As I have mentioned several times, this year I am inviting all of you on a journey, looking at the meaning of discipleship, that is, what it means to follow Jesus and learn from Jesus. So as I was planning out the year, I wondered where to begin. Should I talk about prayer? Should I talk about service? But as I thought and prayed, I was moved in another direction, namely, hope. When I thought why we might pray, serve, care for others, I kept coming back to the idea that it was because we have hope.
Sometimes we are hoping for things to happen, kind of like spiritual New Year’s resolutions. We hope to be better people; kinder people. We hope for terror to end and peace to reign. We hope for poverty to end; hunger to end; and loving compassion to shape the world around us. But we also have a different kind of hope, a gospel-shaped hope, something that we forget in the midst of fear, something Julian of Norwich articulated so beautifully in her phrase, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”
So we are going to talk about hope in four ways over the four Sundays in Advent: hope for the individual, hope for the congregation, hope for the community and hope for the world. Now I am going to warn you that this sermon may go a little longer than you are used to from me, but that is because it is a story, my story of finding hope. I will also share that there are parts of this story that you may find difficult to hear as a congregation. I am not going to apologize for those parts because they are honest and they are told in love, love for you, love for the church and love for God.
So I will begin by saying that about five years ago, I was probably the most anxious and stressed out that I have been in my adult life. This comes from a person who used to be in charge of cabins full of eight-year-old boys as a camp counselor, so I had experienced certain levels of stress. But I was stressed out and questioning my career, questioning my call and questioning a number of things. How did I get to be that stressed out and anxious on Cape Cod of all places where so many people come to relax?
First, there is the matter of expectations. I have always been good at meeting expectations. I got good grades; got into a good college and did well in seminary because I was good at figuring out what teachers wanted and giving it to them. In my first church in rural Pennsylvania, especially, I figured out what would keep the people happy, who needed a visit and who needed a phone call; who would only be involved on Sunday mornings and who might fulfilled by getting involved at a deeper level. They also told me again and again that they just wanted to be a little country church; their pastoral expectations were not that high. As long as they had the basics and had someone to say grace at potluck suppers, it was all right.
When I first came to Christ Lutheran, it was clear that the expectations were higher, which was fine. I’ve always been good at meeting expectations. But the expectations kept mounting up and people kept telling me what we should have and should be doing. You told me you wanted a Sunday school. You told me you wanted more people involved. You told me you wanted special services in Advent and Lent. You told me you wanted a weekly choir. You told me you wanted me to look, dress and act more like a traditional, extroverted pastor. You told me that my family should be more involved. I played trumpet, and you told me I should play it more. I wrote music, and you told me I should write more. I played guitar and you told me I should play it more. Some of it was troubling and some of it was flattering, but always there was an underlying expectation that whatever I did and did well, I should give a little more.
And then there was the reality that we would have meetings to discuss our Sunday school and children’s programs and people would come to discuss and it was great and energetic until we got to the point where we asked people to teach or lead, and everybody took a step back. And Mimi, our minister of music, and I talked through the choir again and again, but as soon as we asked for people to commit to a weekly choir, many would take a step back. And we would put together Advent and Lenten services. We would plan them; I would write sermons and often the handful of people who did show up did not include the people who actually asked for the services to take place. I could meet some of the expectations that depended on me, but could not meet the expectations that depended on you. And that created this level of anxiety of knowing what you wanted but not being able to give it to you.
Second, there was the reality of the larger church. We would get together for synod meeting after synod meeting and hear the news that the church was shrinking and this was especially real in New England. We would talk about cultural shifts and the rise of the nones (those who put “none of the above” on surveys of religious preference) and we would talk about how a lot of the programs and ideas that had shaped the church in previous decades just weren’t working anymore. So not only couldn’t I meet your expectations, but it was not clear that meeting those expectations would be helpful in the long run. How hard should we push for a traditional Sunday school when the general news is that traditional Sunday schools aren’t working like they used to?
Third, there was the financial reality. When I took the call at Christ Lutheran, what no one mentioned and probably didn’t know because we are secretive about giving, is that one giving unit was giving about 15% of the church’s budget. About five years ago, they left, (not out of anger but simply moved away) and what had begun as a fairly stable call financially (we still spent time in the Finance committee trying to figure out what to cut) became an unstable place, running deficits, going through reserves, always looking to do what we could with no money. So not only do I have these expectations, that may or not be helpful in the long run, I also have to figure out how to do them for free. And every year there is the question, can they afford to continue this call? Do I have to start looking to move? Do I have to pull my children out of school and take them away from a place where they are established and like it a whole lot?
So I was stressed out and anxious and everywhere I turned it seemed that there was someone ready with a “we should, you should, the church should.” How did I handle that? Those of you who know me know that I don’t drink. I just don’t like the taste. I don’t smoke, because (and I apologize to those of you who do smoke), but “Yuck. You should really cut that out.” But I do like a good donut and I can find a temporary contentment with a good burger and fries. So I enjoyed some late night snacks and lunches out and gained upwards of 30 pounds. This turns out to be a pretty common pattern among clergy but not something that I am proud of or okay with. I didn’t want to be stressed out and unhealthy. I didn’t want another donut. I just kept finding myself with another donut.
This is the place where hope enters the story. For me, hope entered quietly. I prayed a lot during that time. I sat in this very sanctuary and prayed for guidance and prayed for change and prayed for wisdom. I said angry prayers and I said prayers of lament and prayers of surrender. And then I ran out of things to say, so I stopped saying things and I listened.
Now this is a moment where those of you who are not fans of the contemplative track my ministry has taken among you might get impatient. I’ve had people in the congregation tell me that they weren’t sure that this “silence stuff” was Lutheran. I have had Lutheran colleagues tell me that they didn’t see much value in silence as a practice. After all, we are a very word-centered and wordy tradition. Pastors preach. Pastors teach. Pastors develop ideas and share them. Though Martin Luther once wrote, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer” and when it comes to prayer “few words and much meaning is Christian.” Regardless, this is my story of hope, so you get to listen, which is exactly what I was doing, listening. I would sit in this sanctuary and listen in silence. I heard the sounds of the building as it shifts in the wind, popping and cracking away as breezes would hit. I heard the sounds of wind in the trees and, once the windows were changed over, saw branches waving in the wind. Over time, I became very aware of the presence of God as a constant reality in this place. As I became more aware of God here, I became more aware of God in all the places I went. God was present in hospital rooms and boring meetings. God was present in visits and at special services. God was present in the cheerful conversations and passive-aggressive silences that can make up congregational life.
And with that awareness of the presence of God, there also came a great freedom. I realized that I didn’t have to meet everyone’s expectations. I mean, I knew that I couldn’t spend my days playing video games and expect to remain employed. But my well-being in faith no longer depended on whether or not I could provide you with a Sunday school filled with children or a weekly choir. I didn’t have to worry whether or not you liked it that my wife and children attended elsewhere. I didn’t have to worry whether programs succeeded or failed, whether the church itself succeeded or failed. I had discovered what Julian knew seven-hundred years ago. All will be well. Because God has been made known to us in Jesus, because Jesus set us free from the power of sin and death, sets us free to have life and have it abundantly, all will be well.
This does not mean that everything will go just the way I want it to. I may have to take another call before I plan to. We may have to do creative things to stay in this location. You may even come to the point where you have to acknowledge that it is more faithful to close than it is to die through attrition. We are not at that point yet, but if any of those things happen, all will be well.
And I want you to know that, all will be well, because we have hope. Now we will talk more about how this might apply to the church next week, to be a place with hope. For me, it means I want to find ways to share it. I want people to know that through Christ we have hope and all will be well. This is why I got involved in grant-writing and the Still, Small Voice. This is why I worked to build a labyrinth on our property and invite you to try it. This is why I will keep inviting you to join me in silence on Wednesday mornings. And whether you are here or not, I will keep silent for you.
Now I also want you to know that I periodically forget everything that I have just been saying. There are days that I wake up anxious about the future. Sometimes I do worry. Sometimes I do get stressed. That is why hope is linked to discipleship. It is in our nature to forget and need reminding. God is constant; we are not. God is always with us; we keep thinking we are alone. God keeps telling us that all will be well; we keep finding reasons to worry. Discipleship is doing the things that bring us into and remind us of the loving presence of God and the promise of life in Christ.
In part due to my quieter personality, silence was the key in rediscovering hope. For you, I urge you to seek out the things that make God’s presence real for you. These can be traditional things like prayer and worship and study, service and kindness and compassion. It can be less “churchy” things like sitting in silence, watching the sunset or walking in woods or doing something creative, writing, painting, sculpting or building. My point is to spend a part of your day seeking out the presence of God in a way that makes God’s loving presence real for you, and real for you outside of the activity itself. Sometimes we hear a hymn or see something beautiful or have an intense experience in worship and we are pleasantly surprised by God, but the hymn ends, the beauty passes, the feeling wanes and we are back to where we were before. Discipleship is the process of moving from a life that is peppered with God-moments to a life that is aware of God’s presence, promise and love as a constant reality. Ground yourself in hope and you cannot help but share that hope. So as we talk about hope for the indviduals, hope for you and hope for me, I urge to spend a part of your day rediscovering hope, reminding yourself that in Christ, “All will be well, and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well.”