This is a very personal sermon for Trinity United Methodist Church
Romans 5: 3-5 (NRSV)
3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
The Word of God for the People of God...... and The Word of God is HOPE.
My title for today is “Two Steps Forward,” You know the rest of that phrase - “one step back.” It comes from an anecdote about a frog who fell into a deep well. He could look up and see the sky, but it seemed far away. He thought, “What can I do? I can jump!” So he jumped as high as he could, and his sticky feet caught on a little ledge of rock. “Good.” he thought, and he jumped again. Again he got a little foothold. “I'm making progress,” he said to himself, but then he began sliding backwards, back down to the little ledge. “Oh, no!” he cried. After resting a little while, he looked up to the small spot of sky and decided to try again. One jump, two jumps, then sliding backwards. Would he ever make it out of the deep well?
Life is like that, isn't it? We seldom make steady progress forward and set-backs, both large and small are part of life. The longer we live, the more we can see the pattern of peaks and valleys in our lives. In our life together in the church, we experience these peaks and valleys as well. In recent months, we may feel like we've taken, not one, but ten steps back. We have suffered over the fate of our church. We have mourned the loss of fellowship among our members. We may wonder if we will ever move forward, upward again.
But God has promised that our suffering need not be in vain; that from suffering can come hope. Let's look at the history of God's people. It has not been one of steady progress, and the back-sliding started right in the Garden of Eden. What a major step back to thrown out of the garden, into the world to fend for themselves. But in that step back, Adam and Eve became fully human, exercising their God-given ability to make choices, even bad ones. They experienced suffering and from their suffering, the human race was born. Noah's world was flooded and he lost everything he had known, but from that devastation, the world was remade. Abraham and Sarah suffered, childless, but they endured and God kept his promise to make of them a great nation. Joseph was sold into slavery, but became the savior of his people. Moses, when he came down from Mount Sinia with the tablets of God's laws was angry and heartbroken that the people had made a bad choice, turning away from God to the worship of idols. Yet God made of them a mighty nation with many ups and downs. Later that nation was destroyed along with the magnificent temple built by Solomon and the people we taken away to captivity in Babylon. They suffered and endured and grew in character. Eventually, 400 years later, they were set free to return to their homeland. Rev. Madigan reminded us last week, God kept his promises and keeps his promises.
As we see throughout the Old Testament, God works in his own time. God waits. God intervenes reluctantly in history. There were a few dramatic miracles: the burning bush, the plagues on the Egyptians, Elijah calling down fire to defeat the prophets of Baal. Hundreds of years may have passed between these events. Years in which people suffered, endured, waited with hope, but God did not miraculously intervene. God waited for right partner to work his miracles. He waited until the people were ready to receive him. God moves with agonizing slowness according to our human time frame. We want God to come down and fix things NOW, to smite our enemies with fire, or at least make them go away.
God's last big supernatural intervention that I know of was of a different nature. Last time, he sent His Son Jesus, to live among us and teach us how to be children of his own heart. What a different plan! No flood and fire, no war and destruction, but His Son, just living and breathing and teaching about God's kingdom, about Love. Can you imagine how the disciples must have felt when Jesus was arrested and crucified? It must have seemed that their world had ended; that what they hoped for was lost. Talk about stepping back! But, miraculously, Jesus returned and gave them hope. He walked with them, still teaching, for 40 more days, before leaving again. Jesus departure must have seemed like a another step backwards, but it was necessary to open the way for Pentecost. Jesus had to leave to make way for the Holy Spirit, our guide and comforter still today.
Through Jesus, God made a New Covenant with his people, a covenant of love, available to all, not just a chosen few. Jesus taught us that God desires, has always desired, a relationship – to love and be loved. He taught us that the Kingdom of God will advance, not through power and might, but through grace and love; not through our own efforts, but by allowing His Holy Spirit to work in and through us.
God's Holy Spirit doesn't come at us with shouting and ranting, but with whispers. God's Holy Spirit brings peace, not turmoil. God's Holy Spirit is available to all, requiring only that we receive it.
So what's our problem, people? We know that we desire peace and wholeness. We want our church to be a community of loving fellowship. We want to spread the good news to our neighbors and have them join our fellowship. What's stopping us? We are asking the same question that the crowd asked Peter on that first Pentecost day, “Brothers and Sisters, what do we do now?”
Let me remind you of another familiar story, the Myth of Sisyphus. Because of his arogance, thinking that he bettermore than the gods, Sisyphus was condemned to spend every day pushing a huge boulder up a hill. At night, the boulder would roll down to the bottom and Sisyphus would have to repeat the same task the next day. He wasn't like the little frog, who at least made some progress to the top. He was doomed to never reach the top of the hill. Doing the same thing over and over didn't produce any results, just frustration.
Five years ago I stood before you on a June Sunday, in a time of transition. My topic that day was “After and Before,” after one phase of life ends and before another one begins. We find ourselves in a similar place today. This time, what do we need to do differently so that we are like the little frog, who made progress, instead of like Sisyphus, who kept repeating the same fruitless cycle. In the last five years, I have grown as a Christian, not in spite of our suffering, but because of it. Maybe God has allowed us to suffer the consequences of our choices, to fall down to the bottom of the well, so that we will look up to Him for help.
I don't know what the church needs to do differently. But I know what I need to do. God has made a provision for me, for us, through His Holy Spirit. I need to receive Him. I need to make room in my heart for God. Maybe I've been filled with negative emotions. Maybe I've hardened my heart. (Move to demo-Large glass container, pitcher of water, big rocks) Some of us (me) have allowed hard spots to form and grow in our hearts, like stones - stones of anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, mistrust. ( Put stones in jar)
We are miserable, so, we pray for God to bring us peace and healing. BUT, you know God, I'm right. Billy Joe Tom Bob Mary Sue Ellen did wrong and hasn't confessed. They hurt my feelings, and worse yet, said something hurtful about my child. They lied, betrayed my trust. You know, God, these things happened, and I want you to fix them and send your Holy Spirit so that I may have peace. God hears and wants to help and heal
But look, the stones are still there, occupying my heart, and there is not much room left for God. Maybe I need to ask God to remove these stones. Maybe I need to empty myselfs in order to be filled.
(Remove stones, one by one) Anger, bitterness, resentment, jealousy, mistrust – It is these stones that are dragging us back. When we let go of these stones, allow God to remove them, look how much more room there is now for God. (Pour more water).
We are, I pray, on the path toward healing, two steps forward. We have been broken. We are hurting. We are ready to heal. Even so, sometimes we wonder if we will just keep repeating a fruitless cycle, like Sisyphus. Or will we begin moving forward.
So let us boast in our suffering. From our suffering we are growing in strength and endurance. As we do we build Christian character. We become mature Christians who place our hope in God's promises. He has promised us love and redemption. He is faithful and just. He is forgiving. He is loving. He keeps His promises.
It really depends on what we choose. Can we let go of those stones that are blocking our progress? Can we make room for God? We are a great people and a great church. With God's help and with His Holy Spirit, we can dissolve those stones, we can take a step forward, two steps forward. In fact, we have already begun.
When the Israelites were taken into captivity in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah was called speak for God. That was a during a time of a tremendous set-back for God's people, and they must have thought that God had abandoned them. Jeremiah didn't mince words in telling the people about their shortcomings. However, in Chapter 29, verse 11, Jeremiah has these words from God: “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the LORD; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.”
I don't know exactly what the future will look like for Trinity United Methodist Church. We may have to do some more of letting go of old habits in order be who God would have us be. But I have faith that God is not through with us...we have a future filled with hope and important work yet to do for Him in Lenoir City.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are our Hope.
Benediction: Philippians 4:4-7
supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
In Whose Holy name we pray. Amen.