The Common Good

Sermon On Why Hope and Vapid Optimism Are Not The Same Thing

Bird tattoos come to life, Marianne D / Shutterstock.com
Bird tattoos come to life, Marianne D / Shutterstock.com

… suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.

-Romans 5

As many of you know, I have a regular spiritual practice of warning people that I will disappoint them. A couple times a year, we host a Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints brunch for newcomers. Everyone goes around the room saying what drew them to this community or what keeps them here. They usually say it’s a comfortable place where they can just be who they are or they love the singing or the community. One time someone said that their mom was Catholic and their dad was atheist and that this church kinda felt like a combo of the two. And while I wasn’t entirely sure I knew what that meant, I thought it was awesome. 

Well, I usually am the last to speak at these events and when I do and I always say how great it is to hear all of that, but that I need them to hear something. And that is that this church will disappoint you. Or I will fail to meet your expectations, or I’ll say something stupid and hurt your feelings. It’s not a matter of if it’s when. Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.

(Listen along)

I mention this because in our reading from Romans Paul speaks of hope, and he says hope does not disappoint. Which I honestly have a hard time relating to since I, like many of you, have had a lot of hopes which have ended in disappointment. And sometimes it’s easier to not hope at all rather than to risk starting with hope and ending up with disappointment.

It all reminds me of that story at the end of Luke’s Gospel when a few days after Jesus’ death a couple of his disciples were walking the road to Emmaus trying to make sense of what had just happened in Jerusalem — the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, the shared meal, the betrayal, the arrest and trial and crucifixion. And as they discussed all of this, a stranger walked up (spoiler alert – it was Jesus) and he was like “hey what are you guys talking about?” They did not recognize him and so they told the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death — at which point they then speak what are maybe the three saddest words in Scripture: "We Had Hoped." 

We had hoped Jesus was the one to redeem us. Instead, Jesus is dead, and it is we who are defeated. Those two disciples started with hope and ended with disappointment.

We had hoped. We had hoped that the time and money spent on a graduate degree would mean we’d have a job by now. We had hoped that our parents would love us unconditionally. We had hoped that by this time in life we would be married, or we would have a meaningful career, or we would be able to retire, or we would feel like we at least knew what we were doing. And that didn’t happen.

Because hope as a starting point looks like Palm Sunday. It looks like the crowds entering triumphantly into Jerusalem shouting Hosanna. But Palm Sunday always turns to Good Friday eventually.

This is maybe why Paul not only speaks of a hope that does not disappoint, but he connects it to suffering of all things — which feels a little sketchy to me. Connecting hope and suffering. I, for one, would have a hard time liking anyone who, if in the midst of my own suffering cheerfully reminded me that suffering produces endurance and endurance character and character hope and hope doesn’t disappoint us.

I’ve said it before, but whenever I am in a real mess of pain, when a relationship has ended or I am in some kind of emotional suffering, and some well-meaning Christian says “Well, when God closes a door, he opens a window,” I start immediately looking around for that open window so I can push them out of it. Which is to say, I don’t find ignoring the difficult reality of our lives in favor of some kind of blindly cheerful optimism to be hopeful; I find it to be delusional.

So, yes, it feels like hope can be risky, and connecting hope to suffering can be sketchy.

But maybe the way suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope is that suffering, endurance, and character actually free us from the burden of having to be naively optimistic. Maybe if hope isn’t a very reliable starting point, then hope is not something we strive to muster up for ourselves. Maybe real hope is always something we are surprised by. This week I started to think of hope as that which is left after all else has failed us. And that is an Easter hope.

My friend Cheryl Lawrie works in the prisons in Australia, so when she speaks of hope I tend to listen. She says that: “Hope, is an encounter that captivates our imagination so we can’t help but become more than who we thought we were, and find ourselves living for something that is all at once preposterous and impossible.”

And when it comes down to it, I want hope – I just want a hope that doesn’t disappoint. Don’t we want beauty and reconciliation and possibility that comes from something other than our own limitations or the limitations of others. I want a hope that isn’t really just naïve optimism. I want a hope that finds us living for something that is all at once preposterous and impossible and yet the most real and honest thing we know.

That is to say, I want God.

Because a hope that does not disappoint looks less like being idealistic about ourselves and more like being idealistic about God’s redeeming work in the world. It’s a hope that comes not from naïve optimism, but from being wrong and falling short, and experiencing betrayal and being a betrayer, and it comes from suffering and the grave and what feels like a night from which dawn could never emerge and then how God reaches into the graves we dig ourselves and each other and again loves us back to life.

The Easter hope we have, brothers and sisters, the hope that never disappoints has nothing to do with optimism or the avoidance of suffering, is a hope that can only come from a God who has experienced birth and love and friendship and lepers and prostitutes and betrayal and suffering and death and burial and a decent into hell itself. Only a God who has born suffering can bring us any real hope of resurrection. 

And if ever given the choice of optimism or resurrection I’d go with resurrection any day of the week. This is the God of whom Paul speaks. And the Christian faith is one that does not pretend things aren’t bad. This is a faith that does not offer platitudes to those who lost children [last] week to suicide or a tornado. This is not a faith that produces optimism; it is a faith that produces a defiant hope that God is still writing the story and that despite darkness, a light shines and that God can redeem our crap and that beauty matters and that despite every disappointing thing we have ever done or that we have ever endured, that there is no hell from which resurrection is impossible. The Christian faith is one that kicks at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.*

At those Welcome to House brunches for newcomers, after we’ve told them to not use idealism or hopefulness as a starting point, when we’ve been honest about how we will eventually disappoint them, we ask them to decide if they are going to stick around after that happens. Because if you leave because we’ve disappointed you, you will miss the way that God’s grace fills in the cracks left behind from our brokenness. It’s not something to miss. Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will probably disappoint you. But we don’t think God will, and in this and only this do we confidently place our hope. Amen.

*From Bruce Cockburn’s Lovers in a Dangerous Time

Nadia Bolz-Weber was the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado (www.houseforall.org)—an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination—when this article appeared on godspolitics at www.sojo.net. This post originally appeared on Nadia's blog, Sarcastic Lutheran.

Image: Bird tattoos come to life, Marianne D / Shutterstock.com

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