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Reflection August 9, 2020
"And Finally: Hope" by - Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
We learn from our brother Paul that faith, hope, and love comprise the Christian character (see 1st Corinthians 13:13). Last Sunday, July 26, we explored faith. Next Sunday, August 9, will be “Love” Sunday. So today, August 2, is hope, number 2 in my “Final Five” Sermons.
As many know, I’m a fan of Emily Dickinson’s words: “Hope is the thing with feathers - That perches in the soul - And sings the tune without the words - And never stops at all.” So, for Dickinson, hope most closely resembles a bird.
Nothing wrong with this imagery! As you know, I am captivated by birds. I can sit and watch my bird feeders endlessly. After my move to Wisconsin, I hope to spend lots of time on my beloved Vinal’s back porch, watching orioles, and woodpeckers and hummingbirds. Birds uplift something deep within me. I suspect it’s the same with many of us.
So back to Dickinson and “the thing with feathers.” Let me quote from a book Vinal bought for me, Feathers: “Feathers are a unique blend of function and beauty. Birds use them to retain heat, repel water, advertise health, protect from ultraviolet light, provide camouflage, and the big one, enable flight. Feathers make flight possible for nearly all birds.”
Let me make this clear: hope is what makes us humans capable of flight. Without hope, our souls would be too easily dashed to the earth. Hope helps us stay warm when the world chills us and seeks to freeze our hearts and souls. Thank God for hope!
Now hope is not exactly optimism. As the spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen answered when asked if he was an optimist: “No, not naturally, but that isn’t important. I live in hope, not optimism.”
No one who knows me well would ever mistake me for an optimist nor would I see myself as a pessimist. I classify myself as a realist, someone who sees what is there. But I would echo Nouwen’s sentiment that it’s more important to live in hope than in optimism. Hope is that thing with feathers!
Hope is pictured in Christian art as an anchor. Hope anchors us and keeps our tiny boat from being pushed this way and that way by the ever-shifting winds and currents. Hope anchors us so we don’t get dashed on the rocks. Thank God for hope!
Let me give a potent example of how hope works. This comes from the spiritual writer Ronald Rolheiser: “In South Africa in the face of racial injustice, people of faith began to pray together and as a sign of their hope that one day the evil of apartheid would be overcome, they lit candles and placed them in their windows so that their neighbors, the government, and the whole world would see their belief.
“And their government did see. They passed a law making it illegal, a politically subversive act, to light a candle and put it in your window. It was seen as a crime, as serious as owning and flaunting a gun. The irony of this wasn’t missed by the children.
“At the height of the struggle against apartheid, the children of Soweto had a joke: ‘Our government is afraid of lit candles.’ It had reason to be. Eventually those burning candles, and the prayer and hope behind them, changed South Africa.
“Morally shamed by its own people, the government conceded that apartheid was wrong and dismantled it without a war, defeated by hope, brought down by lit candles backed by prayer ... Hope had changed South Africa.”
I, myself, traveling many years ago in Ireland and England, had the privilege of spending time with Franciscans who helped bring apartheid to its knees. Hope is the thing with feathers!
Wherein lies our hope? In God, of course. But I contend our hope is actually a tiny fragment of God’s hope. And what is God’s hope?
Let me answer from the South African theologian and activist, Albert Nolan. In his compelling book, Hope in an Age of Despair, he writes: “What God wills is whatever is best for us together, whatever is best for the whole of creation.” (It would be good to reread this quote!)
Nolan continues: “Of course it is not always easy for us to appreciate what is best for everyone. But if our attempts are to do, as far as possible, whatever is for the common good, then (and only then) are we doing God’s will.
Nolan concludes: “Some people will assume that what is best for everyone will not be best for me as an individual, and what is best for me will clash with the needs of others and the common good. This is not true! What is best for everyone is also best for me … The object of Christian hope is the common good.”
Now I believe in our own country we are split between those who cling tenaciously to individual rights and those who promote the common good; as if my rights stand somehow in opposition to the common good. “I have a right not to wear a mask - to hell with the common good!”
Many of us have created a false dichotomy between individual rights and the common good. There is no dichotomy. My individual rights arise from the common good. They are not in conflict. Hope understands this. The common good never wants to take away individual rights.
But, dear Lord, the cacophony coming from so many corners of our country about “my rights” creates a country-wide crisis of community. Hope can’t fly if we set fire to its feathers! Hope can’t fly if we pull all its feathers out!
God’s hope is the common good. Let me expand this a bit regarding salvation. Too often our hope for salvation is really my hope for salvation. As long as I make the grade, as long as I pass the test, as long as I can sneak by Saint Peter, the hell with you, the hell with everyone else!
Many of our fellow Christians cling to a narcissistic, narrow hope for salvation. Where is God’s hope in this? God’s hope is not that I will be saved. God’s hope is that all will be saved.
Let’s hear the anonymous author of 2nd Peter and a passage we will examine this coming Wednesday in our Bible Study: 2nd Peter: 3:9: “The Lord is patient with you, not wanting any to perish …” Not wanting any to perish.
Now, Lord knows, I have no idea who will be saved. But I do know that the invitation list has to be larger than I can imagine. Many want to narrow that list. Let’s not let them! Hope wants to expand that list, not contract it.
Let me add something from the French Jewish woman and writer, Simone Weil, who continues to touch us even though she died at the early age of 34 in 1943. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes about Weil in An Altar in the World: “Although Weil grew up a secular Jew, she was drawn so strongly to the life of the Church that her desire for baptism became almost overwhelming to her. Yet she declined to be baptized, saying that she could not seek her own soul’s safety in any church that denied salvation to those who did not belong to it.” Ponder this - ponder this!
My hope doesn’t lie in religion, any religion. My hope lies in religious people like Simone Weil and so many good people I’ve encountered in my 46-year pastoral sojourn.
Now hope is not always what we think it is. Hope is a sense of expectation, an excitement about what is on the way. Remember as a child being so excited about the coming day that you couldn’t sleep? Maybe the next day was your birthday or the first day back at school or a trip to Riverview Park. Remember that excitement - that expectancy? Hope is like that!
And, as the psychiatrist Gerald May writes in The Dark Night of the Soul: “Transformed hope (true hope) is completely open and free. It is not hope for peace or (hope for) justice or (hope for) healing. It is just hope, naked hope.” In other words, a waiting on God, pure and simple!
Hope is the thing with feathers. Again from the book, Feathers: “It is not an exaggeration to say that without feathers, a bird would not survive. Birds rely on their feathers for nearly every aspect of their lives. From birth to death, feathers are what make birds successful creatures. They spend so much time each day cleaning and preening their feathers, keeping them in tiptop condition. It’s as though their lives depend on it. But the fact is, they do!”
Like our feathered friends, we need to keep the feathers of hope cleaned by constant preening. We need to keep the feathers of hope in tiptop condition. How might we do this? By paying attention to the three top human life-guides: truth, beauty, goodness.
Anything that lifts our soul, anything that allows our soul to take wing should be noticed and thanks be given for it. Let me conclude this sermon with something I will do beginning today. I will try each and every day to do a good deed. I will write down in a new notebook whatever I see as that day’s good deed.
It’s pretty easy as your pastor to do a daily good deed but what happens when I retire from the pastoral life? It’s my hope that by being faithful to this tiny daily ritual, I will keep the feathers of hope in tiptop shape.
A bird’s life depends on its feathers. Our lives, to be well-lived, depend on the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all! Amen! Amen!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor