A couple weeks ago, someone at one of my recovery meetings realized that I was a priest and pastor and asked me, “Hey, you have such a great personality, I’ll bet you give some amazing motivational sermons!” I laughed and said, “No way!”
That’s because my Pentecost sermon was titled, “Your Life is Hopeless and You’ll Be Dead Soon.” I realize you’re thinking I must’ve sustained a severe concussion, but I haven’t. Actually, I’m keeping a promise I made to Archbishop Philip on ordination day, namely, that I would speak only the truth of the Gospel as I understood it and never offer people illusory hope.
I love our second reading today from Paul to the church at Rome. Specifically I love that he speaks of the groaning of women in labor and of the spirit interceding in our weakness with sighs too deep for words. One reason I love the phrase so much is that I suspect that those sighs too deep for words are not unlike the sounds we hear sometimes on Sundays as we share our prayer concerns. I know I myself have made involuntary noises as tragic news was reported and prayers were requested for someone in dire need.
For myself, I generally pray for people’s highest good rather than for specific healings or jobs or whatever. I’m just a man and I don’t see things as God does, and maybe the thing this person is seeking is not in his or her highest good. Because of the way I pray for people, I have more hope than optimism. To be optimistic is to be convinced that everything will be just fine. To have hope is to know that even in the inevitable struggles and hardness of life, that the story of God and God’s people runs deeper than the way things look right now.
Before the disciples met Jesus they all probably felt they knew how their story was going to unfold, based on what they saw and what they knew. Their families also had expectations, so in some ways their futures were already mapped out. For example, Peter was not going to be anything but a fisherman. Matthew was never going to be something other than a tax collector. Mary Magdalene was not going to be anything but a wealthy woman. Then, one crazy day, Jesus walked by and said two simple words that changed everything: “Follow me.” Based on the new information, they felt powerful and on the vanguard of something monumental: the Kingdom of Israel was going to be restored and the Roman Empire undone. But when their beloved teacher was arrested, beaten, killed and put in a grave, their hopelessness returned. Death seems to be a pretty definitive end to anyone’s story…but not this time. Because the story kept changing. Despite everything they thought they knew, despite appearances, there was something much bigger and deeper going on. In the face of brutality and violence, gentle, powerful beauty was on the move, sweeping them up into God’s story. Their grief was very real….but not as real as resurrection.
It’s so easy to see the tragedies and endings and hardship and diagnoses all around us as the end of the story – but like every generation of story tellers, we are foolish to put a period where God has placed a comma. God is still speaking, still writing, still sighing, still loving us (and all creation) into redemption.
This makes us a little cray-cray, really, because for Christians the story is never really finished. We’re the ones for whom there is always something more. In the midst of our suffering, there is always more. When we lose all hope and don’t know how we’ll face tomorrow, there is always more. When nothing happens the way we had planned, there is always more. When we feel powerless and scared, there is always more.
Why is this so?? Because after the humiliation and suffering of the cross – there was more – after he was laid in a tomb there was more – and after people’s heads caught fire on Pentecost and their tongues started speaking in new languages, there was MORE. That’s because we base our hope, not on our own power, not on the Dow Jones, not on how awesome our Miata convertible is, not on our own goodness, but on the God of an empty tomb. THAT is the story we keep telling. THAT is the story we keep living: birth and death, resurrection and ascension and the Spirit.
Our sacred texts begin with Genesis, the beginning. They end with Revelation, the ending. And in the middle is the Book of Acts, which is unfinished. We are in the middle of this story still being written and that’s where our hope resides. And to be clear, when I say that after Pentecost there was more, in all fairness you should know that doesn’t means a happily ever after ending. Happily ever after is optimism gone over the top. After the disciples received the Holy Spirit, as recorded in Acts, things didn’t exactly work out great for them. There were imprisonments and shipwrecks and persecution and death. Not exactly the kind of life a sane person would actually hope for! But they were on to something, something that ran deep. They had found HOPE.
These early disciples did not judge their lives and their relationship with God according to how awesome things looked in the moment. They knew that no matter what, the story wasn’t finished. That’s real faith and real hope.
I learned a few months ago when my Aunt Janice was dying the meaning of hope. She was woman of deep faith and great love; in some ways she was a victim of her abuser from her childhood and as a result she never had a husband or children of her own. She knew at the end that she was dying, but I saw her facing death with hope, not with optimism. Optimism would’ve had her thinking that some miracle treatment would be found to stop her major organs from shutting down. Hope, on the other hand, meant that there was more. She knew that death did not mean her story was finished.
Today we are welcoming a very young girl into the family of faith through the Sacrament of Baptism. And it is perhaps in these juxtapositions: the moments of my 80 year old aunt and the moments facing a 3 year old girl—these moments of birth and death—when we are closest to God’s story. In these moments of first and last breaths, our petty stories disappear. When our favorite aunt is dying the fact that my brother still owes me money doesn’t matter. When the groans of a laboring mother turn into the cries of newborn, the fact that we’re behind on our rent just doesn’t matter.
We think everything is so permanent, when really they’re temporary. Our health, our relationships, our wealth, our ability to drive and read and think clearly—none of these things last. But neither do sorrow or suffering. The only constant in all of life’s hot mess is this thing that the Holy Spirit revealed to those people in that room 2,000 years ago: hope isn’t to be found in what we see and it’s not in the things that don’t endure.
So, Archbishop Phillip, wherever you are, I’m still keeping my promise not to give illusory hope. Because I’m hoping in what cannot be seen. Because I hope in the eternal love of God, from whom I came and to whom I return. First breath to last. Ashes to ashes. Love to love. Amen.