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Sermon for September 4, 2016

Hope

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
~ Proverbs 13:12
Can you remember a time when you lost hope; a time when you thought that life would not get better; a time when you chose to run rather than weep because you did not want to get involved?

As Christians, hope is our currency. Lose hope, and what do you have left. Yet, we all know people whose lives are truly hopeless. There are no remedies or cures to sustain hope. For some, hope is a curse. Recently I read the myth of Pandora’s Box. Do you remember that old story? Pandora was the first mortal woman, created out of clay by the Titans. She was given a box as a wedding gift. It was probably more like a decorated storage jar. Zeus had one very important condition on the gift – Pandora must never opened the box. As we know, curiosity got the best of her. She took a deep breath and slowly lifted the lid of the box. She peered into the box, expecting to see fine silks, gowns or jewelry or even piles of gold coins. But there was no gleam of gold or treasure. There were no shining bracelets and not one beautiful dress. The look of excitement on her face quickly turned horror. For Zeus had packed the box full of all the terrible evils he could think of. Out of the box poured disease and poverty. Out flew misery. Out came sadness. Death took wing. The creatures stung Pandora over and over again as she slammed the lid shut.

Pandora shut the lid before the last spirit one could escape. Its name was Hope. In some sanitized versions of the myth, Hope remained to touch and heal the wounds created by the evil creatures. That’s the fairy tale ending. In early versions of the myth, Hope remains trapped in the jar because Hope is the worst of all evils. Hope prolongs the torments of humankind. Think about that for a moment. Too much hope can be a bad thing. I witness this when I speak with people in one-sided love fantasies or failing marriages.  I see it in the self-inflated hubris of people who imagine themselves as more than they are despite daily evidence to the contrary.  I hear it in those who want the easy way out and avoid the trials and discipline of transformation.

Think of another ancient classic – Dante’s The Divine Comedy. As Virgil leads Dante through the gates of the Inferno, he sees the inscription, “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” It is pointless to waste time on hope when one is about to become a permanent resident of Hell.

I think of this when I read the poem that many people consider to be Emily Dickinson’s homage to optimism, “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
If you don’t think I’ve completely lost it yet, bear with me. In that first line, “Hope” is the thing with feathers – the word “Hope” has quotation marks around it. That’s why when I read it to you, I lifted fingers in the air and make bunny-eared, air-quote hand gestures. Dickinson exaggerated the word hope. She called attention to the word to move us beyond our conventional understanding. And notice how the ceaseless, sweet-song of “hope” in the poem never asks anything of the poet, except to keep on listening and hoping in the midst of the tempest. Such optimism in the face of horror can actually be a burden, not a gift. Spiritual values like faith, hope, and love always require active response on our part. To remain so passively optimistic, so hopeful that everything will be all right when clearly it is not, can be na├»ve at best, and heartlessly callous at its worst.

I remember times when I chose to detach and look on rather than get involved because I did not want to even hope that things could get better. It is all too easy to look the other way and abandon hope when it feels like the world around us is crumbling to ashes in our human-made hells. Although humans appear to be creatures who can anticipate a better world, we are also are creatures so wounded and battered that we do give in to despair. “Hope” alone is not enough to fix the unjust structures that cause unimaginable suffering. “Hope” alone is not enough to help us understand our complicity with systems and structures that marginalize certain groups of people.

I write all of this knowing that hope is a cornerstone of Christian religious experience, rooted in a theology of a heavenly paradise for those who are faithful to the Kingdom of Christ. Proverbs says a desire, a hope, for fulfillment is a tree of life. Our theologies point us to an eternal utopia where pain is gone, tears are wiped away, and we live in God’s presence forever. But this kind of thinking has gotten Christians into trouble over the centuries. Sometimes, we have become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. So, we need to know the difference between false hope and realistic hope.

False hope is Dickinson’s “Hope” in quotes. There was a European philosopher named Ernst Bloch, often called the philosopher of hope, who criticized abstract utopian thinking.  He said abstract utopias are expressed in dreams conjured from gossamer without any trace of possibility for breaking into history. Abstract utopias are wishful thinking without the will to change anything. They focus only on fantasy and memory. The same definition could be used for false hope. False hope is full of expectation, but cannot fulfill what it desires.

Realistic hope is similar to what Bloch called concrete utopian thinking. Instead of being bound in a fantasy of the past, realistic hope reaches towards actual possibility with both wishful and willful thinking. Realistic hope focuses on what can really be achieved.

Are human flourishing and liberation all but impossible? Must the forces inertia prevail over our struggles for justice? To help us navigate these questions, I let’s make another distinction. While we think about the differences between false hope and realistic hope, let’s put another filter over our framework. Let’s think about “collective” hope and “personal” hope. Collective hope is also called public or social hope. It embraces the big vision: our unending efforts to create a decent world will one day pay off; the universe does not have to be cold and unresponsive; humans build systems of law and dignity’ we develop vast knowledge systems and scientific medicine; we demonstrate compassionate response to the plight of the vulnerable. We are creatures of will, determination and action.

Personal hope requires attachment and care for something – anything –outside of ourselves. It demands self-reflection that recognizes our dependence, our finiteness, and the incompleteness of our understanding of others.

We need both collective and personal expressions like these to help us develop realistic hope. The difficulty is that we confuse personal hope with privatize hope. In our disturbed and damaged world of unbridled consumer individualism, people are encouraged to abandon social hope to grab for their own personal well-being. Our unhinged world is a expression of what happens when we think blessings limited to individuals and their families alone. When this happens, hope shrivels. We lose the critical capacity to see and name the social structures of domination, inequality and oppression that strand in the way of the resurrection of a new world.

Worn, weary, wounded, we may wonder if hope is a gift or curse. My hope is a blessing when it moves me, in cooperation with my community, to become the presence of healing love. Real hope helps us become one with God and God’s creation. And they are one with us. We are changed. We are God’s hope. We are God's love.

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