This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, a Sunday when Christians around the world reflect on the theme of Hope. We thought it would be a great timing to share this recording from our closing service at the recent GS Fall Virtual Retreat. This is our Director of Operations, Nadia Vanderkuip, preaching a gritty, "seedy" sermon about what hope might look like in a year like 2020. If you prefer to read instead of watching, you'll find a full transcript below (all embedded photos stolen from Nadia's own Instagram account). Enjoy, and blessings as you enter the season of Advent!
Well, friends, it's an honor to be sharing with you this afternoon. I love how GS ends these retreats with a worship service like this after learning from such great speakers, like Pam and Jeff, who called us into being more Christ-like, who calls us into being both revolutionary and evolutionary in our face and in our lives. I had the privilege of sitting in on three amazing workshops, that called us towards wholeness, that helped us deconstruct our faith using the story of Jonah, and talking about important things in our lives like queer health. I'm sure most of you also enjoyed some great worship or workshops. I also was lucky enough to be part of an affinity group where truth and wisdom and vulnerability was shared, and I hope that you all had those kind of moments and those kinds of experiences, this weekend. I'm grateful to be with you here today. I'd like to invite us just into a moment of prayer before we start, so let's pray.
“God, this is a prayer for the hope-filled and the hope-starved. The hope-resistant and the hope-seekers. May we be open to the mysterious movements of the Spirit which dwells among us and within us. Teach us to imagine to create, to prophesy, and to call forth a new way of living, that reminds us that we are beloved, and that we belong in this wild and uncertain world. Amen.”
I don't know about you. I don't know what your dreams were for 2020, when you're sitting there January 1, but for us, 2020 was supposed to be a year of new beginning and new hope for our family. We moved back to Canada at the end of 2019. (Thanks be to God!) right before the crazy election year and the global pandemic hit the east coast of where we were living just outside Philadelphia. It was just - it was a decision we made as a family to honor our kids’ desire to come back home, and to help support the healing of our eldest daughter who is suffering from the effects of a brain injury.
And there have been some very positive effects about moving home. Both the girls are thriving in different ways. But if we were totally honest it's not exactly the life we were hoping for. A lot of that obviously is due to the pandemic. Quarantine with teenagers is terrible for everyone. Most of my family are extroverts, I'm hardcore introvert. And you can imagine the joy of teenage angst plus deep extroversion plus a tiny house equaling just a lot of tense times where I am the one that is holding back all the fun that we could possibly be having, “Mom! Will you just stop.” Please note, I'm preaching from my bedroom, my door's locked, someone actually just banged on my door right now. My sermon is balanced on top of my sock drawer and this feels all very on-brand for 2020.
Some of our attention comes from not being in working community in ways that we have, or that we were hoping for. This is especially true for my partner who works a tremendous amount to keep our family going and who misses our life in the US the most. And as we entered the deep, dark, and freaking so rainy season of BC, hope seems elusive in our daily lives as we enter into a second lockdown in eight - of the eight months.
So when I was “voluntold” to preach for this retreat back in September by my ever loving colleagues, I wondered what - like what could I possibly offer to this community. Once I agreed, I began to open myself up to what the Spirit might have me speak about.
And the message of Hope kept bubbling up. It was the overarching theme of the Evolving Faith conference that I was lucky enough to attend virtually in October, it appeared in books I was reading and Instagram accounts I was following. And quite frankly, it was just pissing me off. I was just super annoyed by it because I am not wired for hope. That is not my default position in this life, it is not a descriptor that anybody in my life would use for me. But as it often happens when I sat with this idea of hope, I realized that my narrative for what I thought hope was, was really inadequate.
I came to the church as a teenager in the early ‘90s, I don't come from a family of faith. The early ‘90s was an era of rapture movies, the Left Behind series, terrible, terrible, terrible Christian music and youth pastors who had goatees and played guitar. It's like, amazing that I even made it through that mess to still be in faith today. It was also a time where if anything wasn't perfect or toxically positive, it was inherently sinful. Everything could be solved by more prayers, or quiet times, a phrase that still is super triggering to me today. Hope was presented as fragile and fleeting, based on emotions and good feeling. Delicate, and ethereal, seemed elusive, and only given to the best of us.
I learned early in life that hope was dangerous, untrustworthy and painful; things I hoped for rarely came to pass, so I grew hope-resistant. For me as an Enneagram 5, I would rather research and learn and arm myself with knowledge than trust in hope.
But, if 2020 has taught me anything, it has taught me the truth about hope. Hope is not a delicate flower, easily crushed by reality. Hope is a white-knuckled warrior, bruised and bloody. It can be an ember that glows deep with inside of us or a raging fire that bursts out of our pores. It is gritty, dirty, messy and passionate. Hope is resistant to the ways of the world that continue to push forth harmful narratives and binaries that seek to smother who we really are. It is active and moving. It is participatory as Barbara Brown Taylor says. It is intangible, it's intentional and tangible. It's creative and creating. Hope does not seek perfection; it longs for us to practice. Hope is not just about joy. Hope has room for anger, and sadness, and doubt, as well as contentment and love. Hope allows for vulnerability and hope allows for strength. It allows for dreams and it allows for death. There is no one way to hope.
Hope is resurrection. It is this last understanding of hope as resurrection that drew me to the scripture verse that I wanted to share with you today. I'm not usually a fan of just using one verse to come up with a whole sermon. Like Jeff Chu, I believe that context and long view is important. But we're not in usual times. And when we were talking about seeds in the ground, this was the verse that came to me.
The verse is found in the Gospel of John chapter 12 verse 24. “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies it bears much fruit.”
Now the context of this verse is that Jesus has just opened or entered into Jerusalem, and He's on his way to the cross and He is yet again trying to teach his disciples what the plan is. The verse is actually considered Jesus's shortest parable. A single verse that captures the reality of Jesus' life and ministry on Earth, death and resurrection. And I know this verse may seem a bit random and a tiny bit of a stretch to connect with hope but bear with me.
Most of you are just getting to know me and so just a little bit of background about me. Although I have this very sort-of dorky, nerdy role of Directors of Operations at GS, at the very core of actually who I am, lies a Pastor-Farmer. More like Wendell Berry or Barbara Brown Taylor, Jeff Chu - except I don't have any cool books that I've written. As long as I can remember, I've been throwing seeds into the ground and watching things grow. As an adult everywhere we have lived, I have created a garden; planting all sorts of fruits and veggies to feed our family and friends. Most times I plant things like strawberry and rhubarb and asparagus, perennial plants that live on and reproduce whether I'm still there or not.
At the heart of every farmer, there's a spirit of hopefulness. That a tiny seed will grow and produce. That the very act of pushing a seed into the ground is a hope for death, and new life, or resurrection into a new thing. Two weeks ago, I spent an afternoon at a friend's farm planting over 1000 flower bulbs. An act of hope that they will make it through this cold wet winter, a long spring, and that they will bloom right before the summer. Those thousand bulbs will create a harvest that I will not benefit from, but it doesn't seem to matter to me anymore, because I've learned that hope is not a linear movement, it's cyclical. You can enter into any time, any place, any space, and there, lies hope.
For me, this little throwaway verse contains everything I can imagine about hope in Jesus. There's a three-fold action that happens here in the verse: the dropping of the seed into the dirt, the liminal space in-between, and the production of new fruit. We, of course, have the benefit of hindsight, and most of us can see how that mirrors Jesus's death on the cross, the time in the tomb, and the resurrection. But as I sat with this verse, I finally saw the actionable, participatory hope that is taught here. The choice to drop the seed. The patience in the waiting, and the trusting of the process of decomposing and deconstruction in the in-between. And finally the tangible hope of seeing it push through the soil, green and blooming. None of that is passive and all of that is hopeful.
Now this verse really came alive to me and these last two weeks as I watched the US elections. Because honestly, none of that mess was hopeful for me. These last six months have been grueling and heartbreaking and oh, giving me a sense of overwhelming hopelessness.
As I turn this verse over and over in my mind, I had the good sense to text a close friend of mine who pastors a church in the heart of Philadelphia. Laura is a badass pastor, whose sense of justice is so strong and infects anyone who has a good fortune to come near her. She's an Old Testament scholar and possesses an intellect that intimidates the crap out of most people. I happen to be her Emotional Support Canadian during the election as the election results rolled in, and for three days straight, we texted. And we started talking about Hope. We had decided together that we'd both preach on this subject this weekend. Her, from the very whiny emo book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, and me, from the book of John.
As she was ranting and raving about all the ridiculousness of the current regime, we began to wonder together if we could imagine the seed a bit differently in this verse. Much like Jeff called us to reimagine the parable of the sower, we want to reimagine about this story in John.
And we began to wonder, if we could imagine the seed in this verse as being the harmful systems and binaries and narratives that are in our world. A seed we have been so used to dropping in the soil that it's become normative.
And then Laura and I began to dream together what that liminal space is; as the seed begins to die in the soil, begins to break apart, breaking apart those systems and decomposing so that it becomes nothing more than a faint scar or a memory.
And finally, as we were text-arguing together, we began to imagine new fruit. Fruits of truth, justice, racial reconciliation, equity for all human beings, diversity and leadership, and an important one in the US, healthcare for all. The fruits of resistance: hope, joy, a new way forward, all were springing up out of these old seeds. And finally, I got Laura to agree with me. A hard-fought victory after three and a half days, that this verse - the Gospel in a short parable - life, death, and resurrection is really hope embodied.
As I've been here with GS, I've heard this phrase thrown around quite a bit, mostly by our director, Wendy: Both/And. And that's what hope is. Hope is both/and. Hope is both sowing the seeds of hope and seeing new practices bloom forth. Both dropping seeds of the old corrupt systems to watch them die away and seeing new systems sprout up.
Hope lives in this tension of lived experience. In the unknown liminal spaces and the not-yet future. Hope transcends barriers, both real and imagined, to walk alongside faith and love. As Beth mentioned, my working title for this sermon was Hope and Other Four Letters that Describe 2020, and I'm a realist at heart. I know that perhaps hope wasn't on your list of words to describe 2020; it wasn't on mine. However, 2020 has shattered this myth of toxic positivity that pervades Christianity. That things like “thoughts and prayers”, blind optimism, piety and “just being good”, that that would solve anything that's happening. And I'm glad it has. I'm glad because standing in this wreckage is hope, fierce and unrelenting, forcing us to reimagine everything, challenging us to acknowledge the brokenness and calling us back into love.
For some of us, hope is easy, and may be a constant companion for you. For some of us, myself included, hope is a practice; one that we have to intentionally undertake daily. You may be at the seed stage, or the liminal space of deconstruction, deconstructing or beginning to bear fruit in your life. In fact, you actually might be at all three stages at different parts of your life like I am.
But I want to remind us of this. That hope, in its gritty, defiant glory is part of the story that God is writing in the world right now. Hope is the light shining in the darkness, the ember that is burning deep inside of you, reminding us that we are not alone. That we are loved. That we are created and creating creative beings made in God's image. And that we are called to be wild, holy, hopeful and free.