May 31, 2011

On being a good steward of hope

You can listen to this sermon here. Or read the unedited text below.

Good morning! It is so great to be back here with you this morning. The folks at St. Stephen's in Brewton were gracious hosts, but there truly is “no place like home.” This morning we gather on the thirty-sixth day of Easter as we continue our 50 Days of Stewardship: searching for ways in which to live as a people of the resurrection. So far we've looked at Stewardship of Money, Stewardship of Service, the lack of stewardship in debt, and Stewardship of Power.
This week, I have the distinct pleasure of combining two of our least favorite topics into one uncomfortable package: Stewardship and Evangelism. I call this the Stewardship of Hope, and it is nowhere more present than in today's lesson from First Peter. Peter writes to a church spread far and wide by persecution – a church afraid – a church in hiding. He writes to a Church that finds itself as a minority within a minority – a church without much cultural significance - a church struggling to find its voice. His advice is as needed today as it was two-thousand years ago, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
There are two pieces of this admonition that make it difficult for most Christians to live into: the being ready part and the gentleness and reverence part. I'll readily admit that the being ready part is the hardest for me. I realized very early on that my life as an ordained person would be a life filled with awkward conversations. Just over a week after I was ordained a deacon, Cassie and I began our two day journey down here. We left Alexandria on Sunday morning, set to spend the night just outside of Spartanburg, South Carolina. We arrived at our hotel at about 5pm, got the cats settled in, and set out in search of a beer and a bite to eat. The only place within walking distance was a little hole in the wall called the Rendezvous. It was a private club, seems you can't buy alcohol on Sundays in South Carolina outside of certain city limits. We applied for membership and paid out one dollar lifetime dues, and sat down for fried cheese sticks, chicken fingers, and a bucket of miller lite, when the man next to us, who had certainly been there quite a while, began to talk with us.
As these sorts of conversations go, we quickly arrived on the “how'd you get here?” topic. Cassie and I explained that we were on our way to Foley, Alabama hoping to meet our moving truck in the next couple of days. “What takes you to South Alabama?” He asked. “Well,” I responded nervously, “I've been hired as the assistant minister at an Episcopal Church down there.”
Over the past four years, I've noticed that there are mainly two ways the conversation can go from there. The first is for the conversation to come to a grinding halt. The other party responds with something like, “Oh, wow. Umm... good for you.” And then spins around on their barstool or zones out at the 1976 Sugar Bowl replay happening on ESPN Classic. That's not how this conversation played itself out. Instead, we went through door number two, the “I'm lapsed, but generally a good person, and let me tell you why” path. Depending on how long someone has been at the bar before we meet, this path can be short and sweet or very long and very painful. A week into my life as an ordained minister, this particular journey felt very, very long. I was ill-equipped. I wasn't ready. And so that man, a fellow lifetime member of the Rendezvous, never heard about the hope that is within me. He just got some hems and haws and ring spinning.
The Apostle Paul is the king of being ready. He was so ready to share his hope that he didn't even wait for folks to come to him, he hit the town running. This morning we heard a portion of the story about his time in Athens. He finds himself there, waiting to be joined by Timothy and Silas because his previous attempts at sharing his hope got him run out of Thessalonica and Berea. While waiting for his companions, Paul did what he always did and found his way to the Synagogue where, as a guest teacher, he was invited to share with the congregation. He told them the Good News about Jesus and he resurrection, and after a cool response, he took his message to the marketplace where he ran into the stoics and the epicureans who thought he was nuts. They, in turn, took him to Mars Hill where he was invited to speak before the Areopagus, basically the city council, where he gave the stirring sermon we heard read this morning.
Three years ago this weekend, I joined Cassie, Doug, her dad, Paul, his friend, a Presbyterian minister, Bart Campolo, a Christian missioner, John, an insurance executive and Christian philanthropist, and John's brother, who I don't know very well because he always has to leave before the race is over, at the Indianapolis 500. I'm sure I've mentioned this particular race before, it was full of sermon illustrations. As we approached the track, at the historic corner of 16th and Georgetown, we were grated by the familiar sound of men holding placards, shouting through bull-horns, “Repent! God hates sinners. Repent or be damned!” This is always an interesting moment for our particular group, as it seems as though the assumption is “if you go to The 500, you are an enemy of Christ.” A title which doesn't really fit anyone in our group, but one that helps prove my other point this morning.
The second way in which we fail to live up to Peter's call to evangelism is that we lack gentleness and reverence.” The men shouting through megaphones are, unfortunately, not the only one's who lack the necessary tact to share the Good News. The media has been full of stories in recent months of Christians who have failed to live into gentleness and reverence. The Westboro Baptist Church people protesting military funerals, the preacher in Florida who burnt the Koran, the kindergartner in Hokes Bluff whose yearbook message said he wanted to “beat up all those BAD MUSLIMS.” Too often, we fail to share our hope with gentleness and reverence. Too often, we forget the commandments of Jesus to love God and love one another.
In this morning's Gospel lesson, Jesus promises his disciples another Advocate who will be with them, with us forever. This Advocate, the Holy Spirit, cannot be received by the world because the world does not see him or know him. As disciples of the risen Jesus, we have been given this Advocate. The Holy Spirit abides in us, leads us, carries us. Those who believe, those who are engaged in an active, ongoing relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, are engaged in the work of God by way of the Holy Spirit. When we find ourselves in those places where words cease, when fear overwhelms, God's promise is that the Holy Spirit will give us words to say. Too often, however, when we find ourselves in a place of fear, put on the spot to share our faith, instead of trusting in the Spirit and speaking in love, we react emotionally and defensively and the hope we share comes with anger and contempt, rather than gentleness and reverence.
As Paul stood before the Aeropagus, he was disturbed to the point of anger, but his words weren't arrogant or rude, but loving and hope-filled. “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, `To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things....” Paul quoted their own poets, “In Him we live and move an have our being” and shared with them the hope of resurrection from the dead. And he did it all in love, with gentleness, and reverence.
Are you ready? What is the hope inside of you? Is it that you'll get to heaven when you die? Is it that before you get there, God will use you to bring heaven to earth? Can you articulate that hope without getting defensive or angry? Can you share the Good News in love, with gentleness and reverence?
Over the course of my thrity-one years, I have not been the best steward of hope. I've kept the message bottled up. I've been afraid and uncomfortable. I've been argumentative and scornful. But God continues to work on me, as I'm certain he does you as well. He gives us his Spirit, our Advocate, who walks alongside us. Who, when we'll listen, will give us the words we need to speak.
O God, help us to always be ready to make our defense to anyone who demands from us an accounting for the hope that is in us; and help us to do it with gentleness and reverence, all for the glory of your name, by the indwelling of your Spirit, and through the grace of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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