A sermon by the Rev. Peter S. Sawtell
Executive Director, Eco-Justice Ministries
Texts: 1 Peter 1:13-21; Matthew 6:25-35
If you can, I want you to think back about 25 years. It was the start of the Reagan era, and many changes in policy and politics were taking shape after the Carter years. My wife and I were serving a small, rural parish in central Iowa. Our neighboring pastor and good friend lived 20 miles down the road. Jim was deeply involved in peace and justice issues, especially dealing with Central America. We would go to visit Jim, and turn up right after he had watched the evening news, filled with distressing stories about El Salvador and the Contra war in Nicaragua. He would open the door, and moan, "I'm so depressed!" In those early Reagan years, Jim saw few signs of hope for the world.
On many levels, a lot of us can understand Jim's lament. There are problems that we encounter that just won't be solved by cheerful words of encouragement, or even dedicated efforts for change.
It is easy to talk about faith and religion when the world is looking good. But what do you do when life isn't living up to your dreams?
Theologically speaking, there's more to hope than inspiring stories where things worked out right. There's a type of hope that goes much deeper, and does far more to sustain us in this troublesome world.
This morning, I want us to explore the nature of hope:
"Hope" has a couple of different meanings. We usually think about hope for something.
Hoping for something does nothing at all to deal with our anxiety. Indeed, the more radical our hope for something, the more visionary our hope for a different situation, the easier it is to fall into despair of ever seeing that hope fulfilled. Our hopes for something different are important, but they don't always strengthen us.
The other meaning of hope is the lesser used one, and the one that points us in the right direction. Instead of hoping for something, out there, in the vague and uncertain future, we can hope in something now.
If we are feeling anxious about our threatening and difficult world, then we need to place our hope, our trust, in God.
When we place our hope in God, it means that we align ourselves with God's purposes, God's values, God's ethics. It means that we tie ourselves to God's community. On the most profound level, it means that we believe that God will solve the problems.
Placing out hope in God is something that happens right now. Our hope is not pointed somewhere out in the future and tied up with some desired result. Rather, our hope has to do with where we find meaning and truth. Hope in God is an expression of deep confidence.
In this morning's Gospel lesson ["don't be anxious; look at the lilies of the field!"], I think Jesus was pointing toward that distinction between the two kinds of hope. "Don't worry," he said, about the things that you hope for – food and clothing. Rather, he said, "strive first for God's kingdom and God's righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well." Place your hope in God, and the things you hope for will take care of themselves.
Let me give a mundane example. If my neighbor is utterly disreputable -- garbage all over the yard, having loud parties at all hours of the night, selling drugs -- I'm likely to be upset about that.
My hope is for a better neighbor. But how do I get there?
I could place my hope in violence. I could go and confront the neighbor with a threat or a baseball bat or a gun, and demand better behavior.
Or I could place my hope in the legal system. I could use zoning codes and drug laws to drag the bum into court, and try and win a settlement that would solve my problem.
It makes a huge difference whether I place my trust in violence or in the courts. Now, there is no guarantee that I'll get what I want in either case. I might be more effective if I go next door with threats -- or I might get shot. For the sake of the example, the outcome is not the critical thing. But that's also true in real life, where the outcome is not the driving concern.
What is important is the choice I make about where to place my hope. Some of that decision is practical, and some of it is moral. In this example, I might place my hope in the courts, even if I'm likely to lose there, because I believe that's the right way to go about it. I'm not unconcerned about the outcome, but I'm more concerned with how to do it right.
In today's other scripture reading, we get a dramatic glimpse into how different "hope in" is from "hope for." We heard from the book of 1 Peter, a letter written to a community facing intense persecution. Scholars suggest that it was written from Rome, during the time that the emperor Nero was feeding Christians to the lions, and written to another community, also facing strong persecution. Both the writer and the recipients had daily experiences of the danger and the stress of being oppressed and intimidated.
Peter's words are not of pie-in-the-sky good news. He does not tell them that everything is going to be fine, and that the emperor's policies will soon change. Rather, he tells them to be strong in their convictions, to keep doing exactly what it is that leads to their persecution, to hold strong in their commitments to the Christian faith. For, through Christ, Peter wrote,
you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and your hope are set on God.
The persecution they faced was likely to continue, and probably get worse. But Peter urged the folk to have "faith and hope" in God. And because of their hope, they are to be transformed. They are to be holy. They are to strive for the right and righteous kind of conduct. Their hope tells them who the real judge of their lives will be -- not Nero and the Roman officials, whose values and standards are corrupt, but God.
This sort of hope is powerful stuff! It is a different quality of hope than we hear about in our day-to-day conversations. This biblical sort of hope transforms lives and empowers people to courageous living. This profound hope gives strength to people who would otherwise be crippled by totally justifiable anxieties and fears.
When we place our hope in God, as Jesus and Peter remind us we should, we are making a commitment to a source of power and a way of doing things. We are saying that, ultimately, God's way is the right way. And we say that even in the midst of huge problems and great despair. We say that, knowing that the problems we face may not be tidily, quickly or easily resolved for us.
Hope, hope in God, transforms us when life is difficult. Hope does not make everything happy and pleasant. Hope does give meaning and purpose to lives in the real world.
Now, I want to be honest. There are other places to locate hope beside God. We can, and we must, make choices about where to place our hope. In today's world, there are many options for our ultimate convictions about the right way of doing things.
"Hope in God" sounds abstract, though. What does that mean in our daily lives? It means that we align ourselves with specific values that we associate with God. It means that we may come across as rather counter-cultural in today's world.
Hope "in" changes the way we live. We may not get what we hope for -- but in the long run, that will probably happen, too. And, even if we don't get what we hope for, placing out hope in what is good and right is a moral stance. It is the right thing to do, and that in itself empowers us and strengthens us.
A number of years ago, the Roman Catholic bishops in the US wrote a pastoral letter on the theme of "war and peace." In it, they included this statement:
Hope is the capacity to live with danger without being overwhelmed by it; hope is the will to struggle against obstacles even when they appear insuperable.
Theologian Tex Sample put the same message in more ordinary language, sharing the wisdom that he said he learned from his mama:
Hope is putting yourself where you would not be if you did not believe in the promises of God.
Hope, deep hope, is a powerful force. It gives strength and conviction for life in the current moment. It does not hide from the difficulties of the moment, but rather helps us to address those difficulties with vision, courage and grace.
Placing our hope in God allows us to find meaning and courage and even joy when we are confronted with things that we can't fix: cancer, global warming, or war. We don't have to give in to despair, and we don't have to be crushed by an impossible task. Hope guides us into ways of living and acting that take the problems seriously, that provide orientation for our action, and provide meaning in our commitments.
I started these comments be referring to my friend Jim, who was "so depressed" in the face of the political news in the early 1980s. Jim could have been overwhelmed and burned out, but instead he has lived in hope. Jim moved from parish ministry to work with the national offices of a church agency on peace and justice issues. His hope in God, his conviction that the principles motivating his life are ultimately true, has sustained him through decades of prophetic ministry.
When we place our hope in God, we are transformed and empowered to live now. And that is good news!