Monday, March 26, 2007

So What's New?

SJF • Lent 5c • Tobias Haller BSG

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
Some of you may have seen comedian Jeff Foxworthy on television. He comes from the poor white southern population of the US known disparagingly as rednecks — because the back of the neck is where white folks get a sunburn working out in the fields. Foxworthy has been using humor to take the edge off of this insulting epithet, and if you’ve ever seen his comedy act you will know how he has a whole catalog of things by which, if you do them, you would know that “You just might be a redneck” — besides having sunburn on your neck.

One of his lines is, “If you’ve got a new TV that works sitting on top of an old TV that doesn’t work, you just might be a redneck.”

Now, what struck me about this, is that I don’t think it applies only to rednecks. I have a feeling it may be more generational than regional, and more about attitude than income. And I say this because I’ve known many people over the years who have just these kinds of appliances in their homes — and I will confess to you that even as I speak, over at rectory there is a TV set that does not work very well, but is of an appropriate size and shape, that is being used more as an end table than as a television. In addition, there are at least two broken computers in the basement. But although I come from a family that is undeniably white, by most definitions poor, and from just south of the Mason Dixon line, the closest any of us ever came to agricultural work was mowing the lawn.

I know for a fact that I’m not the only person here at Saint James today who finds it hard to throw things away. I do not believe I am the only person here who has ever said, “Well, you’d never know when we might need it.” And if you don’t believe me, I invite you to take a tour of the church basement!

I said a moment ago that this may be a generational issue: those of us whose parents lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War were brought up — even in the relatively prosperous days following that War — with a kind of hyper-awareness about wastefulness, a memory of rationing and short supplies, of making do, of scrimping and saving. We were brought up to save things, to recycle things, and not to throw things away — in case we might need them some day.

So I think that perhaps many of us here can relate to those people in the Psalm this morning: those who sowed with tears; who went out weeping, carrying the seed. Why were they weeping? Well, these agricultural workers, these ancient Israelite rednecks, were living in a desert land, in the middle of a drought. They had a few grains of wheat — which they could grind into flour, and bake, and eat, and have nothing left; and then starve. Or they could plant those grains of wheat, even as they watered them with their tears, risking and hoping that the rains would come and the crop would grow. They would have to let go of the old — to give it up, literally to bury it in the ground as if dead — in order for the new crop, the new life, to come.

Our other scriptures today similarly talk about getting rid of what is old, but frankly in a much more dismissive way. Isaiah tells us, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” And he refers contemptuously to what has gone before as being “extinguished, quenched like a wick.” I want to refer you to a more recent quotation that I came across last week, from a wonderful speech by Abraham Lincoln, referring to those who through the 18th and 19th centuries worked so hard to preserve and protect the institution of slavery, even as more and more people were coming to realize it was time for it to end.

It is fitting to recall this today — the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade. It took decades of work by people like William Wilberforce to achieve that goal, finally, in 1807. Fifty years later, Lincoln noted how Wilberforce’s was a name that lived in honored memory, while those who supported slavery were forgotten for the embarrassment they were. It may be that Lincoln was thinking of exactly this passage from Isaiah when he compared Wilberforce’s legacy with that of those who favored slavery: “Though they blazed, like tallow-candles for a century, at last they flickered in the socket, died out, stank in the dark for a brief season, and were remembered no more, even by thesmell.” Now that is dismissive of what has gone before, remembering it no more — even by the smell!

Then in his letter to the Philippians, Paul uses similarly dismissive language when he says that since he came to know Jesus Christ, he has come to regard everything from the past as so much rubbish — and I will say that “rubbish” is a rather polite translation; I invite you to check that verse in the King James Version! Paul presses forward to what lies ahead and forgets everything, and I mean everything, that lies behind.

But then, just as we are beginning to think that rejecting things is what we’re supposed to be doing, Jesus brings us up short with that challenging text, quoting from a different Psalm, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” That begins to sound more like the lessons my mother taught me; or my grandmother — who saved every last bit of string that came into the house, and would even go so far as to iron aluminum foil in order to get more use out of it: “You never know when you might need it. Waste not, want not. Don’t throw that away; it’s perfectly good.” And, since my grandmother was a seamstress, “We can roll that cuff and the jacket will be as good as new.” I will confess that through most of my young years, the sleeves of my jackets revealed several inches of shirt-cuff!

So what is the difference, my friends, the difference between the builders who reject that cornerstone, and Isaiah who throws out the old candle stub when it’s too short to reach above the socket, or the sowers who go out weeping to plant their seed?

The difference — and what a difference it makes — is that practical virtue of hope; knowing when there is reason to hope and taking that risk, and distinguishing it from false hope that is only a form of folly, or folly that doesn’t have the wisdom to see the real present use for a cornerstone that fits precisely where needed. A candle stub that is shorter than the socket it sits in really is of no use — it is not going to get any longer, and will only burn down into the socket and, as Abraham Lincoln said, stink! I can keep that broken computer in the basement for as long as I like — but it is not going to start working, and I’d be crazy to think it will.

But the seed that the sowers bear in hope, is not like these other things — these candle stubs and rubbish — because seeds have a possible future. If you grind them into flour to make bread their future will be short. But if you plant them in the ground in the hope that the rains will come they may bring forth 60 and a hundredfold. The harvest can indeed be plentiful, so that even those laborers who go out weeping, carrying the seed, can come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves. This is the proper way to lose hold of what is past, to give it up, sanctified by the hope that in giving it up you will receive an even greater blessing in return.

Those who cling to the past or to the present, who can only value what they have obtained, or what they see before their eyes, are like the foolish tenants in the parable: they imagine that by wiping out the future — killing the one who has the right of inheritance — they will be able to take permanent control and possession of something for which they were only employed as temporary custodians. This is madness, surely — as mad in its own way but at a greater scale — as storing up rubbish or accumulating candle stubs or hoarding your seed and never planting it — even as you starve.

We are called, beloved, to fix our hope on better things — to fix our hope in Christ Jesus our Lord. In comparison to him all other things are worthless. As the hymn says so well, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” He is the stone that the builders rejected — and woe to us if we reject him too! Rather, we are called to open our eyes to see how perfectly he fits, how completely he can satisfy our deepest longings, our deepest needs, our deepest hunger. Let us not err like the builders who rejected that perfect cornerstone, but let us embrace him as the cornerstone of our lives, forgetting all the rest of the stuff the world clamors for us to substitute in his place. Let us set aside what is old and worthless, set it out on the street to be collected for the rubbish that it is. Let us plant our seeds in hope, knowing in hope that a rich harvest awaits; let us cling to the rock of salvation, who though rejected by others shall be the foundation for our lives, and for our lives to come.

He is a solid rock, a cornerstone secure, a sure and certain hope upon which our souls can take their stand.

“On Christ the solid rock I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.”

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Three R's

SJF • Lent 4c • Tobias Haller BSG

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ...
About a month ago we ended the Epiphany season and began our Lenten pilgrimage by reflecting on the three virtues: faith, hope and love. This morning, I want to speak about three basic elements of the Christian faith — the three R’s, if you will — repentance, reconciliation, and renewal. These are the actions that put those virtues into practice. Surely they are appropriate subjects for the Lenten season of self-examination, forgiveness, and preparation for the ultimate renewal — Easter. So it is fitting that we all review these “Three R’s” and see what application they have to our lives as Christian disciples.

Repentance has suffered a fate common to often-used words. It has been confused with the similar-sounding words, penitence and penance. So for many today, repentance means feeling sorry over some past action. It is primarily an affair of the heart and mind: a matter of how you feel and what you think — a mental and emotional state.

When we hear the command to “Repent!” we tend to respond by sitting down and, like Fagin in the musical Oliver, “reviewing the situation.” In this process we think about the things we’ve done and left undone. We engage our emotions, and we experience a twinge of regret. Perhaps we say to ourselves we’ll do better in the future, then sigh, get up and go on about our business, feeling pleased with ourselves for being such sensitive, moral persons.

Or perhaps our feelings do go deeper. Perhaps we are conscious of some far weightier matter, some sin that truly troubles and weighs on our hearts — and yet that’s as far as it goes — we feel bad but simply remain in our bad feelings.

The problem with both responses: feeling good about ourselves for feeling humble, or feeling bad about ourselves because we are so awful, is that neither has much to do with the Gospel concept of repentance. In the teaching of Christ, feelings or thoughts, whether in the form of patting ourselves on the back or beating ourselves black-and-blue, do not represent repentance.

Now, I’m not saying we should not use our intellect to review our shortcomings, or that we should not engage our emotions and feel sorry for our failings— but feeling good because we’ve felt sorry is obviously shallow; and feeling so miserable that we are beyond redemption is surely presumptuous! And neither is true repentance.

What then is it to repent? What is Jesus looking for when he calls us to repent? While the repentance described in the Gospel does employ the intellect and engage the emotions, it culminates in another faculty of the human soul altogether: the will. Gospel repentance means not just that you are aware of your guilt, or even sorry for your actions, but that you turn around and act. C.S. Lewis once noted that the best thing to do when you find you’re going the wrong way is to turn around and head back! Or as the old anthem said, “Turn back, O Man, forswear thy foolish ways!” And it is the deliberate act of turning around that is true repentance.

To show us what he means by repentance, Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son. At first we appear to be on familiar ground: This young man becomes mindful of what he’s done, stuck in the middle of a pig-sty far from home, he reviews his situation and feels totally miserable.

But — and this is where repentance begins — he doesn’t stop there, with thoughts and feelings, moping to himself and feeling sorry.His sorrow and regret spur and spark him to his true repentance, which consists in getting up and turning around and heading back home.

The young man starts his journey, probably going over his confession in his mind as he goes. And here the story takes a surprising turn. The Father doesn’t wait to hear his son’s confession. He doesn’t wait to find out if the son “feels sorry.” He doesn’t wait on the porch in awful silence for the son to finish the long walk home under his unblinking eye. No, as soon as this loving Father sees his son coming, while yet far off, the Father runs to him and embraces him. For the culmination of repentance is God’s outgoing ingathering. Repentance leads us to reconciliation, our second “R.”

Now just as repentance is more than feeling sorry, so Gospel reconciliation is more than a handshake and a “Let bygones be bygones.” And reconciliation in the Gospel isn’t like reconciliation of a checkbook or an account — where the goal is to have the plusses balance the minuses. No, in Gospel reconciliation, God always tips the balance to the surplus of grace, for God is more ready to give than we are prepared to receive. God would never make it as an accountant! Reconciliation is the act of a gracious and loving God, reaching out to save what has been lost and to set things right, out of the abundance of his grace.

I need to note here, that in Luke’s Gospel, two other parables immediately precede that of the Prodigal Son: The Lost Sheep, and the Lost Coin. In all three, repentance is intimately tied up with God’s gracious perseverance in seeking out that which is lost, going beyond the expected to do the astounding. Whether God is portrayed as Good Shepherd, Careful Housewife, or Loving Father, the power of reconciliation resides with God. The Shepherd could have said of the lost sheep, “Leave him alone and he’ll come home, wagging his tail behind him.” The Housewife could have said of the lost coin, “I’ll probably find it some day down behind the sofa cushions.” And the Father could have stayed on the porch, and when his son finally reached him, said, “Well, I see you’ve finally come to your senses. But since you’ve spent your inheritance, the best I’ll do is take you on as a hired hand. And you’ll have to sleep in the barn; ‘cause we don’t allow the help in the house.”

But that isn’t what happens in any of these parables. In each case the reconciliation is extravagant - it goes well beyond the expected, and tips the balance generously. The Shepherd doesn’t just find the sheep, and doesn’t just lead the sheep home, but carries it home rejoicing! The Housewife doesn’t just find the coin and put it in the sugar bowl and go about her business; she calls the whole neighborhood to celebrate — and probably spends more on the party than the coin was worth. And the Father doesn’t stand in the doorway waiting for his son to apologize; he runs down the road and meets him and embraces him before he can get a word out.

This is the glory of grace, its extravagance, that God comes to us in compassion while we are still on the road home— while we are yet sinners. It is not we who reconcile ourselves with God, it is God who reconciles us, and the whole world, to himself, in Christ Jesus, taking no account of past sins. And this brings us to our third “R”— Renewal.

We’ve turned around, forswearing our foolish ways — that’s repentance. We’ve been met on the road and embraced by our loving God — extravagant in his gracious forgiveneness — that’s reconciliation. But note that the Father in our parable doesn’t seem to pay any attention to his son’s confession; he doesn’t even say, I forgive you. No, he simply takes no account of past sins. I said before, God is no accountant — he always juggles the books in our favor. But we know who’s been keeping account, right? We know whose been keeping careful track of things. The older brother: he’s stewed over this for a long time, he’s made his list and checked it twice, and he rattles off the whole list of offenses to remind his father of how badly his kid brother has acted. But the father isn’t interested in this account of past sins. He’s too busy ordering up the fatted calf, the best robe, the new shoes, the ring. He’s completely caught up in the fact that the lost has been found, the dead restored to life. He is going to strip the dirty coveralls off that boy, hose him down to get rid of the last relics of the pigsty, dress him as a prince and hold a par-tay! — and that’s renewal.

Paul catches the same excitement in the passage we read this morning: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old has passed away,
behold the new has come! All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” We too have been reconciled — had our dirty overalls stripped off. We’ve been hosed down and washed clean in the waters of Baptism. And we’ve been dressed up — not as hired hands — but as ambassadors of Christ! We, who once moped in the spiritual pig-sty of sin have been given the ministry of reconciliation. We who once languished in a pigsty in a foreign land, have been commissioned as ambassadors of our true heavenly country!

And, as with repentance, thoughts or feelings are not enough to carry us through in our work as ambassadors. It is not enough to be well-informed about the needs of the world. It is not enough to feel sorry for those who have not yet heard the good news. It is not enough to pity the homeless, the hungry, the poor, and the sick. We are called to action. Just as awareness of and sorrow for our sins is the spur to move us to repentance, so too the pity we feel for the sick, the hungry, or the poor is meant to spur us on to charity.

It is all too easy to feel sorry for someone. We do it when we see a drama on T.V. or at the movies, and those are just fictional characters! Our work as ambassadors of Christ, as ministers of reconciliation, must consist of more than feeling sorry. For just as with repentance, feelings of compassion, unless they are followed by acts of compassion, are worth nothing. If we are to be true to the one whose gracious action, in giving himself to death on the cross, saved us from the power of sin, then we too must act. God has brought us to this fourth “R”— righteousness. In Christ we have the power to become the righteousness of God to people far and near.

This righteousness is ours only as a gift— a gift of grace, which we receive like the prodigal himself, who was restored not because he felt sorry for himself, but because his father loved him so much.

For the Father did love the Son, and loves us too, so much so that he gave his Son to the end that we might not perish, but have everlasting life. By making him to be sin who knew no sin, God canceled the debt of sin, nailing it to the cross, deader than a doornail. God has rolled the stone of our disgrace away, as surely as the stone was rolled from the tomb in which our Lord and Savior lay.

And grace has been with us every step of the way. God’s grace spoke in our hearts, bringing us to repentance. Grace led us on the road of return, and fed us with the manna of reconciliation on the way. Grace renewed us and clothed us in garments of righteousness, and grace will see us through on our mission as ambassadors of Christ. Let us therefore celebrate, and invite everyone, near and far, to the celebration, for that which was dead has come to life, and the lost has been found. +

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Flame of Love

SJF • Lent 3c • Tobias Haller BSG

The bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

For the last two weeks we have been exploring the great virtues, beginning with faith and hope. Today brings us to greatest of the virtues, the enduring and eternal virtue, the one that lasts for ever: the virtue of Love — completing the circle that began on the Sunday before Lent began, when we heard those beautiful words from Saint Paul: Love never ends.

Love is eternal, Saint Paul told the Corinthians. And love is eternal because it is reborn in every instant. Love is always now. Faith looks to the past, and gives thanks for all that God has done. Hope looks to the future and trusts in God to provide. But love lives in the present, if it lives at all.

It is no good telling someone you loved them once, or that you’ll love them some day — who wants to hear that? And even hearing someone say, “I have always loved you” or “I will always love you” wouldn’t mean anything unless the one saying it loves you now. Love, true love, is eternal because it is alive in every moment. Love is like a fire that burns, but does not consume.

Moses confronted that love one day while he was keeping his father-in-law’s sheep, living as a stranger in a strange land. God appeared to him as a flame that burned but did not consume, burning eternally on holy ground.

The God of love chose to reveal himself to Moses for one reason: he had heard the cry of his people in Egypt, and would deliver them, because he loved them, because they were his. The eternal love of God became, in that particular time and place, (as it always becomes in every time and place) the present love of God in action. The God of the faith that was past, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob’s faith in God, the God of the hope of the future, who would visit and deliver his people, here on the mountain reveals himself as God Who Is Who He Is, or even better (as one translation — a Jewish one, I might add, the Koren Jerusalem Bible — puts it) the God who Is now what he always will Be. This is the God of the eternal and everlasting Now, the God who is love, burning but not consuming; giving life, not taking it, the God of love, present to forgive, to rescue and to redeem; the one who was, and who is to come — but who is always Love. As Saint John would affirm many centuries later, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Some of the theologians have focused on this story of the burning bush, and the Name God tells Moses to call him by, as a way of emphasizing God as pure Being, He Who Is, or “Being itself.” I would like to suggest that Saint John’s description is more apt — rather than get involved in debates about the nature of being, and like the former President parsing what is is, and simply declare that God is love. And that when we love we are most like God.

My brother in Christ Thomas Bushnell made a fine observation not too long ago. He pointed out that while we are called to have faith, hope and love, there is a reason for love being the greatest. We have faith, but God does not need to have faith — God is the object of our faith. We have hope, but God doesn’t need hope; God knows what is to come better than we do! Faith and hope relate us to God, because we have faith in God and hope for God’s plans for us; but love is the means by which we reflect God’s own being, as mirrors or likenesses of God, made in God’s image; and this responding love joins us to God; for God not only has love, but as Saint John says, God is Love.

After all, as Paul assured us, Love believes all things and hopes all things — it embraces both faith and hope — and it endures because it is embodied in the eternal nature of God, and it is through love that we are joined with God. That love of God that Is God, is eternal — it burns forever, and never consumes the source of its flame.

Most of you have probably seen the famous photograph taken in 1972 at the height of the Vietnam War, a disturbing photograph of a nine-year-old girl, running, burning and naked, from a napalm attack. It is a picture most of us probably find it hard tolook at for very long.

But there’s someone who for years found it even harder. His name is also John. He is the man responsible for bombing the village from which that horribly wounded, burning young girl is running. He had been assured by reconnaissance that there were no civilians in the area — twice. Yet after the bombing was over and done with, there was the photograph. The photograph was documentary evidence of the faultiness of military intelligence.

After the war, that photograph haunted John, appearing again and again in newspapers and magazines, in film clips and television programs, one of the most-reproduced wartime photographs ever taken. Think of that: think of the worst thing you’ve ever done turning up on the History Channel, featured in newspaper articles, even reprinted in your children’s high school history books. How’s that for a Lenten exercise? The worst thing you’d ever done plastered everywhere for all the world to see. For John, it was a constant reminder, a constant pain, not just for Lent, but his whole life.

And there was nothing he could do about it. He wanted to tell the girl in the picture he was sorry. He wanted to say it wasn’t his fault, that he’d been told there were no civilians in the village. But there was the picture, with its own pain fixed for ever, the open-mouthed face with its silent scream, the skinny, burned, naked figure running with arms waving in pain, a silent agony in black and white.

Then, in June of 1996, John learned that the young woman in the picture not only had survived, but was still alive. Her name was Kim. He also learned the story of how the photograph had been taken, the moving story of the pain he’d only known as a still image on a page. On that day in 1972, Kim and her family had been hiding in a building when it was hit. They ran into the street, where the napalm from a second bomber hit them. As the young woman ran, she tore off her burning clothing; two of her young cousins were killed. The photographer, seconds after snapping that horrible picture, was joined by other journalists, pouring what water they had in their canteens on her burns, doing what they could before she was rushed to a hospital.

John heard that Kim was going to speak at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, and he knew that he had to try to see her. As he stood with the thousands gathered there, he heard her say that if she ever met the man responsible for her suffering, she would tell him she forgave him. They could not change the past, but they could work for a better future.

John found a way to get a note to her, a note telling her that the man she spoke of was there. He wrote later of their meeting, “She saw my grief, my pain, my sorrow. She held out her arms to me and embraced me. All I could say was, ‘I’m sorry; I’m so sorry; I’m sorry,’ over and over again. At the same time she was saying, ‘It’s all right; it’s all right; I forgive, I forgive.’”

The flame of charity burns, but it does not consume. The fire of love is fierce, but it does not destroy; on the contrary, it builds up and bears fruit — and it endures. Whether a burning bush, or the generous heart of a young girl who could forgive great pain, or the twisted figure on a cross crying out, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”: Love burns, oh how it burns — but it does not consume. And it will keep on burning, persistent and earnest until it warms the coldest hearts into responding love.

Compared to God’s eternal love, our love may seem lukewarm. We aren’t burning bushes aglow with the love of God. Sometimes we may be more like fruitless fig trees in need of loving care and a second chance, or even a third, some cultivation and probably a good load of fertilizer! We can be a pretty sorry sight, sometimes. But it’s all right, it’s all right, God assures us again and again. God forgives us, he forgives us. And he loves us. As Leighton Ford so aptly put it, “God loves us as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us as we are.” God sends us gardeners to tend us, to cultivate and nourish us, loving us year by year into fruitfulness, And God sends the fire of his love, the flame of charity, to transform us and to warm us. God will keepon loving us, persistently warming us with the flame of the Holy Spirit until we glow with the love that burns but does not consume — the everlasting flame of the love of God. +

The story of the Vietnam photograph is based on a press release from Evangelical Press News Service.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Hope Grows Like a Forest

SJF • Lent 2c • Tobias Haller BSG
Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there we are expecting a savior... +
Last week we began our Lenten exploration of the great, enduring virtues by looking at Faith. Today we turn our attention to the second virtue, Hope. I said last week that Faith looks both to the past and to the future. Hope, however, by definition, looks to the future alone. The problem is, when things aren’t going well, a miserable present can make the future look grim, especially if one has not cultivated this particular virtue.

We can learn something about the nature of hope by looking at those who are hopeful. Take Abraham in this morning’s reading from Genesis. God promises Abraham a rich reward. And at first, Abraham makes use of that wonderful freedom to talk back to God, to “give God a hard time” in the way I referred to a few weeks ago. He makes ample use of his freedom to speak up, and to speak out: a freedom nourished through an intimate relationship with God, that peculiar Jewish virtue called chutzpah, which is clearly related to hope — for who argues if he has no hope of winning the argument? When God tells Abraham that he will receive a very great reward, Abraham doesn’t just give thanks — because he’s got a bone to pick with God. So he puts God on the spot by saying, “What will you give me, for I continue childless. You have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” He’s saying, essentially, “What good can you do for me if it is only for me — if it is not something I can pass on to the future. Whatever good you give me will be bitter if I know that only a slave will inherit it, and not my own flesh and blood.”

So God shows Abraham the stars of heaven, and assures him that not only will he have a child, but his descendants will be more numerous than the number of those stars. And then, having sweetened the hope for the future — that is, a host of descendants to whom to pass along the blessing — God names the blessing itself, and promises Abraham the land from Egypt to Assyria, for him, and more importantly, for his descendants for ever.

Abraham’s story tells us two things about Hope. Hope is a flower that blooms in the desert, about believing in a promise yet to be fulfilled. It is about a promised future, not a present reality. It comes to be in the midst of awareness of what is lacked, of what is needed. It is those who thirst who hope for water, those who hungerwho hope for bread. In this case, it is the childless man who hopes for descendants. We hope for what we do not have: As Saint Paul wrote to the Romans, “Who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

It is precisely when things look bad that hope springs up to rescue our hearts from falling into desolation. Those who are “hopeless” have nothing to live for. Just as memory for God’s generosity in the past gives rise to thanksgiving and faith, so anticipation of God’s goodness for the future is the gift of hope. Hope rings in the voice of God telling a childless man that he will have more descendants than there are stars in the heavens. Hope is God’s promise to a homeless man wandering in a land far from the place of his birth, that this strange land will be his children’s and his children’s children’s home. So it is that hope is most needed precisely when things look their worst; the promise is most dear when things look most unpromising.

The second thing Abraham’s story tells us about hope is that it embraces others. Hope is about sharing. The reward God gives to Abraham is not just for Abraham, but for his descendants: to enjoy the land the Lord has given them. Hope is not just for yourself. Faith is something you have for yourself — you may have faith in someone else, but you don’t have faith for someone else; though your faith may encourage others to find their own faith. But hope, at its most hopeful, goes beyond your own hopes, to include others — and you can have hopes for others, even when they have no hopes of their own, when they have given up; and you can have hopes for others even when you defer realizing your hopes for yourself. How many parents work extra hard to raise money - not to make themselves rich, but to provide for their children’s education? Their hope is not for themselves, but for their children. And so it is with Abraham’s hope, nourished by God’s promise, for the generations and generations to come: life in a promised land.

Hope is shown in the ability to postpone an immediate reward for the sake of a greater one down the road. Some years ago a study was done with young children, to examine just this question. Each child sat at a table with a plate and a single cookie. The researcher would say the cookie was theirs, and they could eat it now, but if they would wait for five minutes until the researcher came back, they could have twocookies. Each child would then be left alone for five minutes, with the hidden cameras rolling. You can guess what happened: some of the children took the cookie right away, and others waited, some unable to overcome their impatience giving in and taking the cookie after a struggle — and for those that endured to the end, that wait of five minutes seemed an eternity. But that wasn’t the end of the study. I don’t think anyone would be surprised at these results. The researchers kept track of those children for ten years, to see what happened to them. And it seems that the children who deferred eating one cookie in the hopes of getting two generally did better at school and in life than the ones who gobbled the cookie as soon as the researcher left the room. I can’t tell you how many of them became investment bankers; but on average they did well for themselves. Hope that looks to the future, the ability to defer in patience, can help equip one for a hopeful and productive life.

Let me tell you the story of another kind of hope, the kind of patient hope that looks to the future. French author Jean Giono was hiking in the Alps in 1913. Due to the growth in industry, the whole region had been deforested, and the barren landscape, dry streambeds and abandoned villages bore testimony to the wastefulness of going for short term profits. Industrialization had eaten the cookie, so to speak. Giono met an old shepherd who invited him to share his hut for the night. After a humble dinner, he watched the old man carefully sort through a pile of acorns, casting aside the ones that were cracked or moldy, until he had 100 perfect uncracked acorns. Giono asked what the acorns were for. The shepherd told him that in his travels over the last three years, he had planted 100,000 trees, poking holes in the ground with his shepherds staff as he walked along, and dropping in an acorn here and there, and of those he reckoned that a fifth had sprouted. Of the sprouts, he expected about half to survive the weather. But even with a return of only ten percent — a tithe, I might add! — he would go on planting.

Some years later, after the Great War ended, Giono returned to the region, and discovered how far the forest had grown. And with the forest had come renewal to the streams, the beginnings of meadows. After the Second World War Giono, himself now an old man, visited the area again, and found it aglow with prosperity. He wrote, “On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms... The old streams...are flowing again. The villages have been rebuilt... People have moved in, bringing youth, motion, the spirit of adventure.” The old shepherd who planted acorns in 1913 knewthat the forest that was yet to come was not for him to enjoy. He not only deferred the one cookie, but decided that the double portion, when it came, would be for others to enjoy. He did not live to see the forest, but in his heart he walked every day through a forest of hope.

Hope is not about individual good fortune, but about shared joy, joy that is a gift to others.

In today’s Gospel we see Jesus standing between the two realities of hope, the promise and the sharing. Jesus confronts the unpromising reality of the earthly Jerusalem. Here is a city that murders the prophets, a city that is like an obstinate child who refuses the comforting embrace of its mother, who would rather be miserable and sulk than be held and fed; who grabs the cookie even before the researcher has left the room! But Jesus can see, even in that unpromising town, the glimmer of a future heavenly banquet, at which people will come from east and west, from north and south, to join Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets sharing in the great feast in the kingdom of God, in the new Jerusalem. Jesus can look at the empty plot of land, or the devastated wreck of a ruined town, and see a forest. He can look at Jerusalem in all its imperfection and see the promise of what it can be, of what it will be. He can look at Jerusalem in all its obstinate self-will, its murderous ingratitude, its selfish grasping, and see the sharing of the heavenly banquet. Jesus has hope, hope in the promise that is shared.

We too live between the two Jerusalems, the spoiled and unpromising Jerusalem of much of our daily life, and the hopeful joy of the Jerusalem in which the Lord’s table is set, and in which our true citizenship lies, a citizenship shared with the multitudes who gather for the banquet. May we, as our Lenten pilgrimage continues, learn to see the promise and the sharing and the hope, even when things seem unpromising, when people prove selfish, and hope seems impractical. May we learn to hope in God’s promise for generations to come who will worship in this place, setting aside that dedicated portion of our treasure, that tithe out of all that God has given us, to preserve and protect and rebuild this place. May we sit in patience, not gobbling our resources for immediate needs and pleasures, as we wait for the realization of a better promise. May we learn to plant acorns; even as we hope for the forest that will be.+