On Being Hope-Fool

There is only one kind of diet that I have ever really enjoyed, and it’s the one I’m on right now.  It’s called a news diet. It’s not quite a fast.  I still look at the headlines, and every now and again I read a paragraph or two.  But then I feel full, so full that I am a little nauseous.  Do you know what I mean?  I just can’t read one more analysis of our broken political system.  I can’t hear one more defense of the astonishing ascendance of proud and dangerous ignorance. It’s shattering to read of the sexual abuse of women by predators in high places.  It breaks my heart to think of the renewed despair of gay and trans young people in the heartland.  My stomach rolls and quivers and lurches when I hear of the mocking of the disabled or the terror of the immigrant or the fear of the religious minority.  And, at least for me, the most stomach churning news of all is how the evangelical church that raised me could so quickly discard the values that shaped me.  And so I’m on a very bland diet of cute animal pictures, a good murder mystery and watching “The Americans” on Amazon Prime.  

On the other hand, however, I’m on a cynicism binge.  And I like my cynicism covered with some gooey sarcasm.  And I suspect that I am not alone.  Cynicism is the new black.  It’s part of the world-weary New Yorker’s charm.  We have wise cracks for everything.  But underneath the biting humor of our cynicism is our disappointed hope.  The “H” word.  Does it feel too soon to even say it aloud?  Maybe.  And yet, it is to the foolishness of hope that our Christian faith ever calls us.

So what is this thing to which we have been called, exactly?  Well, perhaps it’s easiest to first say what it is not.  Hope is not optimism.  And hope is not necessarily about how we feel.  And hope is not about being naïve or in denial.  Instead, hope is really more about vision.  Hope is about seeing the world exactly as it is and then daring to envision what it might yet be.  But when you’re in the middle of a storm hope seems foolish to a lot of people.  

It certainly seems foolish right now.  Some of us are feeling as close to despair as ever we have come.  We wonder if this is not some watershed moment from which there is no return.  We fear that something important and vital might have been lost.  And maybe it has been.  But that alone is not enough to loose hope - because hope is not just about where you are.  Hope is about where you are going.  

The people of Judah had been carted off to exile in Babylon. Their civilization,; every institution they held dear, even their image of themselves as a unified people had been destroyed. But after two generations in exile, the people were allowed return home.  And you can imagine the joy and anticipation they must have felt as they packed their bags.  But when they arrived back home, they found a civilization still in ruins.  Hunger, thirst, illness and early death, sorrow and grief, economic injustice and political turmoil: these were their daily realities.    

So, the seed of their hope was dormant, but it was not dead.  And God sent them a prophet to feed and water that seed with promises of a brighter future, a return to Eden - a new heaven and a new earth, not up in the sky when we die, but right here amongst the ruins.  It was the promise of a place of perfect equity and justice; a peaceable kingdom where infants do not die from preventable diseases.  Old people have a quality of life that makes them want to live.  Everyone has her own house and enough food.  Even the animals stop killing one another.  

Yeah, that’s a nice story, James.  It sounds like fairy tale.  And so we want to roll our eyes and cluck our tongues at this heaven on earth talk.  We push it away because heaven’s absence from this earth is just too painful.  And the only reason that absence is painful is because on some level, we still want it.  Our hope lives on.  

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul wrote of the audacity of hope.  He said: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies...”

The audacity of hope brought many of us here today. Why else would we sing these songs and study this book?  Why else would you ever listen to anything I have to say?  It’s because hope spring eternal and in community, we feed and water that hope.  That’s probably the most important job the church has: to feed and water hope

In Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963 it looked as if the Civil Rights movement had suffered yet another crushing defeat.  The powers that be had more jail space than the civil rights workers had people.  But then one Sunday, there were more people than jail cells when about 2000 young people came out of worship at the New Pilgrim Baptist Church and prepared to march.  The number alone shocked the police, who ordered the people to disperse.  But they marched on. As they approached the line of armed police officers, the notorious Bull Connor shouted for the firemen to turn on their hoses.  But, for whatever reason, the hoses were not turned on.  And then a most unexpected thing happened.  2000 young people, fresh from church, fresh from feeding and watering their hope, knelt down in the streets and started to pray to the Author of hope.  And when the prayer was over, they stood.  And a prophet among them by the name of the Rev. Charles Billups shouted: “Turn on your water!  Turn loose your dogs!  We will stand here until we die.”  Both sides waited in the tense silence.  And then Rev. Billups and the young people began to walk forward.  Onlookers said it was as if the Red Sea had parted for the children of Israel.  These young people marched in hope, and because they did, because they enfleshed their hope with action, the Reign of God came right on this earth in Birmingham, Alabama.  

Was it hard for those 2000 young people to face hoses and dogs and bitter scorn?  Of course it was.  Was it hard for Isaiah to prophesy peace and prosperity amongst the ruins of a beloved civilization?  Of course it was.  Is it hard for us to continue to work for justice and peace and liberation and dignity when it seems we have lost our way? Of course it is.  But that should be a surprise to absolutely no one.  

Gay Brookes once remarked that church work is hard.  I think she was referring to the staff; maybe she was remembering her father’s pastoral ministry.  But I want to broaden that out to all of you.  God’s work is hard, friends.  It’s hard.  And you simply cannot do it without hope, without a vision of what yet might be.  And that is going to seem foolish to a lot of folks.  And some might even mock us.  But so they mocked our ancestors in faith.  Noah was an old fool before the rain started to fall.  Moses was a stubborn fool before the Red Sea parted.  Mary was a naïve fool when she said yes to the angel.  And Jesus, well, Jesus was just a dead fool…. until hope rolled the stone away