From this morning’s Prayers of the People: “In you Lord, is our hope; and we shall never hope in vain.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of my recurring nightmares as a child was finding myself alone in an unknown place –a place bereft of other people; a place of complete emptiness and silence. Of course, I realize that nightmare represented death, and, in reality, my own fear of death at the time. Perhaps some of you have had similar nightmares.
But, what gave my nightmare its power was that it touched on one of our most primal fears: being left alone. See, the need to feel connected, to be joined to and accepted by someone who loves us and, therefore, feel safe, is one of the of the deepest needs of human beings. I believe that is why we are so attracted to orphan characters in literature -- from Oliver Twist to Little Orphan Annie to Harry Potter, we see in their aloneness our worst fears realized. And so we hope for them to succeed realizing how grateful we are that it is not us in their predicament.
Today's reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans touches on that same deep need to feel connected and our primal fear of being left alone. Paul has been describing our life in the Spirit -- life, that is, when we are joined to Christ and the Church through our baptism and faith in Christ. He has already announced that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus and proclaimed that we are not only God's children but also God's heirs and Christ's co-heirs. Paul says, because God is for us, noone can stand against us. No one can ever level charges that would deprive us of God's inheritance or diminish our status as beloved children of God. That, for Paul, is the Christian hope and assurance: an assurance made possible through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So, Paul, with all the confidence that hope stirs in the human heart goes on to address our deepest needs and deepest fears in one fell swoop. No matter what nightmares we may dream or experience, no matter where we may go, or whatever we may do, no matter what may be done to us, Paul proclaims, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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." Now, I am sure Paul meant for that list to be exhaustive, but I believe we could add our own experiences to it. Cancer, divorce, bankruptcy, a lack of a sense of purpose in life, a frustrating or failed career, a pandemic. What might you add? What has happened in your lifetime that you fear put you beyond the grace and love of God? I invite you to think about that this week, to name your greatest, your deepest, fear. And having named it, perhaps there’s more than one – so having named them, hear – really hear these words of St. Paul, "Nothing will be able to separate us from God’s love!"
You know, the more I study his life, the more I realize that Paul’s hope and trust in God came about through a lifetime not of ease, but of disappointment and grief. Nevertheless, that life experience birthed hope in Paul – a hope that he clung to, clung so deeply to it that it grew within him and changed his life. And that hope assured him just as it assures us that God loves us forever, no matter what. Now, if there ever was a message the world needs to hear right now, this is it: Nothing can separate us from the love of God. But what about each other?
See, people throughout our world this morning may not feel separated from God – that is up to their own discernment - but they are very much separated from one another – and in many ways, feel all alone. The reality of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it has created a crisis in society: we cannot gather as a community of faith, touch one another, physically see each other’s smile - or frown - behind a mask. And this absence of physical presence and the sense of community physical presence creates has affected everyday life. So much so, people not only dismiss anyone with whom they disagree, but now consider them an enemy, someone to be shunned and despised, someone whose voice should be ignored even if they do have some valid ideas. For many, this reality does nothing to affirm God’s love, nor does it encourage hope for the future.
John Lewis, the late U.S. Representative from Georgia, that towering figure of the Civil Rights Movement and outspoken advocate for upholding the dignity of every human being, was asked once if he ever lost hope for positive and lasting change in society. Lewis, drawing upon his deep, abiding faith and trust in the promises of God in Christ, regardless of what happened to him or around him, answered, “I refuse to give up on hope”. When asked why, he responded, “Despair must never have the last word … Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.” See, for Lewis, hope, like faith, is always active, it springs from a conviction that hope isn’t some pie in the sky ideal, but rather, “hope is often bloodied, battered and bruised. It is often calloused over and scarred because hope is always daring, it always takes risks.” John Lewis chose to remain hopeful regardless of circumstances because in his experience hope always ignited possibilities.
I thought of Lewis when reading today’s lessons from Genesis and Matthew. In our reading from Genesis, Jacob, the schemer, has met his match in his uncle Laban. In one of those classic tales of “what goes around comes around”, Jacob, who has tricked so many others, is absolutely outplayed in his quest to marry Rachel. Nevertheless, in spite of everything working against him, in spite of being lied to, repeatedly, Jacob remembers that dream about the ladder from heaven. Jacob remembers that no matter what happens in life, God is present with him, with us. As we will pray in a few moments, Jacob – and every person of faith named in holy scripture – trusted that regardless of life’s circumstances, “In you Lord, is our hope; and we shall never hope in vain.” Like John Lewis discovered, Jacob found that hope always ignites possibilities, it enabled him to find a way forward so that he might marry his beloved Rachel.
In today’s Gospel lesson, our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus has been speaking about the kingdom of God, that kingdom Christians pray, in every worship service, will not only be our hope for the future, but our reality right now saying, “Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus says God’s kingdom is like the tiny mustard seed that somehow survives all adversity to bring forth life for others. God’s kingdom is like a hidden treasure that is stumbled upon while walking through a field; a precious pearl worth purchasing with one’s entire portfolio; a net straining with every kind of fish imaginable, so large a catch that you have to sift through it to get to the best ones, the ones worth keeping. Jesus describes the presence of God, that kingdom of God, that so often surprises us when it is found in the ordinary, even in the mundane. I say surprises us because so often God’s presence – those epiphany moments that reveal God’s kingdom - are easily overlooked in the busyness of everyday life and I would add, especially in these times of self-distancing, these days when hope seems to be an unrealistic dream.
Jesus was acutely attentive to the epiphanies in his life, to those moments when one becomes aware of God’s presence, God’s kingdom, in our midst, and it shone forth in his teaching. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is found in the presence of God. But we have to seek and watch for that kingdom, that presence of God, in order to not only see and hope for it, but experience it. And so often, like those epiphany moments, God’s kingdom is revealed in the most surprising ways, surprising people, and offers surprising hope.
Just as I wonder this morning about your deepest and greatest fear, I wonder where, in this time of pandemic, you have experienced the presence of God, the kingdom of God, and what difference that experience has made in your life. What have you learned during this time of absence? What has God shown you or still showing you? And with what do you struggle? For me, I have learned how deeply I cherish the sense of community embodied in this church – a community centered in our common faith in Christ – a community committed to serving, feeding, clothing, and bringing hope to others - and how easy it is to take it all for granted. As you think about what you have learned, know this: you are, indeed, not alone in your learning, nor in your wondering, nor in your fears, or hopes. For the essence of the Christian way of life is often found in our asking; our seeking; our praying; our serving; and hoping.
St. Paul said, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life … nor anything else in all creation, (even a pandemic) will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And beloved, as Christ’s body, nothing should ever separate us in our love for one another. That is my hope for this parish during this time of ongoing separation. And, by God’s grace, our prayer, “In you Lord, is our hope; and we shall never hope in vain” will, indeed, be our reality today and forever. Amen.
 New York Times, July 17, 2020 Public Domain: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/john-lewis-dead.html
 Corey Booker describing his understanding of “hope” Public Domain: https://medium.com/convergence-design-lab/hope-strong-how-research-and-design-help-us-imagine-possibilities-for-real-change-c6fe254bc31