Romans 5:1-11; Matthew 11:28-30
I was feeling pretty sad and depressed earlier this week. So many people we care about are grieving or ill, and we’ve had to say goodbye to quite a few as well. So many people we know are struggling in their bodies, their minds, their hearts. So many people may be driven into despair at the realities reported each day in the news and the tone of the debates about those realities. So many people are losing hope.
As a preacher of Good News, it’s hard to know what to say into that despair, that confusion, that real grief and anger. It’s hard to know what redeeming word might be possible for you and for me when life just gets too darn hard! You might not know that your ministers hold these things heavy on our minds and our hearts. We feel the responsibility of standing up here Sunday after Sunday in the pulpit, and hoping God will somehow speak to you through our limited human words. We see you; we know the struggle is real; in fact, many of us have been there ourselves.
And then – God bless the Narrative Lectionary! – this passage from Romans came up in the readings for today, and with it, in our Spill the Beans worship and education resource, this quotation from Vaclav Havel: “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Either we have hope or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons… Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
There’s a shared tone to Paul’s words and those of Vaclav Havel. They’re both talking about how to face the hard stuff in life and not lose hope. Paul wants to remind us that suffering – which none of us go into happily but which is a reality for all of us at some point in our lives – that suffering can be a place where we really test out what we trust in, what we know to be true, where our faith and our values are refined, pushed to their limits. Sometimes the result of that refining process is pure gold – a faith that can “laugh at the devil” as they say in the South, because you’ve faced the hard stuff and come through it. Endurance, courage, strength, hope. These can be the fruit of the struggle. And why, says Paul? Because in the end our hope is founded, not on our own abilities, our own strength, our own resilience, but God’s love for us.
But what if, as I’ve said before, the suffering doesn’t send us in that direction? What if we face it and it knocks us down and we are lost in the shadows, unable to make any sense out of it all and especially out of this so-called loving God? What then?
It might surprise you that I find Havel’s words more helpful here than Paul’s. Paul, I know, is speaking from his own experience. He went through absolute hell in his lifetime, and yet retained h is faith in Jesus. God bless him, and God bless those like him! Some of us just aren’t like Paul.
For some, instead of faith being refined by suffering, it gets burnt to a crisp – and nothing is left but cold, dead coals – or maybe, a few smoldering bits that could be blown into flame, if the right Spirit blows through at the right time. The reason I find Havel’s words so helpful is because they face straight on the situations when the world just isn’t getting better, when our plans and projects and hopes are in ashes, when our vision is clouded and we haven’t got anything left to fuel the fire. Havel says that it’s exactly then that hope is most vital – because it’s not about what we see in front of us but about the vision we hold in our hearts. It’s not about what everything around us tells us is real, but about something outside of that, something we WANT to be real, because it is good and beautiful and because it just makes a heck of a lot more sense than anything we see right in front of us!
In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia book, “The Silver Chair” a prince of the magical country of Narnia is being held captive by a beautiful enchantress in a land of caverns and tunnels below the surface of the earth. He has been under a spell that keeps him from remembering who he is or anything about the world above the earth. With the arrival of some rescuers from our world, he regains his memory. When the witch discovers he is free from his enchantment, she attempts to re-establish the spell, trying to convince them that Narnia is a made-up land ~ that they’ve imagined the sun based on the round lamp over their heads, and that Aslan, the great Lion (who stands in for Jesus in these books) is simply their dream of a very large cat. One of the characters, Puddleglum, manages to shake off the spell long enough to try to stamp out the magical fire she has burning near them. Then C.S. Lewis goes on:: (p.97-98 http://www.samizdat.qc.ca/arts/lit/PDFs/TheSilverChair_CSL.pdf)
There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.”One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland…..””
We hope because what we hope for is so much better than what causes us despair! This is Paul’s assurance too. He says, “Our hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Love’s power makes us see what is possible, not just what is.
It might be really hard to believe in God’s love sometimes – I get that – but what’s the alternative? Can you and I live happily without God’s love in our lives? On what will we base our lives without the teachings of Jesus and the hope he brings with him? Will we base our lives on the disappointing and dying gods of science, financial success, communism, democracy or capitalism – those false idols that have promised so much and yet brought us to this point where so many are despairing? Will we base our lives even on the church, when the church itself so often loses its way? (The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner)
There’s an old hymn that says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus and his righteousness”. The just, righteous world as Jesus envisions it is the world I want to be a part of – and that’s the hope I’m willing to pin my life on. So, was this wonderful teacher of wisdom delusional, or was he right? My hope is that he was right – and the resurrection itself, if you trust that it is a reality, is a vindication, a proof that he was right. His way of being in the world, his understanding of God, his path for life, and through suffering and death and into new life really is the way the universe works.
Notice I didn’t say there is no suffering on the Jesus path – that’s not real or realistic, and only us privileged North Americans or Europeans would ever believe such a thing was possible! Jesus’ path takes us straight into suffering, not away from it. Even if we do not suffer on our own behalf we suffer the pain of others because we care, deeply, and we want the best for them. When we walk into pain, when we walk toward the cross, I’ve bet my life on the hope of resurrection – of new being, in this life. That’s the “hope in spite of it all” that I hold on to. Some may mock that hope, but it makes sense – real sense – to me.
I could tell you that in many ways the world is a better place to live in today for millions of people than it ever has been – and the stats bear me out. For me that’s a sign that the Jesus-way is taking us in the right direction. But when you’re drowning in chaos and pain, you’re not going to believe that, because you can’t feel it. That’s when I long for people to hold on – hold on to the cross, hold on to the empty tomb, hold onto the community that bears Christ’s name with all of its failures and failings – it is still the strongest testament to hope I know, because now and then, we get it right. Now and then, God’s love comes shining through us and the world is a better place because of it.
In other words, no matter how cross-like we experience the world to be, or however stuck we are in the darkness of the tomb, we make the empty tomb our banner and “Christ is Alive” our song! It’s not easy. I know it’s not. When someone we love dies too early or in too much pain, or a great tragedy, or several, caused by human hands dominates social media or mainline media, or when a natural disaster breaks apart the lives of thousands of people, it’s hard to hope. It’s hard to trust. Often such events drive us away from Christian community and out into the wilderness, to wander apparently alone and without hope. We can get lost in the chaos of the world as we see it, and lose sight of the world as we know it ought to be. But I want you to know, that even if you can’t believe in God’s love for you or for the world right now, that this community will still hold you, and that, God’s love will surround you – and you WILL come through.
That’s not optimism – that’s putting my hope in that something beyond the horizon, because it just makes more sense than anything else on offer.
Let me extend Christ’s invitation: “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30) My prayer is that this Christian community will bear your yoke with you, and share your burden, so that together with Christ, we can help you find your hope again. May it be so.