Next week’s sermon: Youth Sunday
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“HOPE – IN SPITE OF IT ALL”
The year is 600BC, give or take. The place is Jerusalem, capital of the nation of Judah. The mood is grim. An empire we name “Babylon” has risen in the east. As empires are wont, it has imperial designs on its smaller neighbors. Indeed, advance Babylonian troops are already laying waste to the Judean countryside not far from the city. This looming disaster beyond the nation’s borders is paralleled by disheartening internal problems-widespread poverty, a growing income gap between rich and poor, shady and oppressive business practices, and a decline in traditional religious devotion coupled with the rise in popularity of assorted idolatries. The prophet Jeremiah, observing it all, articulates the apparent hopelessness of the day. He imagines both God and Jerusalem sighing in lament at the suffering of so many people. The prophet crowns his poetry with a rhetorical question, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”
Gilead is a mountainous region just east of the Jordan River, lying today in the kingdom of Jordan, not far from today’s huge Syrian refugee camps. A tree grows there, the storax tree, which produces an aromatic resin known for its healing properties. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” is simply a way of asking, “Is there any hope?”
The year is 2013. The nation is the United States of America. The mood is likewise guarded, if not grim. No Babylonians at the gate, but definitely a weariness with war and the ever-present threat of religiously fueled terrorism. A sluggish economy works for a fewer and fewer of us. Globalization and technology have slowly eroded what used to be a robust middle class. Municipalities like Jacksonville are going bankrupt with pension plans they can no longer fund. Entitlement programs, military spending, and debt service balloon the Federal budget. Political polarization keeps us from being able to address long term agreed upon solutions to fund health care and Social Security. And that same polarization lives in our church, hindering are capacity to have a clear focus and vision for our future. I think Jeremiah’s question hovers over our day much as it did his: “Is there any balm in Gilead? “Is there any hope?”
Now, of course, you know my answer to this question. I am the pastor. This is the church. We as Christians always live in the light of the resurrection, the definitive affirmation of hope in the midst of all seeming hopelessness. I am hopeful, but this morning I want to nuance that predictable and true answer that there is hope with 3 caveats, and I invite you to relate those caveats to our present state at South Jacksonville Presbyterian. I am going to promise hope for our church and the world because I believe the promise is good, but I am going to offer 3 qualifiers. I think these 3 caveats make the predictable answer that there is hope for our church and our world a credible answer.
The first caveat about our situation is to be honest about the obvious fact that we are not innocent in all that has come upon us. There is always a connection between our actions and the challenges we face. There is a connection between our behavior and where we are that requires of us exactly what was required of ancient peoples: namely repentance. Now repentance is not so much listing your sins and rending your garments as it is owning up to the fact that we have been on a bad course and then commit ourselves to change that course. The New Testament term for repentance does not just imply remorse; it means to make lasting change in a real direction. For us at SJPC I think repentance means breaking the silences around the things that divide us by speaking the truth in love to one another. I know that those conversations are not going to be easy. The temptation to sweep our differences under the rug and ignore them are going to be great. The conversations we are going to have about our differences are probably going to be painful. But there is enough spiritual maturity and enough courage in this congregation to have those conversations. So my first caveat about hope is to remember that credible hope is inevitably intertwined with the commitment to change, change of direction in us and in our world. We need to talk with one another. We need to listen to each other. And we need to trust that God is going to be with us in those conversations.
My second caveat about hope is to remember that Christian hope is not the same as optimism. Now, optimism is indeed a sweet virtue. “Look on the bright side.” “The glass is half full, not half empty,” is a wonderful way to approach the world. I love chipper people. Optimism is great, but it is essentially a human attitude. It may or may not have anything to do with God. And optimism is usually a confidence that things will work out the way I want them to, a confidence that my dreams will become reality in the way I dream them.
Hope, on the other hand is not so much in me as it is in God. Hope is the confidence that things will work out, but not necessarily the way I want them to work out. Hope trusts that there is a purpose which transcends my plans and my desires. Hope trusts that things will come out good, though not necessarily in the way I can imagine or even when I want. Hope trusts that even though things may not work out my way, they will, in time, unfold in a way that, by the grace of God, will be “blessing shaped.” You see, hope is open to the good and grace we never planned on. So my second caveat about hope is to remember that hope, more than mere optimism, is radically open-ended and God-trusting. So far as our church is concerned moving forward, to me that means committing ourselves to some process that will help us deal with our differences so we can forge a common identity. I think we will know we are on the right track when the conversations get hard and people are honest with one another. But even if forging an identity means that some of us will stay and be a part of that new focus and some of us will go, I really trust that God will make all of it “blessing shaped.”
My last and third caveat about hope is to remember that to hope does not mean that you don’t do anything. I think there is a false dichotomy which suggests that you either hope God will fix the mess, which means you sit around and wait, or, on the other hand, you don’t hope in God, which means it’s all up to you. But hope and action are not an “either/or.” They are a “both/and.” Yes, hope in God, and yes, do something. Pray to God, but row toward shore. Hope in God, but get busy and work toward what you hope for.
One of the most beloved old hymns of faith we know is based on this text from Jeremiah: “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Imagine the trust and faith it took to sing those words in the context of slavery-no freedom, no future, having a family who could be sold away from you at any time. But there was hope even in the unbearable agony of human enslavement. There was hope in Jeremiah’s day, even as the Babylonian armies inched nearer. And there is hope in our day. But for our hope not to be naïve, for hope to be credible, for hope to be honest, remember these 3 caveats: first, remember, we are integral to the problem, and credible hope demands repentance and change. Second, remember, optimism is an agreeable virtue, but it is no replacement for hope in God who is always offering an unanticipated, gracious future. And, finally remember, hope in God, but get to work. LET US PRAY.