This is the sermon I preached today June 12 at Wyatt Park Baptist Church.
I want to echo George’s sentiments last week about being invited here to preach. I remember George and the boys who lived with Jim Stuck. I was in the youth group at the time with Summer Campbell, Sue Ellen Ray, Laura Hamilton, and Angela Porter, and since Summer Campbell and I were close friends, she and I were occasionally found tailing all the older boys, the friends of Jana and Shannon, her older sisters. And now I come in on the tails of George again. George spoke last week of repentance, of turning around from the sin that sends us to death so that we may receive life. If you didn’t grow up in the church, allow me to simplify: repenting means saying you’re sorry for the sorry stuff you’ve done and committing to change.
“But why change?” Many will ask. “I like my life. I don’t do anything necessarily bad. I don’t murder or steal, heck I haven’t even cheated on my husband. I do my taxes, I go to church, and I attend my kid’s tee-ball games. I’m a stellar citizen.” And besides, many justify, “I don’t even believe in hell anyway! Hell is a hyperbole: a trick of words and metaphors to scare us into ‘loving’ a god.”
So, what’s the point? Eternal life? For some, yes, that is the point. That ticket into heaven, that guarantee of eternal freedom from the gnashing of teeth. Please don’t hear me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with heaven. But I wonder, could there be more to Christianity than someday?
I work as a permanent substitute at a high school on the South East side of Austin. This means virtually nothing to you in Missouri, but in Austin the words South East triggers some serious imagery. My high school is mostly Hispanic with some African Americans, and only enough Caucasians for me to count on one hand. But its “ethnic diversity” has nothing to do with integrating cultures or learning in an accelerated environment. Rather it has everything to do with poverty, immigration and the survival of the fittest. Three weeks before school ended, a gang (two cars full) jumped one of our students walking home from school. They were beating him with a lead pipe when one of our Assistant Principals saw him and jumped out of her car to save him. She screamed for help, but no one else stopped. Two large men across the street kept right on walking – no one wants to get involved in gang wars. On the last day of school there were threats of a drive by shooting. Add that tension to our pregnant, drug pushing, illiterate students (many without parents), and you’ve got a real party in East Austin.
Now there is some serious repentance that needs to go on there, right? No part of what I just described is holy or righteous. No part clean or atoned for. Right? Pre-marital sex, drug abuse, child abuse, underage drinking, disrespect, unchecked aggression, negligent parenting, rape, stalking, swearing that would make a sailor look tame . . . you name it, we got it. It’s easy for us to spot a bruise and point a finger at the fist that made it. It’s not so easy to spot the scars on our hearts we create ourselves.
No one’s a perfect parent. No one’s a perfect daughter. No one’s a perfect business partner, or teacher, or pastor or waitress. We all screw up: we lose our tempers, we cut corners financially, we step on others to get ahead, we criticize our neighbors, chew out our bosses behind their backs, and lament that our children have not grown up to be just like us. We vote for the guy with the biggest tax cuts but forget to tithe or give back to the community. We like to watch the girls volleyball team, but not because we enjoy the sport. We believe an environmental consciousness is healthy and even fashionable at times, but we don’t recycle. We whine about our weight but refuse to eat right or exercise. We see our kids wasting away, but are afraid to talk to them about eating disorders. We feel bad about poor people so we give them a dollar on the street instead of an umbrella or the coat off our back.
Have I struck a nerve? I do not intend to accuse. I had to dig through the mess I’ve made of my heart just to say these things today. I’ve been to hell and back dealing with my own shortcomings and my list of grievances against myself is not small. I need help . . . and I need hope.
Please turn in your Bibles with me to Lamentations 3:17-32. Lamentations puts to paper the pain Israel felt after Jerusalem fell to Babylon and they were carried off into exile. It is not the book most people turn to for hope, but follow along with me, I’ll be reading from the Message Translation.
17 I gave up on life altogether. I've forgotten what the good life is like. I said to myself, "This is it. I'm finished. GOD is a lost cause." I'll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness, the taste of ashes, the poison I've swallowed. I remember it all--oh, how well I remember -- the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there's one other thing I remember, and remembering, I keep a grip on hope: GOD's loyal love couldn't have run out, his merciful love couldn't have dried up. They're created new every morning. How great your faithfulness! I'm sticking with GOD (I say it over and over). He's all I've got left.
GOD proves to be good to the man who passionately waits, to the woman who diligently seeks. It's a good thing to quietly hope, quietly hope for help from GOD. It's a good thing when you're young to stick it out through the hard times. When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence. Bow in prayer. Don't ask questions: Wait for hope to appear. Don't run from trouble. Take it full-face. The "worst" is never the worst. Why? Because the Lord won't ever walk out and fail to return. If he works severely, he also works tenderly. His stockpiles of loyal love are immense.
Last month was my birthday. And on my special day, when I went into my supervisor, Laurie’s office, she handed me a gift – a small candle in a beautiful container. She smiled and said she thought it looked like it had crosses on it. She knows I volunteer a lot at my church. But then she looked at me, and I saw her eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know if I ever told you,” she said. “My son died a year and a half ago. He would have turned 28 May 2nd. But he caught a disease that ate away at his heart, and he was gone in six weeks. I grew up in the church,” she told me. “I used to believe in God, I don’t anymore.”
Laurie has lost hope. You see, some of our hearts are broken not only by our own sin, but by circumstances beyond our control. If you’ve heard the word cancer in the doctor’s diagnosis, you know what I mean. If you’ve ever awakened to find your spouse in love with another person, you know what it means to be a victim of sin. If you’ve lost it all in a fire or flood, if you’ve been passed over on a job because of your race or gender, if you’ve been a victim of emotional, sexual or physical abuse, you know the pain this world distributes.
And you know it’s time for hope. Verse 33.
33 God takes no pleasure in making life hard, in throwing roadblocks in the way:
When prisoners of the land are crushed under foot,
When human rights are perverted in the courts of the Most High,
When the evidence in a case is tampered with – does the Lord not see it?
Hebrew scholars note that each chapter in Lamentations follows an alphabet pattern with the first word in a stanza beginning with alef, A, the second with bet, B, and so on. Some speculate that this system creates a helpful memory aid – but this does not seem to be the case here. Rather, limiting the verses from alef to tav (A to Z) puts a limit on the amount of sorrow to be expressed for the sake of the individual, a helpful way of creating closure, of not allowing the suffering to continue. However, the use of the alphabet may also be a way to communicate the completeness of grief suffered – the full breadth of pain from A to Z.
Sometimes at my church in Austin, we sing old spirituals: “Soon we’ll be done with the trouble of the world, the trouble of the world, the trouble of the world. Soon we’ll be done with the trouble of the world, and going to live with God. No more weepin’ and a wailin’, no more weepin’ and a wailin’, no more weepin’ and a wailin’, going to live with God.” And I like it when we sing those songs cause I can just sing my heart out – sing my sin away, sing my pain away, and I know that someday a heaven awaits me.
But I have some other favorites too that remind me of what awaits me now. Christian songwriter Don Chaffer sings, “In the gas station bathroom by the condom machine, I heard the word of the Lord. He said ‘Take off your shoes, this is holy ground too. You know I came for the sick and the bored.’” Pretty blunt lyrics for a Christian to sing, right? But fortunately, we don’t just believe in a God of someday, but a God of now. He is not just a God of the holy, but a God of the broken too. We believe in a God, Jesus Christ, who was born poorer than any of us here to a young teenager and a man in a cave reeking of cow dung. We believe in a God who stepped into this world full of selfishness, bitterness, envy and lust, to try and communicate how much He loves us. We believe in a God who hugged lepers, clothed prostitutes and fed the beggars. We believe in a God who partied with people who cheated their neighbors, slept with their neighbors, and killed their neighbors. We believe in a God who might just have volunteered to work with students and faculty at a school in South East Austin. Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote, “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” When Jesus looks at us, he does not see sorry sinners, but beautiful, full humans made in the image of God. Jesus sees each of us where we are and offers to walk through the valleys and the mountains, the highs and the lows alongside us, to cry when we cry and laugh when we laugh. And that gives me hope to get through today and tomorrow.
55 "I called out your name, O GOD, called from the bottom of the pit.
You listened when I called out, "Don't shut your ears! Get me out of here! Save me!'
You came close when I called out. You said, "It's going to be all right.'
"You took my side, Lord; you brought me back alive!
The good news is hope has come. Hope is not a person, but a God, Jesus Christ, who became a person to understand our pain and take it on as His own. He came to demonstrate what it means to love one another. Hope has entered the world to usher in a new kingdom calling for repentance, justice and the opening of our eyes and hearts to the story of God. And Hope calls us to allow that story to integrate with our own. Because we now see, because we now hear, because we now feel what it means to have hope, our story changes from one of selfishness and pain to one of caring and worship. The Deuteronomic code in the Old Testament, the Israelite’s “motto for life,” the Golden Rule we now call it, is repeated by Jesus in each of the four gospels as the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor.” Love God and take care of each other. In other words, now that you have found Hope amidst sorrow, worship. And now that you have found ultimate love, learn to love others, for indeed, Hope compels us to. You may be able to offer hope through a meal, a donation, a helping hand, a tutorial, music, art, a conversation, even through the telling of your own story. No matter who you are or who you aren’t, what you do or what you’ve done, the pain you’ve caused or the pain you’ve inherited, no one is beyond the healing hope of Jesus Christ. The Good News is hope has come.
“When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrow like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well – Hope has come.”