Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Hope of the World

On several occasions, I've shared with you my love for stand-up comedy.  I'm continually surprised by the wisdom contained in some of the punch-lines and outlandish jokes...wisdom I would normally associate with sages or philosophers.  One of my favorite bits, as of late, is from the comedian Louis C.K.  He has a way with words and an understanding of language that I find impressive.  He talks about listening in on a conversation at a coffee shop between two young men sharing their adventures from the night before.  The conversation, according to Louis C.K., was fairly insignificant, but then one of the young men uttered a phrase that sent Louis C.K. overboard: "Last night, I had a plate of chicken wings and they were amazing."  Now, Louis C.K. had this epiphany, about how overused the word 'amazing' has become in our vocabulary.  Almost anything that impresses us nowadays is described as 'amazing'.  And so he rhetorically says to the audience what he wishes he had said to the young man: "Imagine for a moment that Jesus himself came down from the sky, and you were there to witness it, and you had no adequate words to say because you wasted the word 'amazing' on a plate of chicken wings.'  As funny as that exchange is, there is some wisdom in there for us at Trinity on the Hill, as we launch into this 'New Season of Hope.'  Perhaps, like me, you're a bit guilty of overusing the word hope.  I 'hope' that I get to see the new Star Wars movie on opening night.  I 'hope' that Pajarito Ski Hill gets enough snow this winter.  I even 'hope' that I find an excuse to get a Big Mac from McDonald's during the week.  Sometimes that particular hope comes true, but it usually requires that I 'conveniently' forget the lunch Karen packed for me.

We all 'hope' for a great many things.  It's a word we use even when what we are 'hoping' for is small, insignificant, pathetic even, as in the case of my Big Mac.  But when that word has become so commonplace for us, so overused, misused even...what word can we use when we are speaking about the great, grand, and wonderful vision of a new and transformed world that God has given to us?  What then can we offer to people in a nearly hopeless world when we've wasted our 'hope' on things that are insignificant, things that don't really matter?  And if the despair that we encounter in our newspapers and on our televisions is any indication, it appears to me that we are living in a truly hope-less world.  In a world that is swallowed up by violence, starvation, and homelessness, true hope is almost lost to the shadows and the darkness.  And so, when we encounter something worth hoping for, something worth investing our sense of hopefulness in, what word can we use when we've relegated the word 'hope' to describing the way we feel about science fiction movies, weather patterns, or fast food?

Quite simply, the word we use to describe the desires of our hearts to see the world transformed and renewed in the image of Jesus Christ simply can't, nor shouldn't be, the same word we use to talk about insignificant things we wish to happen in the coming days or weeks.  The hope to which the Gospel calls us simply can't be described using the same words we use for matters of triviality.  Something has to set the word 'hope' apart from the everyday well-wishes and day dreams we have.  The hope to which the Gospel calls us is a hope that people in despair can grasp and hold onto, and take close to themselves, gripping it so tightly it gets down deep into their bones.

In a way, that's the hope that Jeremiah is offering to the people in exile.  Jeremiah is an antagonistic prophet on some occasions, willing to challenge, willing to chastise the failure of Israel's religious life.  Jeremiah knows that sometimes the task of a prophet is to tear down.  But he also knows that the task of a prophet is to build up.  And so here, to a people in exile, to a people who have lost their land and their identity, a people who truly have lost hope...Jeremiah calls his people back to life with these words from the Lord: See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.  Jeremiah comes with a timely word, a word that is able to change the landscape, to change the imagination of the people, to give them something to hope for, to wait for, to dream for.  God is gathering people from the farthest corners of the earth, gathering people with deficiencies and brokenness together with newborns and expectant mothers, gathering everyone in exile and leading them by brooks of living water.

It struck me, as I was reading this, that Jeremiah's description of the types of people the Lord will gather are people who would have been deemed unclean and unworthy.  To be crippled was to be somehow outside the worthiness of God.  To be blind was seen as a product of generational sin.  To be in labor or to have recently given birth rendered a woman ritually unclean.  And so Jeremiah's words of hope are not just to the establishment, not just to the most well-put together.  His words of hope are to those who have been cast out not only from their land, but from their own people as well.  God is calling together all people, from all places, and will lead them together by brooks of living water.  That is a vision worth hoping for.

An echo of this vision sounds through our Gospel this morning. Here we have a blind beggar, unable to see and reduced to living of the scraps and charity of passers-by.  And he's sitting by the road side when he senses the goodness of Jesus near him.  He begins to shout, 'Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.'  But the crowd silences him.  He is told to shut up, to stop bothering Jesus.  Like those people in Jeremiah, this man was cast out once before and now he's rejected again: 'Quiet. Jesus is not for you.'  But Jesus, always the hopeful one, pushes against their silencing and says, "Call him here.  Bring him to me." And in a beautiful exchange, it isn't Jesus who beckons the man to himself.  Jesus gives the people the opportunity to invite the blind man to him.  The invitation comes from Jesus, but it moves through the people.  They call to him, and now give him words full of hope and strength: "Take heart; get up. He is calling you.' Throwing off his cloak, he springs up and comes to Jesus.  And Jesus, doing the mysterious things Jesus does, gives this man sight.  And the first thing this man sees is the shining face of Jesus, hope incarnate, the hope of the world.

It's astounding to me that Jesus has given us, like those following him, the opportunity to be the bearers of true hope to the world, entrusting this message of hope to us with all of our fickleness and fragility.  So, I naturally begin go think about Trinity on the Hill's messages of hope.  We've claimed as the theme for our Stewardship Campaign the phrase, "Moving Together Into a Season of New Hope." On the surface, it makes sense what that phrase means.  We are moving forward as a parish.  The pages of the calendar are being torn away.  Seconds, minutes, hours, and days fly by as we share life together in this parish.  But on a deeper level, what does the phrase truly signify?  What is our 'hope'?  What hopes do we have as a parish, and what kind of hope are we offering to our city and to the world?  Is what we hope for, the vision towards which we are moving, a vision like Jeremiah's, where all people are invited to come and drink of the living water and be restored by the gracious and merciful hand of the Lord?  Is this a place where the blind and the lame, the well put together and those on the fringes, the faithful and the doubter alike, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor all have an equal place at the table?  Are we offering the hope that Jesus offered, and embodied to the world, that the disciples offered...a vision and a hope that has at its center the phrase, "Take heart, he is calling to you?’  To outsiders, I wonder how apparent and palpable this hope is within the walls of this church.

At our diocesan convention this week, we had as our key-note speaker Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest.  He posed a question that truly captivated me: "Do you have at your foundation a 'Yes' or a 'No?' In other words, are you open to and affirming of what God is doing, of how God is leading you, or are you closed off and narrowly focused on what's comfortable and predicable? In keeping with this theme of a new season of hope, is our foundation one of hope, or is it one of fear?  For our parish, do we have at our foundation the word 'Yes'...yes to what God is doing in our midst, yes to how God is leading us, yes to what God is inviting us to, yes to anyone who walks through these doors, yes to creative opportunities and new avenues for mission?  Are we a parish overflowing with the living water of hope which can quench the thirst of a seemingly hopeless world?  As we move forward together into a new season of hope, the challenge for all of us is to take seriously our role in sharing this hope with those around us.  It may stretch us.  It may demand sacrifices.  But if what we have at this parish truly is the hope of the world, the living water of Jesus, than any sacrifice or demand made of us will be more than worth it.

*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on October 25, 2015.  The texts were Jeremiah 31:7-9, Hebrews 7:23-28, and Mark 10:46-52

Audio version is also available:

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