A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost XX, October 21, 2001, Dedicated to the honor of the Rev. Ron Botts on his installation day and always to the glory of God!

"Hope: Rising from the Ashes"

(II of III in Stewardship Series on "Faith, Hope, and Love")

Romans 8:18-30; Luke 18:1-8

Today is Children's Sabbath. I want to thank all the pre-teens and our one teen, Alex Weaver, who have led us in worship today. The theme of my sermon is "Hope." In each of you, I find hope for the church and hope for the world. Thanks. Last week, I started this three-part series on Faith. Today, "Hope: Rising from the Ashes."

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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Hope is the soul of Christian faith. As Christians, our hope is always born from re-framing Christ's death on the cross as the beginning act of His Resurrection from the dead. As Paul writes in Romans 8:24 (which Emily read so beautifully), "In hope we were saved, Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what they can see? But, if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."

Hope cannot be seen. It can only be felt as a powerful response to something coming, something that is beyond explanation. Henri Nouwen writes in the introduction to book With Open Hands. "Hope expects the coming of something new. Hope looks toward that which is not yet. Hope accepts the risks of the unspecified."

Hope cannot be explained. It can only be represented. So please allow me to represent hope to you today . . .

In his book Experiences of God, theologian Jurgen Moltmann tells how he kept himself alive when imprisoned during WWII. Captured as a German prisoner of war, Jurgen was shuffled among prisons in Belgium, Scotland and England. Besides lacking food, heat, and the constant illness around him, Moltmann saw the despair in himself and his fellow prisoners brought on when seeing his nation go down to defeat and then learning of all the atrocities that had been committed in the name of Germany. He writes, "I saw how other men collapsed inwardly, how they gave up all hope, sickening for the lack of it, some of them dying. The same thing almost happened to me. What kept me from it was a rebirth to new life thanks to hope for which there was no evidence at all." (Experiences of God, Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1980, p. 7).

The hope Jurgen Moltmann came to experience was Christian hope. He had taken two books with him to war: Goethe's poems and the works of Nietzsche. Neither of them gave him comfort. After experiencing the death of all the mainstays who had kept him alive until then, he turned to the New Testament given him by a well-meaning United States Army chaplain. In the appendix he found words that opened his eyes, from the Psalms, he encountered - "the God who is with those that are of a broken heart." After his release from prison in 1948, he gave up his pursuit of physics and went on to become one of the foremost theologians of the 20th Century, best known for his ground-breaking book, The Theology of Hope. In that book Moltmann offered the clearest explanation for the power of the resurrection of Christ as the perfect embodiment of God's Hope for the world that I have ever seen. He makes the case that the resurrection of the dead, as we experience it in the life-giving message of Jesus Christ means that hope is always a possibility. (I'd like to return this in a second . . . )

In a similar way the founder of Amnesty International offered this illustration from his life as a political prisoner. He found himself on the brink of despair and was given a matchbook with the single word "Courage" written on it. That small gesture of shared humanity was enough to keep him alive. When he finally attained freedom, he founded and devoted himself to Amnesty International - a Nobel Peace prize winning network whose purpose and intention is to write letters on behalf of political prisoners worldwide. For thousands of prisoners - the mere knowledge that someone else cares - even an unknown letter writer - has rekindled the flame of hope. A flame which cannot be extinguished even in the darkest times! (As quoted from PhilipYancey, Where Is God When It Hurts? p. 209).

For several years I worked as staff person for a Christian human rights group which worked hand-in-hand with Amnesty International writing letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience. Getting up each morning to inspire people to remember the torture victims of this world was often tough to wrap my mind and heart around. But, each day, I was inspired myself by testimonies and letters of men and women, worldwide, who had ben kept alive knowing that someone outside their prison, outside their nation, and often outside their faith tradition was keeping the light of justice and hope for their world burning in their night of despair.

But, why Christian hope? What makes our Christian hoping unique? What makes us unique in our faith life, I believe, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise and hope in the resurrection to eternal life. In our increasingly sophisticated Western Christian approach, I think many people have grown a little ashamed of our faith tradition's emphasis on immortality and the rewards in the life to come. Our culture presents suffering as part of life and how for eternal life as some sort of pipedream. As a result, we lose our ability to imagine and our ability to hope.

As I said earlier, in the resurrection, we come to experience the life-giving message of Jesus Christ as always making hope a possibility. Let me ask you a question Dr. Rebecca Chopp, the Dean of Yale Divinity School asked a room full of seminarians at a lecture on Thursday at METHESCO. Dr. Chopp asked:

In your theology - where do you place resurrection? If you begin your theology with the Incarnation of Jesus - that makes sense. But, ultimately, according to his own words, Jesus didn't come only to be the Incarnate Word of God. If you begin your theology in the Crucifixion, then you give pain the first word. But, if you begin your theology in the resurrection, then you give the imaginative life the lead. (Rebecca Chopp, October 18, 2001, lecture in the chapel of METHESCO).

Hope in the Resurrection of Christ and the immortality of the soul is all about giving the imaginative life of faith the lead. It is true.

Joni Eareckson Tada, who suffered a serious accident as a young woman and has been wheelchair bound ever since speaks to many audiences worldwide. Sharing her life story and how her faith in Christ has helped her overcome all the setbacks of her life, Joni is spellbinding as she speaks. However, speaking to a group of men and women of all ages who had various developmental disabilities, Joni was struggling to break through in her presentation. She began to describe heaven, in her imagination. She described a new heaven and a new earth, as in Revelation, with the former things having passed away. But, she as she looked out at her audience, she could tell she had lost their interest.

Then she paused, and she said quietly and with love, "Heaven will be the place where you all get new minds." In the split second that followed and as soon as the words were out of her mouth, Joni regretted having said this! What if she sounded paternalistic? What if she sounded cruel? But, before she could sink further into regrets, the room exploded with cheering and applause. The men and women in front of her gave her a standing ovation! Joni had tapped into their deepest hope. They, more than anyone, knew their minds were not fulfilled. She had touched them in their place of imagination and faith! She had touched them in their place of resurrection hope!

On this Children's Sabbath today, I am aware that the greatest hope in my life comes from our children. Unknowingly they embody hope and delight for us. I say unknowingly, because they don't set out to show us. They simply live their hope. They show us how to expect the new; to look toward that which is not yet, and to accept and risk the unspecified. They embody what we have lost in the way of imagination.

I recall a story of a young child who went into her new baby's bedroom one night. After her parents went downstairs, she sneaked in. What she didn't know was that mom and dad were listening to everything on the "baby Monitor" in the Living Room. She went to her little brother's bedside. She sang a song to the baby. Then she said, "Billy, tell me what heaven is like. I am beginning to forget. Little brother, please tell me about it so I don't forget."

Have we forgotten what heaven is like? Have we forgotten how to imagine? Have we forgotten how to hope?

In the aftermath of the horrors of September 11th and the war which has ensued, we can lose sight of God's calling to life and faith, if we lose sight of hope!

I must tell you that the themes for this Stewardship series were set on the peaceful shores of Lake Erie this past summer. I thought Faith, Hope, and Love would be excellent themes to approach stewardship. I still believe these themes should guide us.

In recent weeks, I have felt somewhat dismayed about people's response to our church's needs to meet our budget and some of the pessimistic projections for the coming year. I have heard it said that we might not meet our current budget and we should not expect needed faith-driven gifts for the coming year. These are projections which I understand. I have heard it said that because of the drop in the stock market, our campaign, "Faith in Action" will yield less results. On the surface, these projections might be true! But, our giving is based on faith. Susan and I hadn't even thought about the market. We increase our giving based on faith. Our faith and the hope we have is grounded in and growing out of our faith. This can't and won't deal with the surface of things! To do so is live without imagination and without hope in things not seen!

I believe, along with the Apostle Paul and Jesus Christ, that our hope comes from the things not seen, and in that hope I wait with patience. I believe, with God, we can overcome all adversity - including economic adversities - and achieve Great things! I believe in each and every one of you and your ability to step up and step forward in faith and to become the embodiment of hope for this community in this time! I believe that in the hope of the resurrection, nothing can stop us! I believe in our courage which carries us beyond hope-LESS-ness to carries us into hope-FULL-ness! I believe in God who makes all things new! In believe that in contrast to a world view which calls people inward, our faith calls us out to represent God's face to the world. TO bring hope to the world! And however it comes to pass, we find our hope when we are reminded once again of what Heaven is like! When the gift of God is rekindled within by the flame of Hope which will never be extinguished - even in the darkness nights. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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