Hope as the Heart of the Christian Faith
In this week’s column I write for Working Preacher I suggest that the simple parable of the mustard seed – which is the gospel reading for this Sunday – is not so much a cute maxim or fable about great things having modest beginnings, which is the way I usually hear it preached. Rather, and as I talked about in a recent Daily Bread devotion, I think it’s a warning that the kingdom of God, once it takes root, will spread like an unruly weed (which is what mustard was considered in the ancient world).
Of course it’s only a warning to those who are satisfied with the status quo, those who benefit from the way the world is and may fear losing something if it changes. Who wants a new kingdom, after all, if the present one affords you a life of ease. But to those who are dissatisfied, who have been left out or left behind, or who believe the world can and should be better, Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed that grows way beyond its size intimates is not a warning but a promise. A promise that creates hope.
And hope does things. Hope creates faith in a better future and therefore leads one to act, to actually do something to bring about that better future. The young people involved in last year’s “Arab Spring” defied their oppressive governments because they had hope they could make a difference. Without hope it’s incredibly difficult to press ahead, to face the challenges of the day, to do anything but merely get by. With hope you can risk extraordinary things, do extraordinary things because the future is not only open but promised.
It has occurred to me since posting that column that hope may actually be at the heart of the Christian faith. For what else is life in light of the resurrection than a life of hope? Hope that death does not have the last word. Hope that we are more than the sum of our parts. Hope that God will bring all things in time to a good end.
In suggesting that hope is at the heart of the Christian faith, however, I want to stress two things. First, hope is not optimism, for while optimism involves the expectation that things are eventually going to get better, hope asserts that no matter what may come, no matter how bad things may get, yet God’s word and promise will prevail. Hope, that is, is located beyond our immediate circumstances. A terminally ill patient may not be optimistic about the treatment she is undergoing, but may remain hopeful that God keeps God’s promise of resurrection. And while preachers from Norman Vincent Peale to Robert Schuler to Joel Osteen peddle optimism and success as the heart of the Christian Gospel, we can not afford to be fooled by such a distortion. Christian faith does not guarantee success or health or wealth or any of the other things we may long for. Christian faith promises life, abundant life, that is available whatever one’s immediate circumstances and while it starts here and now stretches beyond the confines of life as we know it. That means that hope does not exempt us from pain, suffering, or disappointment but gives us the resources not just to endure these things but even flourish in light of God’s promises. Resurrection, after all, presumes death…and only then new life.
Second, hope can be rather dangerous. Hope can’t be contained or defined or managed. Hope creates something new wherever it is sown. It is hope that fuels change, change in our lives, our homes, our congregations, our communities, and our world. This initially sounds like a good thing, but change can be hard. Because whatever hardships or limitations we may now endure, at least we know them, whereas hope beckons us to an unknown future. No wonder the guardians of the status quo want to measure hope out in controlled portions – just enough to help us endure the inequities of the age, but not enough to fuel active change.
There’s a scene in the film version of The Hunger Games that, while it wasn’t in the book, not only fits the spirit of the book beautifully but also captures this more dangerous side of hope. President Snow, the totalitarian ruler of futuristic Panem, asks his chief Games-maker – the one charged with creating a spectacle as entertaining as it is barbaric – why they must have a winner. The answer? Hope. He wants to give the oppressed people of Panem hope that maybe, just maybe, the odds may be in their favor and they may win the Hunger Games and escape their life of servitude. “Hope,” he explains, “is the only thing more powerful than fear.” But for that very reason is as perilous as it is useful to a dictator: “A little hope,” he explains, “is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.”
So watch the clip, read the parable, and then give some thought to who in your life needs hope – not just optimism but hope – so that you might be on the lookout for the opportunity to be an agent of hope for someone and in this way be blessed as you bless another. And if you find yourself running short on hope, call a friend, ask for encouragement, and still try to give hope to another, for you may just find that in sharing hope you discover it, in speaking it you create it, both for others and yourself. Thank you for making the effort. Even more, thank God for you.
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