Sunday, May 29, 2011

Account for the Hope In You

Account for the Hope In You

© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor

Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 29, 2011

I Peter 3:13-22

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you

an accounting for the hope that is in you.

What are you afraid of? People are afraid of different things and have different reactions to their fears. There was a story told about a couple fleeing in their night clothes to a bomb shelter while their block was being flattened during the blitz in London in World War II. They had just reached the street when the woman turned to go back to the house, and the husband, frantic at his wife’s erratic behavior given the circumstances, shouted at her, “Where are you going?!”

“Have to go back,” she replied, “forgot my false teeth.”

To which her husband replied, just able to make himself heard above the din of falling bombs, “For God’s sake! They’re not dropping sandwiches you know!”

Different people fear different things. One man’s fear of German bombs was matched only by his wife’s fear of being seen in public without her teeth in place. Different priorities, yet one thing in common: Fear.

What are you afraid of?

Verna Dozier, Episcopal lay woman, biblical scholar, and African-American activist, set the biblical studies world ajar 20 years ago when she wrote in her best-known book that “doubt is not the opposite of faith, fear is.”1 That is a phrase that stays with a person, especially any among us who has known fear.

The opposite of faither is fear. There is no sense trying to claim to be fearless people. We all know fear, and we all have fears, some that haunt us only on occasion, others that are with us hour by hour. Some may live with the fear that the business will go badly this year, that the medical bills will not get paid, that there might be a continuation of the economic downturn into next year and money in the family kitty will dry up. We may have a gnawing fear that we’ll not have enough money to live on throughout retirement, that we won’t get into the college we choose, that the fan belt we have nursed through four years of our car’s life will finally go bad on our next trip east of the Cascades.

There are big fears and little ones.

A big fear usually involves things beyond our control, like the state of the economy, or violence in the streets or the fear of world-wide political chaos, a loss of income, or insurance, or a job, random shootings on city streets.

Little fears have their day too. But at least they appear to be in some ways within our control, or nearly so. We may be afraid:

· that we won’t get the promotion we want...

· ...or that we will, and we’ll have to pack the family and move a thousand miles again;

· that since we missed the deadline for filing form 1040, we’ll have to pay a penalty;

· that the car won’t start;

· that the refrigerator will need replacing;

· that the roast will be burned;

· that the water didn’t get shut off before we left home on vacation.

The list of things the human mind can fear is limited only by the amount of time we have for tallying it.

When Peter wrote, “Do not fear what they fear,” he was echoing the prophet Isaiah2 who wrote to the people in Israel during a fearful time. Nations around them were allying together against tiny Israel. Yet Isaiah wrote, “Do not fear what they fear.” He reminded the people of Israel of the very thing we all need to remember but often forget: that God is Lord over all possibilities; God – not the Syrians, Romans, Americans, or Al Qaeda warlords – God is the true ruler of history, no matter how things appear in the short term.

In I Peter, the hard thing for us to swallow may not be that we should avoid fearing all the things we do fear, but that we should save a holy emotion like fear for the one who has real power over life. Peter said, “Do not fear what they fear...but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”

Dethrone fear of the contingent, the temporary, and instead reverence Christ who rules the world for ever. Don’t reverence, fear, or stand in awe of your tormentors more than you fear God. That certainly is blasphemy. When others seem to have more power to destroy us than God has to save us, it is an overwhelming fear. Peter told his readers and he tells us, decide ahead of time not to give in to such unholy fear. Then, if the time comes, we will be prepared to account for the hope that lives in us because of our faith that Christ truly is Lord of all life.

A sermon which dwells this way on fear in the post-Easter season may come as a surprise. We believe in a loving God, and this sermon was to have been about hope, if we can judge by the title. And there is in fear, paradoxically, something of the essence of hope. Knowing what we fear gives us information about the thing upon which we base our deepest hopes.

Lots of famous people have uttered equally famous words on the subject of hope. Miguel de Cervantes best-known character, Don Quixote, said, “Sanity may be madness but the maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.”

Elie Wiesel, Jewish survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, once wrote, “…just as despair can come to one another only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.” Christians believe this has come to pass for us in the person and work of Christ among us, human as we are human.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.”

Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime, therefore, we are saved by hope…”

Poet Václav Havel, arguably one of a handful of true twentieth century political heroes, who managed to outlast the crumbling Soviet empire and bring his native Czechoslovakia into the family of free nations, said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

How do you envision the essence of hope, how do you account for the hope that the love of Christ places in you?

Biblically speaking, there are two types of fear about which we often hear: The first fear relates to the love God has for us, yet the second often characterizes the timid response we make to that love. These are fears born of love: of Christ’s ultimate love for us and our inadequate response to his love.

For believers, then, the word hope deals with the deepest longings as well as the most desperate fears within us. It is not a mere sigh, a whim, a casual wish: we hope it won’t be too hot (or cold!) today, that Santa will get to our house next year, that we’ll make the green light at the next intersection; these have nothing to do with biblical hope and aren’t really hopes at all, but fleeting wishes.

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” Dr. Scott Hahn3 in his book, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, shared a story from the deadly 1998 earthquake in Northwest Armenia, which claimed 25,000 lives in a single day. It could as well be a picture of the lives of thousands of citizens in Joplin, Missouri this week. After that quake in Armenia, a distressed father ran frantically through the streets to his son’s school. He had always told his son “No matter what, Armand, I’ll always be there.” His heart sank when he got to the school and found nothing but a pile of rubble. Even so, he ran to the corner where he knew his son’s classroom had been and began to dig with his bare hands. A bystander told him, “Forget it, mister, they’re all dead.” Any of us, in the same situation, might have tried to help a grieving father simply face reality. But that father looked up and said, “You can criticize me or you can help lift these bricks.” A few people of generous spirit helped move bricks for a while, but the situation seemed so hopeless, they soon wandered away. Still the father continued to dig. 12, 18, 24, 36 hours went by. Still he dug. Then he heard a muffled groan. He pulled a board back and cried out, “Armand!” From the hole in the wreckage of the building came a weak, shaking reply, “Papa?” They managed to find 14 of the 33 students still alive. When Armand was finally freed he turned to his friends and said, “See, I told you my father wouldn't forget us.” Our hope is like the hope of that son, only more so. Armand’s father is but a small example of the kind of Father we know through Jesus Christ.

The essence of biblical hope – if the words of I Peter are to be believed – rests in a decision that sets aside fear. A decision for the Lord. And that decision remains even when our emotions or our failed circumstances might carry us away from it. It is a conviction that the future and all that will take place in it are already being redeemed by Christ. No matter where our lives may take us, Christ is there ahead of us already, redeeming the times and the seasons in which we live.

© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1 The Dream of God: A Call to Return, by Verna Dozier [], © 1991, Cowley Publications.

2 Isaiah 8:12.

3 A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God's Covenant Love in Scripture, Charis Books, © 1998 by Scott Hahn. Dr. Hahn is the founder of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It’s a Big, Big House

It’s a Big, Big House

© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder

Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 22, 2011

I Peter 2:2-10

John 14:1-14

Home. It is a recurring theme in I Peter. The idea that the household of faith is the new believer’s home, runs throughout the letter. An old friend of mine once gave me a unique definition of home. He said, “It is the place where you can make it from the bedroom to the refrigerator in the dark.”

Thinking on the meanings of house and home, I am reminded of Robert Frost’s poetic line: “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”[1] It comes from a poem in which a man comes home to die, even though his real family has moved away. Nevertheless, the family living in the house takes him in, proving the New Testament’s frequent observation that home is sometimes more a matter of a chosen family than a biological one.

I think Yogi Berra once said, in his characteristic way of stating the unmistakably obvious, that “Things are more like they are now than they have ever been before.” That’s a little like one of my favorite definitions of home. To me, home is where you feel more like yourself than anywhere else. Some people prove this in a backward way by going to any lengths to keep away from their houses at night, so little do they feel themselves to be at home there. The cast of characters in the old TV 1980s series, Cheers, dramatized that sad fact. Of course, the corner bar isn’t the only substitute people find for home. There are many folks who feel more at home at work than in their houses. Others may be more at home at the ball park where they are free to say loud and obscene things to players and umpires, behavior frowned upon in many homes but not at a lot of sporting events I have attended.

If our ideas of home are varied, so are the limitations on those who are able to be at home around us. Remember the family or families in the neighborhood where you grew up who always seemed to have 3 or 4 extra children with their feet under the dinner table at night? In my childhood neighborhood, they were the people who could never feel at home unless everyone else in their neighborhood felt that way too. In contrast, I also remember a cool white house across the street and a few doors down from my family’s home. In my childhood memory, it was inhabited by pasty-skinned people who always wore starchy-looking clothes. My parents said it was an immaculate home, though I couldn’t verify that from any personal experience. Children, as far as I know, were never allowed inside.

Some folks think of home as a place where ancestors are celebrated. I remember a high school history class in which we were each asked in turn to say something about one of the ancestors in our families who were celebrated by some well-worn family story. I told a few details about the only moderately famous ancestor I know of, my great, great, great grandfather Tompkins, former governor of New York who served as vice president of the United States when James Monroe was president. The boy seated next to me followed my story with a strange sort of one-upmanship. His great grandfather had been hung in Texarkana for stealing horses. You’ll never guess which story made a bigger impression on the class.

Even though Matthew and Luke go to some trouble to list extensive genealogies for Jesus, I think they knew in the backs of their minds that Jesus was the Son of God whose real family, as he himself said, were not related to him by blood, but rather were those who heard the will of God and went about doing it. [2]

In John 14 it appears that in Jesus’ view it isn’t human fathers or mothers that matter when it comes to salvation. My friend with his horse-thieving great grandfather and I with my blue-blooded ancestor each have equal access to the only parent that matters, our Father in heaven. It is no wonder that people have found John 14 to be such a source of comfort for centuries. When folks gather following the death of a loved one, as often as not, John 14 is read to comfort them. Why do you suppose that is?

These were the first words spoken by Jesus to his disciples after he had told them that it was necessary that he die soon. Harsh words of reality were then followed by words of comfort about the household of God. “Don’t be worried and upset,” says one translation of these famous words, “believe in God, and believe also in me.” If they believed in God, Jesus said, then believing in him should be as simple as falling off a log. The God who had taken the slaves of Egypt and brought them through the Exodus to the renewal of the promised land, the God who had seen his people carried off to Babylon in exile yet returned to the land he had given them, for this God, redemption seemed to be his hallmark. If we believe God is capable of bringing life where there had been death, redeeming what we had feared was hopelessly lost, time after time making new that which we were certain was finished and done, if we believe in the God of the Exodus, then we can believe in Jesus. If we believe God brings dead nations, people, ideas to life again, then we can believe that there is more to the life of Jesus than that short 33 years of it which he knew in first-century Palestine.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus told us that we are his true brothers and sisters. There is ample space, then, for the whole family in the great household of God. If we want to see how big the family is, then we need only to look around. These are our brothers, these are our sisters. If we are in Christ, we are at home with one another, whether our grandaddy was a horse thief or a politician – or both.

In John 14 Jesus said, “there are many dwelling places.” There is no housing shortage for this home. Our home is the wide heart of God – room for plenty more than the ones who have made themselves at home already. All those bad and sometimes tasteless jokes about Saint Peter at the gates of heaven administering a final exam, or asking folks to wait, or placing some high and some low in heavenly condominiums, all these are just that: jokes. They bear no resemblance to the picture Jesus painted of God’s kingdom as a place of endless spaciousness.

We may be like Thomas. We want to know the way to this place Jesus describes. We lack a road map, a compass. How do we get there, Jesus? Like Thomas, we fail to see the forest for the trees. Jesus said, “I am the way.” No need for a map. If you are with Jesus, you are there. So we want to know how to be with Jesus that we may be there already. For this we need only remember the household of faith. If we are in the company of brothers and sisters in faith, we are in the very presence of Jesus. That is his promise.

Many years ago now I helped build houses on a mission trip to Mexico with the youth from the church where I was the pastor, and they introduced me to a song, popular at the time, by a Christian rock group called “Audio Adrenaline.” The impact of their music, I can testify, more than lived up to the name, especially at the volume the kids liked to play it. But while their music might not have been for everyone, the lyrics to the song they taught me struck me as clearly true for the Christian community of faith. The chorus goes:

It’s a big, big house – with lots and lots of room

It’s a big big table – with lots and lots of food;

It’s a big, big yard – where we can play football.

It’s a big, big house – it’s my Father’s house. [3]

Do you feel the spaciousness of it? Big house, big table, big yard. Big house for worship; big table for the Lord’s Supper; a big yard: a big world in which to live and serve. Plenty of room for everyone, plenty of family for everyone, plenty of work to give everyone’s life meaning. That’s our Father’s house. Welcome home.

© copyright 2011, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1. North of Boston, Robert Frost, First edition, 1914. Second edition, 1915. Reprinted June … October, 1915–T.p. verso. Originally published: 1st ed. London: David Nutt, 1914.

2. Mark 3:33-35.

3. Don’t Censor Me, “It’s a Big, Big, House,” Audio Adrenaline, © 1993, Up in the Mix Music, BMI.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

For Those Who Will Believe

For Those Who Will Believe

©2011 Robert J. Elder

May 1, 2011

2nd Sunday of Easter

I Peter 1:3-9

...even though you do not see him now,

you believe in him

and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,

for you are receiving the outcome of your faith,

the salvation of your souls.

One little word in our passage for today caught my attention when I first began making plans for this sermon, and it hasn’t let go of me yet. It is the word “outcome.” You remember. The passage reads, “for you are receiving the outcome of your faith...”

We are? If this is true, how will we know we are receiving it? It has set me to thinking about outcomes and what it is about them that is important to us. Say last night we went to the meeting of the Advisory Committee on Governmental Referential Capacities (ACGRC) instead of staying home and watching the ball game on television; and lets assume – even though we chose to go to the meeting – we were big baseball fans who just have an overworked sense of obligation to duty. We would want to ask someone how the game came out. Or to put it more like the scripture does, we’d want to know, what was the outcome of the game?

Now, imagine we see our good friend, Hanson, and we know he is a big fan, too. “So, Hanson, I had to miss the game last night. Big meeting on referential capacities, you know. How did it come out?”

Hanson fields the question like a short stop, but hurries the throw to first: “The final score was 5 to 7,” he says.

That may well be the outcome, the final score, 5 to 7, but it stops somewhere short of satisfying our curiosity, doesn’t it? We may come back with a further question, “No, really Hanson, how did it come out?” And Hanson may add, simply, “We won.” We’re pretty sure we remember Hanson follows the same team we do, but we want to be certain: “By our team, you mean the Tualatin Tarantulas?” A “yes” to this question would at least give us the satisfaction of knowing which team had won by two runs. But is that all we really want to know when we ask about outcomes?

Imagine a television sports cast with no game films, no commentary from the ballpark, no highlights, no names of stars or statistics. Just scores. It would be a pretty dull program. No, when we want to know the outcome of the game, we’re hoping for more than the score. We want a few highlights, we want to know how our team performed, whether an aging star is still up to an all-star performance, things like that.

Sports comparisons may not satisfy everyone, so let’s think of another. Say our favorite niece, Hildegard, is about to have a baby. One Saturday we receive a phone call from her mother, our sister in Tacoma, saying the baby came today. “How did everything go?” we wonder for starters, but all she says is, “5 pounds, 6 ounces,” and hangs up. Well, that may be the outcome as far as she is concerned, but we’re far from satisfied. How long was Hildegard’s labor? Is she OK? Did her husband get there in time? What are they going to name the baby? Was it a boy or a girl ... or twins ... or a giraffe?

See what I mean? Outcomes are more than just final, tidy little statistics – they involve us in everything that leads up to the end. I began thinking about outcomes when I read this passage from I Peter, and I haven’t stopped yet. Peter said the outcome of our faith – which, by the way, he says we are already receiving, no need to wait – is the salvation of our souls. But we want to know more than a final statistic. How is the outcome of our faith going on now? What is it about faith that it can be said to have an outcome, anyway, and besides, what would the game highlights leading up to this outcome look like if we could see them; and further, how is it that salvation is already the outcome of something like faith?


Let’s think about the content of the word “faith” for a minute. Had you ever thought about your faith having an outcome, leading to something? Lots of people think of an afterlife in heaven as an outcome of faith in Jesus, that is their vision of the salvation of their souls. But Peter said that believers are already receiving the outcome of our faith. Heaven, for some, is a long way off. So what does an outcome of faith – the salvation of our souls – look like now?

It can be a frustrating thing, thinking about this word, faith. I remember a 1980s top 40 song by George Michael, who intoned over and over, “you gotta have faith...” 1 Probably most would agree, but I don’t think the recording artist was talking about the same kind of faith we talk about here at church. Not only might we not agree on what faith really is, we’re not altogether sure where it comes from. The all-American variety of thinking would suggest that faith is something we have to go out and get, some sort of philosophical commodity that we can work up in ourselves.

So the shock here in I Peter is, the faith we have in Christ is provided as a gift. It’s not a work, not some piece of our own effort that by going out and working hard at it, we can obtain a quantity of it. Rather, faith is the very gift of God, working within us to transform our lives. Paul thought so too, when he wrote to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” 2 In some ways, it’s just like that ball game we missed. Our being there would not have changed it. Our being there does not change the nature of faith as a gift of God. Just as with any true, “no strings attached,” gift we give to someone, God’s gift of faith is offered quite apart from our own receptivity or lack of response. It is a ready gift, awaiting us.

Karl Barth once wrote, “In believing...[people] have not created their own faith; the Word has created it. They have not come to faith; faith has come to them through the Word. They have not adopted faith; faith has been granted to them...” 3 The Word he is going on about is the same Word John wrote about when he was speaking of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word...” 4 Faith’s source is in Christ, not in us.

The Source of Faith

If we were still unconvinced that faith is something which comes to us quite apart from our own effort to snatch it, just recall the way Peter speaks of it. He referred to faith as an inheritance. Think of faith that way for a minute, as an inheritance. At some point in our lives we knew nothing of God, yet the whole work of Jesus on the cross took place so that we could become God’s own children (have a “new birth” is the way this letter puts that idea!). Now, having done nothing of our own to achieve our status as God’s children, we are called inheritors. Of course, that is what people often do for children they cherish. They leave them an inheritance, some substance of what was once theirs. It’s sort of a heavenly analogy for discovering that the billionaire across town, whose lawn we once cut when we were nine, has left us his whole estate. Parenthetically, that’s something worth thinking anytime we contemplate our giving to the church. Who is the real giver in any church program of giving? Real giving, as we understand it, began and ends with the gifts of God.

No one chooses their natural parents. It is one of those happenings of nature. Yet there was nothing inevitable about God’s desire to think of us as his children. Still, because of the work of Jesus, we are considered the children of God to the extent that we find we are called into his lawyer’s office to hear about our inheritance, just like real family. Our faith is in many ways like that: an inheritance we are to manage, not to own.

The one thing that gives us this new status as inheritors is the work of Jesus through his cross and resurrection. The whole outcome, not only of our deaths but of our present lives, is taken up in this new reality. So faith is a gift – from beginning to end. What then is the outcome?

The Outcome of Faith – Salvation.

I think it’s interesting that Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, thought a great deal of the passage we are sharing today. Throughout his long life as a pastor and professor of systematic theology, he labored continuously on a multi-volume work called Church Dogmatics, which takes up about 2 feet of space on my bookshelf at home.

In the very last volume of that faithful, immense life’s work of thousands and thousands of pages – a volume called a “fragment” because it ended abruptly, unfinished, when he died – Dr. Barth took up I Peter 1 for the last time in the final few pages. Here is a portion of what he wrote:

“According to I Peter 1:3 Christians ... are those who through the overflowing mercy of God ... are in his resurrection from the dead, begotten to a new and living hope...

“... The object and content of this hope is the same Jesus Christ who in his resurrection from the dead is its basis ... [This hope] protects them against disenchantment by constantly and clearly differentiating itself from all else that [people] might wait and hope for, all their great little utopias.” 5

In other words, this faith – a gift of Christ – is unlike anything else in which we might have faith, faith of our own doing, our own choosing. This doesn’t mean that disenchantment won’t trouble believers. It just means that no matter how disenchanting life may be, nothing can remove what has been given us – faith in Christ, which is the gift of God, not of our own doing.

I like the way that idea finishes, that our hope does not rest in all the great little utopias that we can create for ourselves. The outcome of our faith is nothing less than a real hope, one not bound by our own power, our own schemes for human perfection, our own tasks accomplished in our own time. The outcome of our faith can strengthen us even through traumatic times because it is based on something that wasn’t ours in the first place and yet is completely ours because of God’s love: the resurrection of Christ, accomplished for us in the one who loved us so much that he gave his life for us. Gave it. Why do we give of the time and substance of our material lives to the work of the church of Christ? Because our hope does not rest in utopias of our own creation, but in the very word and work of Jesus Christ. What effort on earth that we can name surpasses that?

Friends, that is a piece of good news. Faith has an outcome? Yes, indeed, it does. And the good news is that the outcome is already secure, our lives today can be lived in the sure and certain knowledge of God’s love for us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 2011, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1“Faith,” by George Michael, circa 1987.

2Ephesians 2:8.

3Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God,

Karl Barth, T & T Clark: 1975, Vol. I.1, p. 245, emphasis mine.

4John 1:1.

5Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God,

Karl Barth, T & T Clark: 1975, Vol. IV. 4, p. 197-198.