By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
December 10, 2017
“Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in [all of us]. Those who hope…can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. [True hope] means conflict with the world, for the goal of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.” ~Jürgen Moltmann, Theologian
Second Reading: Blessing of Hope Jan Richardson, from The Cure for Sorrow
So may we know
that is not just
but for this day—
in this moment
that opens to us:
See rest of the poem: http://adventdoor.com/2016/12/04/advent-2-blessing-of-hope/
Abandon hope all ye who enter here!
You may be thinking to yourself. Hold up. I came to hear a sermon on hope, not abandoning it. This sounds depressing. Am I in the wrong place? Perhaps the church next door is talking about something a little more upbeat… Will anyone notice if I slip out?
Don’t worry. Although that quote may be the inscription over the gates of hell from Dante’s Inferno, I don’t intend to recreate that here.
There are reasons to suggest that abandoning hope might not be the beginning of the end, but the beginning of a new way.
Hope. A topic with more dimensions than it might at first appear.
This is the season of hope.
As I noted in the service description, as we anticipate a number of holidays of good tidings and light this month, we find it is filled with messages of hope.
“miracles of light can happen,” “the light of the world is on its way” “joy is almost here, just waiting to be born.”
On the one hand, as te Rev. Scott Taylor writes in an article on hope, “[these] soothing message[s] come to us as a gift. During dark days, we all get tired. The fruits of our efforts are hard to see. We feel alone. The promise that things will change offers us relief. We are released from the burden of believing that “it is all up to me” or that it all must be solved now.”
This kind of hope is a message with a lot to be said for it – there is a lot to be said for lifting our eyes to the distant hills when around our feet we see nothing but muck. There’s a lot to be said for a little relief from the belief that it’s all up to us, this pressure to make things better. A little relief from the idea we have to do it all.
But this kind of future-looking hope… can limit us / be a double-edged sword.
The idea that it will all work out in the end, through someone or something else who will fix it, can lull us into complacency today. When we tell each other everything will be fine, it can be comforting yes, but is it empowering?
And the idea that there is some future in which everything will be finally be the way we want can set us up for disappointment if (or when) that promise does not arrive.
When after repeated requests our partner does the same upsetting thing again and we wonder if they will ever be the one we thought we wanted… When, in spite of all our care and support our friend’s condition just isn’t improving and their outlook isn’t either. Or even just looking looking looking for signs that things in our world are getting better and just not seeing it and wondering if we ever will.
The tension created by holding onto hope on the one hand and seeing things not change or get worse on the other, leaves us vulnerable to despair, or simple resignation.
We don’t see impact, our efforts feel ineffective, we lose steam, we want to just give up.
As Clark Mallet writes, that’s “part of the problem with hope. It encourages us to think that if we do certain things, take certain steps, achieve certain milestones, we will [necessarily] get the outcomes we want. It assumes that we have the solutions and we can control the future.
“But that’s not how the universe works,” he continues, “Nothing we can do will give us complete control. If history has taught us anything, it should have taught us that. Hoping [or] despairing about what we can’t control only distracts us from what we can: our actions in the present. Right now.”
In her book, “Hope in the Dark,” Rebecca Solnit echoes this message that we are the ones: “things change, she writes, “not by magic, but by the incremental effect of countless acts of courage, love, and commitment, the small drops that wear away stones and carve new landscapes.”
Even as she echoes the message that we are the ones, she also notes we don’t set the pace. Sometimes our efforts impact things slowly, sometimes, she writes, in sudden torrents. We can’t predict the speed.
And so, “Despair is often premature,” Rebecca continues, “it’s a form of impatience.”
She shares a favorite comment about political change from Zhou (Joe) En-Lai, the premier of the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao: “Asked in the early 1970s about his opinion of the French Revolution, [Zhou] reportedly answered, “Too soon to tell.” Some say that he was talking about the revolutions of 1968, [4 years earlier] not 1789 [300 years earlier], but even then it provides a generous and expansive perspective.”
We cannot always see the immediate impact of our good hearted actions, we cannot always see the impact of our actions at all.
Today I want to share with you a couple of examples of hope that are expansive in their timing, whose outcomes were not predictable, or even visible, in the moment. Examples that reflect how sometimes there is more at work in us and around us than we can see or ever know, but that affirms doing what we can in the present anyway.
Like this one, a story a friend of mine shared with me last week:
In the 1600’s, Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, the scriptures of his tradition, which at that time were available only in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.
Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.
It happened that at that time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.
Several years afterwards an epidemic spread across the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people. For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing blocks which produced the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.
The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.
We forget sometimes, refusing to get discouraged, that in staying flexible to events, in simply doing the good we can in the moment, we may do more along the way than we ever imagined.
Other times, we forget that we can make any impact at all. We feel simply overwhelmed by the size of the problems we see, we assume we are too small.
But take the following story, also from Rebecca Solnit’s book:
Women’s Strike for Peace was “the first great antinuclear movement in the United States […] that contribute[d] to a major victory: the end, in 1963, of aboveground nuclear testing, and so [the end] of the radioactive fallout that was showing up in mother’s milk and baby teeth […] “Positioning themselves as housewives and using humor as their weapon, […] [the women of this activist group] […] told of how foolish and futile [they] felt standing in the rain one morning, protesting at the Kennedy White House.
“[And then,] years later, [one of them] heard [pediatrician] Dr. Benjamin Spock, who had become one of the most high-profile activists on the issue, say that the turning point for him was spotting a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. “If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration himself.”
Doing what we can in the present. Not because we’re certain it’s going to make a difference, but simply because it’s what we can do.
And, whether or not any of our actions have a major impact out there, they just might make an impact, in here.
Because as Czech statesman Václav Havel writes, “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. […] it is a dimension of the soul, [not] dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is […] an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.”
As one of our connection group facilitators said the other day – hope is a spark, where we take it from there is up to us.
When we allow that spark to change our frame of mind, when we become a light and act on that, we may just spark the light in those around us.
When I participated in the New UU class last month I had an opportunity to see, again, what this place looks like through the eyes of a newcomer. Because in that class we touch on all the things we do, it’s an overview of evvverything. Our Caring Circle, and this congregations’ presence to those in our midst who are having a hard time. Our Sharing Locker, and this congregation’s presence to those outside our community who are having a hard time. The relationships we’re building with our Muslim neighbors. Our commitment to being a green sanctuary, all the groundwork being laid for the hanging of a Black Lives matter banner.
It made me hopeful. And as I reflected on it more I realized that was just the beginning.
Because then there’s all the other social justice and community service we do, and then there is the deep, heartfelt commitment of your board and the leaders of your committees, there’s the growing number of you committing to connection groups and other ways of growing your spirit. There’s the fact that this year, over half of you have increased your pledge, by an average of nearly 35%! I see all that you all are doing and see how much you care and I realized I usually only see it in bit and pieces but when it’s all together it just about blows me away, because we’re doing it. We are being who we say we are. And that’s beautiful.
One of our new members said, at the end of the class, I like the way you all are looking outward, you’re not just thinking about what’s going on in here, you’re also thinking about what’s going on out there. And you’re taking action.
And so, we are, each of us, in our own way, as we participate in this place, even if all we can do sometimes is just show up here on Sunday mornings, we are being hope.
Paraphrasing Kent Nerburn:
We may not be saints or heroes. Our lives may be lived in the quiet corners of the ordinary. We may build just tiny hearth fires, but to the person lost in the darkness, our tiny flame may be the road to safety. It is not given us to know who is lost or even if it’s seen. We can only know that against even the smallest of lights, darkness cannot stand. It is simply an issue of the presence of light.
So. May we abandon the kind of hope that leaves us complacent. Let us abandon the kind of hope that leaves us waiting for something or someone else to take action. Let us abandon the kind of hope that leads to resignation when it is not fulfilled.
Let us embrace the hope that starts with us, that looks for sparks,
that has breath
and a beating heart,
how to holler
when it is called for,
how to sing
when there seems
Let us embrace the hope that raises us
from the dead—
but this day,