"Defiant Hope" (2 Corinthians 3:1-6)

Jim AntalJim Antal, May 20, 2018
Part of the Pentecost series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page

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Defiant Hope—Christian Witness in a time of Climate Crisis
SCRIPTURE:
Of the many churches founded by the Apostle Paul, none was more fractious than the
gathering of troubled believers in the pagan city of Corinth. In the passage I am about to read,
it’s clear that the Christians in Corinth are questioning Paul’s authority. You can almost hear the
whisper campaign. “I wonder if he’s made it all up? All that stuff about meeting Jesus on the road
to Damascus. Maybe he came up with that since he never actually met Jesus when Jesus was
alive. What gives him the right to tell us what to do? Let’s demand that he prove his authority to
us. Let’s make him bring to us a letter; a letter from Peter or from James, the brother of Jesus.
How else can we believe him?” But Paul doesn’t take the bait. Instead, he turns it around.
Rather than respond defensively, Paul embraces his accusers. He says to them, “You are my
letter of recommendation. You are the best evidence there is that my ministry has not been in
vain.” Hear now this unusual passage from Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth,
beginning with chapter 3, verse 1. Listen to the word of God for us today. Paul writes:
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or
from you, do we? [2] You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; [3] and you show
that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of
stone but on tablets of human hearts. [4] Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. [5] Not that we are
competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, [6] who has made us competent
to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
I don’t know what you consider to be your most important spiritual discipline... but for me,
every morning my first waking thought is gratitude – gratitude that God has given me at least one
more day to serve, one more opportunity to inquire and testify, one more chance to seek and bear
witness to truth. By embracing the spiritual discipline of gratitude, I find that I am free to bring
my full self to whatever challenges and opportunities may come my way. When the Apostle Paul
instructs the Ephesians to give thanks in all things (Ephesians 5:20) I believe that this is what
he’s getting at.
And so this past week, in anticipation of joining you this morning, I’ve been giving thanks for
you!
• I’m grateful to Mark for extending to me a warm invitation to share in the ministry of God’s
word, and for the way he serves as a vessel for the Holy Spirit. I join you in giving thanks for
all the ways God uses him to make Christ’s presence known in this part of Massachusetts.
• I’m grateful for the generous financial support your congregation consistently offers the Mass.
Conference and the national UCC. Have a look at our Conference website and take-in all
the incredible ways in which the Mass Conference is ministering to the ministries of our
churches – and then smile, and pat yourself on the back for our robust covenantal
partnership.
• And I’m grateful for all the ways your congregation serves as a beacon of hope and voice for
justice here in the Berkshires.
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At the close of this sermon I’ll return to gratitude, but for now, let me say thank you for being
such a blessing to our life together as the United Church of Christ. Thank you for upholding and
blessing one another. And thank you for reaching out to those in this community who would
never imagine that a church like the United Church of Christ exists. Those seekers need the
blessings you have to offer!
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable unto you O
Lord; our strength, and our Redeemer. Amen
Today the Church celebrates Pentecost. 50 long days after Jesus’ death, the Apostles finally
hear and see and smell and taste and touch the Holy Spirit. This is the moment their lives are
turned around. For the past 50 days, instead of recalling the great times they had shared with
Jesus and all they had managed to do together:
• the Apostles went into hiding.
• They ignored Jesus’ admonition not to put their light under a bushel.
• They forgot his assurance that they would do greater acts than he.
Embracing amnesia, for 50 days the Apostles hid from the world.
Grief can do that. Grief turns us inward. When we are grieving:
• our possibilities shrink;
• our courage shrivels;
• and a fog descends on our future.
I’m guessing that most of you know what I’m talking about. I’m guessing that for most of us,
grief is not a stranger.
Since Easter, the Apostles have been finding their way through this fog. And it is to the
grieving community of the first Disciples that the Holy Spirit comes.
• They feel the wind;
• they hear the sound;
• they see the fire;
• they speak in strange languages.
Suddenly their dispirited hearts are filled with power, confidence, energy, momentum, and
purpose. And Pentecost marks day one of the greatest mass movement the world would ever see.
In the spirit of Pentecost, since Nov. 2016, I’ve been signing my emails “Sharing the yoke of
defiant hope.” When we embrace the Holy Spirit, God expands our imagination, unites us with
allies, amplifies our hope and provides us with opportunity. This is especially true when we find
ourselves living in perilous times. God is offering to shape our lives and witness by calling us to a
defiant hope that we might become a church filled with an undefeatable vocation to restore
God’s great gift of creation.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. So much of what we are exposed to each day ends up
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deadening, deflating or defeating our hope:
• Look back at our President’s decisions to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, cancel the
Clean Power Plan and roll-back restrictions on auto emissions. But that’s not all.
• The Environmental Protection Agency has been gutted, and our National Parks have been
de-funded and will soon be opened to fracking.
• At least once a week we see a headline in “the real news” like “Earth now Warming at a Rate
Unseen in 55 Million Years”1
• And all too frequently, one of our elected leaders uses their bully pulpit to say something like
what Michigan Congressman Tim Walberg said last year (2017): he’s not concerned about
the effects of climate change — if it exists — because God will “take care of it.”2
It’s only human that in response to this relentless onslaught of bad news, we become
vulnerable to the enemies of hope – fear, despair and cynicism – and the pessimism these enemies
breed. And for many of us, once pessimism takes over, our imagination shrivels and we become
passive and complacent. Too often, we forget Jesus’ most frequent admonition: “Fear not!”
But optimists can also be passive and complacent if they assume that all will go well without
their efforts. Optimists often convince themselves that somehow, the mess we’ve created will get
straightened out, and in the meantime, what matters most is to stay positive about my life and
the lives of those I love.
So what do I mean by defiant hope? I shared these inspirational examples with you two years
ago:
• Think of the young shepherd David as he quieted his trembling hands so that he could gather
up a few smooth stones, while all around him grown men dressed in armor trembled.
• Or bring to mind the Indian champion of non-violence who once said, "First they ignore you,
then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
• Or consider the carpenter's son from Nazareth who assured those around him that they could
move mountains and that the truth would set them free.
Hope begins when we expand our imagination beyond what we can reasonably expect.
• For example, in 2009 Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson proposed – and later proved – that
each of the 50 states—and virtually every country – could transition to 100% renewable
energy by the year 2050.3
• Here’s another example. Within a few days of President Trump’s cancellation of the Paris
Climate Accord, the mayors, governors, and business leaders representing over $6 Trillion
dollars of the US economy declared their commitment to meet the guidelines of the Paris
agreement.4
• And here’s a fact that will expand your imagination: the cost of solar today [2016] is less than
1/200th the cost of solar when Jimmy Carter installed it on the roof of the White House in
1979!
If I were to say “we can do this!”—could I get an Amen?
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Defiant hope believes that we are called by God to change what appears to be inevitable, and
that God has given us everything we need to engage.
What if it’s true that things are always darkest, just before the dawn? Don’t you think that
Good Friday was darker than the darkest day any of Jesus’ followers had ever imagined?
If Franklin Delano Roosevelt had gone to the auto industry in 1939 and asked them to stop
doing what they were doing and instead, build the largest industrial plant in the world and use it
to construct something they’d never built before – something with over a million parts – and do
this with such urgency that within six months not only would the building be fully constructed,
but they’d actually be assembling one of those new things every 24 hours... if FDR had said this in
1939, Edsel Ford would have said, “Mr. President, you’re nuts!” But when FDR said it in 1941,
Edsel knew that things had grown much darker; and within six months the Willow Run
manufacturing complex was churning out a B-24 Liberator Bomber every 24 hours.5
Do you see what I mean when I say, “We can do this!” Can you say it with me: “We can do
this!”
But to do this, every day, each one of us needs to do two things:
• we need to face the challenge...
• and we need to join with others to take some action.
That may sound easy, but here’s the rub: 70% of Americans think global warming is
happening; and 65% of Americans rarely or never discuss it. In fact, only 13% of Americans
regard climate change as a religious issue.6
So our first task is to end this silence. And it turns out that the biggest predictor of people's
willingness to take action to defend creation is whether they are in regular contact with others
who believe and act like them7. In other words, by breaking our silence and sharing our views
and values with others, we will empower one another to take action.
And this is where church comes in. Looking back, slavery would not have ended if it hadn’t
have been for church. And just as the church responded to God’s call over 200 years ago, God is
calling the church of today to defend God’s gift of creation.
That call could be heard last July (2017) when a resolution I wrote in response to the US
pull-out from the Paris Climate Accord came before our national UCC Synod. 97% of UCC
delegates from all over the country affirmed:
• that clergy need to preach on climate change; and
• that we have a moral imperative to resist all expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.
Humanity will not make the changes science says we must unless the church becomes a center
for conversation, discernment, support and action.
And one thing more: defiant hope inoculates us against the epidemic of despair that so often
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accompanies the release of the newest climate science or the shock when a government official
denies it. In a recent Op Ed piece, Bill McKibben worries that the impact President Trump’s
decisions are having on the climate could mean that his term will last forever8. But this reality is
not the final word—because the future is not yet written.
And if any Government official denies science, or deletes climate data, or forbids the sharing
of ongoing scientific investigation, or supports policies that will rob from our children their
future... none of this is the final word—because the future is not yet written.
Can you say it with me: “The future is not yet written!”
Yes—God is calling us to change what appears to be inevitable.
And remember: God has given us everything we need to engage.
Mind you: there’s no guarantee of success. In 2011 when 1,253 of us were arrested in front of
White House, we never expected President Obama to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from being
built. And when he did, we celebrated. But one short year later, America held an election. And
one of our new President’s first Executive Orders was to grant a permit to build the Keystone XL
pipeline9. Nevertheless, our actions have already prevented two billion barrels of the dirtiest
crude from being extracted and burned.10 And the resistance to building pipelines has spread, and
every month, another proposed pipeline project is being cancelled.
So, while God doesn’t promise success, God promises unswerving support while we engage
our calling.
The best example of defiant hope I know of are a group of teenagers known as Our Children's
Trust11. When I preached here in 2016, I told you about how these teenagers have teamed up
with some attorneys and scientists, and together they have built a legal case showing that it is the
duty of the government to protect the climate, and that they have a Constitutional right to a
future not wrecked by climate change.
Now, they’re suing the Federal Government.
This is not only a legal campaign – it’s a moral campaign, seeking to expand the universal
moral principle of the Golden Rule to recognize future generations as our neighbors – what I call
Golden Rule 2.0.
The trial begins on October 29, 2018. Between now and then, the UCC has issued a
challenge for 1,000 sermons to be preached on this future-shaping witness - and we hope that
most of those sermons will be delivered by teenagers. I hope you will spread word of this
opportunity—not just to UCC churches but to any and all churches. You can register your plan
to preach about Our Children’s Trust on the website the UCC has created: eachgeneration.org .
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1.
https://newclimate.org/2017/03/31/trumps-climate-policies-would-see-us-climate-action-rating-drop-from-medium-to
-insufficient/
2.
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2017/06/01/tim-walberg-climate-change-trump-paris-agreem
ent/102389286/
3. http://thesolutionsproject.org/
4.
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/climate/american-cities-climate-standards.html?ref=energy-environment&_r=
0
5. https://newrepublic.com/article/135684/declare-war-climate-change-mobilize-wwii
6. http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/climate-change-american-mind-march-2018/2/ March 2018
report.
7. WAPO May 16, 2016
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/05/16/why-even-people-who-are-very-alarmedabout-
climate-change-often-take-little-action/?postshare=1201463431325891&tid=ss_tw&utm_term=.cccfa59d49
44
8. Bill Mckibben, NYT April 20, 2017, “The Planet Can't Stand This Presidency.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/21/opinion/the-planet-cant-stand-this-presidency.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0
This is how we write the future... this is how we shape history: by envisioning new possibilities
and acting on them as if they were inevitable.12
Rarely will any of us know who we might have inspired by what we have said or done. But
moral courage is contagious; and lives can be repurposed when they encounter defiant hope.
And that brings me to today’s scripture. Just as Paul declares to the Christians in Corinth, so
I say to you: “You are my letter.” And more importantly, you who have taken Christ’s name as
your own, you are the letter which Christ is writing to the world. You are the means by which
the world will come to know and experience Christ’s supreme work of reconciling humanity to
God, to one another and to all of creation.
And so I say to you: In all your endeavors, let your life be a sign of defiant hope:
• awash in gratitude;
• infused with joy;
• propelled by wonder;
• and always seeking the truth —
because the truth will set you free –
free to make full use of all your gifts and capacities in partnership with others – and guided by the
Holy Spirit –
to protect God’s great gift of creation. Amen.
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9. https://thinkprogress.org/keystone-xl-pipeline-permit-granted-trump-204ee8c97a5e
10. 9/2011-3/2018=6.5yrs x 365days x 830,000 barrels = 1.97 billion barrels x 42gals/barrel = 82.74 Billion Gallons
of oil
11. See https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/us/federal-lawsuit/ and
https://theconversation.com/earth-on-the-docket-why-obama-cant-ignore-this-climate-lawsuit-by-americas-youth-69
193
12. This insight comes from Walter Wink’s lectionary meditation “These bones shall live - Living the Word” in
Christian Century Magazine 1994. (Volume and date of issue unavailable

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About Jim Antal: The Rev. Dr. Jiim Antal has served as the Conference Minister and President of the Massachusetts UCC since 2006. His leadership in the areas of the environment and climate change is noteworthy. For more on Rev. Jim Antal, see the Massachusetts UCC webpage: http://www.macucc.org/authordetail/344767
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