By Amy Johnson, Pastor of Osceola United Methodist Church
Why does hope matter? Can't we just continue onward with faith in God and assurance of salvation? What is so special about having hope?
If you give me a moment of personal privilege, I would like to share a witness about the power of hope in one life. An amazing friend taught me long ago that the only vulnerability anyone is authorized to share is their own, and the Bishop once laid hands on me while demanding, "take thou authority." And so I lay my vulnerability upon you with all the authority my confidence requires as I tell you that the church did not always give me hope. In fact, as a child the church let me down. It reinforced the story I had always known, the story I was told by my family and my teachers: I am not good enough, rich enough, or loved enough to matter in this world. I went by myself or with my brother to church to escape the hopelessness, yet it was ok that they kicked me out. I was naughty. I was poor. I didn't matter. I lacked respect for authority, the same authority that continually let me down and threatened my safety and well being day after day. And hell was already familiar in my life of realized eschatology. The church just cares for some people more than others. Hope had no place in my childhood. Neither did the church.
As a teenager, though, our whole family tried church again. I remember being asked to carry in the cross one day. The pastor asked if I was strong enough. I said I was pretty strong because I did roofing in summers, carrying bundles of shingles up the ladder. Pastor looked at me, up and down, and said that it sounds like I already know a thing or two about carrying a cross. I did. We all do; some are heavier or shaped differently, but crosses always seem familiar. When another girl asked to carry it but could not, I helped her. It was even harder than doing it alone because I had to reach from the side and bear most of the weight at a strange angle, but we did it together. Then, I told her to read the Bible, the part about how even Jesus needed help with his cross. I explained that she was not less because she needed help, but that God loves her for doing her best. Pastor overheard and told me that I had shared hope with her. He said that was my calling, to share hope with those who never thought they had a chance in a way others cannot because I understood hopelessness. Because I understood that some people have a cross that is not meant for one person to carry, just like Jesus.
When I was given a handful of themes to fit into one design, I thought it would be impossible at first. How can that much be represented in one image? Sharing hope is something we are called to, although never alone. The cross is too heavy. With the amazing help of our circuit artists in Aldersgate Apostles, we found a way to bring hope even this year, even in a new venue with unfamiliar spaces filled with chairs and cords and ginormous screens and surprise challenges we did not anticipate.
We created an image that should remind you of something old, designed to call to your remembrance Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam, perhaps the most famous painting of humanity's very real, very physical, connection to God. Only something is different this year. The connection is new, represented by a USB-C connection, we plug ourselves into God in a new way this year. It is different, but it is just as important, just as valuable. The mantle has been passed, and in more ways than ever we have seen changes permeate the denomination since last we met in person. They are not bad, but they are different. Staying connected to God means plugging in differently. It means carrying a cross for Jesus that we didn't expect to carry in order to bring hope to the world. The biggest and only challenge that remains for us to plug in is to have the strength to understand that walking together down the aisle with a new cross might start off even harder than carrying it alone. Yet if we are to bring hope, we are called to pick it up together, to bear the weight that belongs to another in a new and uncomfortable position, if that is what it takes to give God glory and give humanity hope.
Some time during COVID, our conference's processional cross broke. No one knows how, but it is broken and cannot be the same again. The cross we bear looks a bit differently than the one we are used to, but it is nonetheless ours to keep carrying.
It is no ordinary cross, but is marked with the fire of Pentecost. Likewise, the hope made real when we choose to connect in new ways is represented here in the stage art by fiery butterflies, bursting forth from our new connection with God in a live flurry of Pentecostal fire, in the same way our ordinands and retirees through their unique connection in Sunday's worship will with the passing of the mantle cause a bursting forth of the Holy Spirit into the denomination and world that will not be overcome! The same way that the graduates of licensing school, graduates of Course of Study, graduates of School for Lay Ministry, Commissioners, and all of our laity and clergy here gathered will not complete their work here, but will rather burst from these doors filled anew with cross-bearing Pentecostal fire that no amount of racism, gender exclusion, Covidity, ageism, life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, no height, nor depth nor anything else in all creation can extinguish because we are connected anew and forever to the love of God in Christ Jesus! The colors of our skin like the arms in this painting are many. So are our opinions and goals, our joy and frustrations, our crosses and our helpers. Our savior, though, the hand to whom we are connected, remains the same. In that, we are eternally yet not interminably connected no matter which denomination we claim.
This season, our circuit has been weary. We are sure you are, too. Attend to that. Take time away. Take time to talk with God and to reconnect. Then, let the Holy Spirit burst from your life. Carry different and awkward crosses. Carry the right crosses and not just the same old ones. Dare today to Make Hope Real to everyone, because you have this strength for a reason. Because you are more than what even the church that once let you down has told you, more than the people who have let you down told you. Because those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall rise up on wings. New wings. Different wings. Changed wings, blazing forth from our connection, our diversity, and our acceptance of the convergence of innovation and tradition, strong wings of a future with a hope.
Today, refuse to accept the rhetoric of the old church that you are not enough to be loved if you are different in a way that once excluded you, if you are poor, if you are a woman, if you are a person of color, if you speak a different language, if you communicate in a new way, if you express love that others do not understand, or if your diversity of abilities is different from those of your neighbor. You are enough. You can make beautiful and imperfect things that share a beautiful and perfect hope. You are connected to a circuit and denomination that cares about you and your hope-filled future, and we are ready to carry this cross together. It was too heavy even for Jesus to carry alone. Should any of us expect to bear ours better than Christ? We refuse today to force you to carry yours alone. We will make hope real for each other and for all who have been excluded from our ranks, for all the children who were told that there is no place for them in a church and who believed it. For all the tired and weary workers who are not content to give up yet; For all the aching hearts, the old left behind and the new never trusted, for the innovators who everyday hear that they are not enough and for the courageous hands who don't even know what a Universal Serial Bus Type C actually is but are willing to move forward anyway; for all those colorful souls who are willing to translate their experience so that others might see God this Pentecost; and for those who help others discern their call to make hope real even if hope has never been real for them, do not give up.
I know one little girl whose brush with hope led her to never accept limitations even when it was wearisome in order to eventually bring that enduring hope to you today. I know a circuit full of dreamers, artists, and supporters who in their weariness still chose to carry your cross today. I know a conference full of friends, neighbors, and Christ-loving sinners, who are all strong enough for a reason. I know a God whose plan for us even in this new and challenging venue of the pandemic-altered church is still for a future with a hope. But most of all, I know who I am called to be: that insecure little girl outside of her element who nonetheless chooses to pick up the cross with a new friend in order to bring God's word of hope in a new way. I thank God for all of our circuit who picked up the cross to bring this art and message to you today. Now, go and do likewise.
Our whole circuit was responsible for the artwork, but really special thanks to Jess Rockhold-Gaul, Sheila Sutton, and Alex Johnson, as well as Heechon Jeon who helped put it together.