I’ve had the blessing of hearing three sermons so far in 2011 that have challenged my thinking on the topic of hope.
The first of these sermons was preached by Rev. John Caldwell at the church I grew up in, First United Methodist Church of Decorah, IA, the first Sunday of this year. John was preaching on Isaiah 60 and talking about exile and kingdom vs. empire, both of which seem to be important themes in his preaching. John was making a connection between exilic Jews and Americans today. He was claiming that we are disillusioned dreamers, as were the exiled Jews. We have been disappointed before, and thus it is hard for us to have dreams in which we believe. Yet John challenged us that we must still dream and believe in those dreams.
Bishop Peter Weaver preached the second of these sermons at my church in Boston, Union United Methodist Church. Weaver was preaching the day before MLK Day and was again sounding the theme (appropriately for the occasion) of dreams. Weaver, too, emphasized the importance and necessity of dreams.
In her preaching debut on Feb. 6th, (the future Rev.) Allie Hoffman delivered the third of these sermons at Union. Allie talked about imagination rather than dreams, but explicitly connected her sermon to Weaver’s. Allie (taking as her text the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12) asserted that we must have the imagination to envision a better world that is not a utopia, which is no place, but which comes about here in this place. She challenged us to reject an easy cynicism about the world which belittles such imagination of a better world and to be the agents of God’s blessing.
By the time I was done listening to Allie’s sermon, I felt convicted by these three messages. I have to admit that, as John says, I am sometimes a disillusioned dreamer. My disillusionment comes from a couple of sources. One is my disillusionment with aspects of modernity. One of the basic narratives of modernity is the narrative of progress. This narrative gets played out in a number of different ways, but boils down to a conviction that the world and people will become ever better. Science will progress. Liberty will progress. Learning will progress. Peace will progress. Rights will progress. For religious thinkers, religion will progress and the Kingdom of God will come on earth. Darkness, ignorance, suffering, and conflict will fade away.
I have doubts about this narrative. I do recognize that in some important ways our world has made progress in the past several centuries. Modern medicine leads to less suffering and longer life. The place of women is in many ways better than it was centuries ago. African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans are no longer kept in chattel slavery. In other ways, change has certainly happened, but whether or not it represents progress is unclear. Is getting together through Facebook progress compared to when we got together through box socials? I’m not sure. In other ways, modernity has failed to deliver on its promises of progress. The twentieth century was not just the high point of modernity, but the century of two world wars, the Holocaust, and numerous genocides. Poverty, disease, discrimination, exploitation, and a whole host of other causes and symptoms of suffering still exist. Finally, because of its material basis in the unsustainable consumption of resources, modernity has led to regression in the environmental arena.
The second source of my disillusionment is looking at the world around me. I don’t worry about my own future that much. I’ve lived through enough unpleasant things that I’m confident I can live through whatever other unpleasant things life throws at me, and I have enough faith that I’m not too worried about my own death. I do worry, however, about those around me and the world in general. I see people I care about suffering from loss, unemployment, sickness, mental illness, broken relationships, uncertainty about the future, and other issues. And while some of these situations may improve, I know it’s unrealistic to expect these things to cease altogether.
When I look at the world around me, I am aware that, far from the world being on a definite path to progress, there are significant chances that it will become (in my eyes) worse. Workers may lose their rights and students their opportunity to get a good education in my beloved state of WI. State laws may be passed elsewhere that are detrimental to the well-being of women. Budgets may be cut such that those who have the least suffer the most. Women and minorities continue to be discriminated against. Immigrants and gays and lesbians are scapegoated for society’s problems. Starvation, disease, and warfare continue to be endemic in many areas of the globe. Natural disasters threaten to get worse as humans move into more environmentally vulnerable areas and continue to affect the climate. Climate change will likely have increasing effects on the natural and human worlds and could lead to widespread environmental collapse. Increased demand for oil and decreasing supplies of it may lead to global war and/or drastic changes to the way and standard of life we in the West are used to.
I was thinking of all these things this last Sunday in church as Crystal Gardner was preaching about Jesus’ injunction not to worry. I was thinking to myself, “Even if I’m not worried about myself, how can I help worrying about others and the world around me?” How can we dream, how can we have imagination in the face of all of the bad things in the world? How can we have hope, and to what type of hope are we called?”
And then a song came to me. It was song my mother had chosen as the postlude for her funeral, “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Four of the verses are below.
My life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
how can I keep from singing?
Choosing that song was an act of hope on my mother’s part, even in the face of the certainty of her own death. And it was a message of hope to those at her funeral. So I’ve decided that this is what hope is: not the conviction that progress is inevitable, but the ability to “hear that real, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation” and the ability to sing along. Hope is not conviction that things must get better but rather a recognition that they could get better and an exploration of how that might be possible. This definition, of hope leads us not to complacency about a better future that is coming no matter what we do. Instead, it spurs us to action to work toward those possibilities of a better world.
Rev. John, Bishop Weaver, and Allie are right. We must have hope, and this task of hope is two-fold. It is first to hear that hymn, to dreams those dreams, to imagine a better world. And then it is to sing along with the hymn and translate our dreams and imagination into action on behalf of that better world.