I am taken with a photograph of a woman named Sadie Mintz in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic. With prolific wrinkles and dark eyes hidden by glasses, she is decked out in a diaphanous red hat, a glittering dress, red lipstick, and heavy jeweled earrings. The caption tells us she’s going to celebrate the Jewish New Year. It also tells us that Sadie is 105 years old. She seems to me to be the very picture of endurance. A quote stands out next to her photo: “You can’t do anything at all in this life without knowing that one word: courage.”
Sadie’s photograph accompanies an article about scientists studying the genetics of healthy centenarians. I think it represents well one of our common hopes, to live long and well, disease-free, without suffering. Technological developments and medical advances, the fruits of scientific study and human ingenuity, are the cornerstones of that hope and others which ground our public dreaming and deciding as to how we might improve the world.
But these days, few of us hold that hope unequivocally. We live in a time when the devastations of the present are regularly traced to the past good intentions. The bright bubble of modern hope in “progress” burst again and again in the twentieth century, as we saw how many so-called “advances” enabled us to kill each other and plunder the earth more efficiently. Inventions which have improved life for some have made life immeasurably worse for others. Every few months, another natural disaster has analysts speculating about the detrimental effects of fossil-fuel accelerated climate change and unbridled population growth.
And we begin to suffer “compassion fatigue.” Though we are across the globe, we watch in acute detail the devastating typhoon in the Philippines. We cry out seeing the suffering of just one other person, let alone entire cities full of them, and we want to help, but we feel overwhelmed by distances and geo-political forces. These days, when corruption lurks side by side with good will, even “helping others” is fraught with questions, and our best intentions go wildly awry.
What hope do we have in days like these?
I believe that is exactly the question the disciples are asking in Luke’s gospel. Jesus has pointed to Jerusalem Temple’s stones and precious ornaments, prophesying, “All will be thrown down.” A disturbing prediction, comparable to those we hear so often, about the approaching end of the fossil fuel era, in which civilization as we know it must change or come to an end.
Our immediate response to such predictions is always, “When? How?” But what kind of hope are we holding on to when we ask those questions? We need information and timetables so that we can get ready. With enough warning of coming disaster, we could chart out our strategies; we could escape to safer places or set up protective barriers and stockpiles. We could increase our chances of survival.
This is our typical hope in human efforts to escape death, and it is a great deception. It simply replaces faith in one human construction for another—the temple for the fortress. All human constructions, buildings or institutions, families or nations, are not only limited in scope but mired deep in the legacy of sin, a net in which every single one of us is caught like a fly in a spider web.
Jesus has no faith in any human schemes to escape suffering or death, and neither should we. We cannot save ourselves, no matter how grand or splendorous we build the temples or fortresses in our lives. Jesus wants us to get really clear about this, my friends. History will be full of upheavals. Ultimately, we will not escape suffering or hardship. Jesus wants us to face up to the harsh realities, to look straight at our own sin and the very real forces of evil in our world.
But we are not to be paralyzed by what we see. We are not to cower in fear. Do not be led astray and do not be terrified.
There is no escape route, but Jesus gives us something better. Jesus gives us our greatest and only hope. “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
No matter how hopeless the situation seems, Jesus tells us he will be with us, opening up a way and a possibility for life no one could have predicted. In Jesus promising to give us words and wisdom, we have the promise of the God who created heaven and earth, who was there at the beginning of time and will be there at its end. I will be with you, he tells us, right here in the middle of all of the mess, right here in all the devastation we can experience. Setting a table before us in the presence of enemies, Jesus pours the overflowing cup of his own life for us.
And in the mystery of grace, we are saved as we could never have saved ourselves. We might even be put to death, yet not a hair on our heads will perish, says the Living God in Jesus Christ. Taking his life for our own, our broken, sinful, hopeless limitations are transformed as we are incorporated into a Body whose hands and feet stretch across all time and space, and we participate in a new creation we can scarcely imagine, the reign of God in Jesus Christ.
Jesus the Christ has come, and he will come again. We are always looking toward the “some day,” when Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom becomes the daily reality of our eternal lives, but we live in the thick of now. Jesus is our hope for the future, but he is also our hope “between the times. Holding tight to that great hope, we are called, not to prepare a defense but to stay open and available at all times for Christ’s word and wisdom.
Esperando is the present participle of the verb esperar in Spanish. I like that it means both “hoping” and “waiting.” Esperando is the substance of the endurance Jesus says gains us our souls. It is not passive or resigned, as if this world were a cosmic waiting room where we are simply passing the time. Esperando is dynamic action. Our future hope comes back to the present and reveals the gap between the world as we know it and God’s reign.
And when that happens, Jesus tells us that we have a purpose: We are witnesses and our lives us opportunities to testify. Speaking and acting and sharing ourselves in Christ’s love, we are to testify to Christ’s reign which is on its way; we are to testify to Christ reign which is already here.
I think it’s interesting that our word “hope” has the word “hop” in it, for our hope leaps back and forth from cosmic reality to daily life. In the hopping new possibilities are revealed: forgiveness and reconciliation where there was hatred and war; healing and restoration where there was only ruin and loss.
Right here and now, in this little sanctuary, Jesus has set before us the cosmic table, the broken bread and out-poured cup. Whether you are 9 or 99, 2 or 102, this feast is for you. Take courage and celebrate our hope in Jesus Christ; hop on up here to be nourished for a lifetime of hoping and waiting, and a lifetime beyond that. Have courage!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
(Laura’s previous sermon on these texts is here.)