Thursday, November 1, 2018

Unreasonable Hope

It never lets up: The news media offers a relentless pounding of anger, bitterness, and hate. Bombs are mailed to people who voice opinions in opposition to the president. A white man, who minutes earlier had tried to force his way into a black church, shoots two black shoppers in the parking lot of a grocery store. A man whose anti-semitic rants on social media concludes with “I’m going in” strides into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and kills 11 people gathered for worship and to celebrate the blessing of a new baby. 

New reports reveal that we have already damaged our planet possibly beyond repair: the oceans are warmer than we though and animals and insects are vanishing at a pace unmatched since the great extinctions launched by an asteroid slamming into the earth at the end of the Permian era. Venice is under water, again. So are the Carolinas. And Florida. Another year of powerful hurricanes has wiped out whole communities. And yet our leaders shrug, and do nothing. 

Thousands of refugees across the planet desperately seek safety, only to be vilified and turned aside everywhere they go. Men, women, and children fleeing violence in Central America are described as “invaders” and “thugs” and thousands of troops are deployed to keep them out, lest they reach our soil and ask for asylum and refuge. 

The older I get, the harder it is to be optimistic. If the Holocaust didn’t end anti-Semitism forever, what will? If the Civil Rights movement didn’t convince us racism is wrong, what can? If thousands of scientists worldwide warning us for decades about the consequences of our reliance on hydrocarbons isn’t enough to convince us we must change our ways, what will lead us to believe something must be done? If exhausted, weeping toddlers and mothers begging for help doesn’t break through the hardness of our hearts, what hope is there for any of us? 

There is no reasonable hope that a people so determined not to admit our role in the destruction we have wrought will somehow stop listening to the voices of fear and denial and decide to forge a different future. It is unreasonable to hope that our divisions will be healed and we will find new unity in working and sacrificing for one another and generations not yet born. No reasonable person could realistically hope that if we do not repay evil for evil, if we love our enemies, if we pray for those who persecute us, those who seek to do us harm will somehow stop and repent and join with us in healing the world instead.  It is not reasonable to think that hate can be overcome by love, that fear can be conquered by hope, that our broken, angry world can be healed by forgiveness and self-sacrifice.  

But I am a Christian, and my hope is not reasonable.

On All Saints Day, the gospel appointed is John’s account of the raising of Lazarus. The story begins with word coming to Jesus and his disciples that their good friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany, is deathly ill. Inexplicably, Jesus does nothing for several days. By the time he and the disciples finally arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. 

Mary and Martha are understandably distraught. They do their best, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to hear a note of accusation in  their voices as each, in turn, greets Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  When Jesus promises that Lazarus will rise again, Martha’s resignation is plain: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

For those who knew Jesus, these were reasonable hopes. Jesus was well known as a healer: the gospel notes that there were some in the crowd you had gathered to mourn Lazarus who wondered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” It was perfectly reasonable to think that someone who had exhibited the kind of healing powers Jesus had could have stopped Lazarus’s fatal illness in its tracks, if only he had come in time.  Since he hadn’t, the reasonable response was looking forward to  the promised Resurrection on the Day of Judgement. What else could anyone do? 

But what came next wasn’t reasonable at all. You can hear it in Martha’s incredulous warning: “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead four days.” Lazarus was not mostly dead: the body had already begun to decay, the soul fled. Lazarus was dead, and people who are dead do not come back to life, no matter how much we deny our loss, no matter how much we want them to, no matter how hard and sincerely we pray.  

And then… Jesus calls, and Lazarus comes out from the tomb, still tangled in the graveclothes. Beyond all hope and all possibility, he is restored to those he loves. He is reclaimed from death itself. God’s love proves stronger even than the tomb. Suddenly, unreasonable hope does not look so unreasonable after all. St. Paul would later sum up this newfound sense of impossible hope by writing, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

As Christians, we have many reasonable hopes. We have reasonable hope that if we live lives of charity and cancern for others, we will reap what we sow. We have reasonable hope that if we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and advocate for social justice, we can help guide our country toward being a more just place, a better place to live for all. We have a reasonable hope that if we participate in self-examination and prayer, our eyes and hearts will be opened and we will be healed of the sins of racism, bigotry, and hatred that hide in the dark corners of our own minds and souls. 

But looking out in our world, these hopes are just not enough. Sin and evil and hatred seem so much bigger and more powerful than our hopes. Death looms over us and denies the God of Life. It warns us to go home, to hide, to close our borders and our doors to keep the dangers of the world at bay for as long as we can. Despair tells us not to bother voting or protesting or  writing letters, because we will not be heard.  Fear mocks us for speaking of our reasonable hopes, telling us we are foolish and naive. 

We must instead trust in unreasonable hope — the hope revealed to us when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, when God raised the crucified Jesus on the third day, the hope that Paul writes about in Romans 8:18-25:

"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."

In the face of so much death and despair, only unreasonable hope will do. And that’s what we have been given: unreasonable hope. Because if Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead, then nothing is beyond the power of our God. We may have hope in the promise of new life no matter how much the forces of evil and death assault us. Our hope is not reasonable, but it is true. As John says, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." May we live and act filled with this unreasonable hope that no amount of fear and anger and bitterness can destroy.