If you’ve ever been to an American wedding, you have probably heard St. Paul’s ode to love from I Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude. Now faith, hope, and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.
Faith, hope, and love, the great trinity of gifts, the holy trinity of Christian virtue. Faith, hope, and love. If we think of these three, we probably think of I Corinthians 13, but Paul actually talks about all three of these a lot. Romans, for instance, is generally understood to be a great exhortation on faith. But Paul has great sections in there on love, and on hope as well. Romans is where we get that famous question, Who will separate us from the love of God? Will hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? No! For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rules 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. I don’t know about you, but I think that rivals I Corinthians 13. And Romans is where we get that famous line on hope: suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.
Faith, hope, and love. This trinity is not exclusive to I Corinthians 13, but they are at the heart of Paul’s message, they are the heart of Paul’s theology, they are the heart of Paul’s epistles. They come up in I Thessalonians, our reading this morning, as well. At the beginning of the letter, Paul writes about the strength of the work of faith, the labor of love, and the steadfastness of hope in the community of Thessalonica. There they are: faith, love, and hope. This letter is the earliest letter of Paul’s that we have. He may have written other letters before, but this is the oldest one that remained and ended up in Holy Scripture. It was written before any other writing in the New Testament. He founded the community in Thessalonica, then he left them to go plant more churches, and he missed them. He tried to get back, and there is angst about this in the letter: I want to be with you, but I haven’t been able to, I’m too busy. So instead he sends one of his companions, Timothy, to go check in on them. So Timothy goes, and comes back, and he reports to Paul that their faith and their love remain strong. It’s interesting, because earlier Paul talks about faith, hope, and love and the strength of those, but then when talking about Timothy’s report, he only mentions faith and love. The reason is, as we heard in the epistle this morning, is that their hope is beginning to waver. The reason their hope is wavering is because of a misunderstanding. They thought that Christ’s second coming, that moment that the Bridegroom comes and they need to stay awake for that we heard in the Gospel, they think that moment is to happen before anybody in their community dies. And people are beginning to die, so they are beginning to lose their hope. Paul writes them to try and rekindle the hope that is within them.
That is the thing about hope. It needs rekindling, it needs active attention to stay strong. All three of these do actually, faith, hope, and love—they all need attention if they are to become or stay strong in our lives. We have to work on them. They needed to in Paul’s day, and we need to in our day. We have no less need for hope today than the people of Thessalonica did nearly two thousand years ago.
As each day shortens and each night lengthens, as we approach the longest night of the year, we know that darkness still reigns in this world. The principalities and powers, as Paul calls them in another letter, do not like that we hold on to hope in the midst of that darkness. They want to sow the seeds of hopelessness, and have us give in to the present order and prevent justice from rolling down like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream as Amos talks about in the first reading this morning. Instead, our task as followers of Jesus Christ is to plant seeds of hope so that we can help the garden of God’s dream, the garden of God’s vision, the garden of God’s imagination to grow and flourish to nourish this world. We have to strive to make a world where, in the words of South African theologian Allan Boesak, “history and hope rhyme.” I love that expression, “history and hope rhyme”. Of course they don’t rhyme linguistically, but we can make history and hope so interconnected by kindling hope in this world that they seem to. But we can only do that by making hope alive in this slice of history in which we live.
Last week I talked about the need to share our stories of our spiritual ancestors, the saints, in order to better understand who it is that we are. When I think of our spiritual ancestors, and when I think of hope, I think of those two things together. I think of the Hebrews in slavery, and how they called out to God for eighty years until Moses was finally called from that burning bush, holding hope for a God that would bring justice and freedom. I think of the ancient Israelites sitting by the waters of Babylon, exiled from their homes in Jerusalem crying for a Messiah to lead them home. I think of John the Baptist, that voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way for Christ to transform this world. And I think of St. Martin of Tours, whose feast day was yesterday. I told his story last week, but in case you missed it, or in case you forgot it, or just because it’s a good story, I will tell it to you again. Martin was a 4th century Roman soldier, and he found out about Christianity. He was intrigued, so started studying to be baptized. He went through a process called the catechumenate, the process by which Christian converts would study the faith before they were baptized. One day when he was out on his horse, still a Roman soldier at this point, although he eventually becomes a bishop, he meets a nearly naked beggar who asks him for help. Martin takes off his massive Roman military cloak, designed to be large enough to wrap you several times, and he splits it in half. He gives one half to the man to keep him warm that night. I don’t know what Martin had in his mind, but I can’t imagine he did not think of John the Baptist, who said, “if you have two coats, give one away, and if you have a loaf of bread, give half of it away.” The next day, Martin had a vision of Jesus who came to him and said, “Martin, a simple catechumen gave me his cloak”, echoing Matthew 25. That seemingly simple act of giving half of his cloak to a nearly naked beggar was a seed of hope planted in this world.
This is who we are: a people who cry out in hope for justice in this world, a people who plant seeds of hope whenever and wherever we can. That is what we are doing right now in our ministry; that is what we are doing with our holiday food drive. It is not just about feeding bodies, or giving people calories, even though that is important. It is about offering dignity and respect to people. It’s offering them hope, telling them that while the whole world around them seems to be celebrating, you deserve to have joy as well by participating in this great societal act of the holiday feast. It is not just those with financial resources who deserve to have joy in their life, but you who are beloved by God simply for being you deserve to celebrate. It is a seed of hope that we are planting that kindles or rekindles hope in others and in ourselves. Every year when I see those bins overflowing, every year when we have to call St. Vinnie’s for an extra pick-up because you have filled the freezers yet again, I am filled with hope because you care to seek and serve Christ in your neighbor. I am filled with hope because of your faith and because of your love. AMEN