Dawn Stegelmann 6-2-19
St. Luke’s Parish, Darien, CT Ascension Day
As Jesus makes his last resurrection appearance to the disciples today, I want to talk about two things. First, I want to talk about hope in things seen and unseen. Then I want to talk about what difference hope in the Gospel story can make for us today, tomorrow and the next day.
I’m trying hard to be hopeful these days—hopeful for the flourishing of our planet, our country, our church, our families and our future. We are going through another pivot point in history—like the mid-1800s, the two world wars, and the 1960s—when it’s easy to get discouraged and feel that society is coming apart at the seams. There are days when the United States doesn’t feel so united. And there are days when my own dreams of achievement and self-fulfillment fall apart in the things I’ve done or left undone.
We are all in the middle of a time when culture is changing rapidly but not everyone and everything is changing all at once. It feels like we are swimming in an ocean of busy lives and we are trying to figure out how to make it to shore where we can plant ourselves and fully commit to something that has meaning, purpose and connection with others.
While people of all ages are struggling, it’s been particularly hard on young adults. We’re throwing them into a world of unknown freedom and frenzy that is unstructured and uncertain and we’re expecting them to launch their lives without guardrails, moorings and mentors.
Author and NY Times Columnist David Brooks believes that in unsettled times such as these, the toxic and tragic can no longer be ignored or dismissed. Brooks also says those who will truly lead us in times of change are not the politicians or those with the loudest voices. Rather, it is those he calls moral activists and cultural pioneers. These activists and pioneers go back in history and update or overhaul outdated cultural norms that will provide a better way to live. They create a lifestyle that others find attractive and want to give their energies and ideas to.
Just think about Jesus. He had no job, no assets, no degrees. I recently heard a preacher say Jesus’s organizational chart would look like a bowl of spaghetti. He commissioned failed fishermen for leadership who were often confused and seemed to be missing the point. And while he knew his Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus never wrote anything down. He wore work clothes, not business attire. He disrupted worship and people’s lives and livelihoods.
But it was his lifestyle and ministry, treating others as equals and setting people free emotionally, physically and spiritually, that drew people to him. The love of God was in his every breath, every footstep, and every word when he talked to the powerless, the marginalized, and the forgotten. Jesus updated the cultural norms of his day—and he spoke in a tongue that came from Heaven, not from the left or the right. He created a following in people’s lives because he replaced power and hate with hope, and indifference with healing and love.
Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently asked 10,000 middle and high school students if their parents cared more about personal achievements or whether they were kind. Eighty percent said their parents cared more about achievements—individual success over relational bonds. It’s not to say independence and individual success do not have value and a place in society. The danger lies where getting one’s own way is more important than finding a way that is one’s own in a supportive and unified community. Jesus provided that in spades as he befriended people, proclaimed repentance and forgiveness and died so that all of us would have eternal life.
As a spiritual director who works with millennials, I often hear them talk about a desire to work in a spiritual marketplace. Most are unaffiliated but think of themselves as spiritual innovators. They have assorted religious and spiritual backgrounds. They are drawn to intentional communities in both physical and online spaces where they learn about, create and practice spiritual disciplines together as they devote their lives to causes near and dear to their hearts.
One pilot project that actually caught my eye in the news this week is called Nuns and Nones. The first nuns—NUNS—are women who are part of the Roman Catholic Church’s Sisters of Mercy in the Bay area on the West Coast. The second nones—NONES—are millennials who refer to themselves as spiritual but not religious. This new project involved the millennials moving into a convent with this older generation of women religious so they could learn about a road map for life and ritual.
The young people, many of whom said they felt overwhelmed by life’s choices, were drawn to the discipline and notion of sacrifice and right relationships based on love rather than individual ego needs. They began to recognize how really old wisdom traditions can feed the changes they are making. This is sounding a lot like what Jesus did, right?
During this six-month project, the young people got low-income housing in exchange for taking care of the sisters. Working as community organizers, artists and social workers by day, the millennials came home to the convent at night to meet with the sisters —many in fact who have been doing social justice work most of their lives.
One of the millennials said, “It’s about deciding what’s the price we’re willing to pay for the world that we want to live in and the life we want to live.” And for the Sisters of Mercy, well, they do talk about dying out. But what they are really concerned about is who’s going to keep doing the mission that’s been fueling them for centuries. And they are hopeful it is their new millennial friends who can do it in new forms and new ways.
Stories like the Nuns and Nones are part of the unending Gospel story. It is full of faith, love and hope told and reenacted from one generation to the next. During his last appearance to his disciples, Jesus made clear that they were his witnesses, blessed and beloved, and sent to proclaim the good news to all people in the temples and on the streets and in one another’s homes.
We, too, are part of the ongoing Gospel story—co-creators in God’s creation who are being called to hear what the Spirit is speaking to us and act on it. We are all called to invite people to just receive God’s love, acceptance and mercy through what we say and do.
Life is not just about success, justifying ourselves or doing the right thing. It’s about knowing each of us is more than enough already. Each of us is beloved not for what we’ve done but for who we are. We have no guarantees about tomorrow but we will always have God’s guarantee of love, light and eternal life.
Yesterday, I was listening to the online streaming of the funeral service for Rachel Held Evans, a young and gifted writer who died and who I’d come to recognize as an important voice in today’s Christian community. Evans was only 37 and left behind a husband and two small children when she died after a brief illness. She grew up in an Evangelical home and later became an Episcopalian. Her writing and stories describe her love of God and the ways in which she wrestled with her doubts and debated with the Bible and its mysteries until, as she writes, “God gives us a blessing.”
Evans said she “would leave my faith a dozen times” over the years…”only to return to it a dozen more.” She believed we are part of the ongoing Gospel story and called to improvise the unfinished, final act…to see how our stories intersect with the grander epic of God’s redemption in the world. She understood every page of Scripture serves as an invitation—to wonder, to wrestle, to surrender to the adventure.”
Evans husband, Dan, said it is hope that is helping him through his grief. “The kind of stubborn hope that exists in the face of certain future tragedy,” he said. “It’s a hope that’s aware of the past, the present and the future possibilities. It’s a hope that’s fulfilled every time I remember I can still laugh at bad jokes, still be a friend to my friends, still love my children.”
Hope can allow us to think beyond the unimaginable. Just like people of the Bible, we are being asked to write with our lives when there is often no map for where we are going. The disciples certainly had no idea how to implement Jesus’s final thoughts and instructions on the day of his ascension. All they could do was hope and believe in the promise of help from some kind of Spirit who was going to be sent to them.
There was no road map. But they had one another and they had hope in an old and yet unfinished story that needed to be told. Rachel Held Evans was telling that story—even singing Psalm 121 to her baby boy each night. The Nuns and the Nones continue to tell and write the story in the convent and where they are called and scattered to work around the country. Some of the sisters are now answering a call to go to the U.S.-Mexico border for an extended stay. They plan to work with asylum seekers—and the Millenial Nones are invited to come too—if they are up for it.
The Gospel story is full of hope and continues to make a difference in our world. As we prepare for the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, can we imagine a fresh, life-giving wind blowing that gives us the gifts that will make us relational again and again and again?
Each day this week, I want you to think about one thing that makes you hopeful. Maybe let it become a breath prayer. Breathe in the word, “hope;” breathe out the word, “ful.” Hope-ful. Hope-ful. Hope-ful. Thank God for that one thing God gives you that makes you hopeful. Connect it to the past, present and future. Notice how it is part of the Gospel story. Now let it become part of your story.
Finally, trust that it is hope that will remain rooted between the bookends of our faith and love in the risen Lord.
Seen and unseen, may it be so,
in all that we do,
and receive. Amen.
 from Brooks’ book, The Second Mountain; The Quest for a Moral Life.
 Rob Wright, Festival of Homiletics, May 2019, Minneapolis.
 William Barbor, also at Festival of Homiletics.
 From 1962 Port Huron Statement, as quoted in Brooks’ book, 9.
 NY Times, Nuns and Nones project, May 31, 2019.
 Rachel Held Evans, from her 2017 book, Inspired.
 Quote by N.T. Wright in Evan’s book, Inspired, xx.
 From Evans’ website, rachelheldevans.com.