Rev. Chris Mereschuk
July 23, 2017
“I am in no way an optimist,” writes Cornel West. “I’m a prisoner of hope, though. Gonna die a prisoner of hope.”
Like West, I am not an optimist. I cannot read the news like I do and come out feeling optimistic. I know too much about the world and all that is going on. But I can read that same news and emerge hopeful. It might seem like a matter of word choice, but optimism and hope are subtly yet critically different. Optimism accepts things as they are – – and how things are right now is pretty terrible for a lot of people. Hope longs for things as they could be – – and how things could be is far better and far greater. Hope is not naiveté. Hope is well aware of the risks and the suffering. Hope is not simply optimism clothed in religious language.
Or, in the words of Cornel West:
“Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better…whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, “It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all.”
But hope does not stop there, acknowledging that “it doesn’t look good at all.” If hope stopped there, it would be pessimism and despair, apathy and inaction. No, despite all evidence to the contrary, we hope. Hope encourages us and empowers us – – compels us, even – – as West says to “…go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever. That’s hope.”
Hope is the willingness and the ability to see another way forward, through, and out. A new and different way of being. And hope is not content simply with the vision. Hope leads you to take action: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual action. Living in the Spirit of Hope ignites a transformation that cannot be undone. I believe that each one of us has that Spirit of hope within us.
The scripture selection we heard today from Paul’s letter to the Romans picks up in the middle of a lesson on what it means to be “in the spirit” and not “of the flesh.” For Paul, when a person decides to become a disciple of Jesus or to follow in the way of Christ, they receive the gift of God’s Spirit through their baptism – – casting off the power of the sins of this world and joining in the covenantal body of believers united in solidarity with Christ and creation, with all of its joys and all of its suffering. Through the gift of the Spirit, we are adopted into the family of God, or as Paul proclaims, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” And in becoming children of God, we kindred in and kindred with Christ, making us (again, in Paul’s words), “…heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if in fact we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
There are spiritual and metaphysical transformations that take place in a person once they are “adopted in the Spirit” into the family of God. Living in the Spirit liberates us from imprisonment by and in the flesh, so-to-speak. Living in the Spirit means that while we are physically present in and subject to the world as it is, we also transcend the present suffering to envision how the world could be. And that is the Spirit of hope. The presence of God’s Spirit and the Spirit of hope within us enables us to see something new, do something new, and birth something new. Being in the Spirit gives us cause to hope for more than we can see and more than we can imagine. The Spirit of Hope enables us to not only witness the suffering around us, but also envision an end to suffering.
Hope and suffering are inextricably linked. The end of suffering is not yet a reality; it is not yet “seen.” If it was a reality, if it was before our eyes for all to see, then hope wouldn’t be necessary: “For who hopes for what is seen?” We are hoping for what we have not yet seen, but what we can envision. Along with God and all of creation, we endure suffering with “eager longing,” hoping for redemption from futility and decay and freedom from bondage. Author Mary Hinckle Shore writes that the “eager longing” of hope is like craning your neck and straining your eyes to see what is ahead, looking beyond the present suffering. Hope sees and acknowledges suffering, but does not allow suffering to have the final say.
For believers in his time, Paul names the suffering experienced by the community, those things that are detrimental to hope and can make us feel estranged from God: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and the sword. We can make our own present day list: uncertainty, anxiety, loneliness, lost love, addiction, illness, poverty, racism, misogyny, patriarchy, prejudice, violence, and so on. All of these very real things bring suffering, and can seem like demons actively trying to squash your Spirit of hope. Yet in response to that very real suffering, Paul reminds us that none of these things – – not one of these things – – separates us from the love of God. Not one of these things nullifies our adoption by God. Not one of these things revokes the God’s gift of the Spirit of hope.
But let’s be real: living in the Spirit of hope is not always easy. When you’re witnessing and enduring the reality of suffering, sometimes it is difficult to hang on to hope. We are asked to “patiently endure” and persist in hope, often while crying out to God, “How long, O Lord must your people endure? How long, O Lord, will the wicked prosper?” It is this eager longing of the Spirit of hope that brings its own unique kind of suffering – – envisioning and knowing what the world could be, even as we live in the world as it is. We live in that often gut-wrenching tension of seeing the reality of the world around us, yet knowing that this world could be so much better. It is in those moments that we need to find grounding in our faith, and it is in those moments where we must remember that we are not in this alone.
Again, scripture tells us that there is solidarity in both suffering and salvation. All of creation and all of humanity are suffering in the same way: “inextricably linked,” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would say. And it is not only all of creation and humanity that endure suffering. We are told that we suffer along with God and Christ. Perhaps more importantly, not only are all things suffering and enduring together, but all things are longing for redemption together, and all things are working and hoping together.
The author of Hebrews counsels us to hold fast to hope, believing in the promise of God’s presence. But it doesn’t stop there. We need not only to believe in the promise of God’s presence, but be God’s presence for one another, encouraging each other, sharing good deeds, sparking love, kindling hope, relying on each other and being relied upon when we are called to share that contagious Spirit of hope.
This solidarity in suffering, longing, and enduring is summed up perfectly and beautifully in one of my favorite choir anthems, “Keep Hope Alive” by Clifford Lee Johnson III:
I’ve been out here many long years
By now I’d hoped to arrive
But I see I’ve got years to go now
And I gotta keep hope alive
Brother when I stumble, give me your shoulder
Hold me in your arms when I despair
And if I fall down on my knees and say leave me in the desert please
Whisper in my ear
Soon we’re gonna be there
Someday we’ll stand in the middle of the promised land
But we gotta keep hope alive
And we “gotta keep hope alive” because the Spirit of hope compels us to envision that another world is possible. We know that another world is possible, and it causes our spirits to ache in eager longing.
We know that children in this country do not have to starve.
We know that quality, affordable healthcare could be accessible to all.
We know that there could be an end to police violence against civilians.
We know that there is a way to protect creation for present generations and future generations.
We know that there can be an end to white supremacy, islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, patriarchy, and misogyny.
We know these things, we crane our necks and strain our eyes in eager longing for these things because we live in the Spirit of hope that causes us to dare to believe that another world is possible – – and we ache and groan with eager longing.
We feel the cramping, the pressure, the excruciating pain of labor pangs, and we have faith that glory is about to be birthed – – glory of a magnitude that far exceeds the suffering of this present world.
But all of this liberation, all of this possible new world, all of this glory will not come if we sit as passive observers optimistically content that it’s going to turn out alright. We must actively hope for the world that we cannot yet see. We must envision that other world that is possible. We must use the Spirit of hope that is within us to make what is yet unseen, seen. As children of God, heirs to the promise of God, we are called, and we are able.
All of creation – – and God and all of humanity along with it – – has been groaning in labor pains, and we are the midwives of hope that can birth a just and glory-filled world into being.