“Faith + Patience = Hope”

Scripture:  Hebrews 6:10-20 

Immersed in Hope

I have had the privilege of spending much of the past week immersed in the world of hope for the Church.  I spent the first half of the week in Wenatchee at a gathering of United Methodist clergy from throughout the Pacific Northwest Conference.  The theme of the conference was “Images of Hope,” and focused on sharing stories of hope from local churches, from the Pacific Northwest connection, and from across our denominational connection.

Talking about hope was a nice change, because so often, it seems like when United Methodists get together to talk about the Church, we get bogged down in talking about the dire situation that the church is in.  For example, one study published over the summer suggests that, if the current rate of membership decline continues, the United Methodist Church will cease to exist in just 37 years.[1]  You may also remember a sermon that I preached last month, where I mentioned the alarming study done by the Barna Group in 2007 that suggested that a huge percentage of non-Christians view Christians as primarily “judgmental” and “hypocritical.”[2]

Instead of lamenting our current shortcomings, we shared our stories of hope.  I had the joy of sharing about our recent 125th Anniversary Celebration, and our current process of casting a vision for the future of our congregation.  My colleagues shared their own stories from their own churches.

There was one story in particular that struck me, from a woman who serves a church on an Indian Reservation.  The church had a table set up at the annual powwow – serving as a sort of quiet space amidst the festivities of the powwow.  There were crayons and paper available for the kids to draw…  Kids would wander over and sit down, drawing some scribbles or a quick picture before getting back to the party. 

At one point, a boy sat down and started coloring, and grew very focused on his project.  The pastor asked what he was drawing, and he said he was making a sign to put on the door to his bedroom.  Imagining that he was making a “Keep Out” or “Boys Only” sign, she was surprised when the boy showed his finished product – a sign that read, “Everybody Welcome.”

That boy didn’t simply draw a picture or make a sign…  He created an image of hope.  He saw a need, and is doing what he can do to make the world a little bit better.  And he is doing it by giving up his bedroom for a while, choosing to offer his room to his uncle while he sleeps on the couch in the living room.  And I have a strong suspicion that seeing a sign posted on the bedroom door proclaiming that everybody is welcome made the bed just a little bit more comfortable that night.

Defining Hope

Our passage from Hebrews this morning is also a message of hope.  It is a word of hope offered to a church in crisis, longing to live out the call of Christ in their day and age.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers four different definitions of the word “hope,” but they all seem to miss the mark.  They all deal with something that could happen in or be true about the future and really wanting it to be true.  But to think of hope in that way makes hope seem overly superficial, more like a wish.

I think this is one of those times that Merriam-Webster just gets it wrong.  To really understand hope as it is offered to us in the Hebrews passage, we need to look more closely at how the word is used.  Translated literally, the Greek word elpís doesn’t simply refer to hope, but to “the expectation of what is certain.”

So, this is about more than just a wish.  Frankly, what the author of Hebrews is talking about is more than hope.  It sounds more like a guarantee or a promise.  In fact, all of these words appear in these 10 verses – hope, promise, pledge, guarantee, oath.  [Words highlighted on the scripture text sheet]  That can’t be a fluke.

As followers of Christ, having hope means that we put trust in the promises that God has made to us through Jesus Christ – promises about things like love, justice, salvation, resurrection, and the Kingdom of God.  It means that we don’t have to accept things as they currently are because we know that there is another way that things can be, should be, and will be.  And it means that we have been empowered to move toward that promised future with faith and expectation – not just wishing that it could be, but trusting that it will be.

We have been promised a New Kingdom – and to have hope in that Kingdom means not just longing for it to come, but participating in the Kingdom of God – here and now.  It’s not just that the Kingdom will come, but the Kingdom has come.  Amen?

Image of Hope

I love visual aids, and I have found a fairly unlikely one this morning.  I was thinking about images of hope – something physical and tangible – and I kept coming back to this little guy [Energizer Bunny toy] who sits on my desk next to my computer at home.

The Energizer Bunny has appeared in at least 115 TV commercials over the past 20 years.  In each one, he faces some type of challenge, often involving an adversary powered by inferior batteries.  He faced such nemeses as Darth Vader, Dracula, Boris – the bad guy from Rocky & Bullwinkle, and King Kong – all while continuing to confidently pound on his bass drum.  The Energizer Bunny always comes away the victor at the end of the commercial, and the commercial ends with the words that we all know -- “He just keeps going, and going, and going…”

I don’t know about all of you, but if I faced so much difficulty in my life, I’m not sure that I’d have the resolve to “just keep going, and going, and going.”  It’s easy to look at your present situation and lose hope…  But it’s a whole lot harder to remain hopeful in the face of adversity.  It’s tough to keep on going, while wondering if you really have enough energy left to struggle another day.

So, how is that kind of hope possible?  The author of Hebrews tells us it’s a matter of having faith and patience.  These big things we hope aren’t typically realized overnight.  Our faith gives us the knowledge that whatever struggles we face in the present situation are not all there is – it is the promise that there is more to our story, that there are greater things yet to come, and that God isn’t finished yet with us, our Church, or our world. 

The Energizer Bunny is a fantastic model of this faith and patience.  Faith that his batteries will outlast all the others, that he won’t be left high and dry…  And patience, moving slowly but making constant forward progress.

What if we could all live that way?

What if our Church worked that way?

What if we could lock our sights on the future, on the Kingdom of God as it will be, rather than trying to settle for how things are?  What if we dreamed big dreams - GOD's dreams?  What if we persevered through all of life’s struggles, difficulties, and setbacks – and just kept going, and going, and going? 

Permission To Fail Big

Because we all know that life has its share of struggles, difficulties, and setbacks.  When we hope for our world to be transformed, it’s difficult to not be disappointed when change doesn’t come fast enough, or when our efforts don’t succeed.  We put up that “Everybody Welcome” sign, but people don’t show up at the door as quickly as we’d like.

We are at an exciting place right now as a congregation.  We are gathering each week to develop a vision for our church.  We are sharing our dreams and our hopes, our longings and our ideas.  We are looking at how things have been, how things are, and how we know that things can be.  We are looking toward God’s promises for this congregation and for this community, and offering ourselves as participants in making those hopes become a reality.

There is one last image of hope that I want to share with you all this morning.  It’s something that I got from the Bishop this week at the clergy retreat…  And it’s a permission slip.  It reads, “The holder of this certificate is given a free pass to experiment or innovate in Christian Ministry, especially in the areas of Mission Field Engagement and Disciple-Making Systems, with the support of the Bishop and Cabinet.”

That means stepping out of our comfort zones.  It means being creative.  It means taking chances, and risking making mistakes.  When I first saw the permission slip, I immediately thought of Martin Luther and his quote – which I’m taking out of context in a major way – “Be a sinner, and sin boldly.”  We’ve got the Bishop’s permission to dream big and risk big failure…  So let’s get creative!

Along the way, there will be struggles, difficulties, and setbacks.  But through it all, lets keep going, and going, and going.

[1] Michael Gryboski, “Economist Pitches Plan to Reverse Decline of UMC Before It ‘Ceases to Exist As We Know It’” in The Christian Post (July 31, 2013).  Accesssed online at http://www.christianpost.com/news/economist-pitches-plan-to-reverse-decline-of-umc-before-it-cease-to-exist-as-we-know-it-101262/


[2] From the Barna Group study published in unchristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007).