When Hope is Justified

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For Christians, hope is not the same as optimism. Hope requires more than happy thoughts. Hope takes time. Hope is a transformative, radical, joyful, non-violent protest against everything that attempts to destroy and divide. And yes, at this time in history, hope is justified.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

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Suffering,—>Endurance—>Character—>Hope

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.

Hope is the goal of these five verses from Romans, but what does the author, Paul, mean by hope? The New Testament[1] concept of hope is layered. Hope is a positive effect. Hope is not longing and whining. In all New Testament instances but one, hope is used to bless (rather than curse). Hope welcomes the future. Hope in ancient Greek is elpis. In Greek mythology, Elpis is the personification of expectation and hope, depicted as a young woman carrying either flowers or the horn of plenty. The Greek personification of hope/elpis is like a Calvary deacon bringing you flowers in the hospital, or chocolate.

Hope always includes expectation, patience and my least favorite aspect, waiting. I got tired of waiting a long time ago. It’s too easy to get discouraged while waiting, but hope does not disappoint, nor does will hope put anyone to shame. The opposite of hope is despair but also bitter despair. Bitterness, it’s an epidemic, especially among the well-off who think they don’t suffer along with the rest of us. Carl Sandburg wrote that “too much money kills [people] and leaves [us] dead before our time.”[2] Mary Oliver described the sorrow of the rich who are lonely and mistaken. Jesus told the rich young man to use his money to help the poor, but the rich young man went away despairing, the Bible says “because he had great wealth.”[3] Bitterness—and you know what I’m talking about—is a hard trap to unset.

Dr. King wrote: “If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved.…”[4] Furthermore, “[r]ecognizing the necessity for suffering, I have tried to make of it a virtue.”[5]

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint. It’s very difficult to experience disappointment and hope at the same time. Please don’t take that as a challenge.

God the Spirit & God the Father

The Ruach haKodesh, aka the Holy Spirit, pours love into our hearts, says Paul, because God’s love exceeds every circumstance. God loves us like a mother loves, and, make no mistake on this Fathers Day, God loves us like a father.

Every blessed day, I go to work to put food of the table, and I bust my hump for the sake of my children’s future, and what do I get in return? A bunch of nagging and whining and gimme gimme gimme. Ingrates! They disappoint me, but I love ‘em. They make me crazy, and I love ‘em. Can’t help myself. I love every last one of them.

And that’s how God is like a father, at least in my mind. Of course, the poem Derek shared[6] could just as easily been a mother seeing her daughter nearing womanhood, or speaking to her son, or to the trans-gender-fluid-queer-nonbinary neighbor’s kid.

 

A Story for Fathers Day

When I was born, my father was still driving the brick truck, delivering bricks made from the hills of shale that surrounded our community in the foothills of Appalachia. I was born a month early by emergency c-section, and when my father finally got the brick truck parked at the Rome (Georgia) Hospital, he was so excited he hit his head getting out of the truck and almost knocked himself out. Fast forward 25 years, after he’d been diagnosed and told to get busy on his bucket list, we flew to Washington DC, his first and only time to fly, and we walked as much as his ailing body would allow. We stopped to rest many times. I didn’t understand what he was going through. He was suffering, every day a little more.

His doctors told him that he had a few months to live, that he should get his affairs in order. He started attending church every week, but church had been mostly my domain. Now, my father was there. Weird. My father always prayed before every meal, but since cancer he started raising his hands in a position like this [orans[7] gesture]. This made my mother and I a bit nervous. We were sophisticated hillbillies. She was the salutatorian of her graduating class, and I, well, I was studying to become a concert pianist that would tour the world with Beethoven and Chopin, changing the lives of all who might experience my greatness.

 

Suffering

Twenty more years later, I studied Buddhism, and my father’s suffering started to make sense. Although Christianity teaches original sin as the source of our suffering, the Buddhists teach dukkha: all of life is suffering.[8] It is everywhere, every day. Suffering begins by waking up to the realization that we are locked into an existence governed by time. Buddhism helped me to see how every living thing is swimming upstream, like salmon journeying through the river of time.

In Malawi, designated villagers come to witness the birth of every child, and, ceremonially, they weep and wail for all the suffering that newborn will experience over its lifetime. What we do with life’s inherent pain is what Paul is going on about in today’s lesson. My father, encouraged by his strong older sisters, chose to persevere, enrolling in medical trials. The few months he was given lasted for six years. No one defeats suffering, but there is a footprint on the buttocks of time, and underneath is written “Donald Floyd was here.”

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.

 

Romans 5:1-5

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God…” The New Interpreter’s Bible[9] points out that other sources that put it this way: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, let us have peace with God. Do you hear the difference? In the first, peace is bestowed. In the second, peace is up to us to choose. Let us have peace with God. This alternative reading of Romans teaches us that peace is actually our choice.

The Pope weighed in on the matter of human agency recently by changing the Lord’s Prayer. The phrase “lead us not into temptation” will now be “do not let us fall into temptation.” Why? The Pope explains, “I am the one who falls; it’s not [God] pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that, a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, [temptation is Satan’s] department.”[10]

 

Abuse & Equality

Lately, the Southern Baptists are living temptation writ large with sexual abuse coverups and flagrant discrimination. TV Christians like Pat Robertson and Billy Graham, Jr. are not at all at peace now that an out gay Episcopalian is running for president. Mayor Pete is able to out argue them on things biblical and theological—and in several languages. LGBT people have to display our credentials more often, remind people that we are God’s children too and endure wackadoodle insults from people who are threatened and trying to justify their meanness through scripture. It’s exhausting, but endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.

 

Welcoming the Stranger[11]

When the president famously said that immigrants “are not people, they are animals”[12] he is revealing his intention to discriminate on the basis of race.

Recently, a Honduran asylum-seeker, on his way to work, walked past this church. He saw our sign: Refugees and Immigrants Welcomed Here, and the image of Jesus, Mary and Joseph headed to Egypt to seek asylum. The Honduran man walked into Calvary and, in Spanish solamente, asked Mike Schlatter at the front desk about our banner. Now, Mike has a heart the size of this sanctuary, so he did not turn the stranger away. Mike connected him with Robin Morjikian, Calvary’s development director, who connected him with our Sanctuary Team and the pastoral staff. On Wednesday, a group of Calvary people accompanied the man and his teenage son to federal immigration court. There we were: Robin, Priscilla, Stephanie, and Nancy Caton even dropped what she was doing to come and translate for us.

Here’s what we experienced, a glance into the system. When you enter this country from the south as an asylum-seeker, the US government straps an ankle monitor to you. One woman asked the judge, through the court’s interpreter, how long she would have to wear the ankle bracelet. The judge referred her back to her deportation officer. So, the woman left with her children in her arms wearing a government issue ankle monitor because God’s people are being treated like animals. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character. The judge was kind and direct, and she told each of the defendants something like this:

 

The government of this country believes you have entered illegally. This is your removal proceeding. You must hire your own lawyer. The court will not appoint one. The court gave you a list of agencies that provide legal support, and these agencies are overloaded. You must call these agencies every day and at different times of the day in order to secure legal assistance. Your court date is August 1. If you do not acquire a lawyer by then, you must still appear in this court to stand trial. If you do not appear, we will try you anyway.[13]

 

Her courtroom was overflowing, her stress and professionalism punctuated by moments of motherly concern for the parents and children in front of her. As our Honduran friend and his teenage son sat at the defendants’ table, no lawyer, it struck me: now that’s a father. Afterwards, in Calvin Hall, we ate sandwiches from The Mayflower Market and Facetimed with the rest of his family—beautiful, loving, people, full of hope. They’re coming to be with their father and the eldest son, and we will help them. He expressed his thanks to us for accompanying him and his son. Speaking on your behalf, I told them “you’ve got people. We will help as much as we can.”

Refugees and asylum-seekers are coming to this country to escape violence. Of course there are bad apples, but they don’t spoil the whole bunch. The USA is treating a whole population like animals. But because of their faith in God, their suffering produces endurance, and their endurance produces character, and their character produces hope—hope not only in this country but in the people of San Francisco, California and hope in you, the people of Calvary Presbyterian Church because we mean to transform lives for Jesus Christ. We exist to inspire and to nurture. Jesus Christ at work in you, and, by answering the call to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God we choose hope, and hope will not disappoint us.
Amen.

 

Affirmation of Faith

We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life. The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church. In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to unmask idolatries in Church and culture to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”[14]

______

 

Poem: “A father sees his son” from Good Morning, America by Carl Sandburg (1928)

A father sees his son nearing manhood.

What shall he tell that son?

‘Life is hard; be steel; be a rock.’

And this might stand him for the storms

and serve him for humdrum monotony

and guide him among sudden betrayals

and tighten him for slack moments.

‘Life is a soft loam; be gentle; go easy.’

And this too might serve him.

The growth of a frail flower in a path up

has sometimes shattered and split a rock.

A tough will counts. So does desire.

So does a rich soft wanting.

Without rich wanting nothing arrives.

Tell him too much money has killed men

and left them dead years before burial.

Tell him time as a stuff can be wasted.

Tell him to be a fool every so often

and to have no shame over having been a fool

yet learning something out of every folly

hoping to repeat none of the cheap follies

thus arriving at intimate understanding

of a world numbering many fools.

Tell him to be alone often and get at himself

and above all tell himself no lies about himself

whatever the white lies and protective fronts

he may use against other people.

Tell him solitude is creative if he is strong

and the final decisions are made in silent rooms.

Tell him to be different from other people

if it comes natural and easy being different.

Let him have lazy days seeking his deeper motives.

Let him seek deep for where he is a born natural.

Then he may understand Shakespeare

and the Wright brothers, Pasteur, Pavlov,

Michael Faraday and free imaginations

Bringing changes into a world resenting change.

He will be lonely enough

to have time for the work

he knows as his own.

 

[1] In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament hope means waiting for, trusting, believing, holding on (to a lifeline), waiting expectantly in disappointment, to stretch out the mind in a straight line toward what is longed for, to watch
[2] See the Good Morning, America excerpt at the end of this sermon.
[3] Mark 10:17-24
[4] Thomas L. Hoyt Jr., “Romans” in True to Our Native Land: an African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 256. (Quoting MLK’s “Suffering and Hope” via A Testament of Hope, Harper & Row,1986.)
[5] Ibid.
[6] See end of sermon for the excerpt from Carl Sandburg’s Good Morning, America “A father sees his son…”
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orans
[8] https://encyclopediaofbuddhism.org/wiki/Dukkha
[9] The New Interpreters Bible: NRSV with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), pp. 2016-2017.
[10] “Pope Francis Has Changed the Lord’s Prayer” Relevant Magazine, June 5, 2019, accessed online at <https://relevantmagazine.com/god/pope-francis-has-changed-the-lords-prayer/?fbclid=IwAR3QbXv0PiBlTAeoB3ieMGIL0WId11IpV2h5VVnWHtvSirn8pQE3opJ5wks> (June 5, 2019)
[11] Deuteronomy 10:19 “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
[12] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/05/16/trump-immigrants-animals-mexico-democrats-sanctuary-cities/617252002/
[13] What my 55-year-old brain remembers
[14] from A Brief Statement of Faith, a creed (confession of faith), Presbyterian Church (USA), adopted 1981.

 

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