It has become a family tradition that Sweet Man and I take the boys – at some point during the Christmas season – to see an Epic film.. The Hobbit, Star Wars, etc. This year we went to see Rogue One, and like so many people, I was taken with the phrase
“Rebellions are Built on Hope”.
Why? I think because right now, more than ever, I am in need of hope, and I am in need of some fire in my belly -I guess I am in need of some hopeful rebellion. That thing that propels me forward, to step out and step up and to fight for what I believe to be good and holy and worthy. To risk looking silly and to do it anyway – to fight and to hope all at the same time.
Two Lenten seasons ago I preached a sermon on hope, one where I wondered – what if hope isn’t about waiting, but instead is about risk? About dancing instead of sitting…?
You can listen to my sermon HERE or you can read it below. Either way, I hope you will join me in taking up an active and fierce hope, a mighty fight for the good and the loving.
Hope is the Thing – Jerusalem Jackson Greer
St. Peter’s Church, Conway AR March 1, 2015
Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
These are the opening lines of a famous poem by Emily Dickinson. You probably have heard or seen this poem recently thanks to Pinterest and the current trend to “put a bird on it.” You can find that first line, “Hope is the thing with feathers”, stenciled on any and all decorative items that stand still – pillows, posters, coffee mugs, canvas bags… Everywhere I turn I see Emily’s words. And I wonder, what she would make of this? What would she think of those few lines being taken and used for decorative purposes?
Because that is what her words have been reduced to – pretty decorations. And if one were to stop there, at that first line, at the bit about the feathers, one might be tempted to think that Emily is comparing hope to something that is fragile, something that is delicate and dainty. Something that is more decorative than functional.
But if you are a bird watcher, a scientist, a hunter, an inquisitive child, or a farmer then you are well aware that feathers are anything but dainty. You know -as I am sure that Ms. Dickinson knew – that feathers are incredibly strong and yet are incredibly flexible. That they both support lift and forward movement.
You might even be aware that feathers also aid the behavior of the bird within its environment and its lifestyle, and therefore are unique to each type of bird. Feathers that support the soaring flight of an eagle have a much different role than the feathers that protect a backyard chicken.
So if Hope is the thing with feathers as Ms. Dickinson eludes , then could it follow that Hope is also all these things?
If Hope is the thing with feathers, and feathers are incredibly strong and incredibly flexible, then perhaps that is how our Hope should be as well.
If feathers are not mere decoration, but instead they are specialized tools, uniquely designed and calibrated to help their particular owner thrive, then perhaps we should think of Hope as more than a bit of spiritual fluff for the soul.
What would it mean for our lives if we were to think of Hope in these terms? What would it mean to our hearts and our faith if we understood Hope to be something that is both strong and flexible – as something that bends and is not rigid?
What would it mean to walk on the earth with the understanding that Hope is something that can both support lift and forward movement in our lives if we will let it?
And what about the lines in the poem:
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
Does this mean that Hope never stops? That it is a tune deep in our souls that hums along, despite all logic?
In today’s readings we heard about Abraham and God’s covenant with him. We read of Abraham’s “hope against hope” in God’s promise and how Abraham’s faith grew – when – as The Message translation puts it – “he plunged into” God’s promise.
Reading today’s passages and those that come before and after them you will see as I did that Abraham’s response to God’s covenant was not passive. It was active. He was filled with hope – a hope that hummed an endless tune perhaps – and his response to that hope was to act. And it was in that combination – the combination of hope and action – that Abraham’s faith grew.
Abraham accepted the invitation. He decided to dance to the tune of hope inside him. He allowed his hope to lift and propel him forward.
Abraham stepped out in faith.
He showed up.
He did the work.
He slept with this wife.
Which is what was needed to fulfill the promise.
After all God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, and that his wife Sarah would birth the first child of that nation. And God didn’t promise or offer an immaculate conception this go round, which left things firmly in Abraham’s court.
If Abraham’s hope had been rigid, or if he had thought of it as spiritual fluff, or as pretty words on a pillow, I am not sure he would have acted as he did.
Perhaps he would have sat around at the bar on Saturday nights saying “Well sure I hope this works out, but come on y’all I am old! My wife is old! Maybe this is all just a metaphor. Maybe God means I will be the spiritual father of a great nation. I don’t know. I will just wait and see. Surely he doesn’t mean I should, you know “do it.” Not at my age….I bet he means that I should just think of myself as the father of a nation…”
But thankfully instead Abraham heard the endless tune of hope in God’s promise and he decided to act on it. He decided to dance. And this is where his Faith blossomed.
In Emily’s poem I hear the same sort of choice and recognition that I hear in the story of Abraham. There is a recognition that Hope is there, alive inside us. And I believe that God has placed a Hope inside each of us. But the challenge and the question is this: Do we act on that hope? Do we accept it’s invitation to dance? Do we allow it to lift us and move us forward? I hope so.
Because I think that just maybe that is where our faith is born. That maybe Faith is Hope in flight. Maybe Faith is dancing to the tune that hope sings.
18 years ago, just two months and a few days before I was to be married, on this very day, my parents home – along with many others – was destroyed in a Tornado that ripped across this state. The tornado came in the mid-morning, when many were still sipping their first cup of coffee on a lazy Saturday morning. When my father stepped out onto their porch and heard the tell-tale sound of an approaching freight train he knew it was time to take cover. He grabbed my middle sister, the only child at home that day, and my mother and shoved them into an interior closet. On the way to the closet my mother grabbed two things – her bible and the material for my bridesmaids dresses. If she hadn’t it is almost certain they would have wound up in a tree in Searcy or Bald Knob. As the “freight train” passed overhead my father held the door shut and prayed over them all. When they walked out of that closet their lives would be forever changed by the wreckage that storm left behind, and the only portion of ceiling that remained intact was the square above that closet.
For years we have laughed about my mother grabbing that fabric, and I have often wondered if she would done things differently if she had known the damage the storm would wreck on her home and her life. But to me, as a young bride whose parents were a little iffy on me tying the knot before I finished college, it spoke volumes. In that split moment decision of hers I saw her hope for me and for my life. And in her actions I also saw faith – Her faith that I would get married, that we would need those dresses, and most of all that my wedding – and my marriage – was worthy of protection. In that one action my mother told me more about her love for me than she probably knows.
Eighteen years later I am still married, and my parents live in a house they built on the same bit of land where the tornado’d house stood.
While the hard work of rebuilding the house eventually came to an end, the hard work of building a healthy marriage continues. Both both – the rebuilding of my parent’s life, and my beginning a new one with Nathan were rooted in Hope. A hope that as it turns out was strong, flexible, and calibrated to helping us each thrive. A hope that sang a tune that only we could dance to in our own ways, our faith growing with each step we willingly took.
In the church I think we tend to put Hope more in the Advent camp. We think of Hope as a passive waiting for something lovely and life changing to happen to us. But the kind of Hope that Abraham exhibited is a Hope that fits more in the wild unknown desert of Lent. The kind of hope that Abraham lived out, is the kind of hope that keeps me married on those days when all seem futile, it is the kind of hope that withstands the storms of the second stanza of Emily’s poem. It is an active not passive hope. It is full of leaps and risk and changing plans and forward movement. It is strong and it wants to thrive.
To everything there is a season. Some seasons are about waiting, and some seasons are about going. In Lent we go into the wilderness looking for our faith to grow in ways that we cannot predict, but we don’t have to go in passively. We can go in dancing.