My sermon from St. John’s Church this morning:
Where is your hope?
Two years ago we were hearing a lot about hope. One of the presidential candidates’ campaign centered around the word, but both campaigns talked about hope. Hope for a better future. Hope for a quick end to the economic crisis newly looming. Hope for a rapid resolution to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hope for education reform, healthcare, social security. Audacious or otherwise, we heard a great deal about hope.
Sometimes a specific place becomes associated with hope. The Irish talk about “thin places” where the veil between this world and the divine seems more permeable. Sometimes these “thin places” become holy sites where hopes are offered and received. For Luke, the author of today’s Gospel, the temple was such a place. Luke begins and ends his record of the good news, his Gospel, in the temple in Jerusalem. Luke’s Gospel begins with Zechariah, a priest of the temple offering incense, and hearing from God that his son, John the Baptist, will be born. Luke’s last word, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is to tell us that the disciples were “continually in the temple praising God.” For Luke, the temple, the sacred place where the veil is thin, is the central location for offering and receiving hope.
For me the chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary became such a “thin place.” I’ll admit at first, the architecture wasn’t really my taste. But after awhile the grooves and scuff marks took on a certain charm. All of the prayers prayed and praises offered in that space seemed to have worn the place thin. In that chapel thousands of hopes were formed and expressed. For over a century the words on the back wall proclaimed the central hope of Virginia Seminary: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.”
I thought about Luke and the temple on Friday as I watched with disbelief as the Virginia Seminary Chapel burned to the ground. To watch that place, where so many prayers had been uttered, so many hopes expressed, to watch the chapel be destroyed was devastating. Luke knew a lot about what that feels like. Luke’s Gospel centers in the Jerusalem temple, but by the time the Gospel was written, that temple too had been demolished. In 70 A.D. the Romans put down a Jewish revolt and destroyed the temple, the center of Jewish hope. Christianity is a faith born in the midst of desolation. Luke’s Gospel is written when people are still mourning the loss of the temple.
Which makes Luke’s setting for the parable we hear today interesting. Jesus tells the story of a pharisee and a tax collector climbing the steps of the temple. They reach the top and pray VERY different prayers. The pharisee says, “Thank you God for making me so much better than these other people.” The Pharisee has no need for hope. He is self-satisfied in his self-righteousness. He knows he has the right responses, can do the right things. He has no need to hope.
Ellen Davis, a professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School, and former professor at Virginia Seminary has said: “In order to have hope you have to see the depth and dimensions of the problem.” The Pharisee can’t hope, because he doesn’t see his problem. Which is what makes the setting in the temple interesting. The Pharisee can feel self-satisfied because he is part of the “in crowd.” The system of the temple includes a special place for him. Little does the character know how soon that temple, that whole system, will crumble. Luke knew. Luke’s readers knew. They were still disoriented by the loss.
The tax collector’s prayer is different: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The tax collector’s prayer expresses a radical hope. Hope that he will be redeemed. Tax collectors were not popular members of society in Jesus’ time. They were the dregs of society. One of the complaints about Jesus from the Pharisees was: “this guy eats with tax collectors and prostitutes.” So Jesus saying that this guy, a tax collector, is redeemed is a big deal. It’s a bit like saying: “even lawyers can be saved.” The tax collector’s hope for mercy is a big project for God.
Many of you know a thing or two about what hope in God like this looks like. As I’ve gotten to know people from St. John’s over the past year I have heard stories of your encounter with God. I’ve heard stories about feeling overwhelmed by the scope of a problem, the seriousness of a diagnosis. You’ve told me stories about finding resources you didn’t know you had. You’ve talked about feeling God’s presence with you as you faced problems bigger than you could handle alone. I have been inspired by the stories I have heard in this place. This is hope.
Hope begins in the moment when we know the depth and dimensions of the problem. Hope begins when we know that the problem is bigger than we can handle. Christian hope is irrational, not based on reason. Pragmatism isn’t hope. We don’t hope when we know that we have the faculties to solve the crisis before us. Hope begins when we see the problem before us is bigger than we can handle, and we try anyway. Because that trying is an act of faith. Beginning to work on humanly insoluble problems places us in the position to be helped by God.
It takes awhile to get to hope. Often we have to trudge through the depth and dimensions of a problem before we can get there. At the seminary, we will have to spend some time grieving the loss of our chapel before we get to hope. But we will get there. We have to get there. We have a job to do. We have to go out into the world and proclaim that Gospel…to go out there and give people hope.
Christians are nothing if not hope bearers. In the words of the prophet Joel we are people who “dream dreams.” We are people of Good News. We hope because God overcomes problems bigger than we can handle. We hope because God, in Jesus, overcame death. Christians are people of hope. Christian hope is bigger than a chapel. It was bigger than a temple. Christian hope is bigger than immigration reform, or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or Healthcare, or ending a War.
This all makes me concerned about the lack of hope going on right now. We have heard so much less about hope this campaign season, from both parties. If anything today we understand the depth and dimensions of the problems better than we did two years ago. We know now, better than we did then, the state of the economic problems, the intractability of war. We live in a world full of crises, the political, the communal and the personal. In the midst of crisis, Christians have work to do. We’ve got to give them hope.