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"Hope Somebody" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 4, 2016

posted Dec 7, 2016, 1:32 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

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On Thursday night, December 1, several of us gathered with people from many other faith communities to commemorate World AIDS Day and to remember loved ones and friends we’ve lost.  People gathered to share stories of how AIDS affected their lives, both people living with the disease and their family members.  What could have been simply a somber gathering turned joyous in the testimonies offered: light-hearted remembrances, a woman celebrating twenty years living with HIV, a call to action to work towards zero new cases.  I left more hopeful than when I arrived.


And part of the hope came from gathering with people of many different faiths, lifestyles, and races.  Too often we talk about diversity as a problem in this country.  But in the AIDS Commemoration Service I learned for the ten thousandth time, diversity brings joy.


The diversity in the program included various religious leaders.  A Sufi woman spoke of the hope and love she discovered working with HIV and AIDS patients as a pharmacist and Islamic chaplain.  She ended her reflection with a few verses from the spiritual leader of the Shahmaghsoudi School of Sufism:

Hope is planted seed in fertile ground that bears fruit.

In the land of my heart the plant of despair never grows.


Afterwards, I found myself thinking again and again of these verses.  Hope is planted seed in fertile ground that bears fruit.  It captures for me the elusive nature of hope.  For hope is both possibility, a planted seed, and at the same time fulfillment, bears fruit.  It’s this elusive nature of hope that I want to explore with you this morning.


Advent, this season before Christmas, orients our spirituality.  We focus on cardinal emotions: faith, hope, peace, love.  Out in the world, the days shorten, the weather chills, it seems gloomy.  But these cardinal emotions guide us, candles in the dark.  


This Advent, I particularly feel the need for hope’s guidance in an otherwise gloomy season.


Our scripture readings each speak to hope, but do so in different ways.  We heard from the Old Testament: Prophet Isaiah, the wolf shall lie down with the lamb.  And we heard from the New Testament: John the Baptist, the kingdom of God has come near.  


Now I often hear people reduce the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament to a vengeful old God and a loving new God, a mean God verses a nice God.  But scripture isn’t an interrogation trick; God’s not playing bad cop/good cop with us.


This framing of the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament never made sense to me.  Plenty of Old Testament passages speak with profound tenderness and love.  They move me to compassion.  Just think of that near constant refrain of the Old Testament, “remember the orphan and the widow.”  I wouldn’t know how to pray without the Psalms; “The Lord is my Shepherd.”  And the stories of the Old Testament speak to a whole range of human life; the sexy spirituality of the Song of Songs certainly doesn’t sound like a mean and prudish God.


And even more, the New Testament isn’t all singing birds and lovely lilies.  Just to take three issues: passages of the New Testament were used to justify slavery, condemn homosexuality, and silence women.  Thank you, Apostle Paul; and so much for the nice God.


No, scripture proves the truth of what a wiser man once said, “the wheat and the tares grow thickly together.”  Both the Old and the New Testament have cringe-worthy passages; but each one also has stories which bring joy in the morning after dark nights of the soul.  

 

The difference between the Old Testament and the New comes down to something much more subtle than the difference between a mean and a nice God.  Both the Old and the New Testaments look toward the realization of God’s realm.  God’s realm: that kingdom we pray will come, that time of justice, the realm where all dwell together in peace.


In the Old Testament, God’s realm remains something to look to in the future.  We hear it in Isaiah: the wolf shall lie down with the lamb.  


But in the New Testament, God’s realm arrived.  We can hear this in John the Baptist: the kingdom of God has come near.


We need both senses of time.  We need to look towards the future, to sing, “we shall overcome someday.”  And we need to celebrate those moments when we’ve already realized the future even when it doesn’t show in the present.  “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”  


This Old and New Testament sense of time shapes our hope.  We hope for the future; it shall be.  And we have hope in the present; it’s already true even if no one else sees it.


Such hope challenges us.  Isaiah, who spoke of hope in the future, spoke to a nation devastated by war and famine.  Life looked bleak.  We often focus on the unusual animal pairings he suggested; but Isaiah’s words of hope began with a stump.  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.”  


When I look at a stump, I can imagine the width and height of the once mighty tree that stood there.  A stump reminds me of what once was.  Isaiah spoke to a land of stumps - destroyed homes, ravaged cities, once great families felled by violence.  


But still Isaiah hopes in the future.  As one Biblical commentator explained, “According to Isaiah, the transformation from a culture of fear to a world at peace begins with a stump.  Out of something that appears finished, lifeless, left behind, comes the sign of new life - a green sprig.  This is how hope gets its start - it emerges as a tiny tendril in an unexpected place.”


It can be a challenge to see stumps in our lives - disappointments, losses, grief - and imagine new life and opportunity.  But that’s the challenge of Isaiah’s future hope: to see in the stump all the possibility of renewal, to see in the seed all the harvest yet to come.  


John the Baptist, who lived overwhelmed by the realization of all his hopes, faced a different kind of challenge.  Hope transformed John’s life: he experienced God’s realm as such a powerful reality that he could speak as if justice and peace had already come.  


And yet, as real as this was for John, it was hard for him to allow this realization to transform him.  He knew but he didn’t know it fully.  And that comes out in John’s interaction with the religious authorities.  John fled to the desert to get away from the corruption of the religious and political elite in Jerusalem.  But when they come out to the desert to meet him, all John can do is ridicule and denounce them.  The kingdom of God was so real he could almost taste it, but the vision remained unrealized in his own hard-heartedness.  He called people to forgive but couldn’t forgive.  He called people to new life but remained trapped in his old animosities.    


This last Spring our congregation celebrated our 175th anniversary.  We honored the Human Trafficking Task Force for its work to end the sexual exploitation of people in our community.  Dana World Patterson, who heads the task force, received our award.  Recently, I heard Dana speak again about her work.  Helping people get out of human trafficking situations, to escape pimps and ‘the life,’ isn’t easy.  The work of recovery and renewal doesn’t happen smoothly.  It can be hard for those working with human trafficking survivors to walk with people through the long process of transformation.  She said, “sometimes people want to go from the problem to the hope without facing the pain in between.”  


I think John faced that challenge.  He saw a problem and knew its solution.  But he stumbled in the in-between time; he struggled with what hope’s realization demanded of him.


Hope, the watchword of our Advent season, shapes our future - it shall be - and affects our present - it already is.  Hope challenges: challenges us to see blessing when everything looks like broken stumps; challenges us to do the hard work of change when we want to feel it already done.


Both senses of hope - future, present, each challenging - come out in a story the Rev. William Barber once told about himself.  Rev. Barber leads the “Moral Mondays” campaign in North Carolina.  The campaign brings progressive people of faith together to work and pray for change in North Carolina.  


Barber tells a story about his grandmother:  

When I was growing up in Eastern North Carolina, I used to love to sit in my grandmama’s kitchen and listen to her sing as she made dinner. Whenever she was done cooking, she’d give me a plate to eat. Then she and some of the other sisters from the church would make up some to-go plates and, with their aprons still on, head out the door to visit the sick and shut-in. “We going to hope somebody,” Grandmama would say.


Barber knew hope wasn’t a verb - you don’t hope somebody - and yet he knew better than to correct his grandmother.  


In the early 1990’s, Barber’s life changed when he woke up paralysed.  An acute and painful arthritic condition affecting his spine left him unable to walk.  Doctors told him he’d never walk again.  


As he said, “Laying on my back in the hospital bed, it struck me that Grandmama was a better theologian than I’d realized. When no one could help me, I needed somebody to hope me. Only a revival down on the inside was going to change my circumstances on the outside.”


Barber was felled, just a stump like the people in Isaiah’s time.  A stump of a once mighty tree now bedridden.  What would the future hold?  How could he get through the present moment?


But he found people who worked and prayed like his grandmother, people to hope him.  He explained, “Folks started getting together. My doctors got together with the nurses and my family got together with my therapists. My church got together and figured out how to help me get around.  It was a dozen years before I could walk on my own, but the minute I had hope down on the inside and folks started coming together, I knew I had a future.”


Barber now travels the country, “a crippled preacher who found his legs.”  And it happened because somebody hoped him.  Somebody gave him hope for his future.  Somebody helped him work through all the difficulty to achieve it.


This Advent, I realize I want hope to shape how I live.  I want hope to help me see the future that shall be, and hope to help me realize it’s already here.  I want hope to challenge me to see the shoots coming out of the stump.  I want hope to challenge me to do the hard work now.  In that way I’ll live the truth:

Hope is planted seed in fertile ground that bears fruit.

In the land of my heart the plant of despair never grows.


And so I pray this Advent that we do more than light a candle in the darkness.  May all of us find a way to hope somebody.


Alleluia and Amen.




Sources,

  • Barber, William J., “We going to hope somebody,” Daily Kos, Aug. 7, 2016.

  • Feasting on the Word

  • Rab, Lisa, “Meet the Preacher Behind Moral Mondays,” Mother Jones, 2014.

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