Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Matthew 25:31-46

This month, the WELCA Bible study in its “Gather” magazine had us learning about Moses and the Exodus of the Israelite people from Egypt. One of the lines in this Bible study struck both of the women’s circles, but in different ways. The quote reads, “When we are tempted to see Pharaoh as nothing more than a cruel and even crazy despot, we need to remember the diverse reactions Americans are having to our own increasing immigrant population or to those indigenous people who have been here far longer than we” (33). And indeed, between the two circles, there were two very different reactions to that statement. In one circle, the comment was made that this statement hit the person right between the eyes, and caused her to reflect on her attitudes toward immigrants. In the other circle, the viewpoint toward immigrants was that this was a political issue, and that immigrants are coming here illegally and taking jobs from Americans that need them. In light of today’s Gospel, I’m going to suggest a different way of looking at this and many other “issues” today that get filed under “social justice”. And that third way is this: before taking a point of view on any social justice issue, we need to first take the time to get to know the people involved in whatever the question is. For it is only after we have heard the other person’s experience that we begin to see that person as a person and not as an issue.

Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew is the culmination of several parables that we have read over the last few weeks about how we are to live as we are waiting for Jesus to return. Two weeks ago, we heard the parable of the bridesmaids, some of whom were prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom and some who were not. The message that we took away from that was that we are to be in the process of active waiting, doing what Jesus has commanded, and engaging in living while we are waiting. Last week we heard the parable of the talents, where Jesus is telling us that we are to take risks with the gifts that he has given us for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Finally, today we hear specifically what we are supposed to be doing: feeding the hungry; giving water to the thirsty; welcoming the stranger; clothing the naked; taking care of the sick, and visiting the prisoner. This parable literally puts the fear of God into us, and I’m sure that each of us has a list inside our heads: Feeding the hungry: OK, I gave to Loaves & Fishes this month—check! Taking care of the sick: OK, I went and visited my father or mother at the nursing home today—check! Clothing the naked—hmmm, maybe I need to weed through my closet again and see about donating some old clothes. Welcoming the stranger and visiting the prisoner—well, hmmm, maybe I need to find some groups who can do that for me and donate some money to them. OK, Lord, I’ve got everything checked off—I’m good! I’ll be one of the sheep when you come again!

While this is good in that it motivates us to think about these things and to give of our time, talents, and treasure to help out, there’s just one problem with our mental checklist. We are doing good deeds to people without really understanding what lies behind their physical neediness. We don’t know the people who we are doing these good deeds to, and so they become a faceless, anonymous other to us. We don’t actually look into their faces, love them for who they are, and see Jesus in them. Instead, we go about our usual daily lives, do our good deeds, and think, “Oh, I helped Jesus today because I donated some food to people who need it.” And when we do that, it makes it that much easier to lump people into something other than us, and then they become an issue that we need to do something about instead of real human beings with real, often times life-threatening problems that they need another human being to understand.

So, to help illustrate what I’m trying to say, I’m going to attempt to make people real to you this morning by showing this video. This was shown to us during one of our worship services last August at the Network for Biblical Storytellers Festival Gathering, and the haunting melody, plus the images on the video, have stuck with me since then. I hope that they stick with you, too.

When I actually see a picture of a small child crossing the border into the United States, and look at his face, he is no longer an issue that our government should do something about. Instead, he becomes a real person, and I want to know more about his story. Why did he come here? What made his parents or other family members so desperate that they would send him on a dangerous, long journey by himself to a foreign country where he might have family that would take him in? How can I help to protect this vulnerable child until he can be reunited with a family who loves him and can take care of him?

When I know and have the friendship of a person who is gay, then gay marriage is no longer an abstract issue that I have debates over with people who have different beliefs. Instead, knowing and loving this person makes me want to understand their life. How did they come to understand themselves as being gay? When did they come to that knowledge? Is it something that they felt like they chose, or is it something that they feel like is an integral part of who they are? How have they experienced, or not experienced, God’s love for them? How can I help them? How is God asking me to love my gay friend?

When I know a person who is suffering from poverty, then I want to know her story. Has she always been poor, or did she recently lose work? Other than bringing her food and giving her clothes, how can I help her? How do government policies like cuts to the food stamp program impact her life? Can she afford health insurance, and if not, how can I help her get the quality health care that she needs? These questions are no longer abstract questions that get debated back and forth between representatives of different political parties, but instead become real questions that become important to us because they affect someone who we know and love.

So, my challenge to you this week—and to myself as well—is to reflect on the question that the song I played for you asks: Would you harbor me? (I’ll have the link posted on the church’s Facebook page as well as my blog.) Reflect on each of the people that this song names. When you find yourself hesitating over a certain person—or responding with a “no” answer—ask yourself why. And if you find that you are rehearsing a political argument against that person, then I ask you to find a person from that group: immigrant, gay, Muslim, and so on. It could be a friend of a friend. Or, you could attend a meeting of that group here in Powell, or over in Cody, or up in Billings. Befriend that person who is different from you. Get to know them and their stories. In the end, your beliefs may or may not change—but you will hopefully see that person as a beloved child of God, and you may even see Jesus in that person. And it will be in that change that the Holy Spirit works in us that we may catch a glimpse of what the kingdom of God will look like. And it is then that we can truly look forward to the day when the kingdom of God will be fulfilled and all will be put right. Come, Lord Jesus, and come quickly. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 23A

Matthew 25:14-30

When I was just beginning junior high, my parents, noticing that I was a particularly bright child, brought me to the school psychologist for testing so that I could be admitted to the school’s gifted program. When the psychologist got the results, however, the score was not quite high enough for me to gain entrance into the program. What pulled my score down were the questions that tested my spatial abilities, which were, and still are, next to nothing. The school psychologist told my mother and my father, “She’ll never fix her own car.” My parents, who knew me pretty well by that point, said, “Yes, but what’s that got to do with anything?” The school psychologist was firm, however, and said that based on the score on that test, I would be denied entrance into the gifted program at the school. Now, I had always been a perfectionist even before this experience, but what this experience did to me was to produce a drive to prove to everyone in the school that I was just as intelligent as the kids in the gifted program. And in some ways, this worked. But to this day I am still not able to fix my own car.

Last week, we heard a parable that told us that we are to continue to live as God has called us to live while we are also waiting for Jesus to return. This week’s parable tells us that we are to use what God has given us to use to take risks for the kingdom of God. But as we ask ourselves what kind of risks God wants us to take with the gifts he has given us, the important thing to remember is that God gives each of us different abilities and different gifts. Each of the slaves in this parable was given a different amount of money “to each according to his ability.” The master knows that each slave has different abilities, and the amount of money he gives to each one differs in accordance with what he knows about each slave’s abilities. Just so, while I may be able to preach, to teach, and to excel academically, I also know that when I have to have the oil changed in my car, I need to bring it to a mechanic. God calls us to use what he has given us, often in risky ways, in service to him, and not to try to use what we don’t have. And to not use those gifts that we have at all is to show a profound lack of trust in the goodness of God. So, let’s take a look at some ways that we can use gifts that God has given us and how we can take risks for the kingdom of God.

First, a story from my internship site, Holy Trinity Lutheran in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This is a congregation that has been continuously in existence since 1730, 46 years before the beginning of the American Revolution. The current building has a huge pipe organ on one side of the balcony, with a pulpit on eye level with the balcony on the other. Stained glass windows adorn the building on three sides. So if you can tell anything about the congregation from the architecture of this building, your immediate guess is going to be that they are quite traditional in their worship style, and you would be right. Several years before I served there as an intern, the pastors of the congregation at that time decided that the best way to attract new members to the congregation would be to have a contemporary style worship service. So, they set it up in the auditorium of their parish house, got people who could play instruments common in praise bands, and began the worship service. This service lasted for a while, but then it fizzled out. Why? Several reasons. The pastors who had pushed for it took other calls and left the congregation. Several people in the praise band were not members of the congregation and therefore had no reason to stay and keep going. There were not enough people from the congregation itself who attended the worship service and supported it. And, the service did not attract the new members that people thought it would. This congregation did not understand at the time that God had not given them the gifts, talents, and abilities to sustain a contemporary worship service, but instead had thought that they needed to do what everyone else was doing.

So, they regrouped and instead focused on their strengths. They do traditional worship very well. They host several concerts during the year that are non-church-related where people play the organ and other classical-style instruments. They are known for their Christmas Eve service, which showcases classical Christian music and does it extremely well: people who rarely go to church the rest of the year make it a point to come to Holy Trinity’s Christmas Eve service. By building on these and other strengths and gifts given to members of the congregation, they are able to take risks to further the kingdom of God to people who would otherwise not hear the good news of Jesus Christ.

Now, as I was telling this story, I could tell that some of you were envious. It would be nice, you may be thinking, to have that kind of reputation in the community; to have highly trained musicians come and give concerts here. But, I don’t think these are the gifts that God has chosen to give to our congregation, and that is okay. God has given us the gifts and the talents that we need in the 21st century in Powell, Wyoming, to reach people with the gospel. What are those gifts and talents? What has God given us here at Hope Lutheran Church to reach out to people in this area and extend the kingdom of God in this little corner of northern Wyoming?

One talent that I see in abundance here at Hope is the ability to cook food and to feed people. We are already using this talent that God has given us in many ways. We were able to host a cream can dinner and auction off much delicious food so that the proceeds could go to feeding hungry children through the Backpack Blessings program. We were able to host the Northwest College soccer teams for dinner last summer, for which those players were profoundly grateful. We have hosted a lunch at Campus Ventures at Northwest College. We have also had a special Valentine’s Day dinner where everyone, regardless of marital status, was made to feel very welcome. These are all wonderful ways in which we have used these gifts, but is God perhaps calling us to something more? Perhaps we could begin, periodically, to host a free meal for all of those in the community who may be low on funds and feeling hungry. Or, perhaps we could work with other churches in the community to find a way to feed hungry children during the summer when school is out and they can’t take advantage of the Backpack Blessings program. Or, there are any number of other possibilities.

Another talent that I see in this congregation, besides cooking, is sewing. The quilts that are made here get shipped all around the world to people who use them for warmth and for shelter. Other sewing projects get sold at the bazaar, the money from which goes to help support various charities and projects that are chosen each year. Is there something more that we can do with our sewing talent? If there are any knitters in the congregation, perhaps we can look into knitting prayer shawls which are given to those who are sick and those who are lonely. Perhaps, if any of our sewers have teaching abilities, we could host a workshop for people to learn how to sew. Or, perhaps we could host a “mending clinic,” where people who need clothes patched or mended, but don’t know how, and can’t afford to buy new clothes, could come and have their clothes fixed for free. Again, the possibilities are endless.

The point of Jesus’ parable of the talents is that we use the gifts which God has abundantly given us to take risks and to further God’s kingdom, trusting that God is a God of abundance and will multiply what we risk, even when we don’t see tangible results from our efforts. In the parable, the slave who is in trouble is the slave who is afraid to risk what the master has given him for fear of losing it and for fear that he will be punished for losing it. But in the end, the slave is punished for not risking the money that the master has given him in an effort to earn more. We should not be afraid of risking the gifts that God has given us in service to God’s kingdom. Instead, we should be afraid of not risking those gifts. We should not be afraid of failure, for often, what we perceive to be failure is exactly what God uses to help people hear and see the good news of Jesus Christ.

Let’s take note of one more thing about this parable of the talents. In the story, we do not hear that the master is harsh until the third slave voices those concerns. That is something to think about as we think about how we perceive God. If we perceive God as someone to be afraid of because God might punish us, then that affects how we act in this world. We will always be afraid to take those bold risks, because we might get it wrong, and if we get it wrong, God will punish us. On the other hand, if we perceive God as a loving and generous master, who believes in us enough to entrust us with furthering the kingdom of God, even when God knows that we will make mistakes, then that trust that we have in God will enable us to take risks for the sake of the kingdom, believing that God will use even the mistakes we make to double the gifts he has given us. Let us believe, then, that God is indeed a loving and generous master, and let us not be afraid to take those risks for the sake of his kingdom. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 22A

Note: I was having a discussion with a friend this week about plagiarism. While I do not intentionally plagiarize, I and other pastors absorb many readings and discussions during the week, some of which we specifically remember and cite in our sermons, and some of which we do not. Coincidentally (or not!) one of my parishioners told me yesterday after hearing my sermon that it sounded like some of the God Pause devotions from Luther Seminary this week. This is a good possibility, since I do read those devotions, although I did not give specific credit in my sermon. So I hereby acknowledge those good devotions as a source for my thinking in this sermon.  ~Rev. Tonya Eza

Matthew 25:1-13

On Friday and Saturday, I had the privilege of judging several groups of students competing in the debate tournament at Northwest College—thanks to Bob Becker. This was a wonderful experience for me, and as most of the speakers were excellent, I had a really hard time deciding how to rank them. Hopefully I did them justice. One of the speakers presented an essay written by the wife of a soldier who was sent off to Afghanistan. She talked about getting the news that her husband was being sent away for 15 months, and how she was dealing with waiting for her husband to either come home, or not. She prepared herself every day for seeing a military officer in her driveway bringing the bad news that her husband had been killed. And then, in frustration, the woman cried out that at some point it was time to “Stop waiting and start living!” Stop waiting and start living. What a good illustration for us this is, as if waiting and living somehow are two polar opposites. Jesus’ parable today tells us that waiting and living are not, in fact, mutually exclusive. Rather, the proper way to wait for Jesus’ return is to live, and to live fully expecting Jesus’ return at any moment, but to keep living as we are supposed to be living while we’re in the process of waiting.

So, how do we keep on doing this? Well, let’s take a look at today’s parable. It’s easy to praise the wise bridesmaids for thinking ahead and being prepared, like the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts. And it’s easy to condemn the foolish bridesmaids. Didn’t they think that there was a possibility that the bridegroom might have been delayed? How stupid could they be? But, to judge any of these bridesmaids would be missing the point. As Jesus says elsewhere in Matthew, especially in the parable of the wheat and the weeds that we heard over the summer, here on earth it will not be possible to figure out who are the true believers and who are not. And it is not up to us to judge. So, when we look at the bridesmaids again, we find that they actually have some things in common: they were all invited and all of them fell asleep when the bridegroom was delayed. Who among us wouldn’t have done the same?

When I was a teenager, one of my dad’s cousins got married, and we were invited to the wedding, which was going to take place in Connecticut. This was the first wedding I had ever been invited to, and I was so excited. First of all, I was excited because it meant that I was finally grown up enough to be deemed worthy of attending a real life wedding! And second of all, my teenaged girl’s head was filled with all sorts of romantic notions about how beautiful the bride and the bridesmaids were going to look, how handsome the groom and the groomsmen were going to look, how beautiful it would be when each of them said, “I do,” and so on. I was so excited about this wedding that I could barely sleep the night before, and then when Dad got us up really early in the morning to go I could hardly contain myself. But here was the problem: it was an 8-hour drive from where we lived in Pennsylvania to where the wedding was taking place in Connecticut. And my body could only take that level of excitement and lack of good sleep for so long before the motion of the car finally lulled me to sleep.

That’s the picture that we should have of these ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive: the same excitement over the arrival of the bridegroom and the beautiful wedding that was going to take place, and then, when he was delayed, their bodies finally telling them that it was dark and they were tired, and they needed to rest. Now, picture if you will, Matthew’s congregation, the community of Christians who were going to hear this parable that Jesus told, and imagine how they might have seen themselves in the picture of the bridesmaids who were falling asleep as they awaited the bridegroom. Christians in the first century, on the whole, were expecting Jesus to return within their lifetime. When he didn’t, they started asking questions, which is, by the way, what we see happening in the passage that we have from 1 Thessalonians today. In Matthew’s case, however, the question was slightly different than the question the Thessalonian congregation was asking. Matthew’s congregation was asking, “How then should we live as we await Jesus’ return? Our excitement about his return is dissipating with each day he doesn’t come back. We physically don’t have the energy to maintain that excitement every day. How then should we live?” And Jesus’ response, in Matthew, is to be prepared. And the bridesmaids in the parable that are prepared are the ones who thought ahead and brought extra oil with them.

In the parable, being prepared for the bridegroom meant having extra oil for their lamps. What does being prepared mean for us Christians who live about 21 centuries after Jesus lived and after those first communities of Christians lived? What does it mean for us to be ready at any moment for Jesus to return? Matthew Skinner, professor at Luther Seminary, talks about two kinds of readiness as we continue to wait: faithful readiness and active readiness. So, let’s take a look at some of the things he suggests are included in both kinds of readiness, and talk about how we can be prepared for Jesus’ coming.

Included in faithful readiness, Skinner says, is passing the faith to our children. Bring your children and grandchildren to worship as often as you can. Don’t worry about whether or not they might be “bothering” someone else. We love to hear the sound of children in worship, because it is the sound of hope that they will continue in faith in Jesus. I love to have the children come up for children’s sermons, because they always keep me on my toes with new ideas and questions. Bring your children and grandchildren to Sunday school as often as you can, for it is here that they get to learn even more about how much God loves them and what God has done for them through Jesus.

Skinner also talks about the importance of Christian community. In Christian community we celebrate with one another in times of joy and encourage one another in times of doubt. We do this when we worship together and share the meal of Holy Communion together. We do this when we attend Bible study to delve deeper into the Scriptures. In all of this Christian community, we find sustenance as we continue waiting expectantly for Jesus to return.

But as we do all of these things within our community, we realize that faithful readiness does not mean just staying within our own little community, comforting and encouraging one another as we’re waiting. Faithful readiness also means being active as we’re waiting, and being active means going outside of the walls of this building and outside of the borders of our community. It means doing the things that we have been doing: feeding people here in Powell by giving to the Backpack Blessings program and donating to Loaves & Fishes, and feeding children and adults throughout the world by giving to ELCA World Hunger. Faithful and active readiness means making quilts to keep God’s people in all parts of the earth warm and sheltered. It means speaking up for God’s justice when, for example, cities pass ordinances prohibiting its citizens and visitors to feed, clothe, and care for the homeless. Faithful and active readiness can mean crossing borders to care for God’s people when people in our society see that as too dangerous, such as those who go into West Africa, risking the Ebola virus in order to help the people there get food, medical supplies, and medical training to contain and treat this deadly virus.

How is God calling you as an individual to faithful and active readiness? It could mean coming to worship, Sunday school, and Bible studies more often. It could mean participating in the quilting group. It could mean visiting those of our community who are homebound, providing encouragement and comfort to them. It could mean giving more of your treasure to support God’s work here in Powell and in the world. Or, it could be that God is calling you to active service in a different part of the community of Powell. Or even, perhaps, God is calling you to serve by taking part in a mission trip within the United States or somewhere around the world. If you feel that the Holy Spirit is urging you to take steps to “up your preparedness level,” please talk to your brother and sister Christians here. Let’s pray together and discern God’s will together, for through any one of us, God might lead the whole congregation into a new level of readiness for Jesus’ return.

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention the more disturbing part of today’s parable, the part that everyone focuses on, and that is the part where the foolish bridesmaids go to get oil at the last minute and miss the bridegroom’s coming. They end up being locked out of the wedding banquet forever. This judgment part makes all of us uncomfortable, for it doesn’t fit with our image of God being a loving God who wants all of his children to come in to the banquet. Here are a couple of thoughts for us to ponder: First, being prepared and ready is not something that we can do at the last minute. It is the work of a lifetime, and it is what the Holy Spirit calls us to do from the time we are baptized until the time that we die. The second thought is this: right now, the door to the banquet is still open, and perhaps that is why Jesus has delayed so long in his return. Perhaps he wants to give all of us every chance to be ready for his return. Let us therefore engage in this active waiting process. Jesus is coming again, but as he delays, it can be hard for us to maintain that excitement level. So, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (10:24-25). Amen.

Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

Revelation 7:9-17

Who is your favorite saint? When we ask this question, we’re usually talking about those Christians who are long dead, but whose deeds that sprang from their great faith in God live on in our memories, often surrounded by legend. As you may guess, I am partial to St. Francis of Assisi, simply because he loved creation and because it is said that he preached to the birds, treating animals as his brother and sister creatures here on earth. But I also admire Catherine of Siena, a woman who lived in the 1300s and who worked tirelessly to bring peace to the warring states of what is now known as Italy and who eventually was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. And there are many more of these famous saints out there—if you want to learn more about them and have fun doing so, keep your ears open for Lent Madness in the spring, where you can vote online for your favorite saints and where one saint will be proclaimed the winner of the Golden Halo. But what about other saints that are not so famous? There is my paternal grandmother, Saint Frances, from whom I inherited my fear of snakes and whose last piece of advice to me before she died was, “Never marry an engineer, because you won’t ever get anything new.” Then there is Saint John, my father, who made sure the churches that we belonged to when I was growing up were not too restrictive towards women, who helped me with math homework when I was growing up, who still helps me when I have financial questions, and who has always been supportive of me as I have searched for my call. And then there are all the saints who we remembered at the beginning of worship and all of the saints who are sitting here right now: Saint Howard, Saint Ann, Saint Kathy, Saint Dusty, Saint Julie, and so on. That’s right: not only are our deceased loved ones saints, but we are all saints too, right here and right now. And it’s not because we are extraordinarily good or because we will have no troubles in life. No, being a saint is about being chosen and being loved by God.

In today’s passage from Revelation, we see John’s vision of a multitude of people from every nation, from every tribe, and from every language gathered around God’s throne singing praises. It’s a wonderful vision. But, if you look at the surrounding chapters of Revelation, you will see that John has seen terrible things happening before this: earthquakes, plagues, death, and destruction, and all in strange words describing terribly frightening things. That’s the reason that many people don’t like reading Revelation. It can be a pretty scary book. But then there are these beautiful descriptions of the life to come, like today’s, that make it all worthwhile. And there’s a lesson in there for us. Take a look at verse 14 again: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In the midst of this beautiful vision, we hear that these saints who are singing around the throne of God have come through a great ordeal before arriving at where they are now. And that’s good news for us: no matter what trials we find ourselves going through right now, we can have hope that everything will be well again one day.

And people everywhere are undergoing all sorts of trials, as they have for centuries upon centuries. In the country of Liberia alone, over 4,900 people have died from the Ebola virus. Because of fears of contracting the virus, people have hidden in their homes and will not go out. Food is hard to come by. The bishop of the Lutheran Church in Liberia, D. Jensen Seyenkulo, has said, “There is a saying now: ‘If we don’t die of Ebola, we will die of starvation.’” In the Middle East, we see the terrorist group ISIS systematically going after Christians and other non-Muslim minorities and killing them in dreadful fashion. Here in the United States, we have witnessed another school shooting in Marysville, Washington, and the country is still as divided as ever on how we should be regulating guns and how we should improve care for people who may be mentally ill. And here in Powell, there are children who do not always have enough to eat. The trials and tribulations described in the book of Revelation are not just going to happen in some distant future—they are happening now, and they have been going on for centuries.

And so yes, the vision of the saints singing praises around the throne of God is comforting, a picture of a day that is coming where there will be no more hunger, no more thirst, no scorching heat, where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. It gives us hope that we will one day see our loved ones again face to face. But, it is also meant to give us hope now. For in Jesus Christ and what he has done for us on the cross, we have seen the kingdom of God already breaking into this world now. In Jesus’ resurrection, we have the sure promise that those who trust in him will have eternal life, and that eternal life starts from the moment of our baptism here in this life on earth. And looking at that hope we have for the fulfillment of the kingdom of God one day makes us bold to see that kingdom already breaking in to the world here and now.

That kingdom breaks in when the congregations of the ELCA, through Lutheran Disaster Response, contribute $100,000 to make sure food and medical supplies are distributed to people in those areas of West Africa suffering from the Ebola outbreak. That kingdom breaks in when Christians go to the Middle East to take part in peacemaking efforts, and when they write letters to government leaders urging peaceful solutions to the strife that is going on there. The kingdom of God breaks in to our world when one of the victims of the school shooting in Washington, shot in the face and told he can never play football again, tweets, “I love you Jaylen and I forgive you, rest in peace.” And finally, the kingdom breaks in to this world when we contribute food to send home with hungry children over the weekend. All of these actions—and more–testify to our hope that one day, there will be no more hunger, no more disease, no more war and violence. And all of these actions, small though they may be, combined show that hope is more powerful than fear, and that we believe evil will not have the last word: God will.

And the trials that we go through on earth are not just the trials of our society at large. They are the trials that we go through as individuals, as well. They include trials such as learning that a beloved family member or dear friend has cancer and only has a short time left to live. They include trials such as suffering the breakup of a family through divorce. They include trials such as losing work and not knowing how you are going to pay the bills. And through all of these trials and more, God sees us, loves us, and blesses us. God’s kingdom breaks through in these situations, too, through the kind words and deeds of the community of saints surrounding us here and now. By reminding one another of the hope that we have of the kingdom of God being ultimately fulfilled one day, we are helping to shine that light of the kingdom here in this place and now at this time. By joining together as one in Christ, we become part of that communion of saints who we will one day join in singing praises to God.

Think of all the loved ones whose pictures we saw and whose names we read at the beginning of worship today. And think of even more: all Christians who lived on this earth before we did, who struggled with faith and doubts, who are loved and chosen by God. They are with us today in spirit. In many churches, the rail at the altar where we kneel down is curved, forming a semicircle. There is symbolism behind that design. The other half of that circle exists in the kingdom of God, where all of our loved ones who have died sit at table with the Lord and with us, even though we cannot physically see them. Even though our communion rail here at Hope is not curved, I would like you to think of them kneeling down to receive communion with us today, to see them with the eyes of faith. They are the great cloud of witnesses that surround us. They have loved us and passed down their faith to us. And just as they are now, we too will one day be. Just as they are loved and chosen by God, we are as well. Just as they struggled while here on earth, we struggle and will continue to struggle. And just as they witnessed the kingdom of God breaking in to their lives here on earth, we also will continue to witness it. And one day, we will not just see glimpses of that kingdom of God, but we will see the fulfillment of that kingdom, when all will be well, when there will be no more hunger, no more crying, and no more pain. And when the struggle feels like it is too much, we will remember that God is with us, loving us, urging us on, and giving us that hope that he will have the last word, and evil will one day be no more. May it be so. Amen.