This sermon was preached by the Rev. Nancy A.G. Vogele on Sunday, May 21, 2017, the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was 1 Peter 3:8-18.
[Enact a Rassias drill session and see what happens…]
The genius of the Rassias method of language learning is that you never knew when you were going to be called on so you have to be ready to answer any question. It heightened the learning experience exponentially.
You needed to be ready with the answer!
In our second lesson today, we heard a passage from the First Letter of Peter. I want to focus on one verse today: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15, NRSV)
Or as I memorized it decades ago, “Always be ready to give an account for the hope that is within you. Yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
The example of my French drill class is an example of the first part of this verse:
Always be ready to give an account
Other examples include firefighters, marines, medical professionals – people who train and train and train so that they are ready to respond – to give an account – when needed.
In these examples, the content of what you need to know and share is pretty straightforward. It might be difficult to acquire – as in the medical professional – but there’s a content of information that is given to learn.
In the First Letter to Peter, we are called to always be ready to give an account of the “hope that is within you.”
But what does that mean? I mean, what actually is hope?
Depending on the answer, research and religion are divided on whether hope is even a good thing.
Last weekend, while visiting family, my brother Bruce and I got into a long discussion about this, citing different examples from our own lives as well as what different religions have to say.
On the one hand, studies have shown that hope is associated with many positive outcomes, including greater happiness, better academic achievement and even lowered risk of death. The person who has hope has the will and determination that goals will be achieved, and because of this, a whole set of different strategies are their disposal to reach their goals.
On the other hand, research from 2014, published in the Economic Journal, suggested that hope actually makes people feel worse because it underscores what they currently don’t have – how their current state is less than ideal.
As one author wrote, “Isn’t hope just wishful thinking? Isn’t it just slapping a happy ending on an unhappy beginning?” (John Ptacek, “The Trouble with Hope,” Elephant Journal, February 1, 2011)
He expands on this:
“In small doses, hope is not toxic. It only nips or stings. When our home team loses, when no one asks us to dance, when we tear up lottery tickets, our hopes are dashed and we’re left to survey the space between our expectations and reality. That space grows into an abyss for those attempting to stall reality with hopeful thoughts during times of peril. Thoughts eventually dissolve, while reality stands pat. We blink, and it’s still there.”
But hope is not wishful thinking, as in “I hope I win the lottery.” Or “I hope it doesn’t rain on our wedding day.” It’s not even, “I hoping things will work out in the end.” No it’s deeper than that. Much deeper. True hope helps us face reality, not avoid it. True hope helps us stay in the game, right?
I still feel a bit of tension around the concept of hope.
Thich Nhat Hanh addresses this tension in his book Peace is Every Step (pp. 41-42):
Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. But that is the most that hope can do for us – to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic. Since we cling to our hope in the future, we do not focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment. We use hope to believe something better will happen in the future, that we will arrive at peace, or the Kingdom of God. Hope becomes a kind of obstacle. If you can refrain from hoping, you can bring yourself entirely into the present moment and discover the joy that is already here…
Western civilization places so much emphasis on the idea of hope that we sacrifice the present moment. Hope is for the future. It cannot help us discover joy, peace, or enlightenment in the present moment. Many religions are based on the notion of hope, and this teaching about refraining from hope may create a strong reaction. But the shock can bring about something important. I do not mean that you should not have hope, but that hope is not enough. Hope can create an obstacle for you…
Is hope an “obstacle” or is there another understanding of hope? What does our Christian faith has to say about all this?
Jurgen Moltmann, a German theologian who wrote extensively on the “theology of hope” based it on the resurrection of Christ. According to Moltmann, “Resurrection is not a consoling opium, soothing us with the promise of a better world in the hereafter. It is the energy for a rebirth of this life. The hope doesn’t point to another world. It is focused on the redemption of this one.”
“That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.” (Moltmann in Theology of Hope)
Moltmann’s theology of hope advocates active participation in the world in order to speed the coming of that better world. The Christian is to be seen as a “hoper,” someone who is impatient and terribly dissatisfied with current status of the world. We don’t deny the suffering we see. But we also don’t despair because we know that, in Christ, God has shown us another way to live – that starts now, not in some future reality.
God has acted in Christ and has already set in motion something new – it is already unfolding, it is already in process.
We don’t see it – at least not the whole of it. But we get foretastes of this reality even now and this is what our hope is based on.
And it is this hope that we are called to always be ready to give an account for. Why?
For the same reason the medical professional or the firefighter or the marine trains to be ready…because someone’s life could depend on it.
People are searching for– hoping against hope – that there is more to this life than what they see on the news. They are searching for a hope
that is more than chance,
that the odds of which are better than that of winning the lottery,
that goes deeper than how much money they have,
that sustains them in good times and bad,
that helps them be present to what is
but gives them direction and a will to work for what should be.
You may not realize it but if people know you’re a Christian – or if they know you go to church – they are sizing you up. They’re looking to see how you react to life’s ups and downs, to see if in the ups and downs they can still sense some deeper strengthen sustaining you. Because they so long to feel that themselves, to believe that God does love them, they there is a reason to keep on keeping on, that there is a better way to live their life. They want to have hope.
And people just might be looking to you to see it.
So do you homework ahead of time. Grapple with what your hope is, what it’s based on, if it is, indeed, true hope. Talk about it with others like my brother Bruce and I. Think long and hard so that you come to know this hope and then demonstrate that hope in how you live your life so that whether someone asks you are not, they can see the hope to which you are called and know that this hope is there for them, too.
“Always be ready to give an account for the hope that is within you. Yet do it with gentleness and respect.”