Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
July 14, 2019
Rev. Carrie Mook Bridgman
Jeremiah 4: 19-27
2 Corinthians 1: 2-7
Mark 4: 26-32
Recently, the National Public Radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge did a series on hope. Hope is hard to come by these days, at least for me. Between the state of our politics, the state of our earth, and various tragedies among my friends, life can look rather bleak, so I listened with interest. One particular guest from the first show of the series caught my attention. Dr. Andre Willis, associate professor of religious studies at Brown University, says we hear a lot of hope talk that is shallow. It’s the cheerful conviction that tomorrow will be better, and that if I just believe hard enough and work hard enough, I can make it better. “Keep hope alive.” “Think positive!” “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes confidence and hard work are all we need to turn things around. All of us, though, eventually find ourselves in situations that are not going to get better, or at least that we individually do not have the power to fix: Alzheimers. . . climate change. . . bigotry. What then?
Dr. Willis talked about deep hope, the kind of hope we can hang onto even in impossible situations. To get to deep hope, we have to start with deep grieving. In our grief, we come together, offering each other the gift of presence. And then we plant seeds, trusting God to give the growth. Deep hope is the bedrock conviction that we are not alone.
To get to deep hope, we have to start with deep grieving. We have to stop desperately pretending everything is going to be fine when it isn’t. The prophet Jeremiah was speaking to the Kingdom of Judah when it was under attack by the Babylonian Empire. Jeremiah was convinced that God personally sent the armies of Babylon to destroy Judah as punishment for their sins, but unlike those crying judgment in our time, Jeremiah does not gloat. Instead, he shows us how to grieve deeply. “My anguish, my anguish!” he cries. “I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent.” Jeremiah grieves for his people.
We have lots of reasons to grieve. We are overwhelmed with news of fires, floods, and hurricanes. Like Jeremiah, we can say, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void. . . .the fruitful land was a desert.” The disaster of climate change absolutely is our fault, yet our leaders remain stubbornly in denial. We have concentration camps on our border. Gun violence is in the news so often we stop reacting to it. We confront medical issues that have no cure. We struggle with addiction. We face crises in our relationships. People die.
Our culture does not teach us how to grieve. We are encouraged to stuff our grief away, which turns it into either anger or depression. Anger is the Hollywood alternative. You know the scene where the hero finds his family slaughtered. He drops one tear, then his face hardens into steely resolve and he sets off in search of vengeance. Anger is sometimes appropriate, and it can give energy to make change; but it can also misfire, hitting the wrong people. Anger does not burn off our grief but sticks around until we have done our grieving. Depression happens when grief is turned inward, when we are discouraged from expressing it and don’t want to lash out at others. It’s the lump of lead in your belly that just won’t go away. It’s the loss of hope–any kind of hope–and it can be deadly. Jeremiah’s words contain both anger and depression at different times, but he doesn’t stay there. He can teach us how to grieve. Weeping and wailing and screaming at God is not weakness, but strength. The only way out is through. To get to deep hope, we have to start with deep grieving.
In our grief, we come together, offering each other the gift of presence. We do this instinctively. Humans are social animals. Our rituals around grief are group rituals–bringing casseroles, caring for children, gathering for the visitation and the funeral as Crescent Hill did for Jim Welch’s family yesterday. In prayer and song and story, we came together. We saw people we haven’t seen in a long time, knitting ourselves back into the fabric of this church’s, and the Welches’, larger family. Sometimes our parts in the ritual are hard to play, yet we know the value of being surrounded by the love of our community when we are hurting.
That kind of community gathered around my family when my mother died after a car wreck in 2005. I did my share of weeping and wailing and screaming at God. I also felt the prayers of others holding me up like a safety net, or a hammock, even when I couldn’t pray myself. Never underestimate the power of cards and casseroles.
Our public griefs call us together as well. I was an associate pastor in northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. My senior pastor had an emergency appendectomy on the same day, so it was up to me to organize a service of Communion and prayer. I almost did not include a sermon at all, as I had no idea what to say; eventually I realized that no one cared what I had to say, but we all needed to come together to hear what God had to say. I hope I got the message.
Dr. Willis says, “Deep hope might be as simple as forms of togetherness. That is, people in communities still come together. Whether they can improve the situation or not is not the question; it’s the togetherness itself that is sustaining. It’s not future-oriented… it’s not engaged with a kind of probability question about what’s coming later, but it’s fully present.”
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he talks about suffering and consolation. He is consoled by knowing Christ as God-With-Us. Christ suffered for us and triumphed even over death. Paul recognizes his friends’ suffering and wants them to know that same consolation; Paul and his friends share in the consolation of knowing God’s love for them and their love for each other. He says, basically, “I am with you and you are with me and God is with us.” In our grief, we come together, offering each other the gift of presence.
And then we plant seeds, trusting God to give the growth. We take some small action to make the world better. We break free of frozen despair, and we do something.
In the fourth chapter of Mark, Jesus tells the disciples two seed parables. They seem to refer both to his own ministry in the present and to the disciples’ ministry in the future. First he says a farmer sows seeds, but only God’s good earth can give the growth. Jesus’ job, and our job as his disciples, is to act faithfully, even knowing we have little control over the outcome. After all, farmers cannot make the crop grow, but if they want a crop, they had better sow some seeds. Then Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the mustard seed. The disciples were familiar with prophetic writings comparing the Kingdom of God to a tall cedar tree, so they were probably a bit surprised by the mustard plant. Unlike the cedar, a mustard plant is not grand and glorious. It’s practical and helpful. Mustard was used for medicine as well as seasoning. Jesus’ ministry was not going to end with him as a king on a throne, glorious as a cedar tree; instead it would be quiet, widely scattered, spreading hope and health.
The seeds we plant, by the grace of God, can grow in surprising ways. Two of our members, Sharon Kurtz-Mellum and Beth Yeager, helped found the Grannies Respond group here in Louisville. They gather at the bus station with bags of snacks and toys and diapers to meet asylum-seekers traveling through town on their way to family or sponsors. What began as a handful of people with a wagonload of supplies is now a group that had 45 new volunteers show up at a recent training. Church members have packed snack kits, donated supplies, shown up at rallies, written letters and called representatives. Both the Yeagers and the Kurtz-Mellums have also sponsored families seeking asylum who are becoming our friends. Ben Langly, another member of our church, will lead our congregation next Sunday after worship as we build beds for JCPS schoolchildren who don’t have them. The Build-a-Bed program began in Jefferson County in 2012 and has provided about 1000 children with beds of their own. This will be Crescent Hill’s third time participating in the Build-a-Bed program. As another example, many people in this congregation have given many hours over many years to our English Language Learning program. You have taught classes and provided suppers and child care. Giving snacks to weary travelers, teaching English classes, and building beds do not solve systemic problems, but they do offer love and the gift of presence, people coming together in the face of difficulty. They are ways we can engage. They show us that we are neither frozen nor powerless, but agents of the Holy Spirit, by whose power those first small actions can grow into bigger things. We plant seeds, trusting God to give the growth.
Between the state of our politics, the state of our earth, and all the general tragedies of life, hope can be hard to find. We need more than the shallow hope offered by cheery slogans. We need more than a desperate belief that we can make things better by sheer willpower. We need a hope we can hang onto even in impossible situations.
We need deep hope.
To get to deep hope, we have to start with deep grieving. In our grief, we come together, offering each other the gift of presence. And then we plant seeds, trusting God to give the growth. Deep hope is the bedrock conviction that we are not alone.
Thanks be to God. Amen.