Sunday, May 26, 2013
Here is the sermon that I preached today at my church, Sausalito Presbyterian Church. This was my first time to preach a full-length sermon to a congregation. I got great feedback and people seemed to really like what I had to say. So, I share it with you in the hopes that you too will get something out of it. Scripture text is Romans 5: 1 - 5.
What does the word “hope” mean? It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in our culture but I wonder if any of us really are aware of what that word actually means. Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “hope” as “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best”. Hope is a noun as when we say, “I really hope I get an job” or “I hope my dad recovers from his accident.” Yes, hope is a noun.
However, in the Greek language, hope was actually personified. Elpis, the Greek word for hope, was actually the name of a Greek personification and spirit of hope. She was usually portrayed as a young woman with flowers in her hair. She and her fellow spirits were kept locked in a box that was entrusted to Pandora’s keeping. However, as many of us know, Pandora became curious and opened the box thus unleashing all sorts of evil spirits upon the earth. Famine, death, disease, envy, greed etc. were all unleashed upon the earth because of her curiosity. The only spirit that did not escape, though, was hope. She remained in the box and it was her duty to comfort humankind from the ravages of the evil spirits.
In this passage from scripture, we hear the following: suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. I am reminded of the words of Jedi Master Yoda in the Star Wars movies: (secret confession time: I’m a huge Star Wars nerd so please indulge me!). Yoda says: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” This scripture text sounds almost like it is coming directly after that. As if Paul was channeling Yoda in his writing of this Scripture. Either that or George Lucas is a secret fan of Paul!
Anyway, I’m struck most by this idea that suffering produces endurance. Really, Paul? Really!? Suffering produces endurance. That almost sounds like an insult to all those who have suffered or are suffering. Tell that to the mom with cancer. Tell that to the Ugandan child who is living in poverty and will never receive a proper education. Tell that to the 13 year old growing up in conservative Texas who gets beat up every single day because he is gay. Yeah, I think it is safe to say that if we actually said this phrase to someone who is actually suffering, we might not ever be asked to provide pastoral care to them again. It’s certainly not the most pastoral approach. It’s like the saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” While this may prove to be true most of the time, it’s not exactly something that I would say to someone while they are in the midst of suffering.
But go on further and you read that endurance produces character. Well, I think we can say that that one is certainly true. I think it’s fair to say that what we have endured has helped make us who we are. During my teenage years, I was unfortunate enough to live in a very hostile and abusive living environment. I won’t name names but I had a member of the family who would constantly put me down and verbally and emotionally abuse me. This was on top of the bullying and abuse I was experiencing at school so it was a non-stop onslaught both day and night. Teenagers, if you didn’t already know, are very susceptible to the words they hear and how adults in their life treat them. Because of this, I came to believe what was being said about me. Maybe I really was ugly and anorexic and stupid and not worthy of being accepted or loved. I don’t think I need to say that things got to a very bad place for me.
Yet, I am able to look back on that period in my life now as a period of growth. Yes, things were really terrible for me back then and I felt like I had nowhere to turn but with the passage of time and more than a few hours of therapy I’ve been able to see that those years helped make me who I am today. To be honest, they’re really what led me to the ministry. For all those who endure, when we get through it, we look back and realize that the scars have become our character and have made us who we are. Those tough times are hard, that’s certain. However, they also make us stronger people. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” as the song says.
Character produces hope. This is how Paul chooses to end his maxim. The idea that character produces hope. What does he mean here, though? What is Paul trying to convey through this phrase? Hope for what? Does he mean that those who lack character also lack hope? Again, not the best pastoral care advice. I can only imagine what would happen if I were to tell a congregant that they had no character and thus no hope. I don’t think that conversation would go over very well. Indeed, it smacks of downright arrogance. I think what Paul was perhaps trying to suggest here is that it is our collective experiences that make up our character and it is our character that produces hope.
Hope does not disappoint us. Now this statement I can fully support. Hope is what keeps our fire burning. Much like Pandora’s box, it is many times the only thing we have to cling to in a world that seems to be spinning out of control. A world where we think access to guns is a right but access to healthcare is a privilege. A world where we spend more money on fighting terrorism than we do on fighting poverty. A world where teenagers are bullied mercilessly and their tormentors are given a free pass rather than being disciplined. We cling to hope: hope that the idolatry and worship of guns will end; hope that we will someday see that poverty is the real terrorism; hope that a young, closeted teenager may one day have the courage to stand up and speak his truth from the pulpit. Yes, hope is what we rely on when everything else seems to have failed us.
Ok, so hope is a noun as I stated earlier. Yet, is hope just a noun? One of my favorite t-shirts is a shirt I got during my senior year of college. The back of it has a quote that says, “Hope is not a noun. Hope is a movement.” The quote isn’t attributed to anybody and I have searched for years to find out who originally said this but to no avail. I think it is one of the most profound statements I have ever read and it has become one of my life mottoes. “Hope is not a noun. Hope is a movement.” What would our world look like if we actually embodied this statement. It would look like people throwing away their guns and committing to non-violence. It would look like Congress approving a budget that not only completely eliminates poverty but also invests zero dollars into the war effort. It would look like a young, bullied teenager standing in front of a congregation and preaching the Gospel. That’s the kind of movement that hope can be. That’s the kind of movement that hope needs to be. A movement that not only provides hope but depends on it. This isn’t just about clinging to hope. It’s about saying that hope is the impetus for change. Hope does not disappoint us. It invigorates us. It charges us. It motivates us. Hope is the fire in our bellies that encourages us to work for justice. To march for marriage equality. To invest in people, not buildings. To worship God, not guns.
We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. We work for change. We work to make others see that God is at work in our world, every single day. Our hope moves us forward. Our hope drives us on. Our hope compels us to share with each other the wonder and the glory of Jesus and God, our Creator. So, back to my original question: What is hope? Hope is you and me working together to bring about an end to violence. Hope is the disaster relief people in Oklahoma. Hope is our school systems taking a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and other forms of abuse. Hope is a formerly abused, scared teenager growing into a confident young man preaching about hope from the pulpit. Hope is not a noun, hope is a movement.