Hope: A Sermon from Rev. Clarence on 7 Pentecost​

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Psalm 139:1 – 11, 22 -23; Genesis 28:10 – 19​; Romans 8:12 – 25; Matt. 13:24 – 30, 36 – 43
For the creation waits with eager longing…Romans 8:19

Like the Burma-shave signs posted in another century along our nation’s highways, there is another sign that, according to Paul’s letter to the Romans and Jesus’ parable about the seeds and the thorns, ought to be posted. “Caution! Language police ahead!” Lest we offend, we are cautioned not to use 4-letter words in public or in the presence of children and others whose ears may be sensitive. Fair enough. However, I issue also a caution. The word “HOPE” is a four letter word and ought not to be use ‘lightly or unadvisedly.’ Fragile! Should be used with extreme care! Yet, that is exactly what Paul encourages the fledgling church in Rome to do, namely to hope.

Hope is living in the present, but with an inner eye focused on the future. I give you a personal, mundane example. On one fairly recent occasion, but prior to our present lockdown, as I drove west on I-90, just east of Lee, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, I was reminded as well, of what it means to hope. Having not paid attention to the fuel gauge—I was driving a rental, not my trusted, almost two decades old Volvo—I chanced to notice that the fuel indicator had slipped into the red zone—two gallons remaining in the fuel tank—just as a road sign instructed me that the next service area was 28 miles away, in Lee. I hoped—nay, I prayed that it was true that I could count on traveling at least 25 miles per gallon.

In spite of my own immediate concern, and I was very concerned, I thought about others whose real life, whose day-to-day existence is more dire than my running out of gasoline on a pleasant spring afternoon, however unpleasant and aggravating my earlier lack of attention to the fuel gauge on the rental automobile could have been. I could always call AAA, to get me out of my dilemma. Others, experiencing more existential difficulties, such as now caused by our continuing struggle with coronavirus—‘who they gonna call?’ to paraphrase a line from the film of an earlier era “Ghostbusters.”

We have, you and I, hopes that are unique to our own situation. My hope is that individuals, learned in their discipline, will find a vaccine for the treatment of the coronavirus. For others, it may be as simple as to hope for good weather tomorrow, for the cookout that they may have planned for family. It may be to hope for a better job or positive results from a troubling physical examination.

Hope is an intangible, not yet achieved goal which you set before you: at times a strong personal desire, at times something that may not be self-centered at all, as it may be a modest, humble, and selfless desire for the well-being of others. Yet, clear to us is the fact that hope is really not about something which one can see or touch. It you can see or touch ones desire, it is not any longer really something for which one hopes.

R.H. Adams wrote once a poem:

Who plants a tree,
​Plants not what is, but is to be—
​A hope, a thought for future years,
​A prayer, a dream of higher things
​That rise above our doubts and fears.

(R.H.Adams, Let Me Illustrate: Stories and Quotations for Christian Communicators,
Albert P. Stauderman, ed. [Minneapolis:Augsburg, 1983], p. 75)

A similar story is told in Talmudic literature of an old man who owned a great tract of land, a man who was wealthy and, hence, could afford to have servants wait on him. Yet, the old man planted personally each day a young sapling. When ridiculed by his wealthy neighbors for not taking life easy, especially as he would never live to see the tree grow tall or to bear fruit, the old man replied, “How true! But, if I do not plant, my sons and daughters and their sons and daughters will not have shade when hot, or fruit when hungry.” Hope is not about reality, about what can be seen or experienced tangibly; but then neither is hope a senseless dream. The old man dared to hope; he dared to dream.

We know also of hopes dashed. Hopes for peace can quickly disappear with distrust and violence. Hopes for healing can be snatched away as illness eats away at body and spirit. Hopes for reconciliation can crack finally, when neither side sees the problem any longer, but rather only an individual whom they have come to despise. Hope can be the source of great joy, but can lead also to great disappointment and even tremendous hurt. Maybe, that is the uncertainty we must live with, when it is something not seen, not tangible, and without clear direction. Hope always leave us vulnerable, open to the unknown, and the possibility of a crushing defeat. So why hope? Why make ourselves so vulnerable, when we could just as easily go on with those things that make us comfortable, those things that are certain, those things we trust and know as the truth, whether tangible or intangible? Hope gives us reason to continue, to push on, when all appears bleak.

It is precisely this question which Paul addresses in his correspondence to the fledgling church at Rome. He couches his example in the parent/child metaphor, children of God, thus heirs of the promise of reunion with the Divine Creator. And he concludes: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rom. 8:24-25) Through Jesus of Nazareth, says Paul, we have learned to hope that we will find favor in God, a favor that was robbed us by our forebears Adam and Eve.

For me, the question of the day is, why God would even bother to engage in this exercise of restoring us to the Godhead. For me, the answer is a simple one: God is able to see in each of us a quality which we cannot see in our individual selves or in each other collectively because of our finitude, because of our human limitations. If we accept this as a premise, we deal then in hope.

I give you an example from a news item which Ellie.11.9.14appeared several years ago about a couple who had lots of children. Perhaps you read the same account. The question to the woman, the mother of the family, placed by an insensitive neighbor who knew that the couple had some of their “own children” and then some adopted children, was: “Which children are “really” yours and which are adopted?” Rather than get herself involved in a long debate as to the neighbor’s insensitive question and about which were really “hers” and which were adopted, the woman replied, “I don’t really remember.”

Such a response underscores in a very moving way the love which this woman (and her husband) bore for all those children. For it did not matter, how the children had come into her family. They were all her daughters and sons, and forgetting about distinctions between birth and adoption was the best way to prove that they were all loved equally. Her response also reminds us of the baptism vows in our Book of Common: to take each child/person as a person of worth and dignity, loved and loving, a child of God.
Paul speaks to us about being adopted by God. God longs so for humankind to respond as sons and daughters, that we are all adopted into God’s family, just because we are who we are. Think of all the people in the world. Think of our obligation to acknowledge our siblinghood with those other people, whom we in all probability will never see. We are not allowed to become comfortable.

I will let you in on a training secret which a seminary professor gave us as a means of helping us, and by extension our helping others, to see the task before us, of instilling hope and extending our sisterhood and brotherhood. I cannot try it here, because you are residing presently in sequestered locations. Rather, I will describe the situation and you can build an image in your mind. If I were to place a large sheet of white paper on the wall and then mark a small black dot on it, and if I were to ask you to describe to me exactly what you see, I would be curious to know your response.

When I have used this with campus colleagues at retreats, an uneasy, awkward silence always arises, without fail, because they want to believe I have a trick up my sleeve on that white sheet of paper with a lone black dot. No trick! Just a question: What do you see? Typical academics, you say! I think not! One after another colleague—mind you, these are professionally trained and published individuals—raised a hand and they all had the same answer. Remember: my question was “What do you see?” Their unanimous answer: “I see a small black dot.” And that is precisely the problem. All they saw was a small black dot. Not one of them had mentioned the large sheet of white paper. Not one of them had mentioned that there was still space on the sheet of paper for more dots or for other things, graffiti, cartoon figures, mathematical equations, laundry lists, titles of books, grievances, or blessings of life.

We, you and I, could easily live for that small dot, for that visible reality set before us. But as Christians, we have been given something quite different. We have been given a promise, a hope, not with some preconditions for something we want or can give. It is a promise, not a mirage, made to us by God through Jesus of Nazareth, a hope that points to a new reality that cannot exist, if we are left to our own means. Left to ourselves, we head for that dot, because that’s all we can see. But Christ opens up the broader canvas, to which we are otherwise blinded by our near-sightedness.

It is into this human reality that Jesus the Christ has come. Through the empty cross and the empty tomb, the chains of hopelessness have no longer a lasting grip on us. For sure, our reality, our real world confronts us daily, over and over again with events which can plant and nourish the seed of hopelessness. But as followers of the Messiah of God, we carry within us a promise. We have in German, when things seem hopeless, a succinct axiom: “the last chapter of Matthew.” Everyone knows its reference. The Gospel according to Matthew closes with these words: And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (28:20b)

As you look to a tomorrow that may be filled with an adverse situation, know that you are given a gift. It is the gift of hope. It embraces that which cannot be seen, and gives to us a new reality in which to live. God has adopted us, each and every one of us, so that we will know the wholeness of life into which we were born. This is the gift of God’s Spirit, entering our days and making life liveable. No matter what life has brought us, good or bad, it can be better because God offers us adoption and, therewith, the confidence to live our lives. Hope is not a mirage. It is just not tangible! Indeed, as people of faith in God, through the resurrected Christ, we sing with gusto:

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew,
me through change and chance he guideth.
only good and only true.
God unknown, he alone
calls my heart to be his own.

Daily doth the almighty Giver
bounteous gifts on us bestow;
his desire our soul delightest,
pleasure leads us where we go.
love doth stand at his hand,
joy doth wait on his command. (Hymnal 665)

​AMEN

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