Some Words on Hope: Sermon for July 17, 2011

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In seminary we were taught to never preach a sermon that didn’t give the people who heard it reason to hope. In preaching classes we would preach, and then we would subject ourselves to a sort of “brutal grace” in which our classmates and professors would all tell us what we could have done better. The one question that seemed to come up the most was, “But what hope will people take from that sermon?”

What’s true of young seminarians is also true of just about all of us. We sometimes struggle to find, and talk about, hope. And when people do talk about it, it sometimes sounds a bit disingenuous. It becomes the stuff of commercial sound bites and political campaigns. Buy this and you’ll be a better person, vote for me and you’ll have a better country.

It sometimes sounds naive to talk about hope. We probably talk more about false hope on a daily basis than we do about hope, and that’s sad. But maybe we do that because along the way we have had too many experiences of putting our hope in the wrong places and we are all a little more streetwise for it.

The Scripture we read today was written by a man who was streetwise, and yet who had hope. Paul had gone from a legalistic, yet successful, non-believer to a man who had given up everything to live a life of persecution and uncertainty. And when he wrote his letter to the Romans, what many consider to be his most important letter, he wrote to a community that needed some hope.

This is an early church. A community that Paul has not yet set foot in, and yet one that he is hopeful to meet. He sends this letter ahead to tell them who he is, and what he believes, and what he hopes to do. He is about to embark on another missionary journey, possibly to Spain, and he is asking for them to have enough hope in the Gospel that they might support him on his travels.

This passage from Romans talks about some of those beliefs. He tells the Romans that they are the “children of God”. He writes, For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”

This is the stuff of hope. This is Paul telling these Romans that they are called not to fear, but to a life of adoption in Christ. They are not slaves. They are beloved children of a loving parent God.

Paul knew that they needed this word. He knew that their lives were hard, that some of them were probably literally slaves, that suffering was not unfamiliar to them. And that given that they were now part of a persecuted minority, it would probably be even more familiar to them in due time. Paul writes about the world, all of creation, “groaning in labor pains”. He knows that for them, it looks bleak.

One day when I was serving as a hospital chaplain in Atlanta I was up in the hospital chapel putting some things into a closet. I heard some loud weeping outside the door and I looked out. A mother of a young girl was sitting there, crying hard and completely despondent. When I asked her what was wrong she told me her child was very sick, and the doctors had just told her there was no hope.

I was acutely aware of that first lesson that you are taught as a student hospital chaplain: never give a person false hope. Never tell them there will be recovery when there may not be. Never say one who is extremely sick will live. And so when she asked me to go with her to pray for her daughter’s full recovery, I was uncomfortable. I didn’t want false hope to make the inevitable any harder for her. When we got to the ICU the nurses caught my eye and shook their heads as if to say, “she won’t make it.” And I went to the bedside and said a prayer that very deliberately skirted around the idea that this child would recover, and asked instead that God’s will would be done and God’s love and compassion would be with the whole family. I walked away praying that I had not given the mother false hope.

It’s easy to be worried about that. It’s easy to be despondent. It’s easy to throw in the towel on the question of new life. It’s easy to just let yourself accept that those “groaning pains” of creation will go on forever.

It’s harder to hope.

The next time I saw the woman, I didn’t recognize her. I was walking down the hallway, and she was smiling the biggest smile I think I ever saw in that hospital. She looked at me and said, “God is real.” Her daughter had recovered enough to be taken off all the machines. And I have to admit, I was flabbergasted. I’d stood beside a lot of beds and I had rarely been as convinced that a patient would not recover as I was with her. But her mother had believed, and she had done the hard work of hope and of prayer and of seeing a new future. And the groaning pains had stopped, and new life had come.

New life does not always come in the form of freedom from illness or death. Sometimes it does, but more often it does not. But it does come for all of us. We get what we need more often than we realize it, and often it is in spite of the fact we dare not hope. Often we get it anyway, but we sometimes don’t have the eyes to see it.

Paul writes that it is, “in hope that we are saved”. He goes on to say that “hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” And I think that by that he means we don’t know what the new life we hope for will look like yet. We can’t set a wish list of tangible and reasonable goals and call that new life. We can’t look out at our future and say, “well, I hope for these things and if I get them, that will be good enough.” Because the hope that Paul is talking about has nothing to do with the reasonable and the predictable. It has to do with the everyday incredible.

It’s strange talking about hope and a funeral at the same time. But that’s where I saw hope this week. Yesterday at Wilmington we remembered the life of Kay Widness. But we didn’t just remember her life; we hoped. We hoped for new life, an unseen promise of the resurrected Christ. We hoped despite the fact that none of us knows for sure what happens in the life after this one. We hoped because we believe that those adopted by the Creator of the universe will not be forsaken when this chapter of our eternal life ends.

And today we hope as well. Today at Wilmington we are baptizing a baby. We are baptizing Alex and we are making promises in hope. We are telling him, by this action that he is too young to understand, that there is hope in Christ. We are telling him that even though we don’t yet know what it will look like, there is a life ahead of him that is worth putting his hope in, and there is a life when we leave this one that is beyond anything we could ever hope for, because it is with Christ and because we cannot yet even see how good that will be.

Yesterday as I stood at the back of this church filled with Kay’s children and grandchildren and friends and family, and I heard stories of a woman who did incredible things, I thought about what that day must have been like over 90 years ago when her parents brought her to this very church, in this very town she was born in, and made the baptismal promises in hope for her. Did they know she’d be one of the very rare Vermonters of the time to get a college degree? Did they know she would be one of the even rarer women to do so? Did they dare to even hope for these things, or was that a sight yet unseen?

And what are the hopes that we have today for Alex? What do we hope for him? Do we hope that he will break down his own barriers? Do we hope that he will live a life filled with family and friends and love? Do we hope that he will use all the potential that God has given to him?

Yes, we do. But above all that, my hope for him is that in the end he will have the same hope, the same faith, as the woman who came home yesterday. That the baptismal promises that we make on his behalf today will be affirmed by him by his life. That one day, many, many years from now, when he crosses the threshold into the next life, he will do so not in fear, but in the certain hope of one who knows he has been adopted by a loving God.

No matter what groaning pains this life may bring him, no matter what they brought Kay, no matter what they brought us, we have this hope: they are not the final word. Only the words that we say today at this baptism, these words of extravagant hope, get the final word. Because in the end, Christ will redeem our hope in ways we cannot yet see, nor imagine. And it will be good. Amen.

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