Holding onto Hope…

a sermon by Jonathan Neufeld, December 8 2013

In God’s mysterious ways…death blossoms into new and abundant life dissonance of violence resolves into the harmony of God’s created order presence of enemies becomes an opportunity to restore relationship rather than take up arms so let us seek harmony that we may abide in the house of the Lord – where there is peace!

People who have decided to get involved with Community Ministry over the years, particularly working within the day center God’s l’il Acre – are going to recognize much of what I have prepared to offer this morning. Not that the scriptures and theme for this morning are exclusively connected to our presence and effort in this neighborhood – rather that we know as people on the journey of faith, that we need language and practices which keep ourselves grounded and rooted in hope, alongside the ways we encounter complexity, suffering, woundedness, and brokenness in the world – and particularly for our discernment this morning – maintaining hope alongside the complexity, suffering, woundedness, and brokenness we experience in relationships.

When I am spending an afternoon orienting a new group of Nursing students from Seattle University, or spending time with someone who is discerning whether to get involved at the day center – Ken Kraybill’s collaborative writing for PATH, ‘Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness’ – is foundational material. Within this material written for a broad audience of service providers, is a fine description of the necessity of maintaining hope, hope which subverts the the anxiety we feel when relationships have been compromised. Quoting from the PATH material “Buckminster Fuller once said, “There is nothing about a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.” It can be challenging sometimes to see the possibilities of healing and recovery for people we meet. Yet, we need to hold out this hope.”  It is not unusual for people who are hurting to forsake hope as a means of survival. Hence, it needs to be a practice of society to make hope available for others to borrow until they can reclaim it for themselves. More also than just wanting to be helpful, the community of faith deals in hope because of who God is – God who creates butterflies from caterpillars – God who brings new life sprouting out of stumps, branches growing out of its roots. To believe that God’s mysterious ways promise harmony, healing, restoration, recovery, cooperation and creativity – is to be hopeful. To trust God’s mysterious ways enables us to see possibilities.

In what ways do our scriptures illuminate the foundations of hope, giving us some structure on which to seek out God’s gift of hope…

The first hook on which to hang our hope, is to embrace God’s point of view. An old quote attributed to Albert Einstein, rightly or wrongly I don’t know, is “I want to know God’s thoughts. The rest are details.” Of course we know that thoughts alone heal, an enlightened mind is empty if not married to practice – but there is something to be said for seeking to embrace God’s point of view, the mind of Christ, what God’s eyes see and long for in the world.

Isaiah 11 speaks to the remnant of the People of God, that out of exile, out of captivity, out of brokenness and suffering – there is a promise of life, of a messiah who rejects domination, oppression, and exploitation. A messiah who will be an advocate for the oppressed, clothed in justice and faithfulness. And in offering the image of a restored creation, where wolves and lambs, snakes and babies, calves and bears, those who were enemies rejecting the instinct to consume one another, and living in peace – we are given insight into God’s point of view, God’s hope that we are welcome to borrow until we can claim it for ourselves. There is something cosmic about the Creative force of the universe, which Genesis describes as calling everything good – calling out in Isaiah the peace, integration, strength, justice, health, cooperation, and creativity that the world already possesses. Yes, the earth’s resilience, the beautiful integration of relationships: is compromised, undone, shrouded and soiled by human activity – that is for sure – but that does not take away or destroy what God has made, and what God continues to see as possible. We can borrow from God’s hope and pull in the same direction – or not. We can also live in ways that coax out of creation the life sustaining gifts it possesses, for generations to come – or not. What we cannot do is unmake God’s point of view, God’s ways are bedrock – and God’s view is towards hope.

A second hook to hang our hope on from this morning scriptures is that of honesty. Honesty on a whole bunch of levels, speaking truth and disclosing hard realities, being true to our word, but also admitting to what we don’t know. The flip side to God’s point of view being bedrock, is that the bedrock is also a mystery, something we see through the glass dimly, doing our best – but never having a full deck to play with. Speaking for myself anyway. John the Baptist as described in Matthew may have yielded too much to the spirit of harshness and judgement, but the bottom line is that he spoke the truth as he knew it – seeing religious leaders coming for baptism, he felt a clear call to be explicit about what this baptism meant for human life, that of living out repentance, bearing fruit – once again this image of growth and new life sprouting in the lives of God’s followers. John is described as offering this truth, amidst what he didn’t know – not knowing whom the messiah would be, or when the messiah would be revealed, he didn’t know the path towards martyrdom that he himself was careening down, he didn’t know if the future was going to be better or worse for him or anyone else – but he understood life under political and religious oppression, and the peace that existed under threat of violence – the Pax Romana the peace of the Roman Empire.

The honesty of the hope seen in John the Baptist is sharing the invitation of God to bear fruit, whilst living with the mystery of where that may lead, or whether any of the brokenness, suffering and woundedness we experience and know about in our relationships will end in our lifetime. It is hope steeped in mystery, the ambiguity of life. Hope is not having the answers. Richard Rohr has some thoughts that help us stay rooted in this nuanced hope:

“We don’t come to God (or truth or love) by insisting on some ideal worldly order or so-called perfection, but in fact we come “to knowledge of salvation by the experience of forgiveness” (Luke 1:77)—forgiveness of reality itself, of others, of ourselves—for being so ordinary, imperfect, and often disappointing. Many also have to forgive God for not being what they wanted or expected. One reason why Rohr is so attracted to Jesus and then to St. Francis is that they found God in disorder, in imperfection, in the ordinary, and in the real world—not in any idealized concepts. They were more into losing than winning. But the ego does not like that, so we rearranged much of Christianity to fit our egoic pattern of achievement and climbing.

Isn’t it strange that Christians worship a God figure, Jesus, who appears to be clearly losing by every criterion imaginable? And then we spend so much time trying to “win,” succeed, and perform. We even call Jesus’ “losing” the very redemption of the world—yet we run from it. Rohr thinks Christians have yet to learn the pattern of redemption. It is evil undone much more than evil ever perfectly avoided. It is disorder reconfigured in our hearts and minds—much more than demanding any perfect order to our universe.”

That is a nuanced hope that doesn’t promise people or ourselves that things will get better if you try harder. It does not to try to be something or someone we are not, but to speak and act honestly and authentically. In our relationships and encounters with others who are suffering or confused, we may have mixed emotions; we may be uncertain or confused ourselves; we may be uncomfortable with a question or request; we may not want, or be able to do what another asks of us. What we have to offer is the gift of ourselves, our wholeness as persons, a wholeness that includes our limits and imperfections, our warts and vulnerability, our honest hope whose bedrock is the anticipation God’s mysterious advent light – breaking through into human experience.

A third hook to hang our hope on, is practicing God’s welcome. In the Romans passage we heard, Paul emphasizes the universal inclusiveness of Christ as the one in whom all people find their hope, embodied and practiced as we welcome one another, as we have been welcomed by Christ. How much of the hurt we know, the brokenness we experience, the confusion we feel – is in some way known through relationships. The brokenness of our relationship to the earth. The brokenness of systems of social uplift. The confusion we experience in our families, nuclear and extended. The exploitation and destruction of non-human habitat. The neglect of our understanding of ourselves as settlers, and the genocide of indigenous people, which claimed the land underneath the houses of Christian worship across this country. Brokenness very often happens in the context of relationships and it is within relationships that healing must begin, it is a foundation of human need to experience relationships where we feel fundamentally understood, appreciated, protected, and known at the deepest, most complex levels – it is not a simple or easy welcome, it is radical hospitality that takes risks.

We can’t always go back to the relationships in which we have experienced brokenness, it may not be safe, people may be dead and gone – even though it is such a precious gift to be able to go there. But isn’t the answer to that human need for understanding, appreciation, protection and knowing exactly the call of Paul in Romans – for the community of faith to be that people of hope inspired welcome, radical hospitality, and inclusion – a people of companionship lived and practiced each time we gather, and extended out into our many relationships, the shared journey of discovering home with and for each other – and nurturing God’s hope to flow through us to the world. Craig Rennebohm describes this journey as sitting or walking, side by side, looking out at the world together, sharing the journey as equals, not imposing agendas on one another, but letting the direction unfold toward an experience God’s mysterious promises of harmony, healing, restoration, recovery, cooperation and creativity –  brought to that place as we embrace God’s point of view, express ourselves honestly and practice radical welcome. May this be our advent journey.