"The Tenacity of Hope"

Sunday sermon from October 20, 2013
Text: Jeremiah 31: 27-34
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

So, the good news of the week is that we once again have a normally operational federal government. For about the first two weeks of October, as you probably know, the whole thing shut down, the result of conversations between political parties having reached something of an impasse, and I suppose we ought to celebrate the good news of having it back, regardless of your feelings about the political fine print of the compromise that brought it back from the dead. I suppose some sign of compromise or agreement in our political leadership ought to be some small comfort. But I admit that for myself it feels pretty hollow. After all of the hand-wringing over the original debt ceiling debate of 2011, the supposed armageddon of going over the fiscal cliff and the hullabaloo about the fiscal sequester, honestly, while reaching some bare deal this week seems like it should feel like progress, instead it simply feels like intermission before we come back in three months or six months or nine months and do it all again. It feels like we are locked into a cycle of political brinksmanship, each time wagering with more of our country's well-being, each time filling our days with hand-wringing about who's won this round while in reality everyone keeps losing. And frankly, having been locked in this cycle for several years now, and with no seismic changes on the horizon, it's hard to think of why I should hope for anything different three, six, or nine months down the road.

This sermon is about that hope: the hope for something different than the cycle of political destruction we have seen time and time again, the hope for something different than gridlock and apathy and corruption, the hope for something different than this country on this planet in this moment of its history. Had I thought of it in time I would have, in a nod to Amherst County's Big Read of Emily Dickinson this season, I would have titled this sermon along her lines: hope, she says, is "the thing with feathers," and so often it seems to stop in our hearts only for a moment before some cycle repeats itself again and again hope goes its birdlike way. I want to talk about hope; after all, this is a church, and perhaps this is that moment in our week when something like hope flutters through our periphery; perhaps here in worship, perhaps here in this space is when we get a glimpse of hope and we try to package it up and write it down and take it with us back out into that world of gridlock and apathy and corruption and somewhere during the week it flutters off and we come back again. So perhaps this morning I am here encourage you, once again, in that most delicate hope.

Or perhaps hope itself is the problem. Margaret Atwood, in one of her dystopian novels, observes that "as a species, we're doomed by hope," a quote I was reminded of this week in the hands of a writer named Chris Hedges, whom I have admired for many years. I don't agree with everything he says, but he invariably says it with wisdom, and this week upon the reopening of the federal government he wrote of this moment in what he would call the decline of the American empire that:

There is a narcotic-like reverie among those barreling toward oblivion ... They naively trust it will all work out. Absurd promises of hope and glory are endlessly served up by the entertainment industry, the political and economic elite, ... self-help gurus ... and religious belief systems that assure followers that God will always protect them. It is collective self-delusion, a retreat into magical thinking.

For Hedges, delicate or not, hope is the drug that keeps us locked into cycles that repeat time after time; I hope I paraphrase him correctly to say that if only we could rid ourselves of hope once and for all, then, surely then, then finally we could stop waiting for the world to change and start doing it ourselves. So far from encouraging you in your hope, perhaps I should encourage you to let it go, such that we with unencumbered vision might finally see the world as it is.

Of course, despite his anxiety with religious belief systems, I think Chris Hedges and Jeremiah have quite a bit in common. Jeremiah, too, knows more than a bit about the decline and fall of empire. For years prior to the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, and prior to the exile of the Jewish people into Babylon, Jeremiah had been speaking to his countrymen with words not so different than the ones we have from his more contemporary counterpart. Jeremiah has said time and time again that the Lord would come to destroy Jerusalem because of its sins but the people have said, "No, our hope is in the Lord, our hope is of the Lord, we wait on the Lord!" But of course we know what happens. The people doom themselves with hope. Babylon comes. Jerusalem falls. The temple is destroyed. The people go into exile. The prophetic vision of destruction and disaster that Jeremiah had been preaching for the better part of his life comes true true in ways more devastating than even he predicted. Everything is lost, especially hope, and then in the midst of ruin God speaks to Jeremiah with words quite different than any he has heard from the Lord before and I am sure quite different than anything he ever expected to hear: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel ... It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors ... a covenant that they broke ... But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Just when Israel has given up hope, God steps in. When Israel's hope fails, when Israel ceases to be able to imagine anything but exile and desolation, just then, God's hope shows up.

Now, we have to be careful to recognize what God's hope in this prophecy does and does not do. Recognize that it does not bring deliverance. God doesn't strike down the Babylonian army, nor does God rebuild the temple. Israel had spent so many generations learning how to hope in God and expect God's deliverance but God's hope doesn't quite work that way. It doesn't bring change to the reality of the situation. It just brings the idea of something new, the dream of something different. And then, in some of the most poetic language in scripture, God takes this hope, this new covenant, this new relationship between God and God's people, God takes this hope and writes it on their hearts. The covenant of old had been carved out of stone on the Sinai mountaintop. That's the only framework for the act of writing that Biblical Hebrew has; writing is carving; and now this new covenant will be carved into the hearts of God's people. It does not end the exile. It does not restore the kingdom. It does not change the world. But it changes them. It takes God's vision for the world, first carved into the rock at Sinai, it takes God's vision for the world and writes it on the hearts of God's people, where it cannot be sullied, where it cannot be diminished, where it cannot be lost.

This is a vision of hope quite diametrically opposed to the one with which we began this morning. This hope is not a thing with feathers; it is not light and delicate to behold; it does not flutter away at a moment's glance. No, this is the hope hard-wired into the very fabric of the human experience, the hope that we can't rid ourselves of no matter how hard we try. It's a tenacious little bugger. I think every sports fan in the room knows something about this kind of hope. For myself, as a baseball fan, and more so as an Atlanta Braves fan, this is the time of year when I like to pretend that baseball is over. There are still some other teams playing, but I don't like to talk about them. And frankly, because the Braves have been such a failure in the playoffs for so many years, I have developed a rather thick skin when it comes to setting my expectations: just because they make the playoffs, as they did this year, does not set my hopes aflutter. I expect disappointment, partially in the hopes of being less disappointed when the time comes. But the thing is, no matter how low my expectations, there's this hope that I can't quite extinguish. It's the gift and the curse of the game, that even to the last strike, even down a couple of games in the series, even when every rational instinct and logical conclusion tells me to just give up and turn the television off and go to bed and save myself some sleep and save myself some sanity, there's something underneath that instinct, written on the fabric of my soul. It's a tenacious little bugger. It's in it to the last pitch.

And of course hope doesn't change the reality of the outcome. It doesn't bring deliverance. But it changes us. If you want to see what I mean, don't look at playoff baseball. Instead, find a game in late September between two teams who've been out of the race for weeks. There is something undeniably magical about going to a baseball game where neither team has hope; where it absolutely doesn't matter who wins. You can sit back with a beer and a hot dog, you can relax and feel the sun and the wind on your face, you can have a nice chat with your neighbor, maybe make a few new friends. If you miss a pitch, who cares? If you miss a hit, who cares? If you miss half the game, who cares? The stakes are so very low. But if you put a little hope in. If the game matters. If all of a sudden you can see what might be and what might be is good and beautiful and means something, if you put a little hope in, it changes everything. Now, the crowd is off their seats. Now, their gaze is fixed. Now, every moment matters. Now, the crowd is in the game. Now, the crowd matters, because they have hope, Hope, this hope written on our hearts, this hope that God has mixed into the batter of who we are: it is not the thing that dooms us. It is the only thing that makes us care, so if there is hope for us, it is because of God's hope carved in us.

So we now have a joint House and Senate conference committee that will produce a budget outline by December 13. By January 15, both houses will either vote on a finalized budget or at least vote through another continuing resolution lest the government again outstrip its funding. And then, by February 6, they will both again vote either to raise or reconsider the debt ceiling, such that the full faith and credit of the country goes without further blemish. At least, that's what will happen in what Matt Yglesias calls "Fantasy America: nice, clean, easy, and clearly not going to happen." There reality will be somewhat less idyllic. The reality will be altogether familiar. After all, the upside of being locked into a cycle of gridlock and apathy and corruption is that at least we know what to expect. And yet the danger of being locked into a cycle of gridlock and apathy and corruption is that we know exactly what to expect. After years of living out our own most cynical expectations, how could we possibly imagine anything else, without hope? How could we possibly dream of anything else, without hope? How could we possibly get out of our seats and into the game and work to create anything else, without hope? And yet it is that tenacious hope that persists, that tenacious hope that endures, that tenacious hope that is not diminished by the world as it is but imagines with God's eyes the world as it might yet be.

So I will not encourage you to have hope, because the truth of this Gospel is that we have hope, like it or not, written in our hearts. I will not encourage you to let it go, because it's hard-wired into who we are, because we can't let it go, because hope is God not letting go of us. The question is not whether to have hope, but what to do with the hope we have. After all, I think Hedges is right to be skeptical about us. Humanity has a poor track record. We love cycles we can't get out of; we hurt ourselves over and over; we hurt the ones we love over and over; we barely notice the world around us and even when we do we barely care. If hope were ours to keep and ours to nourish we would have left it for dead generations ago. Fortunately God has put it somewhere where we cannot let it go. Underneath eyes that don't want to see and lips that don't want to speak out and hands that don't want to work, underneath all the very broken humanness of the world, somewhere in the very center of our being, is God's vision for creation, written on our hearts. It is the one thing that can make us see. It is the one thing that can make us care. It is the one thing that can make us speak out as witnesses to a vision greater than our own. So thank God for that vision! Thank God for that imagination! Thank God for that hope! Thank God we have it written on our hearts.