we post our opinions on Facebook or Twitter…
When you introduce your new pastor to your friends and neighbors in the community…
When we stand in the grocery store and talk to someone we haven’t seen in a while…

The way we interact with the people around us – moment by moment, day by day – tells the truth about how we understand who we are in Christ.

And we are real people, with real emotions and we’re dealing with other real people in situations that range from frustrating to life-altering on a daily basis.

So, I’m not prescribing a particular vocabulary as appropriate. Especially not one I’m pretty likely to exceed… Nor am I saying that Jesus people aren’t allowed to disagree or express anger and frustration.  That’s just silly.

But I will say this: What Paul tells us about the way we are transformed by Christ ought to be visible in our relationships, in our daily lives and in the life of the church.

Because we are transformed people. We have been made new…

When someone comes to understand her place as a beloved Child of God and the Holy Spirit opens her heart to the grace offered through the work of Jesus, the whole world is made new… all of creation rejoices!

Why?

Because in that moment, in that glorious beautiful moment of connection between created and creator, her eyes are opened to the potential of this world to be what God designed it to be. And in that moment of awareness, all of creation sings,

Because one more heart,
one more set of hands,
one more mind made in the image of our intelligent and imaginative God has glimpsed the future for which all creation has been groaning.

And thus there is hope.

Because that one is added to this one and this one and all the other ones who have come before…
That one has seen God’s heart, God’s ultimate vision
And that one… along with all who chase after God… now longs for a world in which love reigns and justice flows, in which all people can breathe and play and pray in peace.

By faith, creation sings and rejoices because this one more soul, this one more follower of the Risen Christ, will add one more voice to those who cry out and act out against injustice and hate in our streets, in our schools, in our churches, and in our political and governmental structures.

Oh, this is an easy sermon to preach.  I can get super-excited about offering living water to the thirsty and the bread of life to the hungry.  I can tell stories for days about the ways God transforms lives. We could probably all stand up here and testify to the work of Jesus in our own hearts and in the hearts of people we have met along the way.

Ask me about hope…
Ask me about joy…
Ask me about love…
I am all over it!

And then I woke up on Thursday to the news of nine saints gunned down while they prayed and studied the Bible in their church in Charleston on Wednesday night.  The more I read, the more my heart broke. Another set of families, another community, torn apart by violence and racism.

But here’s the thing…

The church remains a community of hope, even when hatred walks through the door and opens fire.

Ask me how I know the church is a community of hope…
and  I’ll tell you about a congregation that was organized by group of free blacks and slaves in 1791. I’ll tell you about a congregation that was investigated for its leaders’ involvement with a planned slave revolt.

I’ll tell you about Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, who was raised in slavery in the Virgin Islands and came to Charleston because he was the personal servant of a slave-trader who settled in Charleston. He purchased his freedom in 1799 and became a successful carpenter, of all things.  A carpenter who helped start a church.

I’ll tell you how in December 1821, Vesey began to organize a slave rebellion, that was uncovered before it could take place. Three hundred thirteen alleged participants were arrested, and 35 including Vesey were executed.

Ask me how the church is a community of hope…
and I’ll tell you how this congregation’s building was burned to the ground while the slave rebellion was investigated. The church was rebuilt, worship services continued- until 1834 when all-black churches were outlawed.

Ask me how the church is a community of hope for these people…
and I’ll tell you how the people continued to meet in secret until 1865 when they formally reorganized as Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

When the Body of Christ stands on the side of justice, whether underground or formally recognized, in a building, in ashes, in homes or a cathedral, faith, hope and love abide.

Ask me how the church is a community of hope….
I’ll tell you about how Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King and Corretta Scott King each stood on the steps of Mother Emmanuel Church to speak truth about injustice to those in power and to encourage those standing in need to press on, to persist in hope.

Ask me how I know that the church is meant to be a community of hope and I’ll point to Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young girls were killed 52 years ago by a bomb… a bomb planted to terrorize a community.

Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has said “I remember the bombing of that Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. I did not see it happen, but I heard it happen and I felt it happen, just a few blocks away at my father’s church. It is a sound that I will never forget, that will forever reverberate in my ears. That bomb took the lives of four young girls, including my friend and playmate [Carol] Denise McNair. The crime was calculated, not random. It was meant to suck the hope out of young lives, bury their aspirations, and ensure that old fears would be propelled forward into the next generation.”

Because the church is a community of hope, the community came together, mourned together. They buried the dead, rebuilt the church, and renewed their commitment to loving and serving the people around them. They continue to worship as a congregation today, teaching a new generation to bear witness to faith, hope and love.

Ask me how I know the church is meant to be a community of hope…
and I’ll point to congregations across the Southwestern United States that have been part of the Sanctuary Movement for decades… opening their doors to immigrants seeking asylum from violence and poverty in their home countries and to victims of human trafficking in need of shelter and assistance.

I’ll point to gatherings of Christians who have encircled mosques and synagogues at risk of their own lives so that the faithful gathered inside might be able to pray in peace.

I will point to congregations who have rebuilt and continued ministry after losing buildings to arson because they have stated without hesitation that all of God’s children are welcomed and worthy, regardless of what they look like or who they love.

I’ll point to Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was pastor at Emmanuel until his death Tuesday night. Reverend Pinckney’s hope was in Christ, and his faith led him to speak out and work for justice as a minister and as a State Senator in South Carolina.  His death comes just a few years shy of two centuries after church founder Denmark Vesey was executed for seeking release of men and women held captive to slavery.

And if you want to see how a community of hope exhibits Christ’s grace in the world, I can point you to the families of the victims, members of the Emmanuel church, members of the Body of Christ, who spoke at the shooter’s arraignment.

The sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor said, “I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”

You see…If forgiveness has the power to transform a wounded and grieving heart, hope is what allows us to make ourselves vulnerable enough to forgive.

If love has the power to drive out hate, hope is what allows us to imagine such a life, such a heart, to imagine a world without hate.

If justice has the power to reshape the cultural landscape, hope inspires the words that describe the vision for which we cry out and work.

Hope takes the church past positive thinking and optimism and into a pragmatic faith, faith that is undergirded by prayer, prayer that opens our hearts and minds to the call of God on this community of faith.

Hope calls the church to repentance, trusting God to reveal sins of exclusion and distrust, sins of complicity with systems that oppress, sins of omission and silence.

Hope calls the church to repentance, seeking forgiveness from those we have wronged and building new relationships on the foundation of love.

Hope takes the church into the larger community, into the ministry of reconciliation to which all who know and love Jesus are called.

The church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation, within the church and beyond.

For where, if not in Christ – through the Body of Christ-  will those who are hurting, those who are alone, those who doubt, and those who are afraid, find shelter, community, comfort, faith and hope?

May this church – today and always – answer the call to be a community of hope, praying for God’s Kingdom to come and continuing the earthly ministry of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

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