Ted Grimsrud—Sermon at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—June 26, 2016
I’d like to start with a bad analogy; it links having a strained back with having grandchildren. This is how it goes. About 25 years ago, for the first time I got laid up with a bad back. My distress was triggered when I played in an alumni basketball tournament at my old high school. Before that I had never had back trouble and was not very aware of anyone else having a bad back—I would have thought it was quite rare. But then, as I was gradually recovering, people I knew who had bad backs seemed to come out of the woodwork. Many people kindly commiserated with me, sharing my pain.
Then, almost exactly ten years ago I became a grandparent. Before that I thought very little about people I knew being grandparents. Certainly, I knew that other people were grandparents. But I hadn’t felt it. Then, boom, I had this big thing in common with other people—kind of like having a fragile back….
What does it even mean?
So, the punch line to my sermon this morning ultimately will be about grandchildren—keep that in mind. In a sense, any talk about hope comes down to our grandchildren (real or potential, literal or metaphorical). But for now, I want to mention something else about my grandchildren; that is, grandchild #2, Marja.
Last summer when we were hanging around with 5-year-old Marja, we drove by a bright orange “detour” sign and orange road barriers. “What’s that?” she asked. “A detour sign.” “Detour; what does that even mean?” We chuckled and noticed that she was using that phrase a lot, “what does X even mean?” We later realized that her mother uses that phrase a lot, too—so it’s kind of hipster idiom, I guess. As in, “what does it even mean” when a certain presidential candidate says let’s “make America great again”?
Brian asked me to share this morning about the major transition that’s happening in my life. I wasn’t sure how to do that. I decided that to reflect on how, in my first month of retirement, I suffered from major sciatica pain wasn’t exactly sermon material—nor, even, the joys of greatly reduced sciatica pain. So, instead I want to talk about one of the main ideas I’ve been thinking about. This is a kind of guiding focus for these coming years of theological work in my post-teaching career—the notion of hope.
One of the great things about retiring from the Bible and Religion faculty at EMU is that I no longer have to act like I have answers. Now it’s okay to say that a lot of the answers I once thought I had have lost their pull. What’s left mainly are questions. This actually is exciting, not because now I finally have time to find the answers but because I am more free to give myself to the pleasure of the quest.
However, big questions about life can be of two sorts. There are questions asked actually as statements of despair or fatalism—where is God? Meaning: Dammit, God is not here; a statement of finality in the form of a question. These can be “questions” that close doors. And there are questions that open up, that lead to learning and growing, if not solid and absolute answers; questions that begin a process of thinking.
A key for these second kinds of questions, it seems, is hope. We actually do think we can learn and grow, that there is meaning, that better understanding is possible.
So, to today’s question: What does hope even mean?
Let me read three short texts from Paul’s writings. As I read, think about hope. I will ask you to share a word or two of what the term “hope” evokes for you.
It is through Jesus that we have gained access to God’s mercy in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 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. (Rom. 5:2-5)
It is in hope that we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom. 8:24-25)
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now, I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:12-13)
So, when you hear “hope” what do you think?
The Bible and “happy endings”
I think hope is actually a complicated thing in the Bible. Taking a big picture view of the Bible, as I like to do, we can see that the Bible is not exactly a book of happy endings. If hope means “everything will turn out okay,” the Bible maybe should not be seen as a book of hope.
Think of some of the key biblical moments. Moses who works so hard to get the children of Israel free from Egypt’s slavery ends up offending God enough so that Moses dies before getting to the promised land. The people in the promised land end up crushed, first by the Assyrian Empire and then by the Babylonian Empire. The struggling few who survive and continue in the land manage to build a new temple, but this temple—while serving as a valuable locus for community identity—is always a disappointment. In time, for political reasons that mostly served the interests of the power elite (especially King Herod), the temple is expanded. But rather than becoming a beacon of hope, this rebuilt temple again becomes the centerpiece of a great empire utterly dashing the people’s hopes—Rome destroys the temple, massacres hundreds of thousands of Jews, and ends the Jewish presence in the promised land (for a long time to come).
Then we get Jesus—who shows God to us. But this part of the story, too, does not have too many happy endings. Jesus’s life of love leads to the worst kind of death. However, his followers’ despair is turned to joy with his resurrection. But then he leaves. And many of his followers meet the same fate he did—persecution, execution, crucifixion, stoning. And tragically, the “happy ending” of the church persevering is followed in the 4th century by a profound transformation of his message. Christendom preaches a message of imperialistic religion that to this day tends to serve the interests of the power elite and not the poor and vulnerable.
How does biblical hope work?
But still, while not being a book of happy endings, the Bible presents itself as a book of hope. And I believe it is. The Bible is a book of hope. But it is not, as popularly understood, the kind of hope that kicks fulfillment ahead to the next life. The way the Bible’s message of hope works may be seen at the moment in the book of Acts when Jesus ascends to be with God. “Suddenly, two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven?” (1:10-11). That is, it’s time to get to work and to follow what Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). Hope has to do with living fruitfully in this life.
From start to finish, the message of the Bible (including, as some of you may remember, the book of Revelation) is about the here and now, not about “heaven” up in the sky. Hope in the Bible is about living whole lives now, helping others to find healing now.
This is the message of our Romans 5 text about hope. Yes we suffer, but suffering helps us to develop endurance. Endurance strengthens our character. And from that strengthening comes hope—hope based on the experience that suffering is not the ultimate reality, hope based on finding meaning and love poured into our hearts by God’s spirit here and now, hope amidst the struggles and losses and frustrations and even heartbreaks.
I think of my grandfather, the only one of my four grandparents I ever knew. He lost his oldest child to appendicitis when she was a preschooler. Kathleen and I talked with him about that not long before he died. It made me think of that Jerry Jeff Walker song, “Mr. Bojangles,” about the old man who lost his dog and “after twenty years he still grieves.” Grampa teared up, his dying daughter still vivid in his memory—after sixty years he still grieved. As well, he lost the older of his two sons, a soldier in his twenties, killed in action. And a few years later, my grandmother succumbed to cancer. Yet Grampa went on for another thirty years, alone but loving life. I have this memory of him, 90 years old, crippled by arthritis, hobbling outside, then literally crawling around in his yard to keep it beautiful as long as he possibly could. Loving life, living in hope, keeping on.
The greatest of these is love
The famous love text, 1 Corinthians 13, gives us an answer to our question, what does hope even mean. In the end we have these three—faith and hope and love. And the greatest of these is love. It’s as if Paul says here that faith and hope are central, but that their sustenance depends on love. Faith and hope are not based so much on promises about ultimate outcomes, vindication, a final judgment—more, they are based simply on finding love. Live in love now and faith and hope take care of themselves.
And what is this love? This is what I think. Love has a lot to do with empathy. When we love we want to try to connect with others, to try to feel what another feels, to share their burdens, to share their joys. When we want to be loved, we open ourselves to others showing empathy toward us, sharing our burdens, sharing our joys. When we empathize, we share in the pain others experience due to injustice and disrespect (or even a bad back) and we want nothing more, in that shared pain but to find healing, to resist. But since it’s love, it pushes us to empathize with the oppressor too, to want their humanity to be respected, to find an outcome of genuine justice, of genuine restorative justice, where we all find healing.
The thing about this kind of love is that it is contagious. As my favorite heart-on-his-sleeve singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn so eloquently sings it: “If you love love, love loves you too.”
So, if it’s not a book of happy endings, the Bible still empowers hope—because the Bible is a book of love. To evoke Revelation again, we get a sense throughout the Bible of what is explicitly pictured in Revelation. Revelation tells of people worshiping together amidst the great tribulations and traumas of life. Hope in Revelation is not escape from these tribulations but empowerment to love and to be loved in their midst.
So what hope is about is cultivating love. There’s a great song the Irish folksinger Dolores Keane sings for her son called “Never Be the Sun.” You aren’t going to be this all-conquering, person at the top. You won’t be the sun. But you can love. “You won’t find that love comes easy, but that love is always right.”
Part of cultivating love is simply to remember—the moments where we know we are loved. The moments when we know we love. These can be pretty sustaining.
My parents were not very demonstrative in their love, but I knew it was there, always. Still, it’s great to have those few memories to draw on when they did explicitly express it. When Kathleen and I headed to the Portland train station in 1980 on our way to Elkhart, Indiana, I was leaving my home territory for the first time. We were beginning an adventure that did lead back home at times but was mostly going away from home. Just before we boarded, my dad embraced me and spoke quietly in my ear. I was surprised but gratified. Then he hugged Kathleen and spoke quietly to her as well. When we got on the train we marveled at his show of affection. Kathleen asked what he said to me—“”Take care of yourself,” I said. Then I asked her, “What did he say to you?” “Take care of Ted,” she said….So, I guess my dad really wanted me to be okay.
I think the big picture message of the Bible is that love is what brings us together, love is what sustains us, love is the deepest reality in creation. I think of another line from Bruce Cockburn, from his powerful protest song, “Where the Death Squad Lives.” The terrorists he cries out against don’t have the final say. “Around every evil there gathers love; bombs aren’t the only thing that falls from above.” “Around every evil there gathers love; bombs aren’t the only thing that falls from above.”
We see this dynamic even amidst the worst evils. There’s a powerful book I read recently, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz, by Melissa Raphael, a Jewish theologian from Britain. She argues that even in Auschwitz God was present in acts of love and caring. We certainly so this dynamic of love gathering in the face of evil in the many courageous and caring acts during the Orlando shootings.
So, again, what does hope even mean? It mostly means, I think, to remember love. That love doesn’t come easy, but that it’s always right. And that the world of love and empathy and compassion is the unconquerable world.
I struggle to remember this when I think about my grandkids in the darkest hours just before the dawn when I am too often all too wakeful. I worry when I imagine the world they will have when they are my age. My generation has done a piss-poor job as stewards of this “world so full” (from Jon Dee Graham’s song of this name.
I’ve tried, but I haven’t done that well at making the world ready for Eli and Marja and all the other children. What I can take some encouragement from, though, is that I do believe that by loving their parents and by loving them, I have helped a little in making them ready for the world. I have hope that as they go on in life they will not turn away from this world so full. I have hope that they will know that love is always right. And that is something.