Eleven years ago, our congregation adopted a statement called Westminster’s Hope for the World. It took a year to prepare, with lots of study and input from the congregation and the community. It was not a typical strategic plan, laying out a vision for ministry. Instead, it presented our perception of God’s plans, God’s intention for the world – that it would be just, loving, joyful sustainable, and peaceful.
For us to decide what we think are divine desires for the earth and human community was an audacious move – but shouldn’t our faith lead us to do bold things!
We declared ourselves to be “a congregation of hope.” That was way back in 2011. Since then, by almost any measure, the need for communities that position themselves as outposts of hope in a fearful and divided world has only grown.
This Sunday hope resurfaces in our life as a congregation, as we begin our stewardship program for 2023. We’re calling it Hope for Today, because the financial support we offer in gratitude to God will go directly to work in the tactical, day-to-day ministry and mission of our church. Our generosity brings Hope for Today.
This Sunday we’re also launching a three-year capital campaign called Enduring Hope, focused on Westminster’s tomorrow. A decade ago, we began to build a strategic infrastructure of hope by expanding and opening our facility to enhance on-site ministries, serve the community, improve parking, and prepare this church for generations to come. The plan called for funding most of the project up front – which we did – and borrowing to complete it. The capital campaign will free the church of that remaining debt, even as we also give to mission and fund a much-needed renewal of the chapel.
Hope for Today and Enduring Hope for tomorrow. Following worship, we’re invited to join in Celebrating Hope with a complimentary lunch and Ministry Fair held throughout the building.
The prophets of old were bringers of hope. They were in the business of speaking about, pointing toward, calling up, and proclaiming hope in situations that seemed beyond redemption. When the rulers of Israel wandered far from God’s expectations and people suffered for it, especially those who were poor or had no family or were strangers in the land, the prophets used their imagination and stirred up hope in the hearts of the people by speaking of the desert blooming and streams of water flowing in a dry land and the lion lying down with the lamb.
Where there was no way, they trusted God would make a way.
Hope thrives on imagination. When the world has drained us of any encouragement that things will improve – and some of us may feel like that these days – or when our personal circumstances have collapsed and seem about to crush us – and some of us may be facing that right now – or when we cannot find the energy to try again for change that refuses to happen – and some of us may be in that place today – then it takes imagination to make the leap to hope.
Without the capacity to imagine we will never make it. Without the ability to see beyond what the world presents as fixed reality we cannot find our way from despair to resilience. Hope moves across the bridge called imagination. And in crossing that bridge, we can begin to envision the desert blooming and the rough places made plain and justice rolling down like waters. And then, with renewed hearts, we can move toward that vision against all the odds.
When the Hebrew people were driven into exile in the 6th century before our era and forced to live as captives in Babylon, the prophets managed to find a way to offer hope. But it was not easy; in fact, it was contentious. The people were divided. At the time of the exile some prophets – most notably one named Hananiah – predicted it would soon be over. Hananiah said God had told him that the people would return to Jerusalem within two short years. Don’t get used to your new reality in Babylon, Hananiah said, because it will soon be over and everything will return to normal. He was denying the what was truly happening. Exile would last 70 years.
Jeremiah spoke out against the false prophet. “Listen, Hananiah,” Jeremiah said, “The LORD has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie.”
There’s a lot of that happening in our time. People accept lies as truth and make peace with false prophets, and our nation suffers for it.
Jeremiah rejects the falsehood of Hananiah and instead urges the Hebrews in Babylonian exile to face their new reality squarely, learn from it, and adjust to it. The prophet urged them to find the resilience to start families – using archaic, patriarchal language about “taking wives” and “giving daughters” that falls painfully on our ears, but it was the ancient prophet’s way to say to have children – start families, build houses, plant gardens, and seek the welfare of the city. That was Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles: create a community of hope instead of despair. Live into the hope that is yours as the people of God even when the circumstances would work against it.
We learn from Jeremiah that hope is always as close as our capacity to imagine a way forward no matter how daunting the situation may be. For people of faith that means trusting that God has not abandoned us. When all seemed lost for the exiled captives, the word of God opened a way where there had been no way.
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
We are a people summoned by that same hope in our time.
This past June the city surprised us with an invitation to hold our weekly Wednesday evening bluegrass services in Peavey Plaza. I think they simply wanted to have some good outdoor music. We gave them that, and a little more.
Bluegrass gospel songs focus on hope. Given all we face in our city and nation and the intransigence in our politics, the divisiveness in our culture, and the animosity all around, our world needs a word of hope. Well. we sang it into that public space each week: Hope to those living on the streets who gathered around to listen. Hope to those struggling with addiction. Hope to those feeling afraid downtown. Hope to those who cannot see a future for themselves.
It’s our responsibility, like the prophets of old, to use our imagination to find the way to hope. As people of faith, we trust in things unseen. We’re not limited or defined by the ways of the world. We may wish things were different, but this is our time, and we live in it. We are here, and we plant gardens and share the harvest with others. We build places to live. We care for children and raise them to carry the good news in their hearts. We expect the desert to bloom and the wilderness to rejoice.
Westminster has been in the hope business since 1857, and we keep plugging away at it, never giving up or giving in, partnering with so many others in our city.
Our congregation offers hope in many ways…
…Staff members work with unhoused individuals on our property every day and have helped several move from the streets into stable housing in recent weeks, leading them toward hope for a new life.
…Pastors and musicians lead memorial services regularly, helping families in grief and proclaiming our trust in and hope for eternal life.
…Lay leaders teach children the stories of our faith every Sunday, teaching them hope in a difficult world.
…Wednesday evening worship uses music, poetry, scripture, and long silence to find shelter in the storm that is life in America today.
…Volunteers and staff members have welcomed neighbors back into the building for the first time in two and a half years to enjoy the monthly meal called FEAST.
…Monday through Friday the on-site partnership with St. David’s supports 200 mostly low-income and immigrant families whose pre-school children live with trauma, autism, or other challenges and receive therapy here.
We are a congregation of hope in a time sorely needing it.
We may not be living in faraway exile like the Hebrew people carried off to Babylon 2500 years ago, but we are a people unsettled and uprooted and frightened. We live in an era that mocks what God intends for the human community.
We are called to imagine our way into a new future that honors God’s dream for us and all creation. We will need to build bridges that lead to hope, trusting that God will not abandon us but, instead, will make a way where there is no way.
In a moment we will go with three children and their families to the baptismal font. As we do, let us remember there the promise made at the river:
“Do not fear,” God says through the prophet Isaiah,
”For I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” (Isaiah 43:1b-2a)
We have good reason to hope.
Thanks be to God.