THE EXCELLENT WAY, 17: LOVE HOPES
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
February 26, 2017; Transfiguration Sunday
Romans 5:1-5; Matthew 17:1-9
“…we boast in our hope
of sharing the glory of God.”
My wife, Claire, isn’t here with us in worship today. She’s gone to her hometown of Baltimore this weekend for a family funeral, for a cousin. Because she’s not here, that means I can talk about her.
Just kidding. What I’m about to tell you, I could say about her whether she were here or not. Because what I’m about to tell you about my dear wife is something I greatly admire.
It has to do with the work she does. Claire, as many of you know, has a tough job. Like me, she’s a minister, but she doesn’t work in a congregation. Her field of ministry is hospice work.
Claire was a hospice chaplain for a while, but some years back she moved over into bereavement ministry. Her job title with Hackensack Meridian Hospice is “Coordinator of Bereavement.”
Which, I’ve always maintained, is one of the most absurd, nonsensical job titles any corporate middle manager ever dreamed up. Think about it. If there’s one thing in this world that’s utterly impossible to coordinate, it’s bereavement.
People grieve at their own pace. One of the fundamental lessons Claire teaches in her ministry with those who have lost loved ones, is that you can’t rush grief. It takes time. Not only that, the timing of everyone’s grief is different. Just because your neighbor felt she was “over it” after six months, or a year, doesn’t mean you’re going to be.
What Claire coordinates, of course, is not actually bereavement — despite what the job title says. She coordinates the hospice’s bereavement support program. (I guess they thought “coordinator of the bereavement support program” is too long to fit on a business card.)
Well, one of the consequences of coordinating all that bereavement — eight hours a day, five days a week — is that when Claire and I go to the movies, she has a very specific requirement. The movie’s got to have a happy ending — or if it doesn’t, at the very least she’s got to know who dies. (It’s almost a joke around our house. Our kids all talk about it: “Should we go see this movie?” “Maybe. Who dies?”)
It doesn’t mean Claire can never see a movie in which a main character dies. She’s just got to know what’s coming. It’s the not knowing that she finds hard to handle.
Sometimes she tries to figure that out from the movie review. Other times, she asks someone who’s seen it. If all else fails, she asks me to check out the plot synopsis on the Internet Movie Database, and fill her in.
A happy ending, though, is best of all.
Isn’t that what we all want out of life: a happy ending? Of course we do.
If you turn to the Bible, though — especially the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures — you quickly realize that’s a tall order. Take the book of Ecclesiastes, for instance. “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” [1:2-3]
Well, the “Teacher” who wrote those gloomy words, a man named Koheleth, answers his own question: “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind. I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me..” [2:17-18]
Well, thank you, Mr. Sunshine! Reminding us of our own death!
In truth, though, it is wisdom to know “who dies” — and to know the answer to that question is, “All of us.” Once you know how the movie ends, you might actually enjoy it.
There’s scant comfort, though, in the book of Ecclesiastes — as wise as that ancient philosopher is. To find some real comfort, you’ve got to look elsewhere in the scriptures.
The New Testament, of course, offers us the hope of eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s as it says in our sermon text for today, Romans 5:5: “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
Another good place to look is 1 Corinthians 13, that great “hymn to love” we’ve been examining lo, these many weeks. In verse 7 it says, “Love…hopes all things.” The Apostle Paul seems to be saying that, if we can just get love right, hope will follow.
So, what is it about love that leads to hope?
There’s an example in one of those movies my wife doesn’t like to see. It’s a story where many, many people die: a story that’s truly dark and depressing, but that also contains within it a stubborn hope.
The movie I’m talking about is Schindler’s List, that film starring Liam Neeson, about the World War 2-era German businessman, who rescues hundreds of Jews from death in the Nazi concentration camps.
Early on in that movie, there’s a scene that takes place in a railway station. Oskar Schindler’s standing on the platform, talking to some Nazi military officers, when a train pulls up. It’s a train of cattle cars, but it’s not cattle that are in them. It’s human beings, the refuse of the Third Reich: Jews and Gypsies and gays and the developmentally disabled — all the sorts of people whose lives counted for nothing under that fascist government.
It’s a scorching hot day, and the people crammed into those cattle cars have no water. They’re crying out piteously to the people on the platform, reaching their hands through the slats in the cars, saying, “Please, just give us some water!”
Next to the platform is a fire hose. Without asking anyone’s permission, Oskar Schindler picks up the hose, turns it on, and starts spraying the railway cars. He aims the stream high up, so the water drips down into the cars, soaking the people inside, but cooling them off. They cup their hands and drink.
Just then, a Nazi officer walks over to Schindler and says something very interesting: but also very chilling, from a moral standpoint. “You should not do that,” he says. “That would give them hope. And that would be very cruel.”
It’s just about the most jaded, callous remark anyone could possibly make. Imagine it: calling hope “cruel!” How can it ever be cruel to give someone hope?
What truly does give the people in those railway cars hope is the small act of mercy Schindler does for them. Later on in the film he’ll do so much more — diverting hundreds of concentration-camp inmates from certain death — but for now, his moral imagination is just starting to awaken, and this is all he can manage.
What Schindler does for them is an act of love. The water refreshes their bodies, of course, but what refreshes their hope is the realization that someone cares. Someone loves them enough to answer their plaintive cries. “Love…hopes all things.”
Today’s Transfiguration Sunday, and that story I read for you today from the Gospel of Matthew is very much a story of hope.
I don’t imagine Peter, James and John had any idea what they were in for as they climbed the mountain with Jesus. Matthew says “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” It was a mighty sign, a manifestation, of Jesus’ true nature as son of God.
As if there were any doubt, there’s yet another indication of how special he is. Moses and Elijah appear beside him — the greatest of the Hebrew prophets.
Then, a “bright cloud” descends upon them. You all probably saw the fog that hung over this area yesterday: how mysterious everything looked. Now, imagine that this cloud was glowing with celestial light, a little bit of the Milky Way descended to earth.
And there’s the voice, coming out of the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Did Jesus just get a direct personal endorsement from the Creator of heaven and earth? Indeed he did! How terrifying to hear that voice, the same one that had said “Let there be light!” and there was light!
Those three disciples are down on the ground in a flash, prostrating themselves, pressing their faces into the dirt.
The next thing they hear is not that booming voice, but the ordinary voice of Jesus. He touches them gently and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
It’s the same thing he says to you and me, in those moments in life when we’ve been knocked down, dragged out, overwhelmed by some crisis or another. Our fears have gotten the better of us, and hope is in short supply. We’re hugging the earth for dear life. “Get up,” he says. “Get up and do not be afraid.”
In order for us to recover our hope, we must obey. We must start by getting up — as difficult as that is to do.
Some of you, I know, have had physical therapy before. Maybe it was after an operation, or an accident. You’ve been in bed for a while, and the therapist comes into the hospital room and tells you to swing your legs over the side of the bed and stand up.
“No, I can’t do that,” you respond. “I’m not ready. It’s too soon.”
“It’s not too soon. I’ve seen many cases just like yours. You’ve got to get up, here and now, and start claiming your healing. It’s the only way.”
Well, maybe the therapist doesn’t use those exact words, but that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Somewhere deep within yourself you’ve got to find the hope to get up and do it.
But you don’t have the hope within yourself — or, at least you don’t think you do. What you need is a hope transfusion, from someone else. That “someone else” is your therapist. The instruction to stand up may sound presumptuous, even harsh, but it’s an act of love.
There are two very common misconceptions about hope. Some of us chase after hope as though it were a feeling. Others of us try to break it out and use it like a wish. In fact, it’s neither feeling nor wish.
First, let’s dispose of this mistaken idea that hope is a feeling, an emotion.
“I’m not feeling very hopeful today,” someone may say. It’s as though hope is a transient mental state, something that just washes over us. Hope, in this way of thinking, is a first cousin to happiness. Some days we feel happy. Other days, we don’t. Some days we may feel hopeful. Others, not so much.
To look at hope that way is to abandon any sense that you or I are responsible for it. If hope is an emotion, it just comes and goes, like the wind.
But that’s not how it is. Hope can be nurtured and cultivated. It can be exercised, like a muscle. And the more we intentionally work it, the stronger it gets.
What we’re doing together this morning — worship — is one important means by which hope is nourished. As with any exercise, you’ve got to do it regularly. Christmas and Easter are great festivals of hope, but their positive effect doesn’t last all through the year. There’s something about that rhythm, that discipline, of weekly worship — laying down our burdens in the prayer of confession, hearing and pondering God’s Word in scripture and sermon, praying for God’s activity in the lives of others and the whole world, and simply losing ourselves in praise — that gradually, over the course of weeks and months, strengthens that hope muscle.
Another misconception is that hoping is very similar to wishing. We often use the words interchangeably: “I hope I get that promotion at work” and “I wish I’d get that promotion.” To a lot of people, they mean pretty much the same thing.
But that really sells hope short. “Wishing,” says Eugene Peterson, “projects what we want or think we need into the future. Just because we wish for something good or holy we think it qualifies as hope. It does not.”
“Wishing” — he continues the comparison — “extends our egos into the future; hope grows out of our faith. Hope is oriented toward what God is doing; wishing is oriented toward what we are doing…. Wishing is our will projected into the future, and hope is God’s will coming out of the future.”
Do you get the distinction? It’s subtle, but important.
“To cultivate hope,” Peterson concludes, “is to suppress wishing — to refuse to fantasize about what we want, but live in anticipation of what God is going to do next.”
One of the best ways to get our exercise in is not to try to go it alone all the time, but to rely on someone else to help us do it. Maybe it’s a trainer down at the gym. Or maybe it’s a friend we call up and say, “Hey, let’s walk the boardwalk.” Having someone else as a partner makes it easier.
When Paul says, “Love… hopes all things,” he’s saying something very much like that. One of the best ways to cultivate hope is to position ourselves near hopeful people. Hope is contagious. It rubs off on us.
This is especially true of our intimate relationships. In marriage, in family, in friendships, you and I can serve as personal trainers of those we love, helping them to practice the essential exercises to become more hopeful. If someone we love is feeling discouraged, we can lift them up. We can fulfill the same essential role Jesus did for this three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration: saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
There’s a scene in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when Frodo, the ringbearer, is feeling low and is doubting whether he can make it all the way to Mount Doom, to cast the ring of power into the volcano. Fortunately, he’s got his good friend Sam Gamgee with him, who offers some much-needed words of encouragement:
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.
What are we holding onto, Sam?
That there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
Indeed, there is much good in the world that’s worth fighting for, and our task as disciples of Jesus is to do just that. We do that by loving one another, as Christ has loved us.
Let us pray:
We thank you, God, for this precious gift of hope:
the hope we receive from you, through Jesus Christ,
the hope we pass on to others.
So nourish our faith and our love
that we become people of hope,
to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.