June 18, 2017, Second Sunday after Pentecost
There is an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip that I’m going to describe, but there is also a copy in the bulletin, in case you’re a visual person and would like to read along.
Calvin is out in waist-high snow, shoveling away and muttering under his breath, “Shovel, shovel”. And then he raises his fist and yells at his dad, “Why can’t we get a snow blower? We must be the only family in the world that still shovels the driveway by hand. I’m freezing!” The dad opens the door from what I assume is a nice warm place inside and says, “It builds character. Keep at it.” Then Calvin mutters, “It’s pretty convenient that whenever I build character, he saves a couple of hundred dollars.”
“Suffering produced endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Romans 5. Calvin’s dad was right. I hate to admit it, but he was: “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
Hope. A few weeks ago, our Epistle reading was the one in which Paul talks about the hope within you, and of always being ready to give an account of that hope. I shared the hope within me, which is the immensity of God’s love. I told the story of Jonah, and how if God’s love is big enough for Jonah and big enough for the Ninevites, then it must be big enough for me and all of my limitations and failure and sin. I invited other people to share their hopes, and we heard about hope in the presence of God throughout all the challenges of life, the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and hope in the power of God. All of these wonderful hopes that people shared came out of challenges and difficulties and suffering. Everyone more or less shared a story of the difficulty and suffering they went through that led to hope. Hope does not come in a vacuum, hope comes from the challenges we face in life. Calvin’s is a pretty mild version of it, having to shovel the driveway as a kid, but all the things in life that push us like that do build up hope. The stories our parishioners shared about the hope within them were borne from suffering, difficulty, and challenge.
Our other two readings today also talk about this sort of hope. They don’t use the word hope specifically, but if you know the stories you know that is what they are talking about. In the first reading from Exodus we have the scene of the Israelites out in the wilderness. They have been freed from their slavery in Egypt, and a few chapters later they are now suffering. They have been complaining a lot, murmuring “Why did you bring us out here, God, so that we can starve or die of thirst? Why did you bring us out here to suffer?” And the Lord keeps providing. In the reading today the Lord reminds them of what he had done: I brought you out of slavery, I bore you on eagle’s wings. God is looking back in order to give the people hope, a reminder that God is with them. The God who bore them on eagle’s wings is not going to abandon them now that they are in the wilderness. The suffering is not forever, but it is part of the process of life. Life has suffering, but God is faithful to us through it all.
In the Gospel we hear Jesus going to all the villages and cities proclaiming the Good News, curing disease and illness, bringing the people without hope a realization of their hope. Before this reading today there are many stories of the various healings and proclamations of what Jesus is doing. We hear about Jesus raising a little girl from the dead, a gift he gave to a grieving father. We hear several stories about people who are possessed by demons, and Jesus freeing them, unshackling them from that which held them back. We hear stories of people who are outcast because of their leprosy, and Jesus cleansing them, healing them so that they could re-enter society. And we hear stories of people who had been ill, the story of the paralytic man among others, in which Jesus comes and heals them. Some of these stories, like the raising of the dead, are very short-term. But some of these stories, like the paralytic man, are illnesses that had gone on for many years. All the stories are of people who had endured suffering, but held on to a hope, a hope that led them to ask Jesus for help in these moments of great trial.
“Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” In whatever sufferings we face in life, whatever challenges, whatever pain, we can hold on to a hope, our hope in Jesus Christ. Whether that is the hope in the love of Jesus Christ that I shared, or the hope of the presence of God, or the hope of the comfort of the Holy Spirit, or the power of God, or whatever hope it is, it is a hope that we can hold on to through the difficulties that life throws our way.
The Gospel doesn’t end there, though. All the things that Jesus has been doing, curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, casting out demons, and proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus sends the disciples to do the same. Jesus sends them out to go realize that hope for people, to manifest hope in people’s lives. If you think back to the Exodus story, God bore them on eagle’s wings, a beautiful metaphor, but it was through the action of persons, Moses and his brother Aaron and Miriam working together to free the people. It was God bearing them on eagle’s wings through the people of God, and Jesus sent the disciples out to bring hope to people.
And now God realizes the hope through us. We who are the Body of Christ are sent to go and do the things that Christ did. We are sent to go proclaim Good News to those who feel that this world is not full of good news. We are sent to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. The demons of greed and selfishness and pride and addiction; the leprosy that causes us to disconnect from others, to shun people, to kick them out; the illnesses, physical and mental, emotional and spiritual, that plague our world and cause such great suffering; we are sent to raise the dead, to bring new life to all the dead, dark places we find in this world. We are sent to go realize hope in people’s lives, to take our own experiences of suffering that produced endurance and character and hope, take it to other people who are suffering, and to be with them to pull them through, through to the hope.