For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
“Hope” is the 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 –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me
A poem by Emily Dickinson – a woman who knew something of suffering and hope. In that gap between the stone walls of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer institute is a bridge. It’s a bridge most people would never want to walk, and if you stand on the bridge and look at the faces of the patients and family members – even the nurses, doctors, and chaplains –there, you can often see deep worry and sadness; lined foreheads, tired eyes, brave smiles. The bridge has that boxy industrial look – wall to wall glass and metal on one side, cinder block on the other – and could be depressing; but it has been painted sky blue and the words Bridge of Hope are over the entrance and this poem is hung boldly in on the wall. As you walk down the hall, you find images of hundreds and hundreds of different varieties of birds painted – from the humble tufted titmouse to the cockatoo; perched on the walls. So many feathers, and an invitation to find a bird – any one, and take it with you; invite it to perch in your soul and sing; because sore may be the storm, but it is hope that will see you through.
Let us pray: God of all hopefulness; pour your love into our hearts anew; send your spirit to alight in our soul Warm us; Sing your song, so that we may hear it, make it our own and sing it into the world. AMEN.
There are so many images of Hope: a thing with feathers; elsewhere in the Bible, Hope is called an anchor of our soul, which I find a helpful image, especially because it means that when we are unmoored, perhaps we can pull up alongside someone with a stronger anchor and latch our boat to theirs for a while; The children shared something important with us about Hope and building on the Rock of God last week in our Children’s Service.
Next week is the final week of our regular Sunday morning services before the Summer. While we are always bound together in Spirit and many of us will hope to see each other at the 5pm services in July, the reality is we probably won’t be all together physically again in this way as the gathered body that we are until Mid-September. As very glad as I am that many of you may find some well-deserved rest as we head out for summer adventures, somehow 2.5 months feels like an especially long time to me this year. In large part, it’s because I’ve gotten to spend more time with you all and your children this year, and I’ll miss you. But I also know, there’s a lot going on in our individual and collective lives; and that re-affirming; literally re-MEMBER-ing as we come together as members of one body each week is a comfort and a source of HOPE. I don’t mean to give it undue weight, but it also feels recently like every week in the news there’s something new in our political life, country or world and seems scary or unsettling. This week was no exception. I pray we’ll have the peaceful, restful uneventful summer we need; but maybe we won’t.
As I shared at the Annual Meeting; that sense of unsteadiness and division in our world, paired with the challenges of life, school, family; made the kids’ focus on the parable of the wise man building his House on the Rock all the more meaningful and joyful last week. Their thoughtful reflections, shadow puppets, art, and songs reminded us that, as people of faith (the gathered body), come what may, we can access that unshakable, enduring, steady place of God’s Love. It is in that place of HOPE – where our faith (be it failing or firm) reaches out and encounters God’s Love — that there is peace; where there are no divisions between us; and where we can find – as Paul says – endurance, wisdom and maybe even glimpses of joy in knowing that God is with us in even and most especially in our suffering.
I love Emily Dickinson’s poem and this image of hope with feathers. But her final stanza reads
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea – (with her so far…)
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me
I wonder if Paul, inspired by Father Abraham, is saying something different. Dickinson speaks as though hope asks nothing of us and shows up as a gift; and sometimes, by God’s grace, it does. But there are other times – particularly in the face of situations/conditions that feel hopeless – when hoping may not not passive; but an active choice and the result of faithful being.
Paul’s letter to the Romans resonates Most of the time, as we know, when Paul writes a letter it’s to people and churches he knows who are having trouble; and he writes as a pastor might to a congregation he knows and cares about. This letter he sends to Rome (his longest and last), is to a group of churches he doesn’t really have a relationship with. These are churches were in upheaval. They had been expelled from Rome; and in their 5-year exile they had become even more polarized about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, particularly in relation to Jewish law and identity. These gathered communities of Jesus followers who didn’t get along, were just returning and reestablishing themselves when this letter arrives; living under an emperor who was unpredictable and increasingly cruel in his persecution of them. Paul himself is getting older, and his chronic illness (some think epilepsy) is a source of suffering; and also frustration in his relationship with God. If God gave him this mission that is so important – why would God also allow this illness that gets so much in the way of his mission?!
It is into this climate of political and cultural instability; to a people polarized and divided; and from a place of personal illness and suffering that Paul sends this letter – to explain his mission of HOPE; ask them to be united in their support. Not for nothing, he gives this letter to a brave woman named Phoebe. Phoebe who carries it, with all its controversy and importance – quite possibly all the way from Greece to Rome – where she likely also the one to read it to these divided and dubious house-churches.
Hope is a thing with Feathers. Some us know the Phoebe as a small grey bird at our feeder, and the Audubon Guide of North American Birds, the describes the phoebe as follows: “Despite its plain appearance, this flycatcher is often a favorite among eastern birdwatchers. It is among the earliest of migrants, bringing hope that spring is at hand.”
Phoebe brings this letter of Hope that Spring – unity and a new way in Jesus is at hand to these churches. And so it is this letter of HOPE lands on OUR doorstep today – this message of HOPE that was just read to US in a time when we know something about what it is to live in an unstable political climate; in a land with deep divisions and uncertainty, and where we too know suffering (illness and grief) in our own lives and in the lives of those we love.
Paul brings his listeners back before even the laws of Moses; to remind us that we were created as a people out of God’s promise to a man who hoped against hope – who hoped against (another translation might be) all reason and expectation. whose faith reached toward the steadfast love of God in Hope when God’s promise seemed impossible. Abraham was not optimistic; but he hoped against hope for Hope’s sake. Paul also reminds us that we are Jesus followers – the ultimate promise that even if things don’t turn out well (Jesus was crucified) – God will be there to make it RIGHT. Love will win. This passage at the end is sometime used in ways I don’t’ find helpful – as if to say we should enjoy suffering because it build character (buck up!). But no, Paul is speaking from experience – saying that in suffering we sometimes find strength we didn’t know we had – endurance – and that in that gift of endurance, Paul has found experiences of God. That word character can also be translated as ‘experience or proof’ and it is in that knowing God is with him, that he has found Hope. God’s love has been poured into him, and into each one of us, and in that we can find HOPE – resilient, defiant, countercultural hope.
This was true of so many patients with whom I walked that bridge of Hope at the Brigham, I did find that so many in their suffering – hoping against hope found endurance, wisom, God’s love and healing – if not of body, than of Spirit.
As we go away this Summer my hope for you is sun and Sabbath rest; but my even greater hope is that come what may in the news or in our personal lives or the lives of the ones we love; is that we will choose to remember what we know as we are gathered here as members of the body today; that we are bound together as one because God’s love has been poured into our hearts and the hearts of our children. And that from that place of Love we can choose actively and with intention to Hope against hope; and then whether hope is as feathers, anchor or rock – that we can share Hope’s song; pull alongside someone unmoored and lend them our anchor; or stand on the rock and offer a sure and steady hand to someone who is falling.
I started with a poem, and I’ll end with another one from the Rev. Victoria Spafford:
The Gates of Hope
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope—
Not the prudent gates of Optimism,
Which are somewhat narrower.
Not the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense;
Nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness,
Which creak on shrill and angry hinges
(People cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through)
Nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of
“Everything is gonna’ be all right.”
But a different, sometimes lonely place,
The place of truth-telling,
About your own soul first of all and its condition.
The place of resistance and defiance,
The piece of ground from which you see the world
Both as it is and as it could be
As it will be;
The place from which you glimpse not only struggle,
But the joy of the struggle.
And we stand there, beckoning and calling,
Telling people what we are seeing
Asking people what they see.”
May you stand at the Gates of Hope, boasting in our HOPE, until we gather together again.