Where do you locate hope?
I know this is a dangerous Sunday to talk about hope. As soon as I ask that question, some folks here will say “I place my hope in Tom Brady.” Others will say “Matt Ryan.” And most everyone will say, “I’m just hoping Mike keeps this sermon short.” Well…there’s always hope right?
But I’ve found myself returning to this question again and again over the past weeks. Where do you locate hope?
I’ve been thinking about hope as I’ve listened to my more liberal/progressive friends try and gauge their reactions to the last few weeks. “Don’t worry, this new president won’t last very long.” “Impeach him now!” These statements are sometimes serious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but in the spread between sincerity and sarcasm, I hear a sort of testing: “How long?” How long do we have to keep up the resistance? How long until we can stop showing up at protests. When can we stop all this writing and calling our legislators? How long? What moment, what change, will indicate that we’re done? A resignation? The rescinding of an executive order? What exactly are we looking for? Where do we locate hope?
My more conservative friends are asking a similar set of questions: How long are these liberals going to keep this up? Why can’t they get over it? What will be the sign that we were right? What will stop them? These are also questions about the location of hope.
Now, my job is to take a look at Scripture with you this morning, to open up our tradition in the church. I’m afraid our lessons this morning do not point to quick resolutions. There aren’t easy answers. For the Bible, hope is not a short-term project. For followers of Jesus, hope can be built on nothing less than Jesus’ dream. Our hope rests on the kingdom of God.
Isaiah’s people find themselves in a state of grumbling. They have returned from exile, but their cities are in ruin. It seems that God is not hearing their prayers. In the theology of the time, the proper response to God’s silence was fasting. So all through Judea they put on sack cloth. They rolled around in ashes, and still, still, God did not hear their plea. Isaiah gives them a shocking reply:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Isaiah’s people want a quick resolution. They want God to hear their plea, to honor their fast. “It doesn’t work that way,” Isaiah says. You have forgotten your own kin. The people are suffering because the structures of society are unjust. If want God to hear your cry, if you want to “make Judea great again,” tend to the hungry, the homeless, the suffering. Remember the poor. You get a sense of the tradition Jesus develops in these chapters of Isaiah. For Jesus, as for Isaiah, God is especially attentive to the treatment of those who are lost, least, and left out.
So it is no surprise that the Gospel also complicates matters. “Be salty” Jesus tells his followers. “Let your light shine.” These passages are a meditation on the quality of discipleship. What does it mean to follow Jesus? Don’t lose your flavor. Don’t hide your light. The kingdom is coming, he tells them, but it’s not coming quickly. Steel yourselves. Be Salty. Shine.
Last week, as I listened to our hymns, as we read scripture together, it sort of dawned on me again how much of our Christian tradition is built for resistance. Our faith was made for times like these. Christianity was forged in opposition to an empire. When Roman citizens chanted: “Caesar is Lord” Christians responded, “Jesus is Lord.” The great moments of Christian history tend to be moments when Jesus’ movement inspired resistance, from the early martyrs to Francis of Assisi’s stand for the poor, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, to Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, Christianity is built for resistance.
There’s a reason so many Christian hymns found resonance on the underground railroad, and during the Civil Rights era. The best Christian music is written and sung by people who are able to name their present reality, to say: “this injustice is not what God dreams for us.” Jesus teaches about the kingdom, the coming reign of God, the world as it should be.
I said this realization dawned on me last week, that so much of our scripture, so many of our songs, were written for resistance. I knew that resistance was there. I’ve read Howard Thurman. My favorite theologians tend to be liberationists from Latin America. But over the past eight years, I wonder if my sense of resistance grew more diffuse. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on the new president lately. I want to take a moment to think about the previous president, the role of the church over the last eight years.
I confess, when President Obama was inaugurated, I remember worrying a bit about all of the fuss. I worried that we were letting ourselves off the hook because we’d gotten such a man elected. There were celebratory posters and ice sculptures all over DC that January. The DC Metro (Washington’s Subway) even made a Metro-card with the President-elect’s face on it. When we inaugurated the president, it was with great fanfare, huge celebration. At the time, it was easy to see the celebration as a natural embrace from the highest majority black city in America of the first black president. Still, I remember some disquiet in my heart, some of which was there because the president-elect was saying “what’s the fuss about?”
I worried a bit more after the inauguration when the new president was pleading with his supporters to keep up the movement, to call their senators and congress-people. The president asked people to show up, to participate in the democratic process. Somehow it seemed the energy that got him elected dissipated soon after he was in office. I worry that for many of us, at least subconsciously, the election of President Obama served as a sign that we had “arrived” in the world for which we had hoped. Did we get complacent? Eight years ago, did we elect a president, or a savior?
— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 11, 2017
That question may seem unfair, but it gets to my question about the location of hope. I am wondering if some of the hand wringing these past weeks since President Trump’s coming into office has come from displaced hope. It was easy to rest a great deal of hope in President Obama, even if he asked us not to trust his ability to bring change, but to hope in our ability. Still, it was one of my favorite artists Shepard Fairey who created THE poster of Obama’s campaign. The image simply featured Obama’s face, and the word “Hope.” As Christians, is there another way? Could we work with a politician while still locating our hope in an agenda far beyond that of any political party?
I’ve shared with you before the story of the friendship between Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Nelson Mandela, that nation’s first democratically elected president. Both men separately received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in ending apartheid and forging a new inclusive nation. For decades under the apartheid government, Bishop Tutu advocated for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. And in 1990 Mandela spent his first night of freedom in the home of the Archbishop.
It came as a surprise for Mandela when Tutu refused to join his political party, the African National Congress. But Tutu felt that he could not, as a church official, publicly identify with any party, even Mandela’s. For Tutu, the only loyalty he could profess was to God’s kingdom. Until the kingdom of this world became the kingdom of our God, no one party, no one movement, no one issue could define the hope of the Church.
Bishop Tutu’s faith was forged in resistance. He grew up unable to swim in the ocean at “whites only” beaches, unable to study in “whites only” schools. Tutu developed a suspicion of government, even a government run by one of his close friends, a member of his own tribe. When I try to conceive of what Jesus means when he tells his followers they are the “salt of the earth,” I can’t come up with a better image than Bishop Tutu explaining to President Mandela that he plans to keep an independent voice, in case he needs to stand up to the new government for the sake of the Gospel. That’s pretty salty.
So I return to my initial question: where do you locate hope? In the coming weeks, months, and years can we be wary of easy answers? When it comes to hope, can we play the long game? Can we persist against the desire for this all to be over? Can we overcome complacency? Can we build our hope on nothing less than Jesus’ faith and righteousness?
If we do, our hearts will be restless. As St. Augustine said, “our hearts are restless, until they rest in God.”
Placing your hope in the Kingdom of God gives you perspective from which to move. Placing your hope in that coming Kingdom where ALL God’s people are welcomed, where ALL God’s people are valued, placing your hope there gives you incentive to keep moving, gives you incentive to stay restless.
Will your restlessness help move you from sorrow to action? Will you stay salty? Will you let your light shine? Will you loose yokes and let the oppressed go free? Will you clothe the naked and house the homeless? Will justice be the fast you choose?
How long do we resist? Well Christians, if we place our hope in God, we resist until the coming of Christ’s kingdom.
We locate our hope in the Kingdom of God.