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Monday, July 21, 2014

The Measure of Hope

Some experts in the field of behavioral science believe that there is something about our earliest memory that defines us, and holds the key to figuring out how our personality was formed, or explains secrets about the formation of our psyche. There are others who think that with the exception of memories formed from strong emotional events, whether positive or negative, our earliest memories are simply formed when our brains are physically able to form them. They believe that it is simply biology that determines which memories constitute our earliest memories.
Whatever the case, one of my earliest memories comes from when I was about three or four years old. My same-aged friend Debbie Kelly and I had left our little cul-de-sac, walked through our neighborhood, crossed a busy road, and gone to the little mom-and-pop grocery store we were familiar with. We grabbed what we wanted and proudly placed our items on the counter by the door, where we were told we needed money to buy them. We hadn’t thought of that. We re-crossed the same busy road, and were back in our neighborhood before my mother found us. As soon as I saw her car approaching us, I began to hope, in earnest, that she wouldn’t see us or at the very least that I wouldn’t be in too much trouble.  
I have other early memories, too. I remember that not long after that incident we moved away from that house and neighborhood and my friend, Debbie. Leaving the familiar, I hoped I would make new friends in my new home. I remember my first day of kindergarten, and what it felt like to hope that my teacher would be nice and would like me and that I would get to play in that cool play kitchen over in the corner.
When I look back over my life, I realize that while I have many memories, those that really stick out in my mind all seem to be connected to hope. Hope that we would get the kitten I wanted for Christmas; hope that my grandmother would get better and not die (her real healing was beyond my understanding); hope that I would get into the high school, and then the college that I wanted; hope for a future that I imagined, hope for love and belonging, hope for favorable test results; hope for decisions I’ve made and for so many things, both large and small, for myself, my family and friends, and for the world. When we look back at our memories, I think we will find that most of them are connected to hope as well.
The true, deep-seated kind of hope that Paul refers to here is more than the kind of lists of wishes and desires as I just described, however. Rather, it is belief, deep-seated knowledge or conviction.
That kind of hope is a crucial element within our being and is considered essential to our survival. People without hope often fail to thrive, but people who have hope can do remarkable things and face adversity differently.  We know, for instance, that people who have hope who are confronted with a dreaded diagnosis, imprisonment, deep personal loss, or some other challenge, do better than those who lack hope and are filled instead with feelings of despair.
In times of adversity, hope gives us strength. In times of uncertainty, hope gives us courage. In times of sadness hope leads us to know with certainty that better days lie ahead. Yet there are those who subscribe to the idea that hope obeys Aristotle’s “doctrine of the mean”: one should hope neither too much nor too little.
So I wonder how you, in your life today, would define hope. How do you approach hope? What do you even hope for? Do you dare to have hope? What might you be afraid to hope for?
In today’s second reading, from Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Paul not only talks about hope, but he locates and reasons how and why we, as children of God and followers of Jesus Christ, can and should dare to hope. In verse 14 of the reading we heard today, Paul says that those who are led by God’s Spirit are marked as God’s family. We are God’s heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Through this inheritance we are freed in Christ to hope. Because of this inheritance we wait, patiently according to this text, carried by hope, for the ultimate freedom that is ours by through the love of God and the victory of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
But what do these words mean to us today? What do they mean when we hear dire predictions about our economy, for instance, or the state of our medical system, or unemployment statistics? How do these words of hope strike our hearts when our memories are stirred to remember abuse we have endured or inflicted? Where does hope lead us when we contemplate the divisions in families, or between religious groups, or when our political landscape is increasingly polarized, or when we acknowledge that discrimination and prejudice continue to afflict the hearts, minds and actions of individuals and collective groups?
In the past few weeks, events in the world around us have given us reason to pause, and wonder if all hope is in vain. We are increasingly bombarded with news, images and reports that are heartbreaking, devastating, frightening, and seemingly confound hope. When we hear of war, broken systems that cause the victimization of the most vulnerable among us, when we acknowledge the loss of innocence by multitudes of children around the world, including those in our own country who lack adequate protection, when planes are shot out of the sky and bombs reign down upon a land known as “Holy”, when concern over nuclear arms capability and development and when international conflicts continue to afflict so much of the world, we wonder if our prayers and hope for peace and justice have gone unheard.
I don’t know about you, but as I have watched the news in horror this week, I have struggled with the concept of hope. I have struggled with these words of Paul’s that urge us on to patience. I am tired of being patient. Hope seems fragile when confronted with the evil, hatred, violence, and disregard for human life, dignity, and justice. How do we make sense of the contradiction of faith and hope with our lived reality?
Addressing this scripture, Mary Hinkle Shore wrote–
In Paul's writings, "flesh" almost always signifies a power, along with sin, that resists the Spirit of God and that must be vanquished if human beings--body and all--are to be free from what Paul calls "the bondage of decay" and obtain "the glorious freedom of God's children" (Romans 8:21, NET). That glorious freedom is not freedom from the material world, but freedom within a restored creation. It is the freedom of an embodied life that reflects, as it had at the first, the image and glory of God (cf. Genesis 1:27).
In [our text today], Paul points to that freedom and describes what it is like to hope for such a thing here and now. A cluster of words from the realm of family helps Paul describe the freedom that believers have in Christ and the relationships in which they now find themselves: sons, Abba, Father, children, adoption, heirs, joint heirs. The vocabulary describes relationships within a family and a household.
            We are, all of us, sisters and brothers in Christ. We are inheritors of the grace and mercy God bestows on us, and led by the Spirit, we are called to lives of hope. We have hope because through Christ, God has acted to bring about a new age, a new creation, a new world that is struggling yet through the pangs of birth, but will bring to fruition the new heaven and new earth where war will cease, where God’s judgment will be final, and where all the sons and daughters of the one true God will live in eternity.
But that leads us to the struggles of today. Through prayer and lives modeled after Jesus that reflect the hope that we have as the children of God we walk the Way of Christ, one step at a time. The Spirit of God is the power that frees all of us and the entire creation, to live out the new identity that we were given through Baptism as joint heirs with Christ, who suffer living between the memory of what is and was, and the hope of what will one day be.
Shore writes,
The idea is not that anyone (including Christ) earns glory by suffering; rather, as Paul seeks to describe what it means to be a joint heir with Christ, he notes that the joint heir's life is characterized by the same pattern that shaped Christ's life. To be connected to Christ is to know humiliation and exaltation. To be a joint heir with Christ is share in Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection.
          The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God continues to work in, through and around us, building new memory, confirming hope, and through the work of Jesus and the ongoing presence of the Spirit, renewing the entire creation. Jesus reinforces our hope in today’s gospel reading where he tells a parable about the co-existence of good and evil in the world. Jesus acknowledges the ongoing tension, but promises that God’s judgment will remove all evildoers and causes of sin at the end of human history.
Until then, we see renewal and new creation break through every now and then – through the work of advocates for the downtrodden and peacekeepers, or when we participate in God’s abundant acts of grace through contributions of time, talent, money, energy and prayer. When we are inspired through acts of healing and mercy in our relationships, or in our daily interactions with one another; in our daily offerings of prayer and worship; in our sharing Christ’s love, forgiveness and compassion with our neighbor.
Regardless of what our earliest memory may be, may our strongest memory be that which inspires our greatest hope – that God has claimed us, blessed us, sealed us each with the Holy Spirit and marked us with the cross of Christ. God has called us to greater things than we can ever have dreamed or hoped for – and that because of this, we have nothing to fear. Amen.

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