Sunday, November 27, 2022

Phil Kniss: When hope is hard to come by

HOPE: Waiting through the drought
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; 17-19; Matthew 26:36-38

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Everybody awake?
    Hope so.
    It would be a shame to snooze through this sermon—
        not because it’s so good,
        but because it’s specifically about staying awake,
        the dominant idea in the scriptures we just heard.

    The prophet Habakkuk urged the people of God
        to “keep watch at the watchpost”
        to stay alert and aware and ready to hear
            the voice of God when it comes.
    And in a few verses in the Gospel of Matthew,
        Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, about to stand trial,
            and he is deeply grieved and agitated and anxious,
            and begs for moral support from his closest disciples,
                Peter, James, and John.
        “Stay here,” he says.
        “Keep awake while I pray,” he says.
    And of course you know what happened.
    Even if you never read the story, you know what happened.
        They fell asleep.

So maybe this morning, we can manage to do
    what St. Peter, St. James, and St. John all failed to do—
    stay awake in the middle of a crisis of hope.

This theme of hope comes around every season of Advent,
    so don’t expect me to be saying anything brand new today.
    You’ve heard it all before.
    But something this critical bears repeating. Often.
        Even more than once a year.

The question at hand is this: “Where do we find hope,
        when our help doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon?”
And the apparent answer to that question,
    according to Habakkuk and Jesus, is “Stay awake.”
    Which is harder to do than you think.

Habbakuk seems to be in a conversation with God about this.
    “How long shall I cry for help?” he asks God.
        Fair question.
        Anyone can hold on for a while. But there comes a point!

        In the children’s story today,
            Gerald the Elephant reached the breaking point.
                Pretty quick, to be honest.
                He was about to walk away from it all
                    after only a few minutes of waiting.
            In his defense, he had no idea what he was waiting for.
            If it’s hard to wait for something like Christmas,
                or a vacation,
                or a birthday,
                or a wedding,
                or a visit from your grandchildren,
                    when you know what’s coming,
                    and you know when it’s coming—
                if that’s hard,
                it’s infinitely harder to wait
                    without really knowing what’s coming,
                    or when it will show up.
                That was Gerald’s dilemma.
            But what he had going for him—the only thing really—
                was trust in his friend.
            He trusted the pig because they had a history together.
            He believed the pig would not disappoint him.

That story is really a whimsical variation on the prophet Habakkuk,
    even though I’m sure that’s not what the author intended.

Habakkuk asked God,
    “How long shall I cry for help?”
God replied:
    “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.”

And the conversation goes on, for chapters.
    “How long?”
    “I’ll keep waiting and watching, but how long before you act?”

    we hear these words of faith-filled hope from the prophet,
    when there was still no evidence:
        Though the fig tree does not blossom
            and no fruit is on the vines;
        though the produce of the olive fails
            and the fields yield no food;
        though the flock is cut off from the fold
            and there is no herd in the stalls,
        yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
            I will exult in the God of my salvation.
Okay, so what kind of hopeful dreamer
    says such a thing in the face of complete lack of evidence?

Some of us resist this kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking,
    for good reason.
    We don’t want to imitate just any kind of dreamer.

There are the kind of dreamers who engage in escapism.
    They’re trying to fool themselves.
    If they can convince themselves
        that everything will be great in the end,
        then they don’t need to face the painful reality
            that they actually are in a dark and desolate place,
                with no obvious way out.
    So they paint themselves a picture
        to convince themselves their suffering is light or temporary.
        Their favorite Gospel song is,
        “This world is not my home; I’m only passing through . . .”
    So dreaming may be a defense mechanism
        some people use to maintain their sanity.

I think there are other dreamers who’ve already lost their sanity,
    because of how dark their reality is.
    Maybe dreaming is the only way they can stay alive,
        and we should just let them keep dreaming—
        let them have their alternate reality, so they can survive.

But there are also faith-filled dreamers among us,

There are those who face their pain and shadows head on,
    who know exactly how dry the desert is where they live,
    but who still look at that desert with eyes of faith.
    What is faith, after all?
    What is faith, except the ability to trust
        in One who is making a world that is
            different than the one we live in now,
        One who makes gardens out of deserts.

    Faithful dreamers see farther ahead than the nose on their face.
    Faithful dreamers see beyond present circumstances.
    Faithful dreamers have a bigger frame of reference.
    No amount of hand-wringing by us who call ourselves realists,
        will change their mind.
    Faithful dreamers are a stubborn lot.
    Stubborn, joyful, and hopeful.

Faithful dreaming is not wishful thinking.
    The frame of reference for us who
        choose to be faithful, hopeful dreamers
        is not a big piece of pie in the sky.
    Our dreams are grounded firmly in a friendship with God.
    In who God is.
    In our experience of God.
    In the experience God’s people have had with God in history.

    We know God will not deceive us or lead us astray.
    So we wait.
    And wait.
    And watch.
    What comes might surprise us.
    But if we wait and watch, at least we won’t miss it.

These are hard times we live in.
    Excruciatingly hard.
    And frightening.
    And traumatic.
    And uncertain.

Threats against democracy,
    a rash of mass shootings,
    endless warfare,
    climate catastrophes,
    social injustices everywhere.

We hear the voices of many who are not willing to stay and to wait.
    People who, out of despair, take matters into their own hands.
        They cut off friendships that are too hard.
        They leave potentially nurturing communities behind.
        They quit a job abruptly.
        They leave a marriage prematurely.
        They may even try to find a new country to live in.
    We hear of whole faith communities who do the same.
        Cutting ties to avoid the hard work of building community
            in a polarized world.

Not implying that leaving a job or relationship or country or church
    is never the right choice.
    Sometimes it is.
    But giving up quickly because we are disappointed,
        is not the way to nurture hope.
    Hope grows by staying,
        by waiting,
        by being alert,
        by remaining awake,
        by cultivating the art of attentiveness to our surroundings,
            and attentiveness to ourselves,
            and what the Spirit of God may be doing in us.

There is no short cut to a life of hope.
    Hope is the fruit of the long journey.
    Let us pray for our own patience to stay, and wait,
        even while we lack any hard evidence of what is coming next.

Mennonite and Brethren song-writer Jim Croegaert
    collaborated with David Adam of Scotland,
    and wrote a hymn that we first sang
        at one of our Mennonite General Assemblies,
        and it took root across the church.

    It’s an anthem of hope in the face of no evidence,
        except for the deep longing God planted within us
        that gives us the courage to wait.

We’ve sung it here a number of times.
    Let me read the words, as you reflect on them.

    Our hearts are empty without you;
        barren and cold, but for the bold hope
        that you yourself planted within.

    In the mighty name of God,
        in the saving name of Jesus,
        in the strong name of the Spirit,
        we come, we cry, we watch, we wait, we look, we long for you.

    Sometimes we long  for the morning,
        for a refrain from etchings in pain,
        yet our loneliness draws us to you.
        we come,
        we cry,
        we watch,
        we wait,
        we look,
        we long for you.

Let’s sing together of our longing, and our hope.

—Phil Kniss, November 27, 2022

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