God Asks Us to Choose Hope over Despair

Lament is one of the themes of our scriptures this morning. Lament certainly is a word for this weekend.

Retired Justice Stephen Breyer said “I heard of Ruth’s death while I was reciting the mourner’s kaddish at Rosh Hoshanna services. I thought, “a great justice, a woman of valor, a rock of righteousness, and my good good friend. The world is a better place for her having lived in it.”

Justice Breyer heard of his friend’s death while reciting the mourner’s kaddish. There is a place for grief in the midst of almost every synagogue service. There is a place for those who are in mourning. I want to lean into the wisdom of our Jewish neighbors and make a space today. If you are mourning, if you are grieving, if Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death hit hard, or if you are struggling to carry the weight of the world for any reason or because of the cumulative effect of these days. Pray. Breathe. Lament. Take a moment.

Authentic faith makes room for grief.

Authentic faith has to make room for grief, because grief is part of our human experience. Loss is part of our human experience. Frustration is part of our human experience. If your religion is only suited for the best moments in life. If your religion can only understand blessings and happiness, your religion is myopic. Authentic faith doesn’t ask you to smile and pretend everything is okay when it’s not.

The Bible and Lament

Today’s stories from scripture have another lesson: It is important how we lament. Lament is important, but it can take is in two different directions. One might be called the path of integration, the path of hope. The other might be called the path of disintegration, the path of despair. Both of our scripture stories try and point us away from despair, toward hope. The Bible wants us to make this crucial directional shift with Lament.

Today, from the book of Exodus, we hear the people of God in the midbar, the desert, the wilderness. God’s people are hungry. They complain against Moses and Aaron. They despair, “why did God take us out of Egypt only to let us die in the desert?”

Jesus tells the story of a group of laborers. They watch as a landlord chooses to pay folks who have worked only an hour, workers surprisingly hired at the end of the afternoon, the same wage as those who labored a full day in the hot sun. The workers despair,“How is that fair?”

I would argue with you, in both cases, the diagnosis is the same. The people are suffering a lack of theological imagination. The people cannot imagine what God is doing. The people are unable to see the goodness of God in front of their eyes. They choose despair instead of hope.

Moses and Aaron’s people seem to have forgotten what just happened at the Red Sea. They have forgotten the God who set them free. Either that, or these people have been so traumatized, so hurt, that they cannot yet trust. They cannot trust that God will ensure they will survive. God provides manna from heaven not simply to slake their hunger, but also to repair their souls. God is teaching the people to trust again, to trust that God will not abandon them. God is slowly teaching the, to hope.

Jesus’ story requires a bit more interpretation, especially in our capitalistic society. Even for those of us who argue in the public square for living wages, the principle of fair pay for fair work means we might easily find ourselves siding with those workers who spent all day laboring under the hot sun. If we do, then Jesus’ parable is accomplishing what Jesus hopes. We are there, in the story.

Jesus invites us to expand our theological imaginations. This is a parable, a story about the kingdom of God. This is a story about the grace of God. This is a story about abundance and how the world should be. In the Kingdom of God, no one goes home hungry because they couldn’t find work. In the kingdom of God, God provides enough for all. Jesus invites his followers to see that there is a certain bottom line. All people are entitled to meaningful work. All people are entitled to enough wealth to live comfortably. We might expand this parable and say, healthcare, the ability to go to college, the ability to retire, shouldn’t be bound so tightly to the luck or privilege of landing a good job. In days like these when so many of us are looking for work, surely we can let Jesus expand our imagination.

There is a danger in lament. Unhealthy lament turns to despair. We can hear it in both of the readings today. The Israelites are tempted to return to Egypt, to give up all hope. That is despair. The lament of the workers makes them believe they have been cheated, their despair might blind them to their neighbor’s need that is being met out of an abundance of grace. Despair is a serious risk.

The capacity for theological imagination matters, it does. In order to move beyond petty grievance, in order to move through legitimate grief, we have to choose a direction for our lament. We can disintegrate into despair, or we hold out hope. We can let hope, however small and fragile, we can let hope lead us on to the next day.

Reflections on Justice Ginsburg

I’ve read a number of reflections on the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I think folks are right to say, she wouldn’t want us to believe all hope was lost. Justice Ginsburg, with a measure of grace, humility, and brilliance far greater than her physical stature, worked her whole life to enshrine human rights into law and jurisprudence. She fought for equal treatment for women and LGBTQ+ people. She threw every barrier she could in the way of discrimination based on race, religion, and national origin. Her published dissents were legendary. Her dissent behind the closed doors of Supreme Court deliberation undoubtedly tempered disagreeable decisions. In the Jewish tradition, when someone dies you say, “may her memory be a blessing.”

Memory can be a blessing, because remembering helps us to imagine. Memory helps us hope. Before the Ginsburg argued the case, many could not imagine an all-male supreme court would rule to stop discrimination on account of sex. Before Ruth Bader Ginsburg enrolled, few could imagine a woman attending Harvard Law School. Remembering her work, remembering what she faced down, helps us hope.

The tradition of the mourner’s kaddish that Justice Breyer was praying when he heard of Justice Ginsburg’s death might surprise you. For a full year after a loved one dies, and at high holy days especially, the rabbis prescribe the kaddish. Though the tune is sad, the words are, perhaps surprisingly, full of praise. “Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of God” mourners are required to say. We praise God because doing so helps us imagine a world worth living for.

Biblical lament turns us not to despair but to hope. Indeed lament in the bible is a powerful and strange thing, because Biblical lament always contains hope inside of it. God does not leave the people alone. God does not send them back to Egypt. God does not choose to take away wages from those who need them. God invites us to imagine a new world, a better world, a fairer world, a world with abundance. God turns us toward hope.

Faith makes room for lament, and faith always invites us to turn toward hope. Authentic faith invites us to pray with our feet. Authentic faith invites us follow Justine Ginsburg’s example to use our brains to find new ways to make the world more equitable and just. What made RBG a notorious icon wasn’t cynicism or an angry agenda. No. The justice was a brilliant example of hope and faith. Hope that our world could be better, more inclusive, more just. And a faith that always asked, “and what will you do next to bring the world closer to this hope?”

Justice Breyer said of justice Ginsburg: “A woman of valor. The world is a better place for her having lived in it.” God’s great hope is that our friends will say the same of us. Amen.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “God Asks Us to Choose Hope over Despair

  1. Mike’s sermons have a degree of clarity that is surprisingly uncommon and welcome. Lean on abstractions, they educate and inspire.

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