Giving Hope: Given Hope
At the very heart of the Christian faith lies a paradox, one we tend either to resist as suspicious or way too costly, or, as we grow wiser, and our hearts more tender, to embrace as trustworthy and true and deeply fulfilling. That paradox is perhaps summarized most eloquently in a phrase as we know as “The Prayer of Saint Francis”: “It is in giving that we receive.” In offering ourselves to others in service, compassion, advocacy, leadership, over and over again through the course of our years and our lifetimes, we find our truest sense of spiritual purpose and reward; find ourselves more and more convinced that we have received more than we have given.
This paradox, this mystery, finds expression in our text today. The Judean exiles being addressed in Jeremiah’s letter find themselves living in Babylon, the city of their captors, with its foreign customs, laws, and language. The prophet’s words imply that by working for good for the permanent residents of that strange and even hostile environment, even wishing them well, that the exiled community will in turn do well. “Seek the peace of the city”, Jeremiah writes in a word from Yaweh, “seek the peace of the city; pray for its welfare, and your own welfare will follow. I will give you a future with hope.” Thus says the Lord. It is in giving that we receive. Including, it seems, when the gift being given is hope.
Fast-forward from the 6th century BC to the present day, 2020, we find ourselves to have been besieged, in a sense, held captive by a virus. Carted off into exile, as it were, separated from each other, even from our own families; living in a strange land with its own strange language—Covid-19, airborne transmission, positivity rates, longhaulers, negative pressure rooms. This is a vocabulary we’ve had to learn overnight, how to speak and its own culture, this exile place we live in just now, its own culture and its own cultural norms and rules: keep your distance, wear a mask, wash your hands, second-guess every sneeze. All this is going on out there, and at the very same time in a corresponding way, it’s going on in here as well—that disruption, that disorientation, that discouragement in our own hearts. Where is hope to be found?
Seek the peace of the city; pray for its welfare and your own will follow. I will give you a future with hope. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? What these exiles receiving Jeremiah’s letter must be thinking? Nice idea, God, in a perfect world, with a perfect person. But where are we supposed to get this hope that we are told to share with others in a time and place like this, any more than those Judean exiles had hope available to them in such a time and place like they were experiencing? Where does that hope come from?
John Wesley, the Anglican priest who became the founder of Methodism, experienced his own sort of Covid year. The year was 1737 and Wesley was in a strange land with strange customs, assigned to mission work in the British colony of Georgia. It didn’t go well for Rev. Wesley. Many things in his work proved frustrating or self-defeating; perhaps most representative of his difficulty was a personal failure. While he was there he met a certain Sophia Hopkey, and the two entered into a courtship, but Wesley was ambivalent regarding marriage, and so he was slow to cultivate that relationship toward marriage. Meanwhile, Sophia grew weary with that slow pace and eventually moved on, finding someone else, and marrying him. And in what some consider a passive-aggressive gesture—you be the judge of this—Wesley, one morning, presiding over the communion table on a technicality, refused Holy Communion to Sophia Hopkey. Sophia was no shrinking violet. She took this matter to the local magistrates and things escalated from there. In December of that year, John Wesley, seeing the handwriting on the wall, gave himself an early Christmas present, a ticket of passage on the next ship back to England. The whole awful experience left him deflated. humiliated, discouraged, thinking himself to be an utter failure, and yet, he still had to go to work.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where everything inside you said, “I quit, I’m done, this is too much, stop the world, I want to get off?” But for some peculiar reason the world doesn’t stop, and the bills keep on coming. And so we keep showing up for work anyway, in spite of everything we’re feeling inside because we really have no choice. For this preacher, Wesley, it meant continuing to preach back in England. But imagine it, no emotion or purpose, essentially trying to draw water up from a well gone dry. Wesley found himself confiding in a minister from the Moravian church, a minister named Peter Bohler who was in England at the time. Sharing with Bohler—you know how it is, when we’re desperate enough we will find a confidant where we can—lowering the threshold of requirements for that purpose, he found Peter Bohler to be a listening ear and shared with him his growing conviction that he was preaching without conviction, and that he couldn’t do it with the most remarkable, gentle, tender wisdom. His confidant, Peter Bohler the Moravian, gave the Methodists, and the future Methodists, words to live by when he told him, “Preach faith until you have faith.”
In the words of a popular song from another time, “Send it off in a letter to yourself.” Choosing to serve, to lead, to love, to give—even right now, in this environment, when we’re not at all sure what that means or amounts to—those choices, those practices, of serving and leading of giving our treasure to the church, those practices become the pathway by which hope reaches into the weary, hurting heart. To lift a lantern for others, even when our arm begins to ache from holding it high, lights our own path too.
The Hebrew word for hope is tiqvah. Tiqvah. It’s related to a word in Hebrew, cord, as if tying one thing to another, such as giving others hope, we ourselves are given hope. That’s the paradoxical mysterious cord of tiqvah. Hope.
As you know, we’ve been pealing the tower bells every Sunday at noon without fail since April 12th, Easter Sunday. When we rang the bells that day, I suppose it was the first time I had really noticed or paid attention to the fact that the bells in the tower continue to ring even after the ringers have stopped pulling on those cords. It’s almost as though there is a certain momentum to the melodious, that somehow music extends even beyond our resources to keep it going; and if that momentum was at play in the bell tower, perhaps then it was also real down below, in the world, and in our own hearts too. “I hear bells ringing”, wrote the Indian poet, “that no one has shaken”, as if the long arm of grace has taken over where we tired or were depleted and continue that melodious momentum in our direction too.
Friends, this is our season, this is our moment, our time as the church for pealing the bells at church for others, sending their hopeful strains into a discordant atmosphere desperate to hear those notes, sending them out in trust that tiqvah cord will tie them back to us, fall on our ear, find a path to the depths of our very being, tying their music, their melodious momentum, to our own longing hearts with hope as the gift, both ways. This is the day to make that gift, that pledge, that commitment, that is for the life-giving, life-changing, life-renewing work of Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, carrying that melody of the Methodists into the coming year. Preach faith until you have faith. Give hope until you experience hope. Pete Bohler, from another denomination, gave the Methodists the gift of generations, the gift for a Covid year. And in making the gift of such hopefulness, we receive that same gift ourselves. Send it off in a letter to yourself. Maybe use this for stationery. Consecrate, friends in Christ, consecrate your lives with me today to God, and to the gospel work, the gospel life we share in Christ. And let us be assured that this hope we give to others through our giving will surely, in time, be given to us as well.