Sunday, August 28, 2011

Rejoice in Hope - A Homily for Proper 22, Year A, 2011

Homily for Proper 22, Year A, 2011
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Trinity Church, Bradford & St. Paul’s Coulson’s Hill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 12:9-21

“Rejoice in hope.”
--Romans 12:12

Despair is a disease. It is a very contagious disease. Where it infects one, it quickly spreads to another, and very soon, despair becomes an epidemic. There is something in our human condition that makes especially prone to despair, that makes us exceptionally vulnerable. That is why when our leaders peddle despair, when they choose to speak about fear and impending doom, be it in the church or the world, even when they are doing so with apparently honest motives, it always backfires. Just think how quickly the media jumps on bad news and seeks to rebroadcast, and indeed recast it in even more despairing tones of hopelessness. Just think about how often you pick up the phone or go off to your computer to share a piece of bad news with someone else. Despair spreads as quickly and perniciously as any avian flu or SARS.

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about how little things can make a big difference. He underscores that epidemics can be destructive, but also that there are good epidemics, positive epidemics, and that there is always something that tips them from being simply and isolated phenomena into a phenomenon that falls upon everyone. He gives a particular example when he writes about the “broken window” concept. In the early 1980’s, the New York subway system was a disaster. Every train was covered in graffiti, fare evasion was rampant, and violent crime so prevalent that ordinary folk would avoid the subway at all cost. The authorities attempted unsuccessfully to treat the symptoms of violent crime, but it was not until a new general manager was hired, who dealt aggressively with the problems of petty crime (graffiti, fare evasion) that things began to change. What that new manager did was essentially to fix the broken window. Broken windows are one ways that epidemics spread. If we see a broken window, we are more tempted to break another, to further vandalize the property, or simply to fall into the apathy of despair and not even bother to try to fix the window, the dilapidated building, and make things better.

If we are prone to despair, though, I believe we also long for hope. Even more than being prone to despair, I believe we are a people programmed for hopefulness. It may come with great difficulty, but ultimately, I believe we long to see the best, hope for the best, and believe in the best. If we are indeed made in the image and likeness of God, who longs for the best, hopes for the best and believes in the best for humanity, than this should come as no surprise.

Yet, we find ourselves mired in despair. But time and time again, remarkable, little things begin to happen. We want the subway system to be safe, we want our political system to work, we want the broken windows to be fixed. This week we witnessed an outpouring of hope. This week we buried at great leader of this nation, a leader who spoke words of hope to a people so prone to despair. This week, in the midst of death and profound loss, hope became an epidemic. The small gesture of a final will and testament, final words of exhortation left by Jack Layton to Canadians was an offering of words of hopefulness that love, hope and optimism are better than the things that would seek to crush us. People gathered, and rain could not wash away tributes chalked onto the plaza of Nathan Philips Square. A tipping point, I believe. And lest this become about the politics of one man, let us not forget the extraordinary gesture of our Prime Minister in offering an unprecedented state funeral to the leaders of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. A friend of mine, and ex-pat American wondered on Facebook if this would have happened in polarized America? I hope and believe that the potential is there, too. Yes, some will criticize our Prime Minister of making a political move, and others will criticize the funeral organizers of organizing one last political rally, but those who do so are purveyors of despair and I encourage you not to buy into their cynicism. When did politics become such a dirty word? Politics is about serving the people of polis, the city, the community, the nation. A political move should not be considered a bad thing, but a principled stand on seeking to do the best for the people we seek to serve. Both the late, lamented leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and our Prime Minister made political moves this week. They both did so with dignity, passion, and deep and profound hopefulness. We learned from both of them that politics can be hopeful and that cynicism and despair can be cast aside.

I have grown up in a Church that has been known as being less than hopeful. Pierre Berton’s Comfortable Pew has left a bitter legacy in the history of the Canadian Church. Church politics for the last forty years or so have been governed by fear: Declining attendance, lawsuits concerning residential schools, insufficient budgets, issues that divide such as the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church. Given this legacy, why are any of us here? And indeed, many are not here because the politics of fear has driven them away. But I heard some remarkable words recently. I attended a town hall meeting held by Archbishop Johnson in Barrie. It was an opportunity for him to answer questions and to listen to what people in this diocese are saying. There were many words of encouragement spoken. People spoke of the exciting things that were happening in their parishes. Even in tiny parishes that have traditionally been maligned for being small, we heard reports of the Spirit moving in wonderful ways. It was like the sign that hangs over the fictional record store in Stuart MacLean’s Vinyl Café, which reads proudly “We’re not big, but we’re small!” Then the Archbishop spoke these very profound words, “Everywhere I go, I see signs of hope; I see signs of God at work. I do not see the naysayers proved right. People are tired of bad news. People are tired about hearing about the demise of the Church. People are tired of it, and it is simply not true. Wherever I go I see Good News and I see hope.”

This week on the national scene people made a claim for hope. People who profoundly disagreed with Jack Layton’s politics said yes to his words of hope. Why did these words make such a profound impression upon us? It is because we are a people who, though prone to fear and despair desperately long for words of hope because deep down we do believe that hope is better, strong and greater than fear.

Every time I officiate at a wedding, I underscore a certain point, that in a world that knows much brokenness and hopelessness, I am standing before a couple that is saying “no” to such things, and instead, offering a profound “yes” to love and to hope, in the midst of their family and friends, and that love and hope has the power to change the world. In a prayer for the couple from the marriage liturgy we read, “May their lives together be a sacrament of your love to this broken world, so that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy overcome despair.” Sound familiar? We pray that every marriage will be a “tipping point” in the glorious epidemic of hope.

A small thing: the birth of a tiny babe in stable. This is the most profound and hopeful act since the creation of humankind. God hoped. God believed. God hoped and believed that Joseph and Mary of Nazareth would take this tiny babe and nurture and care for it, in a world of profound infant mortality, in a world occupied by a Roman oppressor, in backwater Judea, God hoped and believed. God hoped and believed that at least a few would follow the young man, that at least some would find his preaching transformative, his preaching of an upside-down kingdom where the last are first. God hoped and believed that the young man would see it through to the end, even as the man longed for the cup to be passed. God hoped and believed that those who turned away would once again follow. God hoped and believed that death would not win the day. And it has not. God hoped and believed that others would catch the vision of hope and love.

A small thing: the birth of a tiny babe in a stable. A tipping point.

Years later a zealous missionary, having caught the vision, would write in his Epistle to the Romans, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers …. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

We shall return home from this place, and surely as I am standing here, we will turn on the radio, television or internet. We will hear peddlers of despair, but they shall not, nor shall their message overwhelm us, hurt us or destroy us, for the point has tipped. We are bearers of Good News; we proclaim hope, and hope changes lives.

Rejoice in hope.

c.2011, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

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