Giving Hope: A Prayer with a View

Rev. Paul Escamilla | October 18, 2020

Giving Hope: Praying with a View               October 18, 2020            P. Escamilla

Just over 100 years ago, 28 British sailors led by Ernest Shackleton attempted to cross the continent of Antarctica. They failed before they even began. Their mother ship, the Endurance, was crushed in the ice floes at the Antarctic shoreline. They bailed from that ship and in emergency vessels that were lowered into the water, they sailed to the nearest island, which happened to be Elephant Island, where they found the most meager foothold, Elephant Island is a misleading name, a diminutive little island and the beachhead where they landed was only a mere 100 feet wide and 50 feet deep.

Considering they had not stood on dry land for a year and a half, that cold, skinny, windswept sliver of land was a Paradise of terra firma. 22 of the 28 sailors remained there while 6, including the captain, sailed on to find help for a rescue. Within days of that group of six leaving the island, a daily ritual developed by those 22. Every morning began with almost everyone traipsing up that island’s bluff to the top to search the horizon for the return of those rescue boats with other help. Day after day after day, traipsing up the hill, searching the horizon, finding nothing. Back down. The next day, searching the horizon. Back down. After a certain point, a biographer writes, “they did so more out of habit than of hope.”

Matthew tells us that one day Jesus climbed a hill with his disciples, began preaching a sermon, and then in the very middle of it paused to pray. The prayer he prayed we’ve come to know as the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer most of us know like the back of our hand. Here’s my question. When we climb that figurative hill each week or at home, wherever it is, and pray that Lord’s Prayer, and again the following time and the following time and the following time, do we pray that prayer out of habit, or in hope? The reason I ask is that I’ve come to believe that the Lord’s Prayer is the church’s most hopeful and hope-engendering liturgy, rooted and rooting us in assurance, in trust, for God’s ongoing, life-giving work in the world, to bring wholeness and healing and shalom.

Let’s look at the context for the Lord’s prayer, the prayer we know like the back of our hand. This whole sermon that’s around the prayer — before it, afterward, that right in the middle we find the Lord’s Prayer. This whole sermon is a description of the beloved community (that’s us) in the most expansive, aspirational, hope-filled terms. Listen to these ways that Jesus talks about you and me and us:

Love your enemy. Pray for those who persecute you. Be pure in heart. Be merciful, be peacemakers, be reconcilers. Give generously, and with no interest in recognition and no thought of reward. Go the extra mile. Give the shirt off your back. Don’t worry about tomorrow; trust God to provide. “You are the light of the world. Let your light so shine that the rest of the world will see the way you live, the way you relate, the way you lead, the way you serve, and will give glory to God!”

The church faithfully present in the world, as Jesus envisions it in this sermon, is constantly seasoning and brightening and humanizing the wider society by the way the church leads and serves, advocates and responds, loves and forgives, and believes and hopes. Does that sound Simplistic to you? Naïve? Could be a children’s book, a nursery rhyme, the teacher climbs a hill and talks lambs and bunnies, sweetness and light. Jesus has read his Bible, friends. He’s too wise to be so naïve or simplistic. He’s read his Bible, he’s paid his taxes, he’s been through some Passover seders with those tense moments—who gets to sit where, who gets to say the next prayer. Jesus is profoundly realistic about the mix of false and true in human and social tendencies.

This sermon that had such brightness and warmth and promise, this sermon is laced with struggle and sober understandings of how awfully people can treat each other. There’s bullying, retribution, trials, evil, being punished for doing the right thing, arrogance, hubris, selfishness, self-importance. There’s extortion in this sermon, abuse of power, attention-seeking behavior. There’s lust and anger. Have I left anything out? Jesus is anything but pollyannaish about the way the world works. He’s a realist to the core and we are called to be realists too. But Jesus is a “hopeful realist”—that’s Reinhold Niebuhr’s phrase for the practice of God’s people in the world. Hopeful realists who see the world as it is, but searching the heart and the horizon through the lens of prayer and practice—serving and giving expectantly, and hopefully also sees the world through the silent and good and gentle, patient and persistent working of God, to bring creation home. The hopeful realist sees the world as it is, but also glimpses the world as it ought to be, as it is coming to be: a world unfevered, a world at peace, a world made whole.

This is the prayer, friends, that you and I pray every week. We could pray it with our eyes closed. This is the prayer that we pray sometimes at home or elsewhere, and whether we pray it out of habit or in hope, in some small way I want to believe that the sapling of hope that is ours, that is our lives in Christ, that sapling becomes watered and nourished and gifted with new sunlight with every praying of that prayer. “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” Is that really possible? We pray as Jesus taught us expecting it to be so, and every time we whisper that prayer, that little sapling grows a little bigger in us—habit, hope, whichever.

Does it really matter, finally? We can pray that prayer by habit for years and years and years, and then when that plane that we’re riding on goes through severe turbulence, we don’t need a bulletin to pray the Lord’s Prayer, do we? When we’re deathly ill, we don’t need a bulletin to pray the Lord’s Prayer. When we’re in the memory care unit and we’ve long since forgotten the names and faces and even the voices of those who love us, but we can still pray “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done.” Habit? Is that habit or hope? By the grace of God, habit becomes hope until hope becomes the habit of the heart—the way we live, the way we think, the way even beyond our thinking, our subconscious—expresses hope in God.

Our daughter Sarah works in Houston at Texas Children’s Hospital. Recently—picture them there, she’s a physical therapist, and the nurses and PTs and respiratory therapists, all the healthcare givers in their N95 masks and then a shield over that, most of their faces covered—recently, the Child Life Department created some buttons for them to pin onto their scrubs. Those buttons have a photograph of the person behind the mask, behind the shield, in the photograph there is no shield, there is no mask. They’re smiling freely. This is who I am in my mask, this is who I am beyond this masking time. This is a picture, friends, of the world right now, here and here, and I can imagine those little eyes on the other side of the caregiver, Sarah and her colleagues, nurses and doctors and therapists, tending to those children in need. I can imagine those little eyes darting back and forth from a voice to a picture, voice, picture. Those two going together somehow connecting the dots somehow. Someday those two will be the same: the voice, the picture; the prayer, the sermon; the hope, the fulfillment of that hope.

This coming week you and I will be praying and discerning and deciding how we will support the church we’ve been given to love and serve, the church that has loved and nurtured us—some of us for lifetimes—in our financial giving for the coming year, what that spiritual practice of generosity will be for us. What if we were to think of these gifts and pledges and estimates of giving—those cards we bring through the weeks, send in the mail, fill out online, bring to our drive thru next Sunday, or into this room to place at the altar—what if we were to think of those cards as a big button pinned to our scrubs, right over our heart? The photograph of what’s next for this world, according to our most hopeful prayer: that God’s kingdom of love and light, and forgiveness and mercy, and generosity and trust will come on earth, is coming on earth, has begun already to come on earth as it is in heaven. Our gifts connect the voice and the picture for the sake of all the little searching eyes within our care—the voice, the picture, the habit, the hope, the yearning, the gift. What if we made buttons for that purpose? Just a thought. Your picture, here, smiling without a mask.

On Aug 30, 1916, more than four months into that harsh wintery stay on that slim inhospitable stretch of beachhead, misnamed Elephant Island, those 22 castaways began their day the way they had begun all the other 130-odd days before that one—clamoring up the hill to the lookout bluff to satisfy themselves once more that there was no ship on the horizon. Except on that day, there on the horizon, that they had long since memorized for its blankness, a ship appeared—two ships actually: a Chilean tug boat and a British whaler, their captain, Ernest Shackleton, on board. They would be rescued that day, delivered to safety, then home to Britain, and to their families that had waited for them for two years since they first departed, with not a sailor lost.

Those buttons—I think we should make those to pin over our hearts. Don’t you? For October, for our stewardship focus. Except I suppose we could say that in a way we already have made them. It’s not a button exactly; it’s a card. And the picture’s not of us; it’s a picture of a young sapling, then a young tree, then larger, then a mature, beautiful tree. It is a way of hoping for the spring that will surely follow winter. Look at that, from sapling to mature tree leafing out in spring. I say it’s not a picture of you and me. Maybe it is.