Hope Against Hope

First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
March 3 , 2012 – Lent (2B)
Genesis 17:1-7:15-16
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

Some of you are aware of my not-so secret habit of writing sermons and doing research in one or more of the coffee shops around town. I’ve even been so bold as to claim one of them as an “adjunct office.” There are many reasons I can give to justify this habit. The simplest is the fact that I am too easily distracted by the myriad of possibilities and assumed responsibilities of the office or of my home.

The distractions of the coffee shop are far less important to me, though no less appealing. The parallels between the coffee shop and the church often fascinated me. Sometimes the coffee shop seems equally sacred.

Usually I observe others as a fly on a wall while I read commentaries and make notes. Sometimes I meet with colleagues to discuss the lectionary, discuss the work of the church, and hold one another accountable. Sometimes a complete stranger will share some sense of the divine in ways that are both obvious and instinctive.

For example, the last time I was there I saw a young woman holding court. First she met with a young man, and later with a woman slightly older than she, to discuss her small group Bible Study. They discussed things like topics, resources, and whether or not to include opposite genders. Others came and went while she studied some college text book - something medical I think. She solicited each visitor to join for an upcoming mission trip and got several commitments.

Across the way, two young men sat discussing what sounded like the week’s lectionary texts. They had earphones stylishly draped around their necks and open iconically matching laptops offering a portal to the vastness of the internet - including access to everything from pop culture to the foundational theology of every faith there has ever been (no, I am not referring to Wikipedia).

Along with all of this dynamic engagement with God’s active presence, there was a sense of community in the place - and not just because it was in the name of the coffee house. There was a sense of awareness of the weight, dignity, and presence of everyone around me - even those who came in to escape in a book, or computer game, or really decadent pastries.

I don’t know, maybe that last part is a stretch. Perhaps I am projecting a little bit. Ever since the TV show, Cheers, it seems everyone has wanted to pretend that there really is a place where everyone knows your name, where what you do and say matters, and where you can walk in and everyone will shout your name at once.

That sure would be nice, wouldn’t it? The reality is that a sports bar or a coffee house is not the church, although sometimes they can become the church. Now hear me out on this, because I have worked in both (though technically not a coffee house). The reality is that any community has the opportunity to become inwardly focused or outwardly motivated. Every member has the potential to attract or to exclude - and I have done both, even when attempting to be faithful and loving in the way that God has been faithful and loving to me.

Any watering hole - be it for caffeine, alcohol, or the true cup of salvation - can become a place that offers a sense of common unity or exclusivity, and most of them do both (depending on the person, the day, and the given activities). The challenge that scripture puts before us today is to become aware of who we are and what we are a part of.

And who are we, if not a part of the legacy and spiritual ancestry of Abraham? Not only that, we are a part of the desire of God to become known by all as the one who is ever faithful, ever loving, and ever forgiving. As a certain people who believe in the covenant that God made with Abraham, we actually work to fulfill God's desire when we act on our faith, when we bless our food, when we act kindly to a stranger, when we pray for and with one another, and when we reach out to others through our partners in ministry.

I swear to you that I saw all of these things happening in the coffee house the other day, and it made me a little bit envious. It made me want to know why this wasn’t happening in the church - not necessarily ours - in any church. Then again, maybe it is. We have small group studies on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. We have members that care for and talk to one another throughout the week. We have ministries that are bigger than we can handle on our own. There are not a lot of congregations - especially decently and orderly Presbyterians - that would intentionally support ministries which they cannot do without the support of other congregations.

Come to think of it, last Sunday night I was here with a group of folks that offered what no bar or coffee shop could ever offer. Many of you may not know it, but there is an AA group that has begun meeting here on Thursdays and Sundays. I went to their open meeting and listened with amazement to everyone introducing themselves, not proudly nor necessarily humbly - just matter of factually - as alcoholics. I could not just say, “Hi, I’m the Pastor who is better than you by default.” So I said, “Hi, I’m Zach, and I’m a sinner. I also happen to be the Pastor here, and you are welcome. I just wanted you to know that I need the love and forgiveness of my higher power just like everyone else. So, I am a sinner, and you are welcome.” It probably did not come out quite that eloquantly, but that is at least what I meant to say. They, of course, responded, “Hi, Zach” with polite smiles, and moved on to the next person - as well they should have.

But for a moment, everyone knew my name. For a moment, everyone one knew everyone’s name. For an hour, people were gathered to listen to a person’s experience of God’s activity and to agree to accept the claim God has on their lives. That sounds a lot like the church to me.

That sounds a lot like the covenant God made with Abraham. There is one part that the lectionary leaves out, though. The chunk of verses we skip is God’s demand for circumcision. This, along with the passage in Mark about picking up crosses, amounts again to a really bad public relations move by God.

I say this because there is no one else who ever has or ever will get a majority of the world to sign up by expecting (not just asking) them to mutilate their bodies and die a humiliating, public, and political death. That in and of itself should be some proof that this covenant is from God - no?

No wonder Paul uses the phrase, “Hoping against hope.” I looked at a variety of translations - and even the Greek itself - to get a sense of what this really means. The best I can come up with is from the God’s Word translation. It reads, “When there was nothing left to hope for, Abraham still hoped and believed.”

When there was no way that this could happen - it was, to the best of his knowledge, physiologically impossible - Abraham still believed and trusted that God would do what God said God would do. Of course the first thing he did was to fall down laughing. But no matter - in the end he did what God asked, and he expected God to do what God said God would do.

And so the question comes to us, what has God said that God would do? What has God expected of us? God has not said that our building will last forever or that worship styles are never to change. God has not agreed to make things safe or to preserve the status quo. God has only given us the invitation to lay claim to the identity of Jesus - to claim him as Messiah.

God has offered us the opportunity to pick up a cross and follow in the way of our great teacher, Jesus. And God has challenged us to do it in a way that lets everyone know that Jesus is the Host who offers salvation. Jesus offers salvation here and now - and there and then - for forgiven sinners like me and you. We are forgiven sinners who are compelled to sin again and again by refusing to let go of our designs and desires for our lives and for those we love.

Sometimes letting go can leave us feeling a little hopeless. Sometimes the natural limitations we face (such as decreased resources and aging members) can leave us to say that we hope for new life, but we just don’t see how. In that place of doubt and remorse we look to the experiences of those who have come before us, and we look to the promise that God has given us. The promise is not for the temple. The promise is for the people. The promise is to assure our faith. The promise is to inspire us to hope in something that is beyond our ability to conceive and give birth to (literally).

Believe it or not, I found something in a coffee shop that led me to a quote by Louis L’Amour that sums all this up quite nicely. “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished; that will be the beginning.” Our end is found in our beginning, and both are met in the table of Christ. With all that we are and all that we do, let us glorify God and place our hope in results that we can’t plan for or consider. Let us be a people who know that God is yet active, God is yet present, and God will accomplish what we can barely imagine - even through me, even through you, even through coffee shops, and bars, and congregations just like ours. Amen? Amen! And again I say, Amen.
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