Sunday, June 18, 2017

on hope

 I preached this sermon this morning, and I thought it was pretty okay.  Maybe it can speak to you.

Romans 5:1-8
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.  (NRSV)

When was the last time that you let yourself hope for something?  Not just a little hope – like for a good parking spot, or for a friend to get over being mad at you.  I mean a big hope.  One that really changes some things about what you want and how you act.  A hope on which some big stuff hinges.  I have hoped for a couple of things recently, and been disappointed in the outcome.  I will tell you about one of them.

I have shared with many of you, over time, that I feel that God may be calling me into the field of teaching, in a seminary or college setting.  Nothing brings me more joy than being able to dig into a text of some sort, and bring out the ideas that I think are meaningful and useful to a body of people.  I have been able to do a lot of this sort of work here at City Road – in creating curriculum for Vacation Bible School; in teaching the Thursday morning Bible study; in studying scripture and drawing out themes for preaching.  But I have felt for several years now that perhaps this is the work that God wants me to do with my whole heart and life:  writing and research and teaching and helping prepare other leaders in the church.  One of my goals in my upcoming year of leave is to discern more fully where God might be calling me in this way, and to apply to many programs for doctoral work, which would be necessary for this kind of teaching.

As I began to dig deeper into the scholarship that I’m interested in (which is very boring – church history and British Wesleyan studies!), I found a woman at Stanford University who is doing the very thing that I want to be doing.  I read her books.  I read her articles.  I contacted her.  I visited with her in Palo Alto.  I felt sure that my future was opening up in her direction.  I began to think about what it might look like to move my family to California.  I had hard and heartfelt discussions with Jeff and other family members about how we might maintain our family structure in this scenario.  And, last December, I made my application for doctoral work there.

Then, the waiting.  I waited for what felt like six millennia, but it was really just a couple of months.  I got the email on a Friday, and I opened it immediately.  And it began: “we regret to inform you . . .”  I was completely deflated.  I had allowed myself to experience this hope so deeply, so totally, that when it wasn’t fulfilled in the way that I preferred, it was a really hard blow to me.  I spent at least a month in a mode of self-pity, wondering why I had ever let myself think I could get into such a challenging program.  I allowed the outcome of this situation I had hoped for to determine my self-worth, and so my self-worth suffered badly.

It’s my instinctual response to decide, in these down moments, that I will just stop hoping for anything.  Easier that way, right?  If you don’t dare to hope for what you desire, then you will never be disappointed by not having it.  Or at least that’s the logic of this world.  But in our Scripture today, Paul tells us something radically different:  hope will not disappoint us.  More fully: “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance; character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us.” 

Paul exposes for us the idea that suffering is inherent in our current world.  We know this to be true – just look around.  Do you see and sense that things aren’t right?  Do you wonder why there is so much hurt and injustice around us?  We know that suffering is part of life.  God never desires us to seek additional suffering, no; what life gives to each of us will be plenty.  But the suffering that we will inevitably encounter produces perseverance.  There is only one way through suffering – you have to hold on.  As Vicki Jo tells me when we play, “I’m Going on a Bear Hunt,” and we come to the river: “Can’t go under it, can’t go around it, can’t go above it.  Have to go through it.”  And then that perseverance produces character.

I want to stop for a moment to discuss character.  It’s all the rage these days to talk about “character education” in schools.  That means helping kids learn to be good people, basically, in addition to all the academic skills that they need.  But when I think of what have been the “character building” experiences in my life, they have all involved failure and suffering.   Breakups, mistakes, bad gambles, wrong calculations, death and separation.  These have built character.  Suffering (and, to be honest, sometimes self-inflicted suffering) has produced this character.  So, if we want our children to have strong character, we have to allow them to fail in ways that sometimes seem terrifying to us – ways that have high stakes and real consequences.  As a parent, I understand exactly how difficult it is to allow kids to fail and suffer, especially when we know we can swoop in and save the day.  But how, then, will they ever develop the character that Paul describes?

Indeed, Paul is acting like this kind of parent in the letter that he’s writing to the Romans.  He is reminding them that the hope we hold as Christians is patently absurd.  We hope for the day when Christ will return, and we continue to hope that God is in the process of healing the brokenness of this world.  This is the hope that does not disappoint us.  But Paul was also working with a group of early believers who had very specific expectations about how that hope was going to be fulfilled.  They were quite certain that Christ would return within their lifetimes, and so the organization of a church and a set of guidelines around that church was really not high on their agenda.  But this kind of attachment to outcome is what leads to disappointment.  Paul is outlining for his listeners the process that will lead to hope (suffering, then perseverance, then character, then hope).  But he is careful to specify that this is the hope that does not disappoint. 

This was my problem in my situation with Stanford, I’m afraid.  I had become far too attached to one very specific outcome of my hope.  That attachment produced expectations, and when those expectations were not fulfilled, it was crushing for me.  But I think what Paul is getting at in our scripture is that it’s not the outcome of our hope that is particularly important.  It is the kind of people we become when we continuously hope for something, without disappointment.  It is the actual process of hoping, rather than the goal orientation of seeing a specific end result to that hope.  Hope is such a crucial ingredient to the human spirit.  We have all known someone who has simply given up hope, and has died.  Even in the absence of all other disease or affliction, the loss of hope is fatal to life.  It’s not too much, I think, to say that hope is necessary for life. 

Emily Dickinson wrote a beautiful poem about this. 

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.

I love how she describes hope as “singing the tune without the words.”  This is the kind of nonattachment to the outcome of hope that I believe Paul is encouraging for us.  We know the tune – we feel it inside of us.  But we aren’t quite sure of the words.  God will provide the words that we need in the time that is right.  Meanwhile, our task is to become refined by suffering into people of perseverance and character who hold this kind of hope, for ourselves and for our world.

Hope also involves waiting, at which I am absolutely the worst.  In researching this text, I read a sermon that my favorite theologian Paul Tillich wrote, entitled “Waiting.”  He describes the tension that waiting produces, but he also encourages us to remember that waiting for something implies that we already have some part of it inside us.  He writes, “Our time is a time of waiting; waiting is its special destiny.  And every time is a time of waiting, waiting for the breaking in of eternity.  All time runs forward.  All time, both in history and in personal life, is expectation.  Time itself is waiting, waiting not for another time, but for that which is eternal.”

We do hold that hope that does not disappoint, and that hope enables us to wait patiently for the way that God will work this whole mess out. 

And what about me, then, and my disappointed hope?  Well – it’s a funny thing about hoping.  You think that you’re just completely done with it.  You think you can just stop.  But we are programmed, as healthy humans, to hope for things.  It’s an instinctual urge that is a necessary ingredient for the human spirit.  So I will be throwing my hat back in the ring this December, to Stanford and to a slew of other schools.  I have earned some character stripes in this whole experience, and I have learned an important lesson about hope:  when we can cease a tight attachment to an expected outcome of our hope, it will never disappoint us.

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