April 14, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
According to the apostle Paul, one of the characteristics of the Christian life is hope. Even when every indicator would lead the average person to hunker down in despair, Paul says, the Christian will remain a person of hope, and “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.”
‘Hope does not disappoint,’ Paul claims.
Try telling that to the crowds who trumpeted Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem waving palms to proclaim a new ruler had arrived. Certainly they were full of hope: hope that Jesus would lead them in revolution; hope that the house of David would once again be established in Jerusalem; hope that their dignity would be restored and their future made secure. Within a short time, however, their hope had turned to ashes and in their frustration with Jesus’ inaction, they joined his accusers and called for his crucifixion. Had Friedrich Nietzche been writing in the first century, the crowds might have thrown his words at Jesus as he hung on the cross: “Hope is the worst of evils,” Nietzche cynically said, “for it prolongs the torment of man.”
Every year, we reenact the hopes of the Palm Sunday crowds knowing that they will be dashed at the foot of the cross within five days time. Would those cheering Palm Sunday crowds have been better off if they had not given themselves up to hope? Is hope good for us, or are we too, bound to be disappointed by it? Is hope the mark of a determined change maker or is it the sign of a foolish dreamer? Even Roget’s thesaurus can’t decide whether to embrace hope or not: if you look up the word “hope” in its pages, you will find such synonyms as “aspiration,” “confidence,” and “anticipation,” but nestled right next to those positive statements about hope, you will also find synonyms like, “daydream,” “fancy” and “castles in the air.” Paul and Nietzche are duking it out right there in the thesaurus.
On Palm Sunday, we are called to examine our own understanding of hope, to ask, “Is hope a positive force in our lives or is it just an escape from reality? Is hope something good for us and for our world, or will it lead us astray? What does it mean to hope: what are we hoping for? What are we placing our hope in?” These are the questions of Holy Week because this week which begins with the excited proclamations of Jesus’ reign will end with Jesus’ death on a cross, and we are called to ask ourselves, “At the end of this week, will I be standing with the disappointed crowd yelling, ‘Crucify him!’ or will I be with the women who remained faithful to Jesus and to the hope he gave them?” Where you are on Good Friday depends greatly on how you understand the hope that is being proclaimed today as Jesus enters Jerusalem to the shouts of, “Hosanna, Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Paul proclaims that hope is foundational to the Christian life – that cynicism, pessimism, and despair are antithetical to Christ’s call — but at the same time, he says, “We preach Christ crucified.” Whatever it is we hope for from Christ, Paul said, has to be able to include the reality of his suffering and death on a cross. What is then, the nature of Christian hope?
When I was in Junior High, every girl in the seventh grade was required to watch a film on birth control in health class. (Whether the boys also had to watch the film or not, I don’t know, since in those days Health classes were segregated by gender but since also in those days, birth control was believed to be the responsibility of the woman, I’m guessing the boys just had study hall while we watched the film.) Anyway, since I had three younger sisters who eventually also had to watch the same movie, the film’s tagline quickly became a family joke. None of us actually remember anything about the film except those bold letters splashed across the opening screen, “Hope is not a method;” words that we came to intone anytime someone in my family was inclined to rush forward unprepared and trust that everything would work out for the best. “Just remember,” we would pronounce half seriously, “hope is not a method!”
As much as we mocked them, those words are actually good ones to live by for if Christian hope means adopting a Pollyanna confidence that the future will be full of bliss without your having to lift a finger to help make that happen, then Nietzche would be justified in condemning hope as simply prolonging the suffering of humankind. Perhaps it was this mistaken understanding of hope that led the crowds to turn on Jesus when they discovered that he was not going to fix their lives for them and magically make everything better; but passive inaction is not the hope that Paul is preaching.
Nor is the hope that Paul preaches a “pie in the sky by and by” that jumps over the cross to get right to Easter. Many years ago, I did the funeral of an Alfred University student named Eric who died of leukemia. 1 His fellow students who attended his memorial service were devastated by his death; they not only missed their friend but were also struggling with their sudden awareness of their own mortality. Here was a young man who like themselves had barely entered adulthood and yet his life was already over. What I remember most from his funeral, unfortunately, was that when I invited people to share memories or thoughts, one well-intentioned but clumsy older aunt assured those young men and women that there was nothing to be sad about that on day.
“God needed a rosebud for his garden,” she told them, “and so he picked Eric.”
For this woman, her hope couldn’t stand firm at the foot of the cross but tried to deny the reality of the pain and suffering that comes with being human and mortal. Her inability to offer comfort that acknowledged the rending of the human heart left Eric’s friends alone in their grief. If Christian hope is rose-colored escapism than Nietzche is right to condemn it as prolonging the suffering of humankind; but rose-colored escapism is not the hope that Paul preaches.
If believe that the hope that the gospel proclaims requires that we turn a blind eye to the ragged reality that is our world, if we believe that hope means we have to overlook the abject suffering of poverty, war, hunger, illness and grief; it we believe that hope means that we have to put aside all of our doubts and fears and suddenly become wild-eyed optimists charging unprepared into battle, it is no wonder that others condemn Christianity as a sugar-coated escapist faith; but that is not what Christian hope is.
Paul tells us that Christian hope is the insistence that even though the world sometimes stinks to high heaven, even though life is often much more tragic than we want it to be, even though we ourselves are flawed weak people surrounded by other flawed weak people, that we can still be true to who God has made us to be — people of moral courage and unconquerable love. Though the struggle is real and the fight is hard, with Christ’s help, the gospel tells us, we can conquer the cruelties of the world and the failures of our own lives just as Christ defeated them on the cross. We do not have to be enslaved to those powers. Yes, they exist; yes, they are real but we do not have to be enslaved to them. We do not have to allow them to define who we are or what our world is going to look like. We can remain true to our conviction that love wins: love wins in the world, love wins in our communities, love wins even over the temptations and sins of our own hearts because Christ taught us that we can take that belief all the way to the cross and it will stand firm.
Yesterday, I attended a special worship service for my sister Sandy who was being, in clergy parlance, “installed” as the new executive minister of the American Baptist churches in the Rochester Genesee Region, and one of the speakers at the service was the director of an organization in Rochester called, “The Coffee Connection,” which has as its motto, “Brewing a Brighter Tomorrow.” The director told of a time when a young man came to their business seeking employment and she asked him what sounded like the typical questions in an interview:
“Do you now or have you ever had a substance abuse problem?”
“No,” he said.
“Do you have any felonies?” she continued.
“No,” he replied confidently.
“Are you a woman?” she asked with a smile.
“No,” he said with a confused look.
“Then, I’m sorry but we don’t have a job for you,” she said to his surprise.
At the Coffee Connection, the right answers to those questions are the exact opposite of the world’s answers because the Coffee Connection employs only women who have been in prison or are recovering from substance abuse, training them and supporting them toward sustainable recovery. Through their work at the Coffee Connection, with additional on job-training, life skills work, and counseling, these women learn their past doesn’t define them, that the world’s judgment doesn’t define them, even their own doubts and suffering and failures do not define them. God insists on breaking through their bondage to renew their hope that they can become the person God knows they are. The Chinese writer Lin Yutang says that “Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.” The women at the Coffee Connection walk on a road brought into existence by people who have gone all the way to the cross for them and continue to believe that love wins. On every package of coffee they sell are these words of hope: “One cup, one woman, one day at a time.” 2
When we believe in the liberating power of God’s love to shape a new reality in our world and in the hearts of men and women, we leave footsteps of love in the plain of the world’s suffering and our hope gives others a place to walk and follow. As the body of Christ, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who insist that on the cross, the world’s power to define us is broken, and we can be and will be new people in Christ’s love together. Let us be part of that great cloud of witnesses. Let us be that hope.
1. I’ve changed his name to preserve the family’s privacy