Sermon: Hopes and Dreams

6 May 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
May 6, 2007

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Hopes and Dreams 

Revelation 21:1-6

John 13:31-35

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”


When I began to sense God was preparing a new call for me back in 2005, and I began preparing my profile to search for a new church within the United Church of Christ, the process required that I write what is known as a brief “statement on ministry.”   In those 2 short pages, I was supposed to somehow summarize my sense of purpose and call as a pastor, my vision for the future, and all my hopes and dreams for what I was looking for in the congregation I might serve.  Here’s how I began:

I believe the mission of the church is to spread the Good News of God’s love, and invite others to live and grow in the presence of that transforming love.  Our top priority should be to take seriously Jesus’s commandment to his disciples in the Gospel of John, to “love one another.”

I’ve always tried to keep this last and greatest commandment of Jesus that we “love one another” at the center of my life and ministry.  When search committees would ask, “What is your vision for ministry?” or “What hopes and dreams do you have for the church you will serve?”  My answer was always, “My hopes and dreams are that my church members focus their ministries around what they discern to be GOD’s hopes and dreams for the church.  And that means that they will know how to love one another.” I can’t tell you how happy I am to report that God seems to have placed me into a church where this is the case – here at the Congregational Church of Brookfield, you keep God at the center, and you have a very loving community of disciples.  You know God and you know God’s love.  My old church in California did too.

My husband was reminding me of one Sunday back in Orinda when a bunch of us came to understand God’s love, and the sacrament of communion, in a new way.  The toddler son of one of our friends began to whine and misbehave while we were trying to stand around on a sunny spring day and talk on the patio, with our after-church coffee and tea.  The poor parents tried just about everything – reasoning, separating him from his sister, holding him, finally scolding him.  Then somebody else, one of our elders in the church, stopped by with a cookie, bent down to the boy’s level, and gave it to him, wiping away his tears with her paper napkin.  With earnest solemnity, he took it, shoved it into his mouth, and after sucking on it for a while – pulled it back out and offered the kind church lady the other half.  “No thank you,” she said, smiling.  “But you’re very kind to share.”  Looking up at us, the worried parents, she said, “Remember when all your problems in life could be solved with a cookie?”  What a moment of God’s love and grace.

But that’s not always the case.  Church is not always the happy place that we would hope it could be.  It’s a sad commentary on the world we live in, I think, that before I could be installed today as your pastor, our Connecticut Conference mandated that I go through formal training in pastoral ethics.  And in that day-long class, we saw videos and discussed some terrible cases of sexual abuse and misconduct.  The truth is, some of the deepest wounds many Christians suffer were received at church – and it’s not just the clergy who violate our trust. I hate to break the news to you new members who joined today, but in a spirit of full disclosure, I think you should know that some folks right there next to you in the pews – like some of your friends, neighbors, and co-workers – are cheating and stealing, lying and envying and committing adultery.  And that list only covers 4 of the 10 commandments. 

In case you’re too young to remember, this tangle of sin is why so many sermons back in the old days took so long.  Preachers had to make sure everybody was fully convicted as a sinner, that everybody was wallowing pretty deep in guilt, before they would whip the Good News out of the sermon like a rabbit out of a hat.  The preacher would make sure that ALL the 7 deadly sins were described in graphic detail.  By then, those poor wretched listeners were ready to come forward for an altar call, to throw themselves on the mercy of Christ, because at least ONE sin had to apply to them. The promise of salvation starts to look pretty good when you’re sweating out the threat of hell, teetering on the very brink of the fiery pit itself.

But today, in churches like ours anyway, today we practice what a friend of mine’s husband likes to call “Christianity Lite.”  Church is so happy and fun, most of the time, you might forget how much evil still taints the world, or how desperately wretched many of us are – as we struggle privately with the demons that threaten to possess us.  Demons of self-doubt, of addiction, and of violence.  Demons of deadly sins: of anger and greed and envy, of gluttony, pride, sloth, and lust.  But if we don’t admit that following in Christ’s way of love is hard, full of temptations, don’t we dilute the dazzling joy of our redemption in Christ, and our inclusion in God’s Reign of Love?  Like the parent of a naughty toddler, God doesn’t always approve of our behavior, but God DOES always love us.  God does always want to hold us close.  This is the miracle of grace that brings light to our darkness.

This is where the Book of Revelation has Good News to offer to us today.  In that wildly visionary and apocalyptic book, John’s visions of heaven and hell, angels and antichrist, glassy sea and fiery pit, seem at first glance to be very unpleasant, or at least old-fashioned.  And yet, look how our culture is fascinated by the apocalyptic visions of movie-makers and novelists, not to mention comic book artists.  This is one reason I felt called from being an actor and film critic to preach and lead worship in Christ’s church.  I had come to believe that the happy Protestant churches of suburban America were missing something very big and important – the concept of danger, and evil, and therefore our need for salvation in Christ.  In the process of cleaning it up and making it all a bit more palatable and pleasant, I believed we had leached the drama out of the salvation story.  How could we grasp the passion of Jesus, which revealed God’s hopes and dreams for the world, if we could not see or admit that the world was desperately in need of saving?

It’s only, I believe, when we allow ourselves to look at the terrors that we’d probably rather NOT see – like the recent shooting at Virginia Tech, or to the events of 9/11 or the Iraq War, or the threats to all life on earth posed by AIDS, nuclear weapons, or global warming – that we can fully appreciate what John offers with his vision of the New Jerusalem.  In the face of such evil around us, how beautiful becomes John’s picture of justice and peace, where God comes to us like a beloved spouse, to live with us and care for us.  How can we help but feel joy to catch a glimpse of God’s hopes and dreams for the world?  All that mess of evil wiped away, cleaned up for good.  God making a clean sweep and starting over, making all things new.  God wiping away every tear, so that pain and suffering were no more.

Each day we come to church, each Sunday is for Christians a new celebration of hope, through our remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Each Sunday, we pray for God’s Reign of love and peace.  Each sermon we hope provides a new glimpse of God’s hopes and dreams for us, and new revelation of the risen Christ – that we may through him, find new life, and be moved by the Holy Spirit to truly love one another. And each coffee hour, each meeting, each small encounter with our brothers and sisters in Christ is an opportunity to welcome the Holy Spirit into our fellowship, and to make all things new.  For we ARE God’s hopes and dreams for this broken world – people of faith, God WILL have the last word. Christ the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, will restore us and heal us and make us new creatures, worthy to bear His name.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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