Why is it that the biggest disasters always seem to coincide with events on which we pin so much of our hopes? The times we are convinced will be the best often turn out to be the very worst.
How many big family get-togethers—Christmas, Thanksgiving, a summer graduation party—start out all fun and festive, then turn into fiascoes? Cousin Eddie still won’t talk to Uncle Harold, and the stains from Aunt Mable’s mincemeat pie will never come out of the brand new carpet. One of you told me recently a story about how a birthday party for a one year old had to be shut-down by law enforcement because a fight broke out.
Among the most vitriolic of events are probably weddings—although in my line of work I have been privy to a funeral or two that could make a strong argument. But weddings are another time when bombs of both tiny, yet titanic proportion are regularly detonated. There are a number of things that can go wrong on wedding days—cakes dropped, rings lost, blazing heat, torrential rain, flowers delivered to another planet, to say nothing of the human relationships that factor in—and the best day of a couples life can become among the worst.
Sometimes it seems that whenever we expect the best of times, we get the worst of times instead.
Thankfully, the reverse is also true. How many times have we been certain something was going to go bad or wrong, only to be proven wrong? A doctor’s visit where test results about worrisome pangs were something simple. A meeting with the boss that reveals a promotion instead of downsizing. A wedding that seemed wrong later exemplifies love and commitment.
Maybe that is what makes life so full, so rich, so wonderful. We can never completely filter out the bad from the good, or the good from the bad, but that is ok because the highs make the lows survivable, and the lows make the highs feel even higher.
Now without being too general or over simplistic—because I don’t believe life always is, but nor do I believe it can’t ever be—that is how life often is. The proverbial roller coaster as the cliché goes. And many believe that this roller coaster ride we call life will ultimately produce just two kinds of people: optimists and pessimists—those that see life half full and those who see it as completely drained, bone dry, not a drop in sight.
There is a saying I found, whose orator I do not know, who said, “An optimist is a person who doesn’t know any better. A pessimist is a person who doesn’t know any better.” But while some would believe there are only two types of people in this world, I think the Apostle Paul would add a third type of person—the faithful. That is, after all, what he is explain and teaching the Roman church—that no matter life’s varied circumstances those who are faithful to God and to God’s plan, will find that God is able to do what God has promised.
The faithful : that would be Paul’s third type of person. Like Abraham, who hoped against hope.
Already an old man when he first hears God’s call, Abraham obediently begins his long, wandering search for a home based on God’s promise. When God promises that he and Sarah shall have their own son, Abraham is faithful, which enables him to “hope against hope”—to cling to a mere possibility that the unlikely will happen. And then, out of the most unlikely of conditions for God’s promise to be realized— extreme old age and barrenness— God brings the best to Abraham and Sarah, their son Isaac.
In Romans 4, Paul is citing Abraham the Patriarch as a primary case in a study of God’s approach to human resources. Abraham was righteous, obedient to God, and had followed a straight career path from nomadic herder to “father of many nations.” His feats, both vocational and spiritual, were well established and well done. If anyone had a résumé of solid credentials to “boast” about, says Paul, it was Abraham. But it was not his righteous résumé that made Abraham a prime candidate for the job of Patriarch of the faith. Earlier in verse two Paul says, “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about — but not before God.” In other words, even Abraham’s best work couldn’t match the quality standard of holiness set by God. No human résumé, not even Abraham’s, says Paul, is impressive enough. Instead, it was faith itself that was Abraham’s one and only true résumé builder: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
It is faith in God’s ability to save us because of love, rather than faith in our own ability to measure up, that makes us “righteous” before God. Truth is; we’ve got nothing to boast about except the fact that God cared enough about us to provide salvation through Jesus Christ, giving to us salvation that includes the promise that no matter what, we belong to God. And because we belong to God, like Abraham—like Abraham, we too can—even in the most unlikely conditions—expect the best AND for God’s promise to be realized.
For centuries, since the book of Acts, the Church has been the primary place for the faith of the faithful to be nurtured and spurred toward growth and deeper faithfulness. In recent decades, however, the role of the church has declined, and as statistics show, continues to decline.
Ask Thom and Joani Schultz about the state of the church today and they will tell you: Attendance is shrinking in all kinds of churches. While 40 percent of Americans may say they attend church weekly, the actual number is more like 20 percent. 85 percent of churches in the U.S. are stuck or in decline. Nearly one in five Americans check “none” for their religious affiliation, a rapidly growing segment. In just five years, the percentage of teenagers attending church every week has dropped from 20 percent to 15 percent.
I hope this sounds familiar as it was just last year I shared this exact quote with you when we were exploring the film, “When God Left The Building.” This quote, and others from Schultz’s book, “Why Nobody Wants To Go To Church Anymore”, and from the film, can all paint an exceedingly pessimistic portrait of the state of the church today. But Paul wouldn’t want us to be pessimists who think the sky is falling and that Jesus forgot to tell us. But neither would Paul want us to be optimists who think a church half-full is good enough.
By invoking Abraham he calls us to be faithful, believing that God is at work, and that work—like it did for Abraham—calls for our belief, our faith, and our partnership. And that is what this church—First Christian Church of Stow— is.
This church, a little over a year ago, made the faithful decision to accept a God given call to increase its Outreach ministries in three ways. First, by setting a concrete goal to raise two thousand dollars for Week of Compassion. Second, by creating a budget line item of five thousand dollars for broader community initiatives, and then live out those broader community initiatives. And third, by creating the Chalice Grant—a ten thousand dollar grant that would be
a game-changing gift to an organization that works to have a positive impact for God’s children. All of this amounted to a significant leap of faith, in both time and money, particularly in light of the times we are in when church attendance is shrinking, and for individual families, making ends meet is tough.
I am excited to tell you some faithful news…Last year’s goal of two thousand dollars for Week of Compassion was not just met; it was exceeded by more than twenty-nine hundred dollars.
The Broader Community Initiatives saw the “upping of our game” as I like to call it, when it came to the Community Ice Cream Social, 4th of July Pancake Breakfast, Vacation Bible School, Trunk or Treat, and Search for the Christ Child, along with the newly implemented ministries that were the Donut Days and the Toys for Tots Motorcycle Run.
But we weren’t done there.
Even in the midst of meeting the goals and needs of yet another ambitious Christmas In-Gathering Outreach program, where more than forty families were blessed with food and gifts, this congregation dug deep, and faithfully, before the end of the year, and met the budgeted needs and expenses of the church, while also giving more than enough to exceed our leap of faith and fully fund the ten thousand dollar Chalice Grant.
I’ll say that again, then feel free to respond as you see fit…Even in the midst of meeting the goals and needs of yet another ambitious Christmas In-Gathering Outreach program, where more than forty families were blessed with food and gifts, this congregation dug deep, and faithfully, before the end of the year, and met the budgeted needs and expenses of the church, while also giving more than enough to exceed our leap of faith and fully fund the ten thousand dollar Chalice Grant.
In a day when churches are desperately trying to cut their budget and expenses—usually by cutting programs, ministries, and/or staff—this church remained faithful to the ambitious, lofty, and unlikely that God called us to. And hoping against hope… By being fully convinced that God was able to do what God has promised… God made it all happen in us and through us.
Sometimes it seems that whenever we expect the best of times, we get the worst of times instead. But then sometimes there are those things that Paul speaks of…“For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
When we are faithful…even within the most unlikely of times… When we hope against hope…even within the most unlikely of times…We will discover that we can believe and trust and see that God is good, and that God will make the unlikely a reality.
So may we, hoping against hope, continue to forge ahead as faithful individuals; and as a faithful church, and may we continue to partner with God, as together we work and minister to make the unlikely a reality. Amen.