April 30, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Psalm 27; 1 Peter 1:3-9; 13
Hope, joy, optimism and exuberance characterize the epistle of First Peter that Tom read this morning. The recipients of this letter are known as the diaspora; those Jew and Gentile Christians who made their homes in the extreme northern reaches of Asia Minor, or what is now Turkey.
The circumstances and events surrounding these distant Christians were far from ideal. They were a tiny, struggling minority living a great distance from other like-believers and among a powerful and belligerent culture. The author of First Peter seeks to convey love and joy to these far-flung faithful. Yet all these good tidings are celebrations about a future, not what they are experiencing at the time. So, First Peter also addresses suffering as much as it does rejoicing. However, acknowledging the suffering in their lives does not mean their expectation of future joy should be stifled. First Peter calls these Christians to celebrate and love with confidence in God’s promises.
This reading provides a compelling vision of what true Christian living and genuine Christian community entail; “living hope”. And it is Peter’s sense of awe and wonder in God’s presence and action that makes it possible for him to offer these comforting words to this band of believers. Trusting in God, we are able to experience a sense of calm and confidence. Christian “faith” and “hope” are dependent upon trust in God. And yet, Peter acknowledges, “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. This is the power of the Christian community.
These new Christians that Peter was addressing had not seen Jesus in the flesh. Rather, they saw the living Christ in Peter and in their fellow community members and they loved what they saw; they came to love Jesus because of them. And although they did not see Jesus during their time of trial and tribulation, they believed in him because they experienced him alive in their community. It is this that fosters living hope. It is hope that cannot be restrained by worldly events. It is hope that cannot be extinguished by fears that some great calamity might lie ahead. Living hope does not die. And for the followers of Jesus, they came to believe that not even physical death was the end. It did not destroy their hope. Peter’s letter to the exiles in dispersion is a letter of hope and encouragement to the young church as they were facing desperate times and a letter of hope and encouragement for us. They were and we are invited to live not only in the hope of resurrection in the future, but resurrection in our present living as well.
None of us walked the earth with Jesus, and yet we also put our hope in someone we’ve never seen. Because of what we experience in this community we put our trust in a notion that says this man Jesus died on a cross and yet lives vibrantly today. We learn from the words and actions of Jesus, but we believe and have hope because of the risen Christ in our midst and so we live our lives differently.
The text from Peter tells us that we will be tested. There will be times when hope seems ridiculous. But the testing always ends. That’s called life. Everybody goes through it, and everybody has to endure. But living hope is always available. There are always possibilities. There’s always help along the way. There is always opportunity for regeneration and rebirth. Jesus is alive, and in the risen Christ, we find living hope. The novelist Omar El Akkad says it well; “Hopelessness is no impediment to hope.”
Joan Chittister says, “The call to us at a time when great pieces of the future crumble in life is . . . to hope. Hope does not tell us that soon life will be the same again as it was before the loss. No, hope tells us that life will go on, differently, yes, but go on nevertheless. Hope tells us that the pieces are there for us to put together, if only we will give ourselves to the doing of it. When Jesus dies on the cross, something entirely different rises. And that something is the call to us to make the best in life live again.
“Sometimes we fail. . .Sometimes we’re beaten. . . Sometimes we’re lost. . . Sometimes we’re humiliated. . .Sometimes we’re misunderstood. . .Sometimes we are abandoned by the very people we love most in life and whom we thought also loved us. At that point, without doubt, something in us dies.
“Then we learn that there’s no going back to things that once were but are no more. The old breath goes out of us and all we can do is to surrender to the dark. It is not a pretty moment. It can take all the energy we have.
Chittister asks, “Am I able to accept the daily deaths of life, both the great ones and the small, knowing that death is not the end of life, only its passing over to something new in me? Hopefully, I learn from the Jesus who gave up himself, his mission, his life in ways that all seemed totally wrong, that the deaths I die may bring new life to the world around me, as well.”
In her book Mystical Hope, Cynthia Bourgeault begins, “I’d like to invite you on a journey . . . one that may begin in despair, in hopelessness. . .Your life seems to be swirling downward; you do not see how to reverse the trend. There is no hope.
“Hope you feel . . . could give you a new surge of energy that would make life feel possible again. Perhaps all you need is reassurance that the situation will change; that life will get better. Perhaps it is even simpler than that. Perhaps all that you need is an attitude shift; a new way of looking at things. But whatever it is you know that hope is the missing ingredient.”
Bourgeault goes on to say that maybe your situation isn’t that desperate. Maybe it’s just the “rough and tumble of daily living” and you wonder if the roller-coaster ride is really necessary. She asks, “Must we be whiplashed incessantly between joy and sorrow, expectation and disappointment? Is it not possible to live from a place of greater equilibrium, to find a deeper and steadier current?”
She gives us the good news that indeed, a deeper and steadier current does exist. But she warns that it’s not to be found in the platitudes and psychological gimmicks that so many self-help books offer. In addition she cautions that the journey towards hope will likely not change our lives in the short run; that the voyage toward hope is “up and over the mountain to the headwaters of Christian Mystery.” But she does reassure us that from there, the externals will rearrange themselves.
The common way of understanding hope is tied to outcome; an optimistic feeling or at least a willingness to go on because of an inner sense that things will get better. An example of this is receiving bad medical news; say we need to have a biopsy. So we pray, “I hope that it isn’t cancer.” And then, if we get the news, that indeed it is, we then hope for simple, painless and successful treatment. Perhaps in time all options become exhausted and we hear that there is no cure, only comfort measures available. We refer commonly to this situation as “hopeless”.
The bible, both old and new testaments, is full of stories of this kind of hope; one situation after another when events seemed “hopeless” and God intervened or Jesus cured. Verse one of psalm 116 is one of countless examples of people praising God for getting the outcome that they prayed for: I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications.
But where does this leave us when the outcome is not the one that we hoped for, that we prayed so fervently for? Not only are we likely to feel dejected, we may be tempted to also feel rejected? Didn’t I pray hard enough? There are many who believe that if we have enough faith in God, we will receive the outcome that we want. That if we don’t get a good outcome, it’s our faith that is weak. But there is another kind of hope that is also very prevalent in Scripture and it is to this kind of hope that Cynthia Bourgeault refers; Mystical Hope. One example of it is found in the last section of the small book of Habakkuk, when after a long litany of gloomy complaints, out of nowhere it seems, the prophet expresses Living Hope.
The prophet Habakkuk is generally believed to have written his book not long before the Babylonians’ siege and capture of Jerusalem. The major story line in the book is that Habakkuk is trying to grow from a state of perplexity and doubt to absolute trust in God. Habakkuk addresses his concerns over the fact that God will use the Babylonian empire to punish his people for their sins. He questions the wisdom of God. In the first part of the first chapter, the Prophet sees what he believes to be the unjust treatment of his people and asks why God does not take action. “Yahweh, how long will I cry, and you will not hear?” God then reassures Habakkuk, “Look among the nations, watch, and wonder marvelously; for I am working a work in your days, which you will not believe though it is told you.
Finally, in Chapter 3, Habakkuk expresses his ultimate faith in God, even if he doesn’t fully understand, “For though the fig tree doesn’t flourish, nor fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive fails, the fields yield no food; the flocks are cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls yet I will rejoice in Yahweh. I will be joyful in the God of my salvation.”
Wow! What a change of heart!
Habakkuk is a very small book; three short chapters. Yet its content is very well known in Christianity: St Paul uses the writing of Habakkuk to form the backbone of three of his epistles; the ones that are considered to be “the three great doctrinal books of the New Testament.” Indeed, this message of living hope is central to Christian spirituality.
Like the people of the diaspora who Peter wrote to or Habakkuk’s community we have much that makes us anxious and lots to be discouraged about. As we read news magazines and watch television we learn of many seemingly hopeless situations. The threat of nuclear war is a more real possibility than it has been for decades. Global warming and its many dire consequences due to our use of fossil fuels are likely to increase. Worldwide diseases, some of which we thought we conquered, and new ones that keep springing up, threaten to overtake us. Terrorism across the globe and violence in our communities has us fearing that life may never be as good as it once was.
When we are demoralized, discouraged; when our hope is threatened, Wisdom calls us to use our heads and hearts: to let go and to trust. But it’s not always something that we can do on our own. This is when belonging to a supportive faith community is an immeasurable blessing.
Several years ago a teacher whose job was to visit children in a large city hospital received a routine call requesting that she visit a particular child. She took the boy’s name and room number and was given instructions by the teacher. “We’re studying adjectives and adverbs in his class now. I’d be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn’t fall behind the others.” It wasn’t until the visiting teacher got outside the boy’s room that she realized it was located in the hospital’s burn unit. No one had prepared her to find a young boy horribly burned and in great pain. She felt that she couldn’t just turn and walk out, so she awkwardly stammered, “I’m the hospital teacher, and your teacher sent me to help you with adjectives and adverbs.”
The next week a nurse on the burn unit asked her, “What did you do to that boy?” Before she could finish the profusion of apologies that immediately came out of her mouth, the nurse interrupted her: “You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him, but ever since you were here, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment. It’s as though suddenly he’s decided to live.” The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw that teacher. It all changed when he came to a simple realization. With joyful tears he expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on adjectives and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?”
Hope is taken from us when those things that contribute to living are taken from us. We can be discouraged, we can be desolate, and we can be knocked down. In times of such trials sometimes we find hope. Other times we need help to see that possibilities exist for us; that there is hope. It may take someone else to give us our assignment for next week so that we can believe that next week is a possibility. Living hope.
As members of this faith community we are called to be signs of hope for each other and that’s not always easy. When I studied pastoral counseling and when I took courses in how to provide spiritual direction, I learned that a guide can only take someone as far as she herself has come. Someone who has only traveled as far north as Augusta would not be an effective guide in the Maine woods. So my guidance for developing Mystical Hope, Living Hope is limited. Though I’ve been working on it intentionally since I was eighteen, it is something with which I still struggle and am a novice in developing it in myself. So I rely on modern contemplative authors like Thomas Merton, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, and Thomas Keating who call us toward the practice of surrender as a means of finding freedom and developing living hope. Centering oneself or centering prayer, involves surrender. It is surrender that leads to real freedom; the freedom to come and go from our center, and to be able to do without anything that is not immediately connected to that center. It’s there that we experience living hope.
Cynthia Bourgeault says that this living hope fills us with the strength to stay present, to abide in the flow of God’s goodness, no matter what outer storms assail us. And that it is entered always and only through surrender; that is, through the willingness to let go of everything we are presently clinging to. And yet, when we allow ourselves to experience the awareness of God’s presence, it fills us with a quiet strength; living hope.
Chittister’s book, Mystical Hope is subtitled, “Trusting in the Mercy of God”. It is that life stance I believe that is Living Hope. It involves deepening our trust in God’s goodness and presence, and at the same time developing detachment of our vision of what constitutes good outcomes. Knowing this and being proficient in this way of life are two very different things. For me it continues to require lots of attention and effort.
We are in the Easter season. In the various Gospel stories about the appearances of the risen Christ, Jesus greets the surprised disciples with the words “Peace be with you.” The followers of Jesus had their hopes dashed when Jesus was taken and killed. It wasn’t the outcome that they had hoped for. Yet Jesus invites his disciples to trust and offers peace.
Living hope offers us peace. And when life gives us many reasons to be discouraged and depressed living hope saves us from the pit. And that is why the psalmist that we heard this morning prayed: “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. . . For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling.”
To the degree that we develop mystical hope we will be able to shout out like Habakkuk, despite the problems that we encounter, I will rejoice in Yahweh. I will be joyful in the God of my salvation.