Eric Fromm, a psychologist of the last century, wrote of the intimate connection between life and hope:
“When hope has gone, life has ended, actually or potentially. Hope is the intrinsic element of the structure of life . . . It is closely linked to another element of life: faith. Faith is not a weak form of belief or knowledge; it is not faith in this or that; faith is the conviction about the not yet proven, the knowledge of the real possibility, the awareness of pregnancy . . .”
The tragedy is, and it is a tragedy, that for far too many to count, their fondest dreams and deepest longings have arrived stillborn; and for them hope is dead, a fact that was brought home to me in starkest terms by a sociologist who spoke at the seminary when I was a student.
The speaker was well known for his controversial view of what is going on in the center-cities of our nation; and his still more controversial ideas about what we should do with our cities.
To understand what this sociologist said it is helpful to view our cities as doughnuts. The ring of the doughnut, the cake, represents the predominately white, affluent suburbs which surround our cities. The hole in the doughnut represents the center-city.
It was the speaker’s contention that increasingly the center-cities of our nation were being filled by a hard core of people who are volatile, violent, criminal, and dysfunctional. What is more, he said, these people are unable to change themselves and cannot be changed.
His solution, or rather the course of action he prescribed, because it is no solution, was to build a wall of armed police between the suburban ring and the core of the center-city.
What caused the people in the center city to become frozen in their predicament?
According to this scholar’s research it was because they were unable to visualize tomorrow, they were unable to view in their mind’s eye what tomorrow might be, and so they had no vision to shape today and guide their present action. In short, in the speaker’s words, they were, hopeless.
Needless to say, we were shocked by his words, but not as shocked as we were by his response to one of my fellow students. In the question and answer period that followed the lecture. The student stood and challenged, “You can’ t just give up on these people. You have to give them hope.”
To which the professor calmly replied: “Hope is your business, not mine.”
Hope is your business, not mine. He is right you know.
Anyone can offer encouragement to the down-cast. Anyone can optimistically reassure us that everything will be alright. Anyone can stoically counsel that you just have to keep on keeping on.
But only a Christian can stand on the edge of a city in decay and declare that it doesn’t have to be this way—with God’s help we can build a alabaster city undimmed by human tears; Only a Christian can peer into the abyss which is Haiti and declare don’t give up on life, fight on; Only a Christian can stand in a cemetery, beside an open grave and declare, “Into thy hands we commend our beloved….in the sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life.”
You see our hope, our Christian hope, is not mere optimism about the future. It is not wishful thinking. It is not looking forward to pie in the sky by and by.
Our hope is confidence and trust in the fact that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the love and power of God have conquered death. And because of that we can love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with our God knowing that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord – nothing: neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. Nothing.
A colleague of mine used to say, “When a mother tells her crying child everything is going to be alright; she is either lying or making a profound theological statement about the power and character of God.”
The speaker was right. Hope is our business. We of all people, are stewards of hope.
And that is precisely why this church is here on the corner of 7th and South High Street, to say no to ideas and actions born of despair and cynicism; and to say yes to actions that make visible faith, hope and love.
But we are not here simply to speak a word of hope to others; we are here to be reminded of it over and over again, because this business that we are in is risky business.
And it is hard to hold on to hope, even for us. In fact, at times hope slips through our fingers; just as it was for those who first heard the words of Isaiah; and those who first heard the words of the Revelation to John.
Those who first heard the words of Isaiah were exiles. The “promised land” was now an occupied territory; the walls of Jerusalem had been torn down; the temple lay in ruin. For all intents and purposes, the promises made to Abraham had come to naught; the desert wanderings of Exodus had come to a dead in. The light of God’s presence had been snuffed out.
The faith and, indeed the hope, of those who first read the words of the revelation to John were also under assault from two directions.
From one, they expected second coming of Christ, the end of the present age and the establishment of Christ’s dominion over God’s promised kingdom of peace and justice had not occurred.
From the other, Rome’s demand that Christians bow the knee to the Emperor intensified. In fact, for the first time, simply being a Christian was a crime punishable by death.
So it is little wonder that faith gave way to doubt; and despair replaced hope. Under these conditions they had grown despondent because their new lives in Christ felt so much like their old lives and in some cases worse.
They were disheartened because their dreams of mercy and peace under the reign of Christ had been shattered by the harsh reality of life under Caesar. And they, like we, knew all too well that hopelessness breeds in the debris of shattered dreams.
They, like we, learned that “living means burying dreams.”
And isn’t it the same for us from time to time. Isn’t it true that sooner or later, hopelessness has its way with us, as it did for the exiles in the dispersion; and those early Christians? It may be less dramatic, but it is no less difficult or trying.
We dream of selfless love, only to be disappointed by our own incapacity to give of our selves or to trust the love of others.
We dream of conquering mountains, only to stumble over mole hills.
We dream of arriving, only to stall-out when the going gets tough.
Subtly and slowly we begin to give up; to surrender to cynicism and despair; and hopelessness has its way with us. So, like the author Albert Camus we resign ourselves to life in a world without dreams, “We think clearly and we do not hope anymore.”
And it is precisely at this moment that the mail arrives and we remember:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
A new vision; a vision of new possibility creeps in.
The home* of God is among mortals.
He will dwell* with them;
they will be his peoples,*
and God himself will be with them;*
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
A new promise is heard; a promise that does not depend upon our cleverness or strength, but the constancy of God’s power and lover.
Do not fear, or be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
You are my witnesses!
Is there any god besides me?
There is no other rock; I know not one.
3When darkness falls and all seems lost, we are reminded that hope, our hope,
our Christian hope, is not wishful thinking.
Our hope is not wanting something no matter how much.
Our hope is not confidence in our own ability to pull something off. Our hope is not even a guarantee that life in this world will ever be easy and painless. In fact it is just the opposite.
Our hope is in the capacity to move with God toward God’s kingdom of love, joy, justice and peace that seems forever just beyond the horizon.
Our hope is the capacity to keep loving in the midst of all of loves failings. Hope is the capacity to get up when we stumble and keep going.
Our hope is the capacity to start again when our best efforts stall-out. Our hope is the capacity to trust that one day soon we taste and see that the Lord is good.
For us as individuals and for us as a congregation, hope is the confidence that God will accomplish in us, through us and for us what he has promised; that God will lift us out of the ruins of our shattered dreams, and grant us an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.
It is because of this hope that we are here; here to say no to all actions in our community, in our personal lives, and in our congregation that are born of despair; here to be stewards of the precious gift of hope that God has entrusted to us in Jesus Christ, the only hope that is big enough for God.