Homily, March 21

What do you hope for?

What do we – as St. Dunstan’s – hope for? 

Jeremiah’s career as a prophet begins with warning people of the coming destruction and calling them to return to God’s ways, as Judea was increasingly threatened by the empire of Babylon.  Then, once the worst has happened – once Judea had been conquered, the Temple destroyed, the people dragged into exile – Jeremiah’s prophetic words and actions turn towards hope. Towards the promise that there is a future beyond this terrible time, this unimaginable loss and dislocation. 

The old covenant – at least, the part that said, “Be faithful to God and you shall live in the land God has given you” – lies shattered among the ruins of Jerusalem. God’s people were faithless, and here is the result. But Jeremiah insists that God’s faithfulness can build a new covenant among those ruins. 

Listen to God’s words to Israel through Jeremiah: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O daughter Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. See, I am going to bring [my people] from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame,  those with child and those in labour, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back… I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow…This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

A prophecy of return, renewal and rebirth. Words of hope beyond terrible loss and suffering…

Today’s Gospel reading marks a pivot point in John’s Gospel. These poor Greeks just want to meet Jesus… But their arrival is a sign, for Jesus, that his hour has come. The mission to the Gentiles is the apostles’ work, not his. It’s time for the story to turn towards the cross. Time for him to complete his work – by dying. 

And so he speaks a little about his death, and about what this next chapter will demand from those who follow him. His soul is troubled; it’s clear he feels the weight of what’s ahead. And yet, there is hope here.  “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it is buried, it may bear much fruit. 

In one of my visits to my office at church a few weeks ago, I rediscovered this book – a theological handbook of Old Testament themes, by Walter Brueggeman. Brueggeman is one of the greatest living Old Testament scholars. I used this book to help me think about covenant, as we’ve dwelt with covenant-focused texts in the lectionary this season. And this week I looked up the entry on Hope.

Brueggeman says that for the Old Testament, hope is fundamentally connected with the idea of covenant – and with the very nature of God. “Israel’s hope is based on the character of [God], who utters promises and whose promises Israel has found to be reliable.” 

He continues: “The hope articulated in ancient Israel is not a vague optimism or a generic good idea about the future; but a precise and concrete confidence in and expectation for the future that is rooted explicitly in [God’s] promises to Israel. In those promises,…  [God] has sworn to effect futures of well-being that are beyond the present condition of the world, and that cannot, in any credible way, be extrapolated from the present.”

About the prophetic promises, the promises spoken in times of disruption and loss, like Jeremiah’s words of consolation, Brueggeman writes, “The prophetic promises look beyond the present and anticipate a new arrangement of the world ‘in the days to come.’ These promises are not predictions but are rather acts of faithful imagination that dare to anticipate new futures on the basis of what [God] has done in the past.” (Brueggeman, 100-102)

Hope. I’ve been hearing people say: I finally feel hopeful again. Spring is in the air. Vaccination is moving along much faster than it seemed like it would, just a few weeks ago. Emergence, reconnection, recovery seem increasingly possible. 

The hopefulness to which we are called as people of faith is not quite the same as that general ambient optimism. The faithful hope of God’s people is not just that things will improve incrementally from the status quo. Such a hope has a hard time surviving profound disruptions and great losses. 

Our Biblical faith-ancestors show us the kind of resilient and faithful hope that trusts in God’s capacity to create new futures.  This is hope as a conviction that God is at work in history, such that new ways of being are possible which we cannot imagine from where we’re standing in the present. 

God’s people did survive exile and return to their homeland. But it wasn’t just the way it had been before. Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to his grieving friends. But it wasn’t just the way it had been before. The future that is being born right now, for us as Americans, as Wisconsinites, as our individual selves, as the people of St. Dunstan’s, will not be just the way it was before. 

It’s okay to grieve that. In fact, it’s important to make space to grieve what has been lost. 

But it’s also important to hold hope, together.

The holy hope that God is making a new future for us – as Americans, as Wisconsinites, as our individual selves, as the people of St. Dunstan’s – and that we are called as co-creators to join that work. 

Almost exactly a year after we closed our building to public worship, we are starting to make plans – tentative, careful plans – to begin to gather in person once again. There’s always the chance of pulling back if cases start to rise again; and it will be a while yet before we’re gathering indoors comfortably, or singing together on a regular basis. But maybe, just maybe, we are starting to feel a little resonance with Jeremiah’s song of return from exile:  “See, I am going gather them from the farthest parts of the earth; a great company, they shall return; with consolations I will lead them back…”

At the same time, I know that many of us feel like we spent a year confined. Entombed, buried, like the seed in Jesus’ saying. Now, warming weather and spring rains invite new growth…. what will this new seedling look like? What fruit will it eventually bear? 

I want to spend the rest of this time in some shared reflection on a few questions. I can guess at some answers, and I’ve had conversations like this with some groups, like the Vestry.  But I want to hear from this broader group. 

A few notes before we begin: I am going to ask the questions one at a time; please ANSWER them as they are asked, for clarity’s sake. But I’m showing them all to you now in case that helps your thought process. 

You can share a response by unmuting and speaking out loud, or by typing in the chat. If you speak, please keep your remarks brief – one sentence – so that we can share the time well. If you want to write a paragraph in the chat, knock yourself out. :-)

Let’s be intentional about holding this as an open space. We will undoubtedly have some different answers, even some answers that are at odds. That’s not surprising – and it’s OK. Be kind and practice good listening. 

I’m most interested in thoughts about church and faith. But I understand that our lives are all one thing; there aren’t clear lines. Whatever comes to mind for you is fine to share. 

1. What things from the Beforetimes do you suspect (or hope) are gone for good? … 

2. What things from the Beforetimes do you hope to find a way to bring back – or reimagine in some new form? 

3. What new things from this season do you hope to carry forward?…

4. As we look ahead to the next few months: 

– What are you worried about?

– What are you hopeful about?

– What are you curious about? 

Thank you all for this time of wondering. 

There’s no tidy way to wrap all that up. But I believe that shared reflection, and naming our losses, ambivalences, and hopes, will help us with the work of faithful imagination that Brueggeman mentions – and help us discern and discover how God is inviting us to move forward together.

Let us pray. 

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Some things have died.

Some things have been born.

What do we want to resurrect? What do we want to leave behind?

Is there anything that died in this time, that can fertilize new life and growth? 

ALSO USE THIS TIME TO TALK ABOUT SOME OF THIS. We are not the same church, not the same group of people, that we were a year ago.

When we can be together in person again, ** remember to be there for the newcomer. ** It will be exciting to see friends from the Beforetimes, whether those you’ve only seen online for months or those you haven’t seen much at all for a year or more. Celebrating being together is right and good! We just also need to make space to welcome and celebrate those who have become part of our fellowship DURING the pandemic, and those who – believe it or not – will find their way to us for the first time in the weeks and months ahead. 

Our yearning to re-connect is natural and lovely. I’m just inviting us to prepare our hearts with joy to welcome new connections, as well.

ALSO NEED TO SAY: There’s a group that has stayed connected and to some extent deepened connection through online worship during this time. 

What do we say when we come back together? …

It’s good to be together; how has it been for you; what are you looking forward to ?… 

There’ll probably be a few months when we’re re-integrating – seeing which of our Zoom church habits become building church habit, and EXPLAINING them, because not everybody was there. 

Invitation to think and talk about what we MISS and DON’T MISS about building church…

And what we want to KEEP or LET GO from Zoom Church. 

“A strong case has been made that a defining mark of a postindustrial, technological world is despair, the inability to trust in any new or good future that is promised and may yet  be given. Insofar as despair marks the current social environment of faith, to that extent hope is a distinctive mark of faith with dangerous and revolutionary social potential.” (Brueggeman, p. 102)