I haven’t even started and I feel like a fraud. I am not always ready to make a defense of my hopeful faith and when I try, I am more often than not timid and awkward, and as a general matter I have been known to forget all about reverence and gentleness.
I do, however, have friends to remind me.
One of those friends is an artist who lives in western Pennsylvania. Sometime after I returned to seminary for the second year, he sent me a small piece of paper upon which he had crafted the word TIKVA. I groaned when I saw it – my command of Biblical languages is limited at best and all I could see was that he had written something in Hebrew. Thankfully he had used English letters, and so I was able to Google it. TIKVA means “Hope.” I shook my head – it was not a word I wanted to hear, or see. Nevertheless, I dutifully pasted his sign to the door to my door in the seminary dorm, so that I would have to see it every several times a day. But it would be a long time before I would be able to understand the word TIKVA as having any relevance to my own life’s journey.
Last week, our PC(USA) moderator Cindy Bolbach reminded us that, in our lives of faith, we do not get from here to there alone. We do not find hope or healing on our own. We carry one another. Let me tell you a little about that experience in my own last couple of years, recognizing that some of you know the story and some not at all.
The last time I had the wonderful opportunity to preach here was just after Easter three years ago. I was in my first year of seminary and a man in my closest circle friends had just died, very suddenly. I tried to offer something of consolation to his wife and to our friends who were family to us, most of whom were here. Little did I know that only five months later, the tables would be turned and the loss would be our own family’s. In September, as I was preparing to return to Pittsburgh for the second of my three seminary years, our beautiful 24-year-old son Josh died of suicide. Many of you were here in the days that followed, and you witnessed the stunned horror and grief in which we in our family found ourselves locked. You can understand that when I speak about hope, I am talking about a confidence that is the product of a long journey across a vast desert.
I did eventually finish seminary, and I am in the process of seeking a call to a church right now. But the past two and one-half years have not been those of which I had dreamed; the circumstances have not come close to anything I could possibly have imagined or planned.
Perhaps it’s because I have found hope so difficult to recover that I gravitated toward the reading in I Peter today. And of course I wondered, “Out of what reality was he speaking? Who, even, in fact, was speaking?”
We all know not to take the authorship of a Biblical text for granted, even when a name is plastered to the front of a book. We might be tempted to presume that the author of I Peter is, in fact, that fisherman who followed Jesus with an immediacy of commitment that most of the rest of us find difficult to emulate. But in fact the book was most likely written by one of Peter’s followers in Rome, or by a community of such followers, toward the end of the first century.
The letter is what’s known as a circular letter, a document sent off to be circulated among a number of churches in the northern provinces of the Roman Empire, in today’s Turkey. Those of our members who went to Turkey earlier this year probably visited some of the places in which this letter landed. A circular letter was sort of an ancient version of a chain letter, except that it didn’t end with those ominous predictions about what will happen if you don’t email 16 more copies by midnight.
The writer we call Peter is instructing the young Christian communities in Turkey on how to address the challenges they face in a situation that should be recognizable to us: being church in a world which is somewhat indifferent and even somewhat hostile to its teachings and practices. A surrounding community resentful of the church members’ refusal to participate in the civic rituals honoring the Roman gods. A surrounding community irritated by those insistent upon proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, and willing to hassle them a bit for their convictions.
And so, Peter tells them: always be ready to defend the hope that is in you. Well, we know what that means: make a defense, be ready to assert yourself and your position. We all do it all the time, over all sorts of issues. Just a couple of days ago, a man tried to defend to me, with choice words and gestures, his decision to make a U-turn in front of me on Cedar Road.
We defend most of our choices out of hope – out of hope that we are right, out of hope that things will work out, for ourselves and for those who we love. Hope grounded in the everyday matter of life that we think we control. What college, what job, what neighborhood? (What U-turn?) But those decisions are a few steps away from the hope of which the author of I Peter reminds us, the hope in Jesus Christ that grounds all other hopes.
And that hope, as Cindy reminded us last week, we nurture in one another. We account for it by what we do with and for one another.
A couple of months ago, it was my privilege to teach our confirmation class one Sunday. The topic Liz assigned to me was: What does it mean to be confirmed? What does it mean to affirm, intentionally, that we have been invited into this life in the church by our loving God? I invited the class to respond to that question – how does confirmation affect you – in three ways: How does it affect you as an individual? As a participant in this church congregation? As a member of this church in the world?
I might have framed the question differently. I might have asked them: How do you account for your hope in Jesus Christ- as an individual, as a church member, as a person engaged in the world community? How does it change you?
After Josh died, I had no idea what to do about my life. I didn’t care, actually, anything at all about my life. Hope was no longer one of my vocabulary words. Those of you who have been there will recognize the feeling. But my daughter, who had returned to college for her senior year, called me up one day and said, “Mom, you have got to get out of bed.” I thought about that for awhile, and concluded that if she could get on a plane and fly back to Oregon, I guessed that I could get in a car and drive to Pittsburgh. One person’s hope, and it wasn’t mine. We love each other, and we carry each other.
In these months, and now years, it turns out that the hope of many, many people sustained me. Hope expressed in gentleness and with reverence, even when I did not respond in kind. Hope expressed in meals and gifts, and, most especially, in presence. There were a couple of people who wrote to me and read my emails and sat with me and listened to me for hours at a time. Even when I hurled angry words at them, accusing them of not listening, they kept right on listening. They listened with the profound patience of people whose hope is in Jesus Christ, as people who as individuals account for the hope that is in them by being present to others.
As a congregation, how do we account, among ourselves, for the hope within us? Look at how we worship together, how we care for one another, how we laugh and cry together. Last fall, Elspeth Peterjohn and I co-facilitated a Kerygma group. One day when we were supposed to be discussing one of the strategies our lesson presented to us on how to interpret the Bible, we all got into a conversation about some of our more difficult experiences. Out of that conversation the idea for the Blue Christmas service was born. I guess that we were, in fact, employing a strategy for interpreting Scripture: we were applying it to our lives and, as hopeful friends of Jesus and one another, seeking to spread that hope around in ways new to us.
If you were here last week, you heard Kevin and Laura Steiner announce the project inviting us all to note on a paper brick the ways in which we have each contributed to the issues of care and justice for the homeless in our community. The paper bricks are being constructed into a wall on the Justice and Mission Ministry’s kiosk in Fellowship Hall. The Ministry makes it easy for the rest of us to contribute to solutions for the homeless and to reflect on what we’re doing: to see that we take the steps we do out of hope. And not just out of hope that we can help others, or hope that we can chip away at a major societal problem. But hope that the Kingdom of God is among us, hope that we account for by participating in its growth.
All of this – individual, church, world – all of it is grounded in Jesus and the hope that he is. We don’t do these things just because we are good people. We do them because we have hope in the one who is Hope himself.
It’s still Easter – did you know that? It’s hard to believe, on Memorial Day week-end, but it’s the sixth Sunday of the Easter season. The season in which we particularly celebrate that Jesus died and rose in defeat of death. The season in which we particularly celebrate the hope that lies within us.
In a few weeks, our readings will take us back into the life of Jesus. If we pay attention to what he says, and does, and wants, we learn what it means to defend our hope in the person who defeats death and who invites us into participation in the building of his kingdom. It means that we listen to despairing people in the hope that they will know God’s love in our listening. It means that we worship together in the hope that we will affirm God’s love in our celebrations and in our crises. It means that we try to offer ourselves to others out of the rest of the world in the hope that they will experience God’s love in the rebuilding of their lives.
A couple of weeks ago, one of those people who listens to me said that our vocation is to live the love of Jesus. No matter what else we do in our lives, our real vocation is to live out the love of Jesus.
And if that is our vocation, how we could we not be people of hope? Our vocation, if it is to love the love of Jesus, must be to counter death with life at every turn. All the deaths, small and large – those of loss, of brokenness, of homelessness, literal and metaphorical – our vocation is to counter them with the love of living hope.
I don’t know for sure about all of you, but I know that for me, death is a personal affront. Very personal. My mother, my youngest brother, my son – all died at very young ages. I don’t have any kind or sentimental words about death. I suspect that on Memorial Day, a lot of us are particularly aware of death as a horrific gash in our lives, as a breach in relationship that we ourselves cannot overcome.
But if our vocation is to live the love of the person who DEMOLISHES death, the person who replaces it with the life and light for which we were always intended, how could we do anything other than reach out to each other with hope, share in the hope of our community life, and walk into the world as bearers of the message that love is stronger than death, stronger than what looks to be our end?
It was a long time after Josh’s death before I recognized any signs of renewal. But I have kept my friend’s little TIKVA card, which I plan to frame and hang on the wall in my someday church study. Because it’s true: we should account for the life of Jesus Christ that dwells within us, and there is no gentler and more reverent way than by quietly communicating one word: Hope.