Hope Takes Us by Surprise. Hope Does Not Disappoint.

Year A, Pentecost 3, Romans 5: 1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8, and Genesis

Sermon at Pohick Church, FB Live Morning Prayer  6/14/20

The Rev. Dr. Lynn P. Ronaldi

A world drowning in discouragement, fear and despair desperately gasps for hope.

We hope someday all the suffering and death related to the pandemic and civil unrest will mean something. We hope all of God’s beloved children will one day be freed from oppressive structures. We hope God’s love and peace will be victorious over sin, unforgiveness and violence. 

Yes, we hope God is going to redeem all of it in the endBut what about today? Do you feeldisappointed in what seems a lack of divine intervention and healing? How can we shake thishopelessness: Where do we find hope for now?

St. Paul says there is a surprising quality about hope: We find it in the midst of pain. It’s insuffering that we find access to God’s grace. A suffering person is one who has access to the“hope of sharing the glory of God!”

Paul insists the suffering we endure now has salvific value for this life as well as the next! Pain plays a part in the divine process of making us healed and whole!

Paul should know: he is writing this letter from behind bars in a Roman prison. Yet, in spite of his dire predicament, he says:

… we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”

We feel pretty disappointed right now, God. We’re not finding much that’s redemptive in thismaelstrom of sickness and death, economic ruin, racial injustice, and mob violence. We pray andpray, and it seems to get worse and worse. How can Paul possibly say hope doesn’t disappoint?

Maybe hope doesn’t disappoint. Hope does tend to surprise us, doesn’t it? Has hope ever dawned when you least expected it? In the midst of your greatest challenges?

We see it all around us. Just as the pandemic wreaks its worst havoc, we find people enduring isolation and financial hardship to keep others safe; people risking lives to serve, comfort, and treat the sick; humanity growing in compassion. Character morphing overnight. Stories abounding, breathing hope into hopelessness. 

Even as racial injustice raises its ugly head once again, people of all races are coming together to protest. Forgiveness and reconciliation are beginning to break through. Love is growing.

Paul explains, not only does hope not disappoint us; it often surprises us, “…because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Paul strains to articulate God’s vision of the goodness of the cosmos and God’s Cosmic Plan of Salvation. Paul firmly believes the world was created by Love, and Love will redeem it. 

Paul believes Creation and Redemption are of a piece. Like most early Christian theologians, Paul has an optimistic view of the human being, who is, after all, created in God’s own image.

Creation and redemption meet in Jesus Christ: God the creator becomes us to save us. Comes in the flesh to suffer with us. Submits to the cross to die for us. Is resurrected bodily from the dead to re-create us. Then God’s love is poured into our hearts through the giving of his own Holy Spirit, to begin creating something new, in and through us. 

Love has triumphed over suffering and death! By Jesus Christ’s resurrection, we can trust that:

Hope does not disappoint! Love wins!

Furthermore, we were not just given any old hope, but the ultimate hopewe share in God’s own glory! We’re created in God’s image with the potential to love, forgive and heal, like God.

But there is still that annoying detail: we are human — and not God. We can’t fully grasp God’s cosmic vision for the future Kingdom. And frankly, we don’t understand why we are suffering right now.

It seems the whole creation is groaning: a pandemic killing hundreds of thousands and creating economic havoc; racial injustice poisoning the nation; civil unrest threatening cities. Many of usare experiencing suffering in our personal lives, too. 

Has the bottom ever dropped out of your world? Have you ever endured a season of suffering and cried out, “Why, God?” You’re far from alone: • The Biblical character Job was living a pious, peaceful life when the bottom dropped out. He found himself sitting under a broom tree, mourning the loss of all he’d held dear, and wondering what he’d done to deserve it. • If you’ve lost a loved one, job, dream, relationship, way of life, or sense of purpose, you’ve surely experienced lament, hopelessness, spiritual confusion, self-blame.• If you’re honest like Job, you’ve shaken your fist at God, and wondered whether you’d ever hope again. Perhaps you’ve come to realize there is no explanation for suffering, and God surely doesn’t cause it. It’s then that you just might have discovered hope!

Hope often catches us by surprise. Hope tends to emerge through a process. As a culture, wedon’t tend to tolerate process well. 

In her commentary on the monastic Rule of St. Benedict, Sr. Joan Chittister says that Benedictines “bear bad things well.” They hold on, embrace grief, endure suffering; this is a mark of humility, maturity, and hope. This is also a difficult notion for our culture to accept. 

Chittister says it’s the 21st Century’s goal to cure all diseases, bring order to all chaos, overcome all obstacles, end all stress, and prescribe immediate relief. “We wait for nothing and put up with little and react with fury at irritations. We cannot stomach delay. We do not tolerate process.”

Paul learned hope is a process. Hope takes time to emerge from suffering and transform us into God’s glory. He outlines the process: suffering produces endurance; endurance producescharacter; and in turn, character produces hope.  Though we begin in discouragement, suffering is transfigured into hope that does not disappoint: The hope of being renewed and restored to God’s likeness. The hope of participating in God’s plan of redemption. 

What does this process of suffering-transformed-into-glory look like?

You might recall the story of Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy.” An African American who grew up suffering the pain of racial injustice, his endurance (over time) produced character and hope. A law student sensing a call to human rights and equal justice, Bryan chose to work with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee. His prison experience exposed him to bias against the poor and people of color that moved him to advocacy. He learned from unjustly accused prisoners who forgave their executioners. Bryan attributes “being proximate to the suffering,” for his transformation and calling. He became an advocate for equal justice andaffected the transformation of this unjust system. He was responsible for reversals and reduced sentences in 75 death penalty cases.

We too can choose to “be proximate to the suffering” (be near it), to enter a process of ongoing conversion, and discover our part in restoring God’s glory. Embracing suffering is the first step.

Whenever I’d faced some trial, loss or injustice, my spiritual director Sr Adeline would repeat her famous saying that hangs in my office to this day:

“Interior pain is the process of allowing God to do something new.” 

At one time, her words fell on deaf ears. Until I experienced loss and submitted to the process of resting in the Lord’s love. There, I contemplated Christ’s suffering, listened to others’ stories of suffering in ministry, and listened for how God might want to convert my heart and send me.

Spiritual guides suggest gazing at the cross as ongoing spiritual practice. Praying contemplatively is a way of opening our hearts. Another practice is drawing near to suffering people, listening to their stories of loss and redemption, and acting with compassion. 

St. Clare of Assisi often used the Cross as a “mirror.” As she prayerfully gazed at the Cross, Clare saw the reflection of her own sufferings in Christ. She perceived the love that caused Jesus to endure suffering for the sake of forgiveness, and for the hope of redeeming creation: • Love that defeated a horribly unjust death through bodily resurrection. • Love poured into her heart, giving her hope, purpose and meaning. • Ultimately, Love transformed her into God’s likeness and a beacon of hope that changed others’ lives. 

Love is at the very heart of the surprise of hope,” says theologian N.T. Wright.

People who truly hope as the resurrection encourages us to hope, will be people enabled to love in a new way. Conversely, people who are living by this rule of love will be people who are learning how to hope.”*

The movement from suffering to hope is the process of becoming one with Love. We can choose to embrace pain, as Sr. Adeline says. We can choose to endure to the end, as Jesus says to his apostles. We can forgive and be reconciled to one another in love. In Paul’s words:

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 

As N. T. Wright says, how can we not offer the same gentle gift of freedom, forgiveness and hope that God has so graciously given us?

That is the truth of the resurrection turned into prayer, turned into forgiveness…turned into love. It is constantly surprising, constantly full of hope, constantly coming to us from God’s future to shape us into the people through whom God can carry out his work in the world.”*

Today, as we embrace this ongoing process of hope, we may be surprised at the ways God is redeeming us and transforming us into His Glory. At the ways He sends us to bring hope to others…

For hope does not disappoint. Love always wins! Amen.

*NT Wright, Surprised by Hope.