Sermon, Dec. 6

There are probably a dozen or more people in this congregation who have had this experience in the past 18 months:  getting into a conversation with me about matters of faith… suffering… God… Jesus…  and having me thrust a book into your hands: always the same book – Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic. The subtitle is, “Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.”

One of the things I really love about Spufford’s take on faith is that he immediately moves the conversation away from belief, and towards emotion. He diagnoses – accurately, I believe – that in our post-Enlightenment cultural context, we think belief is something that happens in your brain. That to believe something means that we agree with it intellectually. Sure, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides of the triangle. Sure, Jesus Christ rose from the dead and ascended to a heavenly throne.

Spufford says, that’s not really what’s going on inside a Christian. It’s not that our doctrines, our teachings don’t matter, but the heart of our faith is really about… well, about the heart. About emotion, the ways we experience and respond to the world and other people. That really rings true for me – and I heard it in our focus group conversations about faith in daily life last summer, too. We know ourselves most as people of faith in our frustrated patience as we struggle to deal with difficult people; in our grief and anger in the face of catastrophe and injustice in the world; in the love we give and receive in this community, and the other communities which we call home.

Today’s Scripture lessons point us towards one of the key Christian emotions, an orientation of the heart that makes us and marks us as God’s people: Hope.

Hope. From the German root, hoffen. Meaning, Confidence in the future; expectation of something desired; trust in God. The Latin verb is spero, meaning to hope, expect, assume, await, anticipate.  Our English words despair and desperate both come from that Latin root, spero… to despair, to be desperate, is to have fallen from hope, lost hope.

People often name hope as one of the themes of Advent as a season. Let’s look at what today’s Scripture lessons say about hope, this quality of the heart that I think is one of our hallmarks as people of faith.

The book of Baruch is written in the name of Baruch, who was the assistant of the prophet Jeremiah. Its premise is that it contains the proclamations of Baruch, now become a prophet in his own right, to the people Israel during their exile in Babylon. It’s possible that some parts of the text go back that far, but most of it seems to have been composed much later, perhaps about 150 years before Jesus’ birth. During the brief period when Israel was again an independent kingdom, a time of religious and political renewal, before Rome conquered Judea in 63 BCE. The minds and hearts that composed and edited this text, then, were seeking meaning in the cycle of loss and restoration that Israel had experienced, again and again. Conquest, then freedom. Exile, then return. Destruction, then restoration. Perhaps these words were written in one of the good times, to hold close when the bad times roll around again, as they will, as they do.

The voice of the text explains Israel’s struggles and losses as the result of their failure to stay faithful to their God. Baruch says, You were conquered and taken away into exile because you worshipped other gods and forgot to live with mercy and justice. But then the text turns towards consolation – towards hope. Your God, the God who called you into covenant and made you God’s people,  has not forgotten you, still loves you, and will bring you home and restore you.

Chapter 4, just before today’s passage, has a wonderful refrain: “Take courage, my children, cry to God, and God will deliver you from the power and hand of the enemy. For I have put my hope in the Everlasting to save you, and joy has come to me from the Holy One… Take courage, my children, and cry to God, for you will be remembered by the one who brought this upon you. … Take courage, O Jerusalem, for the one who named you will comfort you. …”

Today’s passage concludes this message of hope: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God…. Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them…. God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of divine glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from God.”

That image of looking to the east for the dawn of God’s salvation shows up again in another text we use in this season –  the Song of Zechariah from the Gospel of Luke, which our Church names as a canticle, a holy song of faith. We’ll hear it next week as we hear the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their son, John the Baptist; and it’s quoted into the bidding to the Peace that we use in this season – “In the tender mercy of our God, the Dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The hope of the Bible, the hope of Advent, isn’t the happy-go-lucky hope of someone who assumes good things will happen because good things always happen. It’s the hard-won, courageous, improbable hope of people who have seen their soldiers cut down, their children starve, who’ve been marched away from their homeland in chains. The hope of people living under unjust and corrupt rule. Dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death, indeed, yet still looking to the east, awaiting the dawn of grace.

The introduction to the letter to the Philippians is another text of hope. Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter – and possibly on his final journey to Rome, anticipating his trial and execution for preaching Christianity. He’s upfront about his circumstances, but with typical Pauline badassery, he expresses confidence that his struggles will only inspire more believers – here are the verses that immediately follow today’s text: “I want you to know, beloved ones, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” And a little later, in chapter 2: “Even if I am being poured out, like oil or wine poured over a sacrificial offering on the altar, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.”

He reminds the people of the church in Philippi to stay faithful. To take care of each other.  To hold fast to the word of Life. To rejoice in the Lord always, and not worry about anything, but offer up their needs in prayer. In short… to keep on keeping on, as people of hope.

And then there’s today’s Gospel. We’ll focus on John next Sunday – John the Baptist, the prophet, the forerunner. I want to point instead to the first couple of verses – the verses which locate this story in time and place. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

Those verses are easy to overlook – let the Bible scholars worry about all that! But I think there’s something important here, as Luke anchors the Gospel he proclaims in a particular moment, a particular situation. God’s word arrives … NOW. God’s dawn breaks… HERE.

And here we are, right here, right now, in the seventh year of the reign of President Obama, when Scott Walker was Governor of Wisconsin, and Michael Curry was Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Where is hope showing up, now? What does hope look like, here? Where are you looking to spot the first rays of God’s dawn?

Our scriptures, our liturgies, our creeds and seasons seek to shape us as people of hope. To plant and nurture hope within us, as one of the fundamental marks of God’s people, a defining and necessary Christian emotion. What does hope feel like, inside of you? What keeps your feet on the ground, what keeps your heart from flying into bits, in the face of the latest piece of bad news, and the ongoing grinding bitter realities of life in these times?

I meant to preach a more concrete sermon than this. I meant to tell you what hope is and how to have it. But when I set out to write, I found that harder than I expected. Hope is hard to define; it resists being packaged or sold.

The early Christian theologian Tertullian said, Hope is patience with the lamp lit. Hope is patience with the lamp lit. Patience… plus something bright, burning, urgent. I like that.

The fictional spaceship pilot Han Solo said, Never tell me the odds. I like that, too.

The 19th century poet Emily Dickinson said, Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul –  and sings the tune without the words – and never stops – at all – And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm that could abash the little Bird that kept so many warm.

What helps you have hope? Most of us have been through seasons of life when hope was a struggle. Maybe some of us are in a season like that now. Do you, like the Book of Baruch, take notes in the good times, when you’ve come through the storm, to hold close when the bad times roll around again? As they will, as they do?

What helps you have hope? I hope that this place – these people – what we do here – is on your list. Helping you have hope is part of my calling, my work, and the work of this community of faith.

I watched something this week – I bet some of you saw it too – that put it into words so beautifully. It’s a conversation between a man named Angel, and his son, Brandon, who is six. They were interviewed a day after the Paris attacks, near one of the sites of the violence.

Little Brandon told the reporter, ‘We have to be really careful and maybe move away…’ and his father, Angel, spoke up gently to say, ‘We don’t have to move out. France is our home.’

Brandon said, ‘But there’s bad guys, daddy. They have guns, they can shoot us.’

And Angel replied, ‘It’s OK, they might have guns but we have flowers.’

Brandon was not reassured; he said, ‘But flowers don’t do anything.’

And Angle answered, ‘Of course they do, look, everyone is putting flowers over there. It’s to fight against guns.’

Brandon said, ‘It’s to protect us?’

Angel said, ‘Exactly.’

Brandon asked, ‘And the candles too?’

And Angel said, ‘The flowers and the candles are here to protect us.’

The flowers and the candles are here to protect us. Not from bad guys but from fear, which is more destructive than any bad guy could ever be.  The flowers and the candles are here to give hope, to sustain hope. So are the bells, and beautiful colors. The songs, and the way it feels to raise our voices together, that’s to protect us too. The bread and the wine, and that solemn beautiful face up there. They’re here to protect us. We’re here to protect each other from despair and desperation, which both mean, loss of hope. We’re here to be made and remade as people who watch and wait for the first beams of God’s dawn, breaking over the here and now. We’re here to be, and become, people of hope.

Take courage, children!