This morning’s sermon begins around 39 minutes in.
Thirty years ago, I led a youth group mission trip to Washington D.C. We spent the days in neighborhoods of such poverty, blight and segregation that it was comparable to being in Haiti. But in D.C. these neighborhoods were no more than a mile away from the Capitol building where Congress determined where the money went. And, these streets are not really very far from Embassy Row with its mansions and clubs that catered to those of wealth and power.
In Haiti everything is poor and so you almost get used to it. But in Washington D.C. the disparity was simply staggering. That trip really left an imprint on my life.
At night the group stayed in the basement hostel of the Church of the Pilgrim in Dupont Circle. Now, Dupont Circle is upscale. Thirty years ago, not so much.
I remember I was on the top bunk and there was this window below street level. It had bars to keep anyone from breaking in. There was a window well around it that let in the night lights of the city. I liked my bunk bed. As I drifted off to sleep I could see legs from the knee down of passers by.
One night, during the week we were there, I awoke sometime in the early hours by what I thought was rain. I remember looking out the window and there was a man using the window well as a urinal.
I awoke the next morning feeling dispirited and dirty.
On the way out of the church to our assigned place for the day, I walked by the window to see things from that perspective and there, in a crack in the sidewalk, I noticed a lovely little flower that had pushed through. It probably wouldn’t last the day but at that moment I was moved by its beauty and defiance. In the midst of it all it proclaimed HERE I AM. It reminded me of the sanitation workers in Memphis singing “I AM A MAN.” And the women marching with their pink hats #METOO. Defiant and beautiful.
Underneath the concrete there was life. In the heart of the depressing center of the city, there was this hopeful sign: a flower in the sidewalk.
The poet William Carlos Williams wrote of a similar epiphany in his poem “Approach to a City”
I never tire of these sights
But refresh myself there
Always for there is small holiness
To be found in braver things
That flower in the sidewalk was a sight of small holiness, a sign of a braver thing. It inspired me. Thirty years later it still inspires me.
That sight filled me not with optimism that all would be right with the world if we only become flowers in the sidewalk–no that is way too simplistic. I am not optimistic that we can easily change the world as it is and turn it into the world as it should be, and yet, that memory fills me with hope.
Gabriel Marcel, the French philosopher and playwright, once wrote this about hope: “Hope is the act which the temptation to despair is actively overcome.”
Hope always seems to be in the same space as desperation. You cling to hope when things get desperate. Hoping that there is something more real than what you are experiencing now
–as fire consumes and more than 1,000 are missing
–as lies pile up
–as addiction grips
–as my friend Amos receives another anti-Semitic threat
There is no time for Pollyanna-ish notions – let’s just get along.
The difference between optimism and hope was brought home to me when a group from Forest Hill traveled to the Holy Lands and we left bustling Jerusalem to visit the depressed and pretty depressing town of Bethlehem in the West Bank.
We toured the holy sights but the holiest of experiences occurred at the congregation of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church pastored by Mirtri Raheb. Pastor Raheb reminded us that Arabs were among the first Christians. He speculated, somewhat playfully – but with a point to be made – that his great, great, great, great, great… and so forth… grandmother might have been a nursemaid to Jesus himself.
He told us about the difference between optimism and hope. “Optimism,” he said, “comes from the root word optic, ‘of the eye.” He said, “What I see with my eyes does not make me optimistic. The headlines I read with my eyes do not make me optimistic. But my faith in Jesus Christ calls me not only to look and despair but to push ahead to witness to a deeper, more fundamental power of the hope that is ours through faith.”
And then there’s our newly baptized Riley. Honestly, I am optimistic about her future – she has loving parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and comes from a very educated and comfortable background – but one never knows what the future holds. I am also very hopeful that this little baby with all these advantages will use her privilege to turn her world around and change things for the better.
Hope calls us to envision something beyond the cloud vision – our spiritual cataracts – to get the corrected vision of the heart; to view the world and then to act and live as if that hopeful reality is the reality we live by.
Sometimes after the prayer of confession I tell you, “You are forgiven. Now go and act like you believe it.” I am not optimistic that all will follow that command, but I always have hope!
You and I have to act as if we believe it – even if we don’t see it. We have to fake it till we make it – even if sometimes we doubt that a river of justice and compassion runs through the life of woe, we press on acting as if we know the deeper truth. And by this we change what we see.
As the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz once said – this is deep and I believe it to be true – “It is the invisibles that determine how you will view the world, whether as a homeland or a prison, or a place of battle.”
What lenses do you put on through which to view the world and act upon it? Do you give up or do you make something happen?
This is why I love Hannah. The woman who was barren who in her old age bore Eli. Like Sarah before her and Elizabeth after – both old women through whom God’s promise was born – Hannah was this strong determined woman who never gave up hope.
And it was Hannah’s hymn, her psalm that we read today. It is defiant and beautiful, just like that flower in the sidewalk. She is pregnant but her hymn of hope describes a new reality:
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
God raises up the poor from the dust, God lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
That sounds like the power of hope expressed by the prophets and by Jesus – you look at the poor, the homeless, the felon, and might feel pity, or aversion – but the hope of the Gospel is that the “other,” the “left out,” the “barren,” are the places where the kingdom of God is breaking through, where the flowers are bursting through the cracks in the sidewalk.
It is a wrong and too simplistic lesson if you take from this story of Hannah a meaning that if you are really, really, really faithful you too might get what your heart desires: if you pray every day, if you go to church then you will eventually get what you want.
The right message is this: Hannah opened her life to the power of God. She kept preparing herself to be a vessel of God’s power. She didn’t give into despair but put on the lenses of hope – and so she was ready when the time was right.
And in Mark’s gospel we read this passage that seems to describe the end of the world as Jesus and his disciples knew it. Optically, it didn’t look so good. And in fact within 30 years Jerusalem would be razed, the Jewish rebellion crushed, and Jesus’ followers scattered.
Only through a hopeful trust in his Abba – “daddy” – can Jesus look out and see the destruction and say, “This is the beginning of the birth pang. New life is coming.” Only by the hope that refuses to despair can Jesus envision the world that is crowning, the world as it should be – and point to it.
Where bread is broken, where the best wine is served, where the poor are rich and the hungry are fed – this is heaven and it is close and it is among us when two or three are gathered.
And in the reading in Hebrews – you have to understand that the first readers and hearers of Hebrews were having a hard time – there was persecution and they were beginning to doubt that this Jesus message really had much to it. They opened their eyes and what they saw wasn’t too good. So the author needed to touch the hope that is in the heart – keep your sight on Jesus – the pioneer and perfecter of your faith.
In the midst of this hard time the author of Hebrews encourages the believer “to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together and to hold fast to the “confession of our hope.”
My friends, in these fearful times when some of you feel despairing, let us provoke one another to love and good deeds.
In these troubled times when you look around and what you see doesn’t look too good, don’t neglect to meet together.
In these hard days when you read the headlines and you shudder, or when in your life the temptation to despair is overpowering, hold fast to the “confession of our hope.”
Amidst the ashes and tent cities of Northern California – where the death toll is mounting and it doesn’t look so good and where not very many people are optimistic—we still see people doing good, offering free laundry services and more. And we know that under those ashes – somewhere – there is life breaking through.
Remember, the cracks of despair are the places where hope finds a break through.
It is the very crack in the sidewalk that allows hope to break through like a little flower – beautiful and defiant.