Read an Excerpt
Sermons on Hope
By Donna Schaper
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1993 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. (Matt. 4:1-2)
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Ps. 30:5b)
Hope When Others Fail Us
Almost no one faces the end of the twentieth century with optimism. Even fewer face it with hope. The alarms may always have been there, but now they have a megaphone: the ozone; toxic dumps; nations, decades old, disappear in days; homelessness; lack of respect; violence in our neighborhoods. We all know the list by heart.
Publicly we look under every rock for a hopeful sign and find nothing. Privately a similar emptiness prevails. Children are even more lost than adults—and it is the rare adult who claims to have a hope to hand on. We see the children as "realistic." Teenagers are even more so.
Suffering the effects of a recession on top of the preexisting gloom and doom—what some are calling a decession—a lot of people are asking themselves the question of hope. The public problems are beginning to pinch. The question of hope takes this shape: On what do I rely? Do I rely on the economy's running well? Yes, of course. Do I rely on a certain degree of environmental durability? Also of course. But what if the economy doesn't run well, and what if I can't communicate with my teenager? What if the environment does have one of its widely foreseen disasters? What if I can't face my high school yearbook any more? What if my old certainties rust or fade? What if the things on which I rely slip away? What if my old confidence disappears? When I am alone, without crutches or culture, then, on what do I rely?
"We may be asked to live in times for which we were not prepared."
There is nothing wrong with relying on what you relied on in high school. That somehow you would live in good times, that your self-confidence would last, that the water you drink would taste good, that there would be a job for you. It is not a sin to rely on the world. What we are learning is that it is wrong only if that is all we rely on. Some of us may be called to live in more interesting times. We may be asked to live in times for which we were not prepared. We are not the first generation in history to be signed up unwillingly for postgraduate work.
Georgene Johnson, a forty-two-year-old mother of two, intended to run a race. Two races were being run at the same time and place, the 26.2 Cleveland marathon and a 6.2 mile minimarathon. When Georgene bolted from the starting line, she assumed she was running with a small number of mid-distance runners. About four miles later, she realized that she had actually started with 4,000 runners in the long marathon. She had never run more than 8 miles before. Facing all 26 miles was intimidating. According to The Christian Ministry Georgene made it and said the next day, "As stupid as I felt out there running, I'm proud of myself. I guess I was in better shape than I thought. I feel fine although my knees are really sore this morning" (March 1992).
"Optimism carries us forward until it doesn't carry us anymore; then we need to develop hope."
Most of us are in a lot better shape than we think we are. Most of us have also signed up for the wrong race. We are following the crowd when we could be following Christ. (There are no shoulds to hope.) Pastors are no exception. As Henri Nouwen put it, "If pastors are uncertain of what is absolutely essential in ministry, they tend to lose themselves in the merely important." We share this problem with humanity. We get pretty good speed up, but we're running in the wrong race. We get stuck in the important when the essential is calling our name. Optimism carries us forward until it doesn't carry us anymore; then we need to develop hope.
Before we can learn the practice of hope, we have to clear the path of judgments. There is nothing inherently wrong with following the crowd. Or running the same race that everybody else is running. Jesus only began his ministry in the wilderness; he did not stay there.
We are part of one another, humans are supposed to live together, not in some independence but in some interdependence. Think of Georgene's embarrassment—with the same tenderness that she applied to herself—at having followed the crowd. So what? I made an interesting mistake. There is no reason to become so judgmental about the crowd. Or about how long we relied on "externals" to carry us through.
Christ is not opposed to the world but is rather a deeper face to the world. If we stick with the old punishments—naughty you for following the world and not Christ—we won't get very far. We'll simply trade one saddle for another.
The difference between optimism and hope is that optimism has humanity as its foundation; hope has God. One is a better soil in which to grow than the other. Following the crowd permits the optimism of society; it does not permit the hope of Jesus.
Some people are still too young to understand the difference between hope and optimism. Life has given them insufficient reasons to mistrust self-reliance. Parents tell their teenagers not to run in a pack, not to be led around by their peers—but the same parents often forget how much fun it is to feel a part of things, to not stand out, to enjoy the crowd's approval. The same people forgot how easy it was for them to be silent when another person was being attacked with gossip. Or how easy it was to turn the other way as the office manager accused a co-worker unfairly. We want to be a part of the crowd—and if 4,000 people take off in a race we weren't prepared for, most of us will probably still sign up.
Once we can become more comfortable with our own optimism and our own crowd, we will be ready to receive the gift of hope. And some of us will be as lucky as Georgene. We will make it to the end with nothing more than sore knees. But life will also toss us opportunities to travel alone. Wilderness has a funny way of showing up in people's lives uninvited. Some will find that the long race of the big crowd weakens us. We will stumble, we will fall, and we will not find any of the other runners stopping to pick us up.
In this way we will join Jesus in the wilderness. We will find ourselves left with only the optimism of our choice. And we will become hungry for hope, hope the size of our days.
"Worry seems to have become the national pastime."
We come to hard times hoping for hope. Hoping for a little stillness, hoping to relearn the trick of quiet, hoping to find a place to rest on our long journey. Some of us have lost hope in our spouses. Some have lost it even in our churches. Worry seems to have become the national pastime. Most of us would be glad to join a race behind some leader, just to feel a part, just to have the consolation of the group. But no leader wants to lead us.
I get a newsletter from the American Society of Boomers. They want me to join, mostly I think to create a countervailing organization to the American Association of Retired Persons, which they swear is taking all the money away from my generation. The check-off list I found quite amusing. I can check "Yes, I want to help." Or I can check that I am not interested. Or the No column, "My house is paid for, my retirement is assured, my kids will get full scholarships." They encourage me to worry in the membership application form. Then they want to know my income level and they state all the obvious choices. The last one is "Afraid to look." Finally under the question of my interests, I can check social security or federal income taxes or the environment or child care or deficit spending or national debt or next month's rent or mortgage. How could I not worry when faced with that list, which does fairly accurately describe my lost generation?
"Society is important; god is essential."
Hope is the antidote to worry. It has at least three parts. One is its communal face; another, its individual face; and the third, its divine face. Hope is not just any one of these.
First, hope's communal face. We find hope in and through one another. Once again, it is not alone versus the crowd, not wilderness versus civilization, not even individual versus society. Rather it is that the crowd can only take us so far, that society can carry us only so far, then we must go the rest of the way alone. Society is important; God is essential. Georgene may have been running with the group, but the fuel that kept her going was inside her, not them.
Muriel Spark tells a wonderful story about traveling from South Africa to England during the war.
We went from Cape Town to Liverpool by way of the Azores. The voyage took three weeks. It was a dangerous journey. But it is curious how a sense of danger diminishes in proportion to the number of people who participate in the risk. On this occasion, as on others during the war, being "in it together" took off the edge of fear.
The crowd can give this comfort, the comfort of being "in it together." Even that silly baby boomer stuff gives that comfort. So what if there won't be any social security left? We will be in it together. That is optimism. Hope differs from the optimism of shared danger. Hope releases days from worry because your heart is so full of God that there is no room in it left for fear.
Hope also understands that the crowd may turn on you and that you may have to turn on the crowd. I was thinking about what I hoped for prior to a church retreat. I realized my hope was too small. I just hoped that we would not quibble, that someone or something negative would not take us over and run us around. That hope is too small. It is a hope that fears the crowd. I realized that I should have hoped that we would have a sense of being in it together. I think you see the difference, not just that the crowdness of us will refrain from being negative but that the crowdness of us will turn positive.
"Hope always knows that things will work themselves out. It doesn't always know when."
It may be a first. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune a priest in San Antonio, Texas, has sought an injunction against a parishioner. At Our Lady of Sorrows Church, one member insisted on singing loudly during the service. The problem was not the volume but the songs. Apparently the woman's selections were not listed in the order of worship. "We don't mind her coming to church," the priest, Alexander Wangler, said. "We just want her to sing the same thing everyone else is" (October 3, 1992).
This anecdote describes the way that our groups can offer us hope and the way too much individuality threatens to kill us. When we are together, we need to sing the same song. That song is the song of Jesus Christ, not the grabby greedy worry of the devil.
But sometimes we will have to sing our own song. Hope will have to put on its individual clothes. The wilderness face of hope is most crucial at the times when we can't or don't join the crowd, when our own different drummer drums. Again, hope is that fullness from God that allows no room for fear in the heart. The heart is preoccupied with hope. So even the fears that come when we have to walk alone don't have a nesting place. Ruben Alvez says that hope is hearing the melody of the future and dancing to it today. Hope always knows that things will work themselves out. It doesn't always know when. But it always imagines the time when the devil will give up and go home and when we will be able to rejoin our community. The individual may have to hope alone. But her hope is that the time is coming when she may hope again with others, and hope again in others.
Finally, hope has a divine face. It is cruciform. It is the shape of Jesus Christ. It is the absolute certainty that the cross is real but not final. Think about what Jesus had to go through. He had to go against the crowd on behalf of the crowd. He had to suffer at the hands of the crowd. And he did not, while facing the crowd, lose faith in the crowd.
Neither on our own, no matter the strength of our faith, nor in our community—that nice word for crowd—will we find enough hope to hang on. We will descend into optimism. And optimism can't carry us. Or we will focus on the merely important and lose track of the essential. What we will need is hope that Jesus Christ still hopes, despite his suffering. And Jesus Christ does still hope.
I think of the cameraman who was on assignment in Azerbadjan. He was there to record the Armenian war for his network. At one point he found a pile of bodies, some scalped, some deep in rigor mortis. He put down his camera and began to cry. He cried uncontrollably and refused to take anymore pictures. His hope here is phenomenal. It is the size of the hope we need for our days. Had he kept filming, it would have been an act of hopelessness. He would not have really been seeing, despite the sophistication of his lens. He would have such a hardness of heart that neither fear nor hope could make a room in it. By his crying we see that he has hope in humanity. Yet that pile of bodies is not us, but only a stop in our wilderness. By crying he declares hope in himself, that even when he sees the inhumanity of humanity, he will not accept it—or permit it. And he demonstrates hope in God—because it is God who will heal his tears. You know how. God will be able to say, "I know. I understand. We're in this together. They did the same thing to my Son. He ran the long race—and you can too. You're already in better shape than you think you are. Don't be afraid of tears. Be afraid only when you can't hope enough to cry anymore."
Weeping may last all night long, but joy will return to you in the morning.CHAPTER 2
[The elder brother] answered his father, "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends." (Luke 15:29)
Hope for the Elder Brother
A little girl is drawing away madly at a picture. Her teacher comes up and asks her what she is drawing. "I am drawing God."
Oh, no one knows what God looks like. You can't draw God," the teacher responds.
"They may not know what God looks like now, but they will know when I am done."
That could be a good motto for a church. Very few know what God looks like, but when we are done, they'll know. They'll know what God looks like because they will look at us and get a glimpse of God.
Oddly many people find their hope blocked by churches rather than aided by them. Lots of people believe more in God than they do in church.
We recently had a retreat for the deacons and trustees of our church. There I got a glimpse of God—of what God looks like, of the treasure in earthen vessels that we are supposed to see in the Church.
Openness, smartness, critical thinking, laughter, acceptance of the incompleteness of one another—each of these aspects of God, we experienced ourselves.
"We all have moments when we are sitting in a pigsty of our own making."
We studied the text of the prodigal son—and tried to locate ourselves in the biblical story. Most of us could identify with the sinners whom Jesus sat at table with. We knew what it felt like to be ignored or not to matter or to be ridiculed and put down by fancier people, like the scribes and Pharisees. We also knew what it was like to be a scribe or Pharisee, to be one who looks down. One who puffs up and then looks down. And we even had a glimpse of what it would be like to be Jesus, one sitting at the table with sinners who got in trouble for it.
Everyone could identify with the story's odd hero, the prodigal. We all have moments when we would like to take the money and run; we all have moments when running away looks like the best solution. And we all have moments like his of being ashamed that we ran away, wondering how we could have been so stupid as to think that we could make it on our own. We all have moments when we are sitting in a pigsty of our own making.
And some could even identify with God as symbolic parent, who as a parent did not know how to reject his son, even though his symbolic son—the prodigal—had rejected him.
Excerpted from Hard Times by Donna Schaper. Copyright © 1993 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.