Based on Gen 29: 15-28, Mt 13: 31-33, 44-52, Romans 8: 26-39
We have completed our fifth week together, and we are slowly getting to know one another. I have visited members and former members in nursing homes, residences, hospitals and via the telephone. I have been asked many times how I am finding things here, and do I like it in Madison County. I have been able to say more emphatically each time those questions are asked that I’m finding things and people to be quite welcoming. Madison County has given me much to like, even as I have begun to see that along with its great natural beauty and bounty there are people, places and conditions currently in the shadow, that will require much work and God’s grace to illuminate and change. If I had to sum up these first weeks with all of you in one word, it would be “hope”. That is what we will spend this time together today exploring. Let’s ask God for a blessing before we move any farther…
Last week we looked at trust and how trust develops. Trust develops when needs are consistently and lovingly met – thus our positive life experiences in trusting develop the virtue of hope. Certainly, hope continues to develop and it can be acquired later in life with the right situations (and continued action of God in our lives). Alternatively, hope can be lost when our story disconnects to how God is moving and shaping both our individual life and the lives of those around us. Hope that is lost, or that becomes disconnected from God is known as despair.
Charles Pinches puts despair in perspective in a recent Christian Century article when he writes, “…We have a term for life without hope: despair. [Thomas] Aquinas calls it the greatest sin. That judgment is something of a surprise, since hope is not the greatest of the virtues: charity is. (see 1Corinthians 13) So why would despair, which opposes hope, outrank hatred, which opposes love (charity)? Aquinas believes there is something about despair different from either unbelief, which opposes God’s truth, or hatred, which opposes God’s goodness. While hatred and unbelief oppose God directly, despair, says Aquinas, ‘consists in a person [sic man] ceasing to hope for a share of God’s goodness….’” (Christian Century, July 19, 2017) To put this another way, despair comes when we can no longer see how we are connected to God and God’s story.
A news feed came across my Facebook page this week from the “County Health Rankings” program supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This group tracks health data by county across the United States and compares it to the State as a whole. We can easily see where Madison County’s health indicators rank compared to the 133 counties in Virginia, for example. This report noted that 1 in 8 (12.5%) of all persons in the U.S. between the ages of 16 and 24 are disconnected from either work or school. Add to that the fact that they are disconnected in large measure from church as well, and we have a brewing issue with a large percentage of the next generation. A generation that will be untethered to anything that might give them hope in a world that is becoming less and less trustworthy…a recipe for despair.
Despair comes, I believe, when we disconnect from our spiritual narrative. All of the stories we heard today give us different ways to be hopeful when we could otherwise despair. We started in Genesis with our friend Jacob “the supplanter”. Jacob has arrived at his Uncle Laban’s (Rebekah’s brother) land and has met Laban’s younger daughter Rachel. It is love at first sight and Jacob commits to working for Laban for seven years to earn the right to marry Rachel. For the first time since we met Jacob, he does the honorable thing and works diligently for his Uncle. However, Laban tricks him and on his wedding night he replaces Rachel with her older sister Leah. Laban tells Jacob that giving the younger before the older is not done. If he wants Rachel, he will have to toil another seven years. Laban keeps his promise the second time, and the promise of God to Jacob is fulfilled when through his two wives (and two maids) 12 sons are born who will be the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob kept his hope in God and in God’s promises and did not despair – in return, he was richly rewarded after his 14 years of indentured servitude.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is continuing to tell the crowds parables about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus notes that the kingdom of God works with very small things (people, mustard seeds, yeast) to create great results (12 Tribes, great trees, loaves to feed many people). Jesus goes on to say that the kingdom of God is to be hoped for, sought and treasured beyond anything else. We should give up everything for it, knowing that God has delivered God’s people from the beginning of time. Jesus tells us once again that when the kingdom comes, God will separate the righteous from the evil and will judge each accordingly.
This is why the Apostle Paul can write to the Roman churches that “…by hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes (awaits) what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience….” (8:24-25 NRSV) In verse 28 he writes, “…We know that all things work together for good….” (NRSV) In other translations this is written, “in all things God works for good”, which is more consistent with our understanding from our life with God’s narrative (think Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc) – and from the teachings of Jesus. Paul can write with all hope, “…For I am convinced…” (verse 38, NRSV) that nothing in or of this world will ever be able to separate us from the God’s insistent and persistent love.
And yet, and yet…there are people who ride up and down the road out front each and every day who are suffering from despair. There are friends and neighbors who used to attend this church that are suffering from despair. Suffering from the lack of the knowledge of how God is working in the world and their lives. They despair because they are chasing after the things of the world, and the world keeps letting them down. Maybe this happened because they believe the church let them down. Pinches puts it this way, “…Despair does not so much deny or oppose God’s truth or story directly, but rather says: whatever the truth is, or whatever the story may be, there is nothing in it for me….” (page 23) They do not have within them a developed sense of the virtue of hope. Hope that overcomes despair is not a feeling like, “I hope it doesn’t rain on my parade”. Rather, the virtue of hope is an active, participative way of interpreting what is happening to us and to our world through the narrative of God with God’s people.
How are we called to reach out to those in despair? How can we take our hope, grounded in the sure knowledge of a God who is at work today in Madison County and beyond? I think that emboldened by our hope, we choose to see that God is at work in the world – even if we can’t see yet how God is working. The mustard seed is planted and growing, the yeast is leavening the bread, the Son of God will return and the kingdom of God will be realized here on earth. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God began the in-breaking of the kingdom. We are people of the in-between times – will live in the hope of the already but not yet. This is our stronghold – we know that our hope in God through Jesus and the leading of the Holy Spirit will indeed triumph over the evil and sins of humankind. We come out of our walled castle of hope secure in the knowledge that evil and injustice have already been defeated by God…they just don’t know it yet. We are called therefore to share our hope with all who we meet.
I believe that this is why we still come to church each week. This church was planted here by your kin folk who trusted and hoped that God’s promises would be fulfilled as they had been of old. My favorite spiritual writer and preacher, Frederick Buechner, puts it this way in his sermon entitled, “Hope”, “…I think that it is hope that lies at our heart and hope that finally brings us all here [to church]. Hope that in spite of all the devastating evidence to the contrary, the ground we stand on is holy ground because Christ walked here and walks here still. Hope that we are known, each one of us, by name, and that out of the burning moments of our lives he will call us by our names to the lives he would have us live and the selves he would have us become. Hope that into the secret grief and pain and bewilderment of each of us and of our world he will come at last to heal and to save….” (from “Secrets in the Dark) That, brothers and sisters in Christ, is a true virtue – the virtue of hope in our powerful and persistent God. It is time to share this virtue with the world. Amen and amen!