Text: Romans 5:1-5
It has been said that we get to God either through great love or great suffering. It has also been said that there are three grand essentials to happiness in this life: something to do, something to love and something to hope for. Our lectionary text today speaks of all three of these elements of life: love, suffering and hope. This morning, I want to speak of hope and its relationship to love and to suffering.
I want to begin by telling you two stories. The first story is an experience I had in 2007 while in the Republic of Georgia. The other one comes out of my experience in Cuba with our sister church in Matanzas in March of this year. The first story is captured in the picture to the left of the communion table. The second story is embedded in the picture to the right of the communion table.
The first story…While visiting our sister church, Peace Cathedral, in the Republic of Georgia, Malkhaz, the Bishop of the Baptist Churches, wanted me to visit one of their house churches that was located about a five hour drive outside the city of Tbilisi. As I have shared with you before, this particular house church is located in the region of Abkhazia near the Black Sea where portions of the region are still Russian occupied. What happens in these communities in the rural parts of Georgia is that Russian military forces come into the area and force Georgians out of their homes and then occupy them indefinitely. The Georgians who are forced from their homes become refugees, struggling in every way to simply survive. They have nothing more than the clothes they are wearing. All but one of the people in the picture are refugees – displaced by Russian military from the homes they once owned and lived in. Having fled for their personal safety, they now live in ruined military barracks that have no electricity, no running water and in some instances no windows to keep the Georgian cold out in the winter or to let the sun in during the summer. The conditions are abysmal; food is scarce. On our return trip from Abkhazia back to Tbilisi we stopped at one of these refugee camps to visit another small house church.
When we arrived, the pastor of the house church quickly gathered some people together in a small room to visit with us. In true Malkhaz fashion, he had given them no notice that we were coming. As we gathered in this small room, I could hear the women rustling in the kitchen to find something, anything, they could offer their guests to eat. It is a grand tradition in Georgia to always offer food to guests as a sign of generosity and hospitality. It wasn’t long until a plate of bread and some fruit appeared. As I took a small piece of bread and fruit, I knew that I was probably eating what would have been someone’s dinner that evening. But to refuse would have been to reject their generosity and hospitality. As we sat in a circle, these refugees told their story as Malkhaz interpreted. It was a story of injustice, oppression, the abuse of power, suffering and despair. More even than their words, their faces communicated their utter despair. As we neared the end of our time together, I looked at the young man pictured here with his head resting on his hand and I asked, “What gives you hope?” And his reply was, “I have no hope.” No qualifiers. No lead in. No apology. No expression. Simply and profoundly, “I have no hope.” If you come close to this picture and look into his face, you can see the hopelessness. I have never forgotten his response. Maybe because it was so real and honest or maybe because I would later realize how awkward my question must have sounded to him. Now every time I hear the word hope, or the question, “What gives you hope?” I recall this young man and I wonder how offensive my question must have sounded to him. I wonder what that young man would say about Paul’s words to the Romans: “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope, and hope does not disappointment us…”
The setting of our second story is the sanctuary of our sister church in Matanzas, Cuba. It was there that another small group of people gathered to share their stories with those of us visiting from Pullen. This time, the stories were of their experiences being gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered, and of their journeys with the church as gay people. They had heard of Pullen’s LGBT and Straight Allies support group, and they, too, longed to have a place in their church to share their stories and find support for the journey. Cuba is not a safe place to be openly gay. First Baptist Matanzas is a safe place to be gay, but even there, Orestes, Wanda and others have to work hard to make a safe place to be openly gay. It was telling that as First Baptist planned to convene their own LGBT support group for the first time, there was consensus that even the gay individuals who were willing to self-identify, some for the first time, and show up were not ready to include their Cuban allies – they just felt too exposed. They were comfortable, however, with Pullen non-gay allies, and so, as our full group, those of us who are gay as well as non-gay, gathered in the circle, you could feel the anxiety as well as the expectation.
One of the women in the picture, Eliane (Ee-lion-ay) began by sharing some of their struggle to create a support group. She suggested that as a way for us to begin our conversation that we tell our stories of coming out. For the next hour and a half, Americans and Cubans spoke of what it was like to be gay and in the church. As that conversation came to a close, a Pullen person leaned over to me and said, “We need a blessing.” Making it up as I went, I invited all of us to stand in a circle. I then invited our Cuban sisters and brothers to get in the middle of the circle, with the Pullenites surrounding them, each American hand touching a Cuban. I then offered a blessing that was intended to unite us, not just as gay and lesbian and allies, but as human beings who know the suffering that we risk in being our most authentic selves. Something sacred happened in that circle. I choose to believe that it was the nurturing of hope – that place where great suffering and great love meet and God is present.
It was after that meeting that Eliane (Ee-lion-ay) and her partner, whose beautiful smiles are pictured, shared with us their hope of being the first gay couple to have their union blessed by the church of First Baptist Matanzas. More than their words, their faces also tell their story. I wonder what those two young women would say about Paul’s words to the Romans: “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope, and hope does not disappointment us…”
Romans 5-8 is a majestic statement of some of Paul’s greatest themes: the love of God in Jesus’ suffering and death; the message of hope, even during suffering for God’s people; Christian freedom from sin, the law and death; and the leading of God’s life-giving spirit. At the same time, these same chapters contain some of Paul’s densest and most difficult writing. For example, the verses that we have read this morning: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappointment us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
It would have been so much easier if Paul had just summarized and said something like the quote I began with: We get to God either through great love or great suffering. I still might have not liked the suffering part but at least it would have made sense. And then he could have made his case for hope by saying something like…hope is what we create in the world when we share with others in our suffering. And hope is a presence that we bring into the world when we love one another. Then he could have ended with a statement like: great love produces great human beings, and great human beings who love produce great relationships that offer comfort in times of suffering, and when we are cared for in our times of distress we have hope, and such hope does not disappointment us.
I think of that young man sitting in that circle in Georgia and Paul’s words fall short – suffering isn’t producing endurance, endurance isn’t producing character and character isn’t producing hope. It is tempting to say that Paul’s great equation is working, and that these Georgian hardships will lead to hope and to faith in time, and that may eventually be true. But the despair of now is real, and my moments in the presence of this young man challenged my willingness to simply accept Paul’s words. It forced me to push my very definition of what hope is.
And this is what I have come to believe about hope. Hope is not an individual possession or act. It is not primarily bound up in the personal question, “What gives you hope?” Rather, hope is a presence and force that we create when we are in relationship with one another – when we love one another, care for one another and share one another’s sufferings. It is born in and lives out of community. Hope is not something we possess alone. It is, at its very core, something that we participate in and give away. It is a grace. Hope is what was created in that circle in First Baptist Church, Matanzas Cuba when Americans and Cubans shared in each other’s suffering and then blessed one another. That is hope. Hope is the vision that Eliane (Ee-lion-ay) and her partner have of standing before their faith community and having their commitment to one another affirmed and blessed, in part because they are in relationship with this church community.
We are God’s most faithful people when we live with an awareness that we are connected to one another. It’s not my hope, or your hope, but our hope. I am not called in this world to hope for my own happiness, for my own safety, or for my own deliverance. I am called, in this world, to hope for our happiness, for our safety, and for our deliverance. And so, whenever I look at the picture of this young man that hangs in my office, I pray that his great suffering may be transformed into great love and through great love he may one day see a glimpse of hope. And I am reminded, most of all, that we play a vital role in offering love and hope to this young man, and to others like him. May we never give up on making a case for hope in our world.