My Hope is God

The text of the sermon, based on Lamentations 1.1-6, 3.19-23, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, October 2, 2022.

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In the 6th century BCE, the Babylonian Empire destroyed Jerusalem, slaughtering many, enslaving the rest, transporting most into exile. A horrified observer of the massacre wrote: How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become.

When my father died, my mother spent her days sitting in her easy chair. On the side table, stacks of their letters of fifty-three years of marriage. Words on tattered pages that she read and reread. Sometimes aloud. Most often, her lips, moving in silent speech. Each breath, a faint whisper of her past. Next to the letters, a framed picture of my father, smiling his half-smile, gazing at her. She would look back and smile. As Alzheimer’s disease, slowly, inexorably robbed her of memory, she would ask, again and again, “Who is this?” Enveloped in a cloud of her unknowing, it seemed that her amnesia was the anesthesia for her loneliness.

This image of my mother is my picture of desolate Jerusalem: How lonely, like a widow, is the city.

Save for the Book of Job and that handful of psalms known collectively as songs of desolation, no other word in the Bible cries out like Lamentations. We might wish not to hear. Yet life’s inescapable reality, that universal equalizer of suffering – for some, always, and, at some point, for all – calls us, commands us to listen.

Suffering.

Whether wrought under the increasingly darkening cloud of climate change and the indiscriminate, unbridled power of tempest, fire, or flood.

Or when nations wage war.

Or when individuals, with too-easily-obtained weapons, shoot-to-kill.

Or by ill-fated accident or illness.

Or by conditions – personal, existential or internal – that haunt and hamper our fullest living.

Or by our own hand whenever we, with unruly temperaments or unlicensed affections, abuse ourselves or others.

Engulfed by tsunami waves of suffering, is there anything, beyond weeping, that we can do? The one who wrote, “How lonely, like a widow, is the city”, answers emphatically, yes:

The thought of my affliction…is wormwood and gall!

My soul…is bowed down within me.

But this I call to mind; therefore, I have hope:

God’s love and mercy never end.

They are new every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness.

How can this be? How can one who suffers be so confident?

How can it not be? For what value is a word of assurance spoken by one who hath not suffered? Job, in the pit of agony, proclaimed, “I know that my Redeemer lives, who, at the last, will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been destroyed, then, in my flesh, I shall see God.”[1] So, Lamentations can say, “My soul is bowed down, yet I have hope, for God’s love and mercy never end.”

Dare we trust this word! But how? We could believe the integrity and sincerity of the speaker, but nothing else, nothing more. For anyone who suffers desires, demands release or, at least, relief. Yet this is a word of expectation of something to come rooted in the memory of a relationship, a history with an ever-loving, ever-merciful God.

But once God is added to the equation of life and suffering, theodicy shouts its nagging question: How can the evil of suffering of human or natural cause exist in a creation of an omnipotent, benevolent God? I recall that chant, which, during my years ago first crisis of faith, I claimed as my own: If God is God, all-powerful, then God, who allows evil, cannot be good; and if God is good, desiring the wellbeing of all, then God, who does not, cannot restrain evil, cannot be God.[2]

After years of continuous wrestling with this, with God, today, this is where I stand. When I suffer and, in my compassion for you, when you hurt, I have hope. Sometimes, in the face of stubbornly changeless circumstance, I confess, my hope is small. Nevertheless, I have hope. Therefore, I do not hope in God. Rather my hope is God. For my capacity to look beyond what is to behold a vision of what might be is itself a sign of God’s presence and power. Because that is true, then whatever woe betides, visions of expectation always come. Therefore, I can sing:

Great is Thy faithfulness,

Great is Thy faithfulness;

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.[3]

© 2022 PRA

Illustration: The Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)


[1] Job 19.25-26

[2] A paraphrase of the word of the character, Nickles, “If God is God, He is not good, If God is good, He is not God.” J.B.: A Play in Verse (1956), by Archibald MacLeish.

[3] Words (1923) by Thomas O. Chisholm (1866-1960)

3 thoughts on “My Hope is God

  1. Paul,

    I am moved by your description of your mother after your father’s death. What an indelible picture you paint of her grief, her love, and her loneliness. What an image for Jerusalem in its despair.

    I love this sermon. And I love the words from “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” one of my longtime favorite hymns. I came across something this week that seemed to me to speak straightforwardly about the dilemma of theodicy, the dilemma of suffering. It was essentially: “God protects us from nothing; God sustains us through everything.” Whether it should read “God CAN protect us from nothing,” I don’t pretend to know, but I am pretty sure that the original statement is true, because in all the eternity of ills humanity has witnessed and suffered, I can’t imagine there can be any form of suffering from which we’ve enjoyed divine protection, with the exception perhaps of spiritual abandonment.

    For those whose faith can only stretch to include One who can and does protect us from ills and suffering, that’s not much solace, I guess. But I believe the smallest hope still qualifies as hope, and I believe hope lives at perhaps its most significant degree when we can no longer perceive it, when we, for all human purposes, no longer live. If I had to count on my own resources for my hope, I would be lost. As you say, God is my hope and is beyond my control and my resources. I finally gave up the effort to define or conceive of God, and that, I believe, is when my true hope was born. Something beyond… whatever my own condition or imagination can supply: that is God and my hope. And that Unspeakable Greatness will, I believe, sustain me forever, through whatever comes.

    Love to you, and thanks, dear Paul.

    Karen

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  2. Hello Paul and Karen,

    Loving this sermon! The title made me smile, because no matter what happens my Hope always is God! There have been some dark days, but I never lose hope. I agree with Karen, the image of your Mom sitting in the chair reading letters from your Dad is powerful. Being a widow is so lonely even if people are around. When Tim died my chair was in the kitchen looking out our bay window. I kept waiting for him to drive down the street and I would awaken from the bad dream that wasn’t a dream. I had hope that God would help me find my way and He did! My friends, and my RVing Women sisters kept our dream of seeing the country alive.

    The song you ended with – Great is thy faithfulness is an incredible song.. always brings tears to my eyes. My cousin Bonita had posted a video a while back of a wedding ceremony where one of the bridesmaids sang a 6 minute rendition of that song that almost tore the church into pieces. I don’t know the year the video was filmed but lots of people commented on it. My cousin posted a few days ago that both the bride in the video and the bridesmaid who sang it recently died. I instantly wondered what happened to them …. and I pray that their families can hold on to hope during this difficult time. May their hope be God!

    Love to you both!

    Loretta

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    1. Always, my beloved sisters, I thank you for reading, reflecting, and then responding to my writings. And, as always, your sharings deeply resonate within me and manifest broad ranges of feelings and stratospheric flights of thought. This is another way of saying that, for me, you bring the whole of yourselves — your histories and memories, your thoughts and feelings, your hopes and fears, your beings entire — to the enterprise of rumination. I thank you. As one who fancies himself, from time to time, as a person of words, I have no adequate expression to convey to you how meaningful your messages and, even, especially more, how important you, each and both, are to me as inspirations.

      Love you, each and both, always and in all ways,
      Paul

      Below, I share with you my yesterday’s reply on Facebook to Gayle Fisher-Stewart, who raised and probed the question that theodicy, from the ancient, anguished, angry bowels of disappointment, cries:

      No sermon ever answers all the questions it raises — whether for the hearer or the bearer of the word (each and both, truly, I believe, fellow-participants in the ongoing communal conversation of life in this world).

      Moreover, I also believe that no preacher ever says (or can say) everything running through her/their/his head and heart, soul and spirit. For one of my constant questions: Is our Christian “take” on (take of) the afterlife our earnest and faithful reflection on the scriptural warrant or is it all (including the scriptural warrant) a human expression of our grappling with the inevitability of physical death to life in this world, which has no discernible/provable “second act”?

      All this said, I do not believe that hope — not wishful thinking (not my capacity to imagine a blessed outcome of a terrible and present situation), but rather my ability to behold luminescence amid darkness — is an amnesiac. Hope, for me, is a power. Were it not for the hope of my ancestors, I wouldn’t be here and where I am, which, even on my worst day, I count as blessed.

      One last word, for now (something else I didn’t say)… In the face of the conundrum of suffering (taking to heart MacLeish’s character’s cry), some lean to the side of Divine power and, thus, continue to demand heavenly (interventionist) relief. Others tend to lean to the side of Divine benevolence and, thus, consider God, as we, ever in the process of becoming fully human, fully God. If I had to choose, I tend to be a process-oriented theologian, and that is true for me whether or not God exists. Because, as human, recognizing always my state (or lowly estate) in my awareness of the enormity of the cosmos, I cannot help but ponder matters related to Divine entities.

      Enough for now…

      Love and peace, my blessed sister ❤️

      Postscript: As for God “not giving. damn” (yes, a compelling idea!), one of my takeaways from the Parable of the Talents is that we are called to choose which or what God in whom we believe. Whether I believe that God doesn’t give a damn or that God gives a damn influences how I live; for there is a decided causal relationship between belief and behavior, theoria and praxis. Of course, all such ruminations fall to the floor of nonsense if and when I believe in no god at all.

      Liked by 1 person

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