Text: Romans 8:18-27
In the words of Paul Tillich, “nobody can live without hope, even if it were only for the smallest things which give some satisfaction even under the worst of conditions, even in poverty, sickness, and social failure. Without hope, the tension of our life toward the future would vanish, and with it, life itself.” Another Paul, centuries earlier, wrote to his friends similar sentiments, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
It is this, what Tillich calls, “the right to hope” that I want to talk about this morning. Like me, maybe you have never thought about the “right” to hope. Instead, you have just hoped—hoped that the dark spot on the x-ray would turn out to be nothing serious, hoped that your child would be safe when they leave the driveway for the first time after getting their license, hoped that you would find that person who you would want to spend the rest of your life with, hoped that the job promotion would come through, hoped that the depression would eventually lift, hoped that all your dreams for your life would come true. You really didn’t think about the “right to hope,” you simply hoped.
That is the role hoped had played in my life up until 1998. That year, hope took on a different face and this idea of the “right to hope” became a real experience for me. It was in November of 1998, after months of preparing to travel to Vladivostok to adopt Nora that the phone call came with the news that it didn’t look like the adoption was going to happen. I have told you part of this story before. There had been a glitch in the process and the agency was recommending that we select another child. I hung up the phone and immediately a sense of helplessness and hopelessness settled in my heart for the next several days. At some point, though, a few days into the hopelessness I decided, with much thought and even greater intention, I couldn’t give up hope. I had to wait until there was absolutely no hope. The wait seemed unending. But I remember in the months that would follow having a strong sense of the “right to hope”—this right to hope that both Pauls write about—to hope for Nora, to hope still for a dream I had held in my heart for years, to hope for this little girl that I had not seen but felt was to be a part of my life. I relied on this “right to hope” to get through those days. And that “right to hope” kept me going and while I don’t know what I would have done had Nora’s adoption not worked out, I do know that without that “right to hope” those days would have been even more unbearable.
That was in 1998. Today, in 2015, I am still thinking about and experiencing this “right to hope.” As one who has committed her entire career to the institutional church, it is hard to keep hope these days that the institutional church will remain relevant in our society or that Christianity will offer anything of significance in shaping a society that is just and compassionate and peaceful. Almost every thing I read about church and Christianity these days is questioning the survival of both. Most articles predict gloom and doom. But this past week I was reading an article about Phyllis Tickle and her recent diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. If you are not familiar with the name Phyllis Tickle she is an American author and lecturer whose work focuses on spirituality and religion issues. In an interview with HuffPost this past week Tickle responded to a question about Christianity and the church. She says,
Christianity isn’t going to die! It just birthed out a new tributary to the river. Christianity is reconfiguring. It’s almost going through another adolescence. And it’s going to come out a better, more mature adult. There’s no question about that.
As I read her words, I thought about Tillich’s phrase, “the right to hope.” Indeed, I can possess the right to hope that Christianity is not dying and neither is the institutional church. With Tickle’s words a sense of hope washed over me and I felt a new sense of purpose and renewal of spirit. I, we, have the right to hope that our faith and our church will continue to have a role in our society that adds to the health and well-being of humanity’s common life together. And there it was again, the right to hope!
So why preach about this right to hope on the first Sunday of creation season? What do the two have in common? Well, oddly enough, Anna Peterson in the April issue of Tikkun magazine writes about, none other than, climate change and the “right to hope.” She begins her article by saying,
Most people in the United States genuinely care about the environment, and yet collectively we are still filling landfills with plastic, guzzling gas, supporting factory farms, investing in unsustainable companies, and electing officials beholden to energy lobbies.
After offering more context on our current ecological crises, she goes on to ask the question, “Why do people so rarely act in ways consistent with their ethical commitments? Most people” she writes, “care about nature and about the prospects of future human generations. Most people also know that in order to make these prospects brighter, it is necessary, especially for Westerners, to reduce our collective consumption of resources, to restore ecosystems, and to live differently with nature and with each other. Holding values and knowing what they demand, however, does not seem to provoke the necessary behavioral changes.”
Her argument for what is needed to bridge the gap between our values and our practices when it comes to caring for the environment is a “genuine hope.” She argues that to act—to actually care for creation—we need genuine hope. Peterson writes:
One of the most important reasons people fail to act is that they do not believe their behavior can make a difference. The problem is too big, or the situation is too far gone, for individual changes to matter…
Regardless of how much we care and how much we know, we rarely act on our commitments if we do not believe that we can affect the outcome—in short, if we lack hope. Hope is crucial to social change as well as to individual well-being. It is what makes effective action possible and keeps us going in the face of disappointments, obstacles, and opposition. However, philosophers and theologians, along with activists and advocates, rarely think about what makes hope possible or what sustains it. There is no science of hope, no serious attention to its nature or to the shape it takes in different settings, especially not to the particular kind of hope that can make a difference in social change.
Peterson goes on to offer a way forward, a way of moving from hope without action to what she calls “genuine hope.” She concludes her article by saying, “The notion of genuine hope suggests that, in our present lives and communities, we can find seeds or fragments of the alternative world we hope to build.” This concept of genuine hope is not new. After the great political disasters of his time, including Nazism and Stalinism, Paul Tillich dropped the language of utopian expectation that he had used in his work in the 1930s. In the post-war era, he began to speak of “genuine hope,” which was smaller and more realistic, though no less radical.
The question I want to end on this morning is, what would it look like to have genuine hope for creation? There are those in this sanctuary this morning who live this kind of genuine hope in myriad ways. There are those who have committed to not using plastic bags at the grocery store, and who actually walk back to their cars when they have forgotten to bring those bags inside! There are those who choose not to eat meat as a way of recognizing its demands on our planet. There are those who conserve water at every turn in acknowledgement of its potential scarcity. I would venture to say that almost all of us here at Pullen have made some kind of small commitment to care for creation and are living out today’s genuine hope.
[Story of the March of the Penguins movie]
So what do we have to learn from Paul’s writings to the Romans and Paul Tillich’s notion of genuine hope? I think it is this. The power of genuine hope is two-fold. First, its genius is to make the overwhelming into the bite-sized; and to shift us from despair to action in tangible ways. Second, genuine hope relies on contagion – the idea that action will beget action, not just from us, but from those around us. I know that I am literally preaching to the choir this morning, that so many of you have been acting and waiting for the watershed of broader engagement from your neighbors here in our state. And that can be frustrating and defeating. But I’m here to tell you that it is working. That it always matters when we act out of genuine hope. That it takes time, and it may not turn out the way we expected, but that each of our small acts is birthing tiny tributaries that are feeding the big river.
And that is where the right to hope comes in. In order to stay committed to our genuine hope, our smaller but more realistic hope, we have to hold on to our right to hope big. To hope for substantial reduction in pollution of our air and water. To hope for meaningful reduction in everyday consumption and waste in America. To hope for policies that are built on valuing creation as God’s firstborn.
“For without hope, the tension of our life toward the future [will] vanish, and with it, life itself.”