Saturday 11 April 2009

Hope is a Verb!

Easter Sermon 2009

I don’t know about you but I am getting very weary of bad news, of the blame game, of prophesies and predictions of catastrophe. It doesn’t really matter whether they are true or not because the negative energy that has been generated has taken on a life of its own and is almost like a snowball rolling downhill growing larger and more threatening by the minute.
The relentless media coverage of the Credit Crunch / Recession / Depression / Downturn – whatever you want to call it has become a self-fulfilling prophesy – everyone is talking about it – even clergy in pulpits at Easter! Church, the one place where you though you might escape the incessant drone of despair is not safe! Here too it is all pervasive. The fear that is bred by this talk is now added to by a budget that creates real hardship for a lot of people. This is something we cannot ignore. People are hurting and if we believe the prophets of doom people are going to hurt even more! I’m not suggesting for a moment that we don’t need to hear this bad news – we do need to know what is coming – it would be very easy to criticize the economic pundits who are the messengers – very tempting indeed to shoot the messengers!

So what should our response be?
They say that religion thrives best in times of war and suffering in general – Some say that is because people will resort to anything when they are desperate – they will cling to anything that offers hope, no matter how unrealistic. That may be so but I don’t think it’s the whole story. I think it is rather and more the case that when we are broken in spirit that we realise that we need something more – something that gives us the ability to see beyond the horizon.
But there is a danger that we get it wrong – that we misdirect people in these times of trial. It is tempting for people to withdraw into the interior life when external circumstances are too traumatic to face, to focus on another time when things will be better, to hide and take cover until the storm passes. This is very often reflected in the way we Christians talk about heaven – we look on it as the escape capsule, the evacuation route when things in life are finally too much for us to bear.

At Easter especially people tend to think about heaven because traditionally in the Church we have linked Resurrection with Heaven when in fact the biblical sources point much more towards Resurrection as part of God’s work in redeeming Creation, bringing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. There is a growing realisation in contemporary theology that this emphasis on Heaven as an escape route has damaged Christianity’s ability to transform people and the whole of God’s Creation. It has led in fact to the neglect of Creation and meant that Christians were among the last group of people to acknowledge both the reality of Climate Change and the importance of it. This Earth matters – This is a creation of God’s Love for us – This earthly home is Holy ground and everything that lives and breathes on it and the rock and sea and soil that sustain our life are worthy of respect and reverence.

So we have a calling to respond to the suffering of God’s people – Easter is about Hope but that hope is not just something that happens – it is something that we play a part in making a reality. Hope is a verb and an active one. We are not to resign ourselves to a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom. Easier said than done – I was at a central church meeting in Dublin recently and we were discussing finance. All the talk in the room was about what we would have to cut, how we could survive, what we could no longer do! It was hugely depressing. Finally I could listen no more and got up and pointed out that we are supposed to be a community of Hope – every challenge is an opportunity and that if we as Church became a part of the cycle of doom and gloom then we would be feeding this self-fulfilling prophesy. I think some people thought I was being unrealistic but perhaps we are called to be unrealistic to see the possibility of another reality, to realise that that God’s wonderful Creation is pregnant with possibility.
A little illustration of this and this is not an argument against Climate Change. One of the main manifestations of Climate Change is the excess of CO2 gas – One of the ways CO2 is dealt with by nature is through absorbsion by plants and trees. On the basis of the rate of CO2 increase, the depletion of Trees and plants and other factors scientists can calculate the rate of progress of Global Warming. Just recently those calculations have been changed slightly when it was discovered that plants and trees had quite significantly increased their rate of CO2 absorbsion thus giving Creation quite literally more breathing space. It is not enough on its own but it puts it up to us to do our part, not to sit back and say how wonderful it is that we have a few more years before disaster strikes. This is an opportunity born of the unseen potential of God’s wonderful Creation to transform reality.

In the same way the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not simply a proof that the resurrection of the dead is a reality and that all will be well for us in eternity – the Resurrection is a call to action. Look at our Gospel reading: The two Marys have gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus body – they find the stone rolled away and man dressed in a white robe who tells them to tell the disciples that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee where they will see him…..the journey is not over – in a sense it has only just begun. They have work to do – The kingdom of God is at hand and peoples lives are about to be transformed by a new reality that is in their midst.

That is the message that we Christians are called to carry in the World today. It is a message that says we are not defined by our yesterdays or even our todays but rather by the possibilities that are all around us in this Holy Land. That’s what Resurrection is! Borrowing a phrase from a certain contemporary politician “We have to be the Hope that we believe in” – We can’t wait for it to happen – We are agents of change and transformation. That’s what being a follower of Jesus is! In response to hardship we are not called to lay blame or to wallow in self pity but rather to ask ourselves what would Jesus have us do? How can we give people hope in times of difficulty and how can we achieve the potential that God has created in us. If we embrace that message then it too can have a snowball effect and bring real and lasting transformation in peoples lives. What would Jesus have me do? What would Jesus have you do?


Dineen said...

This is by far the best message of Hope and men's mission to carry it out that I have read in a long time. Thank you, Rev. Stephen.
He is Risen!

Stephen Neill said...

Dineen - Thank you indeed for your affirmation :-)
He is Risen indeed!