Today we are going to look at hope. We do that because I needed to study, meditate on it this week. I am guessing you need to hear a word of it. So hope it is.
The poet Emily Dickenson calls hope “The thing with feathers.” Hope flutters above us, when we are in despair. When we hear cynicism from our country’s leaders; when we are privy to their angry insults; when blame is doeled out as glibly as Halloween candy; when we read about pipe bombings, a racist inspired shooting tragedy in Kentucky, and that other horrendous shooting at that synagogue in Pittsburgh, hope is still with us. Pause long enough in our broodings, we can just make out hope’s tail feathers, above us, headed toward the future. Hope is that thing with feathers. It perches on the window sills of hospital waiting rooms. It glides over hospital beds. it dares to enter even solemn operating rooms. It hovers at nurses’ stations.
Hope is the invisible thing that rests on the words of great orators of this nation’s past: Words that causes us to sit up and take note and be inspired. FDR—“we have nothing to fear but fear itself;” And we didn’t-- let fear overtake us . Ronald Regan, “Mr. Gorbechev, Tear down that wall.” A pipe dream? No turns out, it wasn’t. John F. Kennedy, “We choose to go to the moon”—The moon? Is he crazy? Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin.” We are working on it. John McCain, “Our shared values define us more than our differences,” Amen to that. And Barack Obama, “We are the change we have been waiting for.” And we are.
Hope, the thing with feathers, flitted above Moses and his band of tired Hebrews as they trudged in the wilderness for forty years. Hope touched down on Aaron as he led those same Hebrews, at last, into the Promised Land. Hope was why the Jews determined to leave Babylon and return to that same Promised Land—they knew they would have to rebuild their temple and their homes—and they did that—and in that order—the building of the temple came first. Hope and faith in God came first in their lives. Hope flitted above the disciples and the followers of Jesus, because of course, Jesus’ message was all about hope—it descended on Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove—and it stayed with him even to his death on a cross. Hope in the form of the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples turned apostles at Pentecost. Hope is with us, in our churches now, and hope is definitely in this church.
Hope has everything to do with our story today. Naomi, the mother-in-law in our story, has roots in Bethlehem. She and her husband had traveled to Moab with their two young sons. Those sons eventually married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. The three families had all lived together happily. Life was good. But then, one by one, the women watch their husbands, as the poet Keats says, “Grow pale and specter thin and die.”
(Pause) When the women have finished with their grieving, they think, “What now?” No means of income. Women didn’t work in that culture—Well, they didn’t, except for what we refer to as “the oldest profession.” They might have sat on the side of the road and begged for money. But no, they couldn’t bring themselves to do that either. So, Naomi, the oldest of the three widows, the matriarch, devises a plan. They will pack up their few belongings—fill some bladders with water, tuck some dried fish and figs inside their satchels and head for Bethlehem. Bethlehem. In Hebrew it means House-Bet—of Lehem—wheat. It was the bread basket of Judah. In Bethlehem they would perhaps find some hospitable kin to give them shelter; and maybe they would find enough in the way of wheat and other nourishment to keep themselves from starving.
They begin their journey. As is so often the case with hope, though, it waned. So very hard to hold on to. Only a five-day journey on foot, but across a rocky, desert landscape. Who knew who or what might be waiting to attack? Hot as Hades during the day, and at night, cold as a winter storm at the arctic pole. Naomi begins to doubt, as any reasonable person might. Reason is not conducive for hoping. She thinks to herself, “This is a fool’s journey!” She asks her daughters-in-law to stop and reconsider.
“I have a sure place to live in Bethlehem, you don’t,” she tells them. “You don’t speak the language, you worship a different God (the God of the Moabites was Chemosh); You will be an outsider in a foreign land. Turn back my daughters, turn back. Let me continue on this journey alone. There IS no hope for you, in Bethlehem.”
But Ruth offers a response. One of the most hopeful in all of scripture. It’s not for nothing it is often chosen for a reading at weddings. “Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, there will I be buried.” And with that, hope returns. Hope, after all, is fueled by love and Ruth loved her mother-in-law. The two women, minus Orpah who did in fact turn back, the two women continue on to Bethlehem. They are united in love, a family, just living in a new – not place, but in a new home; because wherever your family is, that’s home.
Now I want to get academic. Hope, the Hebrew word is teshuva. The middle part of that word—Does it sound familiar? I have preached about shuve several times before. Shuve is the Hebrew word often translated as repentance. But that is not what it really means. Shuve simply means to turn from. When you recognize that you are on the wrong path—you turn from that path, find a new one, begin again. That’s shuve. You hear “shuve” in tesheva? Hope--TE-shuv-A. It means to turn, but as in an arc. Not a complete turning from, but a slight change in course. Likewise, our word hope, comes from an old English word that means curve.
That phrase, “the arc of history bends toward justice?“ Well, that’s a curve, a bend. It’s a line going on a predictable, disastrous course, and then in the nick of time, it bends. Whew! We can think of it to, as a line that begins in the present reality and curves toward a brighter tomorrow. God’s rainbow. Hope.
You ever wonder where evil comes from? Well, the ancient Greeks had a myth. They said it was all Pandora fault. Always, a woman! Pandora had a box. When she opened it evil spewed forth. According to that same myth, though, hope remained in the box’s corner. It is preserved there—to be released when it is most needed. Which IS of course, right now!
The Greek philosopher Seneca writes that hope is an extension of suffering. We don’t hope until we just can’t put up with the way things are any longer. Which again, is right now. Like Ruth and Naomi, we set our sights on a better way. We pack up our belongings and hit the trail.
Finally, the third century church patriarch, Augustine, says, hope is ‘A central virtue of the true believer.“ We are all true believers, right? Augustine goes on to say that hope justifies our actions. That’s true, too. Hope, when it is not acted upon is just a vain hope. Hope requires action.
Hope is why we donate money to a worthwhile cause even when we don’t have much money TO donate; hope is why even if we have a gazillion errands to run, we choose to pack and deliver food at the food bank. Hope is why we drive a sick friend to a doctor’s appointment, even when we are tired; and it’s why, even though we should be mowing the lawn, we knock on doors reminding people to vote.
We joined in that hope last Sunday, right here, when we remembered the dead at that Synagogue in Pittsburgh. We stood and lit a candle. Then, holding hands, we offered our prayers. Our actions were justified by our hope that our faith will not divide us as a country. Our actions were justified by our hope that prejudice will never win over love.
Did you read that the Muslim community has collected $150,000 and counting to be donated to the families of the victims at that Synagogue? Hope.
Once you start looking for hopeful signs, you see them everywhere. Just yesterday, I saw a dramatic video, maybe you’ve seen it, too. Two fishermen, Sam and Taron, are in their boat off California’s coast. Taron took the video on his cell phone. Their boat is alongside a huge humpback whale. The poor thing is tangled in fishing ropes. After two hours they still haven’t been able to cut free one line wrapped around the whale’s dorsal fin. Finally, with Taron still at the camera, Sam jumps on top of the whale. Yes, he’s riding a whale! He cuts the line. Then there’s this tense moment. The whale smacks his tail against the side of the boat. Taron loses his balance and nearly his cell phone. When he regains his footing, he pans to find his partner, now bobbing in the water. “Did you get it?” he yells. Sam, his knife between his teeth, raises his arms in triumph, “YEAH!” The whale swims off, and the two brave men, roar in laughter and delight. Hope in action.
Finally, I will mention something I read about this week. It gives me hope, definitely. It happened in Pakistan. A Christian woman, illiterate, poor, her name is Asia Bibi, spent 8 years in jail, most of it in solitary confinement. She was snatched from her life, as a mother, and, who along with her husband, was a co-provider for her family. Her act of kindness, offering a cup of water to a fellow field worker, was mis-construed as a gesture of hostility against that field worker who was Muslim. She had contaminated the water! She was imprisoned for blasphemy against the prophet Mohammad. If found guilty she would suffer the death penalty. All she had to do was renounce her Christian faith. But she wouldn’t. This week, Pakistan’s high court found her not guilty. Amazing. A Pakistani judge proclaims, “This country will not be terrorized by religious extremists.” Pakistan’s path curves in a new direction.
And so it was those, two hopeful women, Naomi and Ruth, a family, settle in Bethlehem, their new home. Ruth eventually finds a husband, Boaz. Their son Obed, father of Jesse, who is the father of King David. According to scripture, David becomes the greatest king Israel has ever known. Of course, as we know, Jesus is descended from King David. The great king the WORLD has ever known.
A bend in the road is all it took. Hope, the thing with feathers. God’s rainbow. Amen