An Experiment in Hope
by Louise Westfall
Over 600,000 men died in the American Civil War, our nation’s bloodiest. Almost every community throughout the eastern part of the country lost its own, and burgeoning cemetery plots gave mute testimony to the enormous loss. Soon people began putting flowers on the graves of those who died. Just three years after the war ended, in 1868, widows and orphans were invited to gather at Arlington National Cemetery for a solemn memorial service and to decorate the graves of 20,000 who were buried there from both Northern and Southern armies. Memorial Day began in the humble recognition of war’s terrible human cost and has grown into a time to express gratitude for the sacrifices that ensure our freedom, and to recommit ourselves to building a world in which human flourishing requires not one more death.
I learned recently that Memorial Day did not become a federal holiday until 1971, and was expanded to honor all the Americans killed in battle during all wars. One point three million men and women.
A huge number … yet slightly fewer than the number of Americans killed by firearms in the US since 1968, which is one point five million. [fact-checked by Snopes.com]
This is not a sermon about the scourge of gun violence or even warfare. It’s about hope, and how we can hold on to it even in the face of intolerable realities that seem resistant to change. How can we sustain hope when problems seem insurmountable? How can we generate hope in times when it seems utterly absent? Pearls Before Swine is a comic strip that engages everyday life through the friendship and interactions of a group of animals. I laughed ruefully at one that appeared this week: Sophisticated Goat sees the wildly immature Pig skipping along, holding a bunch of balloons and smiling from ear to ear. “Hey Pig,” he says, “How can you be so happy with everything that’s going on in the world?” Pig responds “Because I never hoped for anything better. It’s the hope that kills you!” In the final panel, Goat turns to cynical Rat and asks “Is he a moron or a genius?” and Rat replies “Go with moron.”
It’s the hope that kills you! Is it better to let go of ideals and expectations so you won’t be disappointed and defeated? You may end up a moron, but at least you’ll be a happy moron. Hope seems in short supply these days. Whether it’s the 24-hour news cycle, the bitter polarization within our nation, fears about terrorism and the nuclear powers, economic collapse, environmental cataclysm, or maybe the enormity of a problem like gun violence that we seem unable to change or a personal rough patch that has knocked the wind out of your sails … there is a certain resignation much in evidence that curdles hope and makes it an object of scorn or ridicule.
But truly, can anyone live -- really live -- without hope? Without a feeling that the spinning world is moving toward a better future?
That your own life has a purpose that is good and continually improving? Hope makes heartbreak endurable. It’s hope that helps us go deep into profound losses and emerge stronger. I marveled at one particular African-American spiritual we sang last Sunday at Peoples Church. It was so simple: I’ve got a feeling, everything’s gonna be all right. O I’ve got a feeling, everything is gonna be all right. O I’ve got a feeling, everything is gonna be all right, be all right, be all right, be all right. The confidence, the conviction –even amid the oppression of slavery, Jim Crow, and the racism that blights our union even now — had to come from somewhere beyond reality. Because not even the most ardent optimist can make that sound credible.
And sure enough, the next two verses reveal it: Jesus already told me everything’s gonna be all right. The Spirit has confirmed it, everything’s gonna be all right, be all right, be all right, be all right.
The morning Scripture text may well be the biblical foundation for that spiritual, as it pictures the suffering and futility of human life not as death throes, but as labor contractions. The apostle Paul doesn’t deny the pain, but identifies it as part of the journey toward wholeness. Listen carefully and you’ll realize he’s not telling us to hold on till we get to heaven. No, he is looking forward to a day when it will be on earth as it is in heaven. A reading from the letter to the Romans in the 8th chapter at the 18th verse. Listen for God’s Word of hope. [ROMANS 8:18-25]
Hope that everything’s gonna be all right does not spring from confidence in human will to make it so. It’s not a by-product of seeing the glass half-full instead of half-empty. Hope is not optimism that insists we can do anything we put our minds to. Hope is not positivity-thinking that all too often ignores or minimizes difficult truths. Hope that fuels the human spirit is kindled by Divine Spirit present in creation and every day after, a Spirit that is actively working for the good of that creation, including its people. All the people. Not because there will be pie in the sky by and by, but because there is strength to live today. Hope makes people more joyous, more resilient, and more effective in meeting the challenges with things that will make a difference.
This morning I propose we put that claim to a test. Call it an experiment. I’m going to invite us into a time of prayerful reflection and give some prompts to guide us. Are you willing?
Take a few moments to center yourself into awareness. Breathe slowly in and out. In your mind’s eye, see some particular situations or realities that feel hopeless or resistant to improvement. It might be something personal in your life or relationships, or it might be something in our life together in the wider world. Bring them to mind. [Pause in silence]
Choose one to focus on in the next few minutes. What about it especially troubles you? Who is affected by this situation? How have you tried to address it? [Pause in silence]
Contrast the situation with God’s good purposes for you and for the world God loves. Picture what would ignite hope in this situation. What would need to change? [Pause in silence]
Ask God to show you how you could be a spark of change. Pray for the gifts needed to take one step towards that change. [Pause in silence]
Now I invite us to share conversation with a few people around you: What makes you feel hopeful? How can the faith community sustain hope? How can Central be a “community of hope?” [Pause for conversation for a few minutes]
Now I invite each of us to come forward and light a candle and place it on the table, a sign of our intention to do one thing to light the darkness AND to affirm the trust we have that God is the source of that light and is bringing light and hope to the whole world. [Pause while people light candles and place them on the Bible Story table]
What is the weight of a snowflake, a sparrow asked a wild dove. Nothing more than nothing, came the answer. In that case I must tell you a marvelous story: I sat on a branch of a fir tree, close to its trunk, when it began to snow, not heavily, not a giant blizzard; no, just like in a dream. I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. The number was exactly three million, seven hundred forty-one thousand, nine hundred and fifty two. When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch — nothing more than nothing, as you said — the branch broke off. The sparrow flew away, and the wild dove mused to herself, Perhaps there is only one voice lacking for peace to come into our world.
One voice. One civil conversation. One shift in perception. One deed of kindness. One child lifted from poverty. One injustice corrected. One step, and then another, and another. By this hope we are saved. Thanks be to God!