Rev. Danielle K. Bartz December 3, 2023
Luke 1:1-23 “Disruptive Hope”
When has God disrupted your life to give you hope when you had decided that hope was not worth it? And I have a second question: What stories have you told to yourself, stories about how you assume your life will unfold, that God has countered?
I posed these two questions to my clergy group on Tuesday morning. Immediately, people started to share their stories of God’s disruptive hope. Four people in our group talked about meeting their spouse, several later in their lives, having decided that marriage was not something that was in store for them. One said he had told himself that he would never marry and instead live a life focused on good friends. Then after a chance encounter with his future wife, that story got disrupted and now they have been very happily married, and completely head over heels in love with each other, for nearly 20 years.
Another friend told me that he had come to believe that his entire ministry would be serving in rural North Dakota. He had, and continues to have, a lot of affection for the people who live in that area and he was ready to spend his entire life there. Then a postcard showed up in the mail. It was a recruitment postcard from the National Guard, seeking chaplains. Without fully knowing why, he responded. But when a stack of papers two inches thick – applications for the National Guard – showed up in the mail, he threw them away. The Holy Spirit, however, was not willing to give up on disrupting his life, so a few weeks after that, the recruitment chaplain called, saying that he was going to be in Bismarck the following week and could he take my friend out for coffee. Needless to say, my friend became a chaplain in the National Guard, and served honorably and proudly for 22 years. Having not grown up in a family with a history of military service, he had never imagined such a ministry for himself. But he counts those years as the most fulfilling in his ministry.
Another friend told me that she had come to believe that she would never have children. Doctors, in fact, confirmed this story for her. She had come to a level of peace about this, though it was a big disappointment for her. But, she had decided to stop hoping to become a mother. So, imagine her surprise when she had been feeling unwell for a while and went to the doctor, who told her she was not sick, but pregnant. She now has two wonderful children and is expecting her third after the start of the new year. In fact, her oldest’s middle name is Elizabeth, in honor of Elizabeth’s unexpected pregnancy of John that we read about this morning.
And this is the story I shared. When I went into seminary, I told myself and anyone who would listen that I would never go into congregational ministry. It is not for me – I said, over and over again. At first I was going to serve in the nonprofit sector for my entire career, and even toyed with the idea of going to law school. Then after a mandatory internship in a hospital chaplain department one summer – I told myself and anyone who would listen that I was going to be hospital chaplain. And my early career was in hospital chaplaincy, and it was wonderful. But is also wore on my Spirit, especially as hospitals continued to downsize chaplaincy departments, leaving one chaplain to care for hundreds of patients and employees on their own. I then moved into the non-profit sector and gained tremendous experience and developed a broad network – both of which continue to serve me well. But, I never felt truly fulfilled. I missed pastoral care. But, it was well in line with the story I had told myself, and everyone else. I would never go into congregational ministry, I said, it was not for me.
I still have no idea why I gave into the Holy Spirit to begin looking for congregational ministry positions one afternoon. But, it was the day after you all had posted your profile looking for a new minister – that Holy Spirit is clever. Still, I continued to tell myself that I had no interest in congregational ministry. That I would be no good at it. That I would not like it. I figured I would meet with a couple of search committees and get it out of my system. I had stopped daring to hope to find true fulfillment in my ministry.
Fast forward five and a half years, and here I stand – having never been happier or more certain about my calling from God. These truly have been the happiest years of my life, pandemic and all, and I have become so addicted to hope that I know that I can be a little annoying sometimes when I try to point out the hope in and for everything.
I posed the questions of when God had disrupted the lives, and the assumed stories of those lives, of my friends and every single one of us had one, if not several, to share. So, I ask you again: When has God disrupted your life to give you hope when you had decided that hope was not worth it?
One of the reasons, I think, that we can at times become afraid to hope is that we have grown weary by the world. Whether it is in our personal lives – weary of hoping for a reconciliation of a relationship, weary of hoping for a relief from pain, wearing of hoping for an outlet for our creativity – whatever it may be, that weariness can become pervasive and turns us inward. We stop looking for hope, and instead look only for those things that reinforce our weariness.
The same is true for how we view and interact with the world. The world wears us down, there is no doubt about that. We become weary of hoping for true action to combat climate change. We become weary of hoping for justice for the systematically oppressed. We become weary of hoping for a true ceasefire. And we become so consumed by our weariness that we stop hoping and instead just seek out reminders of how horrible the world is, seeking to make the stories we have told true.
But, God is always seeking to disrupt that weariness. God is offering hope all the time. Sometimes in subtle ways. Sometimes in ways that cannot be ignored. Zechariah and Elizabeth had stopped hoping for a child. And even when hope was offered in the undeniable form of the angel Gabriel standing in front of Zechariah saying, “Hey, this thing that you have stopped hoping for will actually happen!”, even then Zechariah was reluctant to hope. The good news didn’t align with the story his weary spirit had created about his life. Hope was quite literally standing in front of him, telling him what he had longed to hear. And still he was unwilling to grasp onto that hope.
It was right, I believe, for the angel Gabriel to strike Zechariah silent for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Zechariah became pregnant in a way as well – hope was allowed to grow inside him when silence was forced upon him so that he could not counter the message of the angel with his own story. Sometimes that is how God works in us, something that grows in our spirits when we can quiet ourselves enough. Sometimes God stands in front of us, hands on hips, and says it is time to hope, like a stern grandmother telling you it is time to behave. And oftentimes God is providing hope to us in small ways, hoping we will notice. God hopes to break through our weary souls with joy.
This Advent we will be exploring how a weary world rejoices. And we begin by acknowledging our weariness. We all are. I know this. I can feel it myself at times. Which is why it is so good that we begin Advent by lighting a candle of Hope. It gives us something to focus on. A literal light of hope to dim the shadows of our weariness. It is a physical reminder to us that God is seeking to disrupt our lives with hope. Maybe today you just need to acknowledge your weariness as we enter into this season. If that is the case, then I give you my full blessing to do just that. And maybe, for some of us, we are also ready to acknowledge that hope is always a part of our lives. That God exists in our hope. What stories of how of hope has disrupted your lives in the past came to mind as I was sharing mine and my colleagues? I have a feeling, if you give yourself permission to remember them, they will start to flood through your memories. And leaning on those stories, those stories of disruptive hope, then perhaps we can all seek to counter our weariness today with the promise of hope fulfilled. Amen.
Disruptive God, you have always sought to interrupt our lives with your hope, and you will never stop that gift of disruptive hope. For that gift we give you great thanks and it is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
We acknowledge, God, our weariness as we enter into this season of expectation. We acknowledge that at times it all feels too much and that hope seems to be too risky an endeavor. In our weariness, help us to seek out your comforting presence. Give us the courage to lean into you and trust that you will carry us through. And when we are ready, give us signs of your hope, hope that never leaves us alone. Your hope that is ways there.
One of the ways God we allow your hope to grow within us is through silent prayer. So now in these moments of quiet, we offer to you are spirits, listening for your voice of hope to fill us…
Loving God, you have promised your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and we choose today to embrace the hope of that promise. We do so in the name of Jesus Christ, who embodied you and showed us what it means to live our lives focused on you. It is in his name that we pray. And we now pray in the way he taught…Our Father…