April 26, 2020 - Sermon - Rev. Michael Howard

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Sermon Text

What are We Hoping For?

Once we realize that just about anything that is true of our

relationship with our homes is true concerning our neigh-
borhoods, regions, and nations, then thinking locally will

mean acting globally, and that means saving the world.
—Winifred Gallagher1

The question that must be addressed is not how to care for
the planet is not how do we care for the planet, but how to
care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural
neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces of
parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way
different from all the others.

—Wendell Berry2

Chapter 1:
The Gospel and the Dream of God

Good Sunday morning, friends and faithful people of
Federated Church of Chagrin Falls! My name is
Michael Anthony Howard. I am the Minister of Faith in
Action for the Living Water Association in the Heartland

Conference of the United Church of Christ. It is a tremen-
dous honor and privilege to get to share the gospel with you

this Eastertide morning, to be in this sacred place at this sa-
cred time with you. It is an unprecedented time, and now we

are “sheltering-in-place.” Many of us are asking ourselves
questions that we have not asked for generations, if ever.

This morning I would like to ask you a question I have been

asking congregations all over Northeast Ohio. It is a ques-
tion I have been wrestling with for the better part of my adult

life and all of my career: What is the gospel?

What does the gospel mean for us in our place, in this time?
What would it mean for the most vulnerable populations
who are now out on the frontlines everyday risking their

Perhaps the good news might sound like the news we will
hear when we know with some certainty that our current
pandemic is over. Or better yet, what if the good news were
that the people of God were finally willing to commit their
lives to making sure our most vulnerable populations are
cared for rather than misused or taken for granted?

I have come to believe that the gospel is a mighty and dan-
gerous story. It is mighty because it is about the force that

brought all of creation into existence. It is also a dangerous
story because it threatens to unsettle us, to unravel us, to
rework us. It is dangerous because it threatens to take apart
everything about the way we have constructed the world
and to reorient us toward the Dream of God.

It is a story about the yearning at the heart of the universe,

the cry at the core of creation. It is a story about the unfold-
ing of the Dream of God. It is about the one who lived out

his life as an embodiment of that dream in his very body. It
is also about us: our pain and suffering, our hopes and
fears, our redemption. It is about our call to embody the
Dream of God together, in our very bodies.

As the minister of Faith in Action I’d like us to consider an-
other important question: How does our interpretation of the

gospel shape the dreams we have for the places we inhabit
and for the life around us we share these places with? For
inspiration to help us answer this question with the gravity it
deserves, I’d like to walk us through the sacred story we
were given to wrestle with today. It is the story of three men
walking on the way to a village called Emmaus.

Questions for discussion
1. Imagine you are asked by someone unfamiliar with
Christianity, how would you answer the question in your
own words: What is the gospel?
2. What do you make of Michael’s primary question: “How
does our interpretation of the gospel shape the dreams
we have for the places we inhabit?”
3. Have you ever entertained the thought that you are
called to participate in the “unfolding of the Dream of

Chapter 2:
Before Emmaus

When you think about Israel, what comes to mind?
When I think about Israel, I think about a people
who shared a sacred place bequeathed to them by
their ancestors. They were a storied people, passing down
the sacred stories of their land, stories that purportedly

stretched back to the beginning of time. As they told it, hu-
manity had originated in a garden with a sacred river that

the founders of civilization had forsaken. In the final chapter
of the Christian cannon, in the mystical vision of a new
heaven and new earth, the children of Eve and Adam will
live in a sacred city with a sacred river that once again runs
through the garden of God.

The people of the sacred story of Israel had a shared histo-
ry, identity, and culture. For centuries, they worshiped a God

who shaped their dreams about the kind of people they
would strive to become together. When the Emmaus story
was written, Israel was in the midst of experiencing societal
collapse. They were a people rooted in a place, holding on
to a hope that their oppression would end for good with the
power of the presence of God. Like the prophets before
him, Jesus ushered in a spiritual revolution.

What these two disciples on the road to Emmaus experi-
enced, some might call today a deep sickness of the soul.

Everything they believed in was gone. They had not only lost
their leader, they had lost their hope—and hope tends to
deal the hardest blows. More than that, the God that they
thought had awakened them from their former spiritual
slumber, now seemed to have violently abandoned them.
When we find them journeying on the road together, we find

them experiencing what might be called “a crisis of the sa-

The people of Israel were a resilient people, nearly annihilat-
ed over and over again all throughout their history. When the

Gospel of Luke was written and the Emmaus story was first

recorded with ink on papyrus, these descendants of the an-
cient storied people of Israel were living in a destroyed

place. They were trying to hold on to their hope; they were
trying to hold on to their God. When they encountered the
stranger in the presence of their struggle to survive their
soul sickness, they experienced what they had experienced
with the now Crucified Jesus—they had their God back.

Questions for discussion
4. When you think about the name Israel, what comes to
5. How important do you think the history of the people of
Israel might have been to the two characters of the story
on the road to Emmaus?
6. Michael used the terms “crisis of the sacred” and “soul
sickness.” Have you ever heard or used this language?

When in recent history might this language be appropri-

Chapter 3:
Embodying the Dream in Our Bodies

It is a wide world, with so many challenges. How can we
know where to start? I believe that, like the followers of

Jesus before us, we are being called to be a people, root-
ed in our particular places, wrestling with our God again.

This time, we will need to do it with an earnest kind of hon-
esty. Otherwise, our spirits will continue to suffer from a lack

of spiritual integrity.

A spiritual leader once told me, “We can’t faithfully pray for
the people in our community we don’t love, and we can’t
love people we don’t know.” I suggest we start by striving to
be a people united in our longing to participate in the
promises of God—for this place, in this time, for ourselves
and the abundance of life all around us. Spiritual integrity
then means faithfully telling the stories of how the world has
ended up this way.

For the two disciples, they had “hoped” that the now cruci-
fied Jesus would have been “the one to redeem Israel.” I like

what Rebecca Solnit wrote about hope in her book Hope in
the Dark: “Hope is a dimension of the soul.” She says that

hope and action necessarily belong together since hope al-
ways calls for action, and action is impossible without hope.

“Hope,” she says, “is not like a lottery ticket you clutch with
your fist on your couch feeling lucky. Hope is an ax you
break down doors with in an emergency.”3

So with our earnest honesty and a courageous sense of
hope, perhaps now we can begin by asking about the
dreams that have shaped the places we inhabit.

There once were people here known as the Wyandots, and
later the Erie, which our Great Lake Erie is named after. They
inhabited these lands we now call home for thousands of

years. What were their dreams for the places we now inhab-

We might ask ourselves whose dream it was that caused
the English, French, and Spanish to rush here, carve up the
“new world,” and push a totally unprepared population of
poor colonist just as fast as they could?

Whose dream was it to displace and nearly annihilate al-
most an entire people? Today, we would call that genocide.

Whose dream was it that drove Moses Cleaveland to divide
this place up like a first grader with a ruler and a pencil?

Whose dream caused Seth Pease to name it the ”Chagrin
River” when he drew out the map of the Western Reserve
back in 1797?

We are proud of our heritage as a hot spot for innovation,
and we should be. It helped spark the flame of the American
Industrial Revolution. Places like Akron and Cleveland were
charted to become the industrial cities of the future.

Still, shouldn’t we ask ourselves whose dream it was to
drain out or fill 80 percent of the Chagrin River watershed?

Whose dream was it to restructure industry? Our area was

once filled with a large workforce. It was just a few genera-
tions ago when people moved here from all over the country

for jobs. Now, with job losses over the last few decades and
now the pandemic, the future looks daunting. The world is
united in watching to see how we recover from this.

As a graduate student learning about pastoral counseling,

one technique we were asked to try is known as the “mira-
cle question.” If a miracle were to happen today, what would

it look like?

If we were to embody the Dream of God in this place and in
this time, what would that look like? Here are a few miracles
I might ask to put on the list.

What if we could give life back to our congregations?

What if we could use the resources we have to make a
world changing difference that is not only measurable, but
noticeable, to the rest of the world around us?

What if we could build on our traditions and heritages in

ways that empower us to be faithfully present in our neigh-
borhoods, our watersheds, or even our entire cities?

What if Sunday mornings could bring people from all races,
creeds, and economies to imagine what we could become

What if we listened to the stories of our neighbors as if it
were God’s invitation for us to learn how to pray?

What if we began to pray for our neighborhoods like we
pray for our families with the same kind of faith we could
muster up in a hurry when the lives of our loved ones are at

What if we could help our watersheds and our neighbor-
hoods rewrite their stories in ways that make us all proud to

be alive together, proud to know this human moment to-

What if the people our history abandoned finally became the
center of our story?

What if we all committed our lives to fighting together to en-
sure that the world we leave behind is better than the world

we were given?

What if we got our God back?

I believe that God is still speaking. The challenge for us to-
day—in this place and this time—is whether we are a peo-
ple willing to faithfully listen.

Let us strive to be more human together.

May it be so.


Questions for discussion
7. What difference do you think it might make if people of
faith began to focus on caring for their particular places
as a way of praying for our world?
8. How would you answer the “miracle question” for the
wider area surrounding your congregation?

9. What do you think Michael meant when he said "They got their God back"?

Discussion prompt: "faith in action"

What does that look like for you in these times?