When Hope Isn’t Foolish (Sermon Notes)
This is the fourth sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on October 4, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.
I turned 42 last week. I spent most of my actual birthday on an airplane. Our church has been part of a project this year on the integration of faith and work and economics, and it has involved a bit of travel, including this three-day trip to Southern California this past week.
And it was fun to be in Long Beach for a while. I got to see my friend Dave who used to be the lead pastor of this church. It was sunny and 80s there. (I heard it rained a bit here, no?) And for two nights, we stayed on an old luxury cruise liner that’s been converted into a hotel.
Seriously, one of the ideas behind this program is that faith communities can easily collapse inward and just care about life within the walls of the church and churchy sounding things like prayer. But if God isn’t just God of churches but a big God we can find anywhere, than presumably God can be found in our work and our homes and our friendships and our finances. And presumably God can inspire us in these places too, can literally breathe in (what that word “inspire” means) life and direction and joy and hope into all arenas of our lives. That’s the idea behind our series this fall, “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”
And it’s the idea behind a little experiment we’re going to start today as well.
We like to bring one of you up here now and then to hear parts of your story, and this fall, I’m going to invite someone each week to tell us about their life outside this community. What’s your work or your passion? What do you do with most of your time? There are too many of us for all of us to come here, but each time we do this, we’ll pray for the one person here, and by extension pray for all of us, that we’ll be inspired. That we’ll experience God breathing joy and hope and purpose and life into our whole lives.
And today, our lucky choice is Jason Donnelly. Come on down.
- So tell us just a little bit about yourself. (name, how long you’ve been around this church, where you’re from, and another non-work fact or two)
- And what have you chosen to tell us that you do outside of this community? (a bit about your work, or if your primary work these days is a volunteer passion, or at home, or looking for work, etc., then that)
- Follow-up question from Steve – what is the best thing about this work?
- What’s something that’s challenging for you about this?
- How can we pray for you?
Today I want to talk about something that can be a big part of Jason’s journey. It can be an important part of our working lives, and really all of our lives, but is something that can easily be misunderstood as well. Taken one way, it can give us comfort and assurance and power, but seen differently, can make us passive and unrealistic and impractical. I want to talk about hope – what it is, why we need it, and whether or not we’re fools to have it. If things go well, we’ll expand or maybe just shift a little how we use that word and we’ll walk away today with an increase in not just hope, but courage, courage to live the way we long to in all arenas of our lives.
Sound like a plan?
One of the places I hear about hope the most is in my volunteer work with suicide prevention. I’m on the board of Samaritans, who run a 24-hour befriending hotline and suicide prevention workshops. They are all about finding hope in tough situations. One of their big fundraising events is called the Breakfast for Hope. And another of them is a fall 5K that several of us ran in last weekend.
I was talking with a friend afterwards about the experience, and on the one hand, it was full of sadness. There are hundreds of people walking and running in memory of friends and relatives they’ve lost to suicide. You see the pictures on T-shirts and the far too short life-spans beneath them. I reunited with a number of folks I hadn’t seen since a memorial service last December, and for some, their grief is still raw. A few days before the race, I myself had a good cry about my friend Esther who died by suicide last year. Heavy.
But in the midst of that collective sadness last weekend, there was so much hope. My friend reminded me of the story of someone on our team who’d been close to Esther, and had her own history of mental health problems and brushes with suicide. But with Esther’s encouragement, despite her atheist background, she’d been exploring faith, and had found a little church community who welcomed her and given her friends. And this is someone who’s found acceptance and friendship in pretty short supply for much of her life. Almost despite herself, she’s become fascinated by Jesus, going to this church and reading the Bible for the first time, and totally intrigued by what she’s finding.
And to my eyes, what she’s finding is hope. The possibility of better days to come. The confidence in a happier future. Despite her only having pretty modest tastes of any of this so far.
One of my old favorite movies is a pretty true adaptation of a Stephen King story, The Shawshank Redemption. King has one the characters saying: Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.
And so inspired with hope on my mind, and thinking about this talk today, I decided to phone one of my more optimistic friends, a pretty upbeat guy who runs a business, and ask him about how hope functions in his world. As someone that takes a lot of risks professionally, and has a bright outlook on the future, I wanted to ask him about how he stays hopeful.
What I heard surprised me.
After being kind of polite about it for a while, I realized that my friend didn’t think much of the place of hope in business. In fact, he told me that hope is what you lean on when you don’t have a plan.
I said tell me more.
And he said, pretty much anyone in his shoes who’s good at what they do learns to plan and strategize for a successful future. You want a thriving business, so you study the market and take stock of your resources and use all that evidence to craft a really solid plan. And then you work and work and work the plan.
And I asked him, well, what about all the businesses that fail, as most do? And he said, well, a lot of them fail because they don’t have a sound plan. They ignored crucial evidence, or misdiagnosed the market, or didn’t execute their strategy well, or just didn’t plan at all. They relied on fantasy, on hope. And my friend didn’t have a lot of interest in that kind of approach to business.
This was fascinating for me, to hear that hope could be understood as a something other than a powerful thing, as a substitute for sound, realistic planning.
So which is it? Is hope one of the most powerful dispositions we can cultivate in a sometimes disappointing world? Or is hope a weakness, a constitutional failure to come to grips with reality? Or neither, or both? Or something else entirely?
Well let’s get there by way of a story we’re tracking with this fall.
We’re reading the short Old Testament book of Ruth, a warm, earthy, almost fairy-tale like biography placed smack in the midst of the Bible’s historical books about ancient Israel.
In the past three weeks, we’ve met Ruth as one of the two surviving relatives of her destitute mother-in-law Naomi. Naomi is hungry and homeless. She has lost her husband and her two sons, and she appears to have lost her faith in a good God as well. She says God has raised his fist against her and made her life bitter.
But Ruth disagrees. In a moment of faith, either in Naomi or Naomi’s god, she agrees to travel with Naomi back to Naomi’s childhood village of Bethlehem. Where they hope to find food. We pick up the story there.
Ruth 2:1-4 (NLT)
Now there was a wealthy and influential man in Bethlehem named Boaz, who was a relative of Naomi’s husband, Elimelech.
One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it.”
Naomi replied, “All right, my daughter, go ahead.” So Ruth went out to gather grain behind the harvesters. And as it happened, she found herself working in a field that belonged to Boaz, the relative of her father-in-law, Elimelech.
While she was there, Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters. “The Lord be with you!” he said.
“The Lord bless you!” the harvesters replied.
I remember the first time I visited a Catholic church as a teenager. I heard the priest say something like this – the Lord bless you. And I had no idea what the right thing was to say, so I said, “Right back atcha.” And people around gave me some funny looks.
Anyway, just a short section today. We’ll pick up more next week.
But here we see this little window into Naomi’s despair that has made her passive perhaps. Ruth has a plan to find them some food and all Naomi can say is, “Fine. Go ahead. Good luck.”
But Ruth is taking advantage of the best option available to her. Naomi is past her prime working years, so she’s not going to find a job, and as a young, widowed, foreign single woman in this culture, Ruth doesn’t have a lot of employment options either, but she is aware that in this economy, there was a practice called gleaning. In this time and place, landowners were encouraged to harvest only 90 to 95% of their crops, not to pick the land bare. They were encouraged to leave some produce left along the edges of the field for unemployed or impoverished people to pick at will. Gleaning was a provision for community justice and shared economic flourishing that was built into Israel’s ancient law codes. It was part of how Israel’s poor and its immigrants avoided destitution. That culture had a vision that all people are better off when all people have access to work and economic opportunity.
And as a side note, I wonder if this is an important economic principle from God’s perspective. That the privileged in a society have a responsibility to ensure access to labor and access to the economy for all people.
But Ruth at least says, well, I can do that. I’ll go to the nearest field, and after its farmer’s employees harvest, I’ll glean. I’ll pick the extras in their wake. That’s our best option.
It’s a pretty plucky, hopeful plan and disposition she has. It may not be much, but she can glean. And then it turns out that field she gleans in so happens to be that of a relative of her father-in-law, a man named Boaz that she’s never met. But we’ll see that Boaz turns out to be quite a guy, and the rest of our story, we’ll track with both Boaz’ and Ruth’s hope and ingenuity. We’ll have a little love story on our hands soon as well.
But long before this is a love story, it’s an expression of hope?
So what does non-foolish hope look like? Well, I think we see our first sense of this here. It’s the first fill on your program as well, that:
First of Two Sections of Program Notes – “What does non-foolish hope look like?”
- Hope is investing in the best options we have, whether or not they seem good enough.
I mentioned two weeks ago that I can struggle to maintain a hopeful attitude. I have the gift, or curse, of easily intuiting what is wrong in a given situation I’m in. And this past week on my first evening of this business trip to California, despite the magical environment I found myself in, staying in this gorgeous old cruise ship moored in the sunny Pacific coast of California, I went to bed troubled by some concerns.
I was bothered by a professional problem that was nagging me and by a personal concern in my family as well. And I took a walk, I prayed a bit, I chatted on the phone with my best friend Grace, but none of that brought me any peace of mind, so I figured I would just go to sleep.
But I woke up on Thursday no better.
But then I went for a morning run with my friend Tim, and exercise is a good thing when you’re worried or discouraged, and being with a friend is a good thing as well, and then we were watching the sunrise up over the water, and there were dolphins and a seal that we saw, which was pretty cool. But then what really changed things for me, was I was running along, and telling God about what one of these problems then, and I felt like God reminded me of this tip in the talk I was going to give.
“Hope is investing in the best options we have, whether or not they seem good enough.”
And I felt like God was asking me, well, what are your options?
And I thought, well, I’ve strategized about this problem a lot, and there are pretty much three important things I can do. And thing A I’ve already largely done, and thing B I’m in the middle of doing, then thing C I can’t really do until I’ve done thing B already, but I’m aware of that. I’m on it. So I thought, well, I have a plan, but I’m not sure that it’s good enough God.
And I felt like God was saying, well, that’s all you can do. It’s going to have to be good enough. And you’ll have to see what I do to magnify that plan.
And as prayer works, at least for me, it’s not like God was having this conversation out loud with me, or projecting words in the clouds, or getting the dolphins to talk or anything (though that would have been something!). It’s just that I was engaging in prayer as I ran and these thoughts were coming back to me that seemed like the thoughts of God, so by faith, I took them to be that.
Regardless, this really changed my mood. I thought, well, I’m going to work my plan, and I’m going to trust that God will show up in this and do more than my plan can. And that felt like hope.
This is what Ruth did. Gleaning isn’t going get her or Naomi out of poverty. It isn’t going to provide a husband or child for either of them. And it’s not really a great ticket toward belonging in this new culture and country she’s in.
But it’s the best plan she’s got. And so she works that plan as an expression of hope, that it will be good enough.
Jesus said that small things, and small faith, are often good enough. They’re often all that we have, but they can be met by a big God who can do more than we can ask or imagine. Look at a couple of short stories Jesus told, the second excerpt on your program:
Jesus also said, “The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, while he’s asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens. The earth produces the crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. And as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.”
Jesus is teaching about the thing he talked about more than anything else: the Kingdom of God. What the world is like when God is around. What happens when God is in charge. Which Jesus talked about like a kingdom, God’s realm, God’s country.
And I love this first one. Jesus saying, you’re not really going to know how it works. We understand a lot more about seeds and water and minerals and growth than Jesus’ contemporaries did, but it’s still kind of mysterious, when you think about it.
This dead looking, dry thing we call a seed gets buried in the earth and if conditions are right, then pow, out grows life and food. And we say, wow, it worked!
Jesus says it’s like that when God is around. We do our little thing, we work our best plan, and if God’s in, God might just do something have it go big. Jesus tells another story to fill this out.
Jesus said, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it? It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade.”
I’m holding in my hand a mustard seed. You can’t see it. Trust me, it is tiny. But look at your slide. Look at that bush or tree. A large, green thing, that yields spice to eat and branches for the birds to live in.
Hope – our second point here:
- Hope is trusting that God can do what none of us can.
You plant that seed, trusting that the forces of nature – whether you can explain them or not – will transform that dead, buried thing into fruitful, nourishing life.
Ruth – this undocumented immigrant, this impoverished widow – gleaned that field in Bethlehem, trusting (we think) that Naomi’s God would do something bigger through that act, would make up the difference, would give them a hope and a future, that she couldn’t produce.
Jason, you heard today, was unemployed for a year and a half. He worked his plan. He used his time off to take care of some personal stuff he needed to deal with, and he applied for every job in his field that came up, and got ready for interviews, and did his thing. But after a year and a half of that, he still didn’t have work. And some of his friends, we were encouraging him to think about a different plan, because his plan didn’t seem good enough. And then might have been fine.
But in Jason’s case, God kicked in a way that was bigger and better than we saw coming. God did what Jason couldn’t do.
And trusting this is what put me at ease on Thursday, an ease I’m still living in. That God can take my relatively little plan and can – on top of that – do what I can not do.
But before we get real specific with what this looks like, I want to share one more thought about hope. It’s this, that
- Hope is confident expectation, based on evidence that not everyone is seeing.
Hope can be hard. I quoted Shawshank Redemption earlier, and the whole idea around the theme of hope in that story and film, is that hope is as dangerous as it is uplifting. Because so often our hopes are dashed. We hope our most annoying co-worker will change their ways, but they never do. We hope our prayers for healing will be answered, and our loved one just gets sicker. Or we hope for gun control or law and order in our country, and we see last week another mass shooting.
Now to be clear, I have had my own seemingly unanswered prayers and dashed hopes. And as your pastor, I feel heavily the many, many stories you share with me of your own hopes dashed. And I feel with you.
But painful as these are, if we can keep God in the picture, we can find that these disappointments can turn us toward our deepest, truest hope.
I mentioned the other week a pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber. I’d like to quote at length from an Easter sermon she gave the other year. She says:
Whenever I am in a real mess of pain, when a relationship has ended or I am in some kind of emotional suffering, and some well meaning Christian says “Well, when God closes a door, he opens a Window” I start immediately looking around for that open window so I can push them out of it. Which is to say, I don’t find ignoring the difficult reality of our lives in favor of some kind of blindly cheerful optimism to be hopeful I find it to be delusional.
So, yes, it feels like hope can be risky and connecting hope to suffering can be sketchy.
But maybe the way suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope is that suffering, endurance and character actually free us from the burden of having to be naively optimistic. Maybe if hope isn’t a very reliable starting point, then hope is not something we strive to muster up for ourselves. Maybe real hope is always something we are surprised by. This week I started to think of Hope as that which is left after all else has failed us. And that is an Easter hope.
My friend Cheryl Lawrie works in the prisons in Australia so when she speaks of hope I tend to listen. She says that “Hope, is an encounter that captivates our imagination so we can’t help but become more than who we thought we were, and find ourselves living for something that is all at once preposterous and impossible”
And when it comes down to it, I want hope – I just want a hope that doesn’t disappoint. Don’t we want beauty and reconciliation and possibility that comes from something other than our own limitations or the limitations of others. I want a hope that isn’t really just naïve optimism. I want a hope that finds us living for something that is all at once preposterous and impossible and yet the most real and honest thing we know.
That is to say, I want God
Because a hope that does not disappoint looks less like being idealistic about ourselves and more like being idealistic about God’s redeeming work in the world. It’s a hope that comes not from naïve optimism, but from being wrong and falling short, and experiencing betrayal and being a betrayer and it comes from suffering and the grave and what feels like a night from which dawn could never emerge and then how God reaches into the graves we dig ourselves and each other and again loves us back to life.
The Easter hope we have, brothers and sisters, the hope that never disappoints has nothing to do with optimism or the avoidance of suffering. It is a hope that can only come from a God who has experienced birth, and love and friendship and lepers and prostitutes and betrayal and suffering and death and burial and a decent into hell itself. Only a God who has born suffering himself can bring us any real hope of resurrection. And if ever given the choice of optimism or resurrection I’d go with resurrection any day of the week. This is the God of whom Paul speaks. And the Christian faith is one that does not pretend things aren’t bad. This is a faith that does not offer platitudes to those who lost children this week to suicide or a tornado. This is not a faith that produces optimism, it is a faith that produces a defiant hope that God is still writing the story and that despite darkness a light shines and that God can redeem our crap and the beauty matters and that despite every disappointing thing we have ever done or that we have ever endured, that there is no hell from which resurrection is impossible. The Christian faith is one that kicks at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.
Wow. That was my longest quotation ever. I practically didn’t write a sermon this week. But, wow, is that true.
This is why in the Bible, the word “hope” suddenly bursts on the scene after the first Easter. “Hope” is not a common word in the biographies of Jesus, but then after Jesus dies and rises and leaves the scene, the use of the word just explodes in the letters that follow. And this Greek word for hope, elipzo, doesn’t mean a wish. It’s not optimism. It’s confident expectation that God is alive, writing a longer story, bringing life and renewal into every disappointment. It’s this confidence based on evidence that not everyone is seeing, evidence in this case that God is alive and isn’t done.
This is Jesus saying, you put that dead-looking seed in the ground and wait and just see what God can do.
This is Ruth telling Naomi, you go ahead and have your bitterness, but I’m heading out to the fields to see what we can find there.
On a small scale, it’s even me this past week, waking up from my worries on that Pacific Coast sunrise run, trusting God that I can work my plan and God’s going to meet me in that and so something surprising.
This is a funny sermon to end with our usual tips, given I’ve just said that hope comes from God surprising us, but let’s end with four quick thoughts about setting ourselves up for God to do that.
FOR THE PROGRAM NOTES - “Choosing Hope Today”
- Ask God for an increase in hope and courage in your primary work.
Our work – paid or not – takes up the better part of our waking hours most days and without hope and courage, it easily becomes drudgery and toil. But it can also be this tremendous laboratory for hope and courage.
This is Ruth, destitute, courageously working her best option and trusting God that this would be the beginning of a turn around in her family destiny, as it was.
It’s even my businessman friend, who said that hope is what you have when you don’t have a plan. Because he’s off a bit of recent success, and I asked him, “You plan for positive contingencies, don’t you? For the possibility that your business might grow better and faster than you would normally expect?” And he said, absolutely he plans that way. To which I said, that kind of planning for a better possible future, and for a better mark on the world, that’s an exercise in hope.
- Particularly look for hope anywhere you’re persistently angry.
The fourth century North African theologian Augustine of Hippo had a great line about hope, one we’ll talk more about next week. He said:
Hope has two beautiful daughters;
Their names are Anger and Courage.
Anger at the way things are, and
Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.
So anger can grip us and control our emotions and define us if we let it, but it also can reveal something to us. It can show us what we most fear but also what we most long to see be different. And if there’s any area where you find yourself persistently angry, well anger by itself isn’t likely to do you much good. But ask God if there’s any courage and any hope he can give you in that area.
- Study all available evidence of God’s dependability and goodness.
Ruth knew there was a good harvest in Bethlehem and that she could glean there. This was evidence, ordinary evidence, but still, evidence that she saw – that Naomi didn’t yet – that gave her hope.
Jason studied the evidence of job hunters in his field, and he listened to the stories of other people praying for him, and he was convinced he would get a job eventually, so he kept at it.
Jesus says, know the Kingdom of God – listen to me, read your Bibles, look at the seeds, God is dependable and good.
Nadia says the good news of Jesus is resurrection, is life out of death, so that if we kick at the darkness long enough, it’s going to bleed daylight.
But to keep hope, we have to study this evidence. We have to know the story of Jesus, and how Jesus works in the world. This is why we read the Bible in this church – we have a daily Bible plan on our website you can jump into any time. It’s why we gather in small groups, so we can hear each other’s stories of disappointment, but also of hope.
- Where you have cause for hope, invest as much as you can.