On the Edge of Despair and Hope

Rev. Susan Gilbert Zencka Avatar

Ten years ago, when I was preparing a sermon for the funeral of my best friend, a colleague who had died suddenly in an auto accident, I came across this quote from Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian writer of some renown.  Buechner writes: “Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid.”  [in Beyond Words, Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith]

Sometimes it’s hard to not be afraid.  When I was in kindergarten, we had air raid drills in school.  Now there are active shooter drills.  And there are a host of things to be afraid about— on a personal level, we may find ourselves worrying about things too: is that little pain something serious or not?  Why did I say that (or not say that) in a recent conversation?  Will we run out of money or bills first this month?  How can we help our loved one through the challenge they are facing?  I saved a comic strip some years ago with two little men named Frank and Ernest, and in it one was saying to the other, “I know the only thing to fear is fear itself, but lately I’ve been worrying about anxiety.”  Carter did a really lovely job last week talking about some of the ways personal transitions affect us. 

The sermon title probably tipped you off  that lately I’ve been thinking a lot about crises, bad outcomes, and doom—and I’ve been reading some books in that area, too.  I was thinking about despair and hope for a number of reasons.  Today is my half birthday—I’m 68-and-a-half…with my 70’s right around the corner.  Historically, I start freaking out as I turn something-eight (38, 48, 58, and yep, 68) and by the time I hit the zero birthday, I’m used to the idea.  Also, this spring my father died, and this month our fifth grandchild was born, so I’ve been realizing that I’m now in the eldest generation in my family, and I’m thinking a lot about what kind of world we are leaving our children and grandchildren, and what is my role as an active elder in my family, my community, and the world?  There’s a lot to think about.   I have found myself in recent months often on the edge between despair and hope, and so I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about our country, our world, the earth—and how beautiful and terrible things are happening all the time.  And how it can be hard to not be afraid sometimes. 

This week’s scriptures are from the lectionary—the calendar of readings that many Christians around the world follow.  And I will acknowledge that I did not come to these scriptures as a blank slate—I came with a mind stewing and ruminating, hoping that these particular readings might offer some insights.  And while I’m motivated partly by my own undeniable entry into elderhood, national and global issues have come front and center for many of us this year. On a national level, both political parties are warning of doom if the other party prevails in this year’s elections.  And it’s pretty clear that roughly half of Americans are going to be disappointed, even horrified, by the result of this year’s election. Whether the issue is the economy, democracy, or our national security, both presidential candidates say the other is an existential threat to the nation.  It is likely that the deep divisions in this country will persist. 

On a global level, there are two terrible wars.  And it is increasingly clear that the scientists who have warned for decades about climate change have been right, and ignoring it has not made it go away.  And while global warming has been politicized in our country, still for me as a Christian, the issue is primarily one of discipleship and stewardship—God’s earliest instructions to humans were to serve and preserve the creation, and that is reiterated many times in the Scriptures.  And yet, clearly we humans have faltered in our care for the earth.  We are experiencing hotter summers and more volatile storms.  Things may get very bad.   There is plenty to worry about. 

And at least one of the books I’m reading suggests that the issues are about more than a single election, but of a nation that may be in inevitable decline, as occurs from time to time in history.  I sure don’t know whether America or Western Civilization is heading toward collapse, but civilizations rise and fall, and there may well come a time when the world looks very different than it does now.  And facing all those possibilities can feel pretty frightening.  But one of the things I’ve learned is that facing reality is essential in finding our way to hope rather than despair.  Despair is literally, a loss of hope. 

The story in today’s Gospel is about two people who are desperate, and it comes shortly after the story that Carter read last week about the storm on the Sea of Galilee—in that episode the disciples and Jesus are headed away from Galilee to the other side, a side populated mainly by Gentiles.  In today’s reading they have returned to Galilee, and to their own familiar culture with its very familiar expectations and worldview.  And pretty quickly upon their return a crowd gathers around them.  This is fairly early in the ministry of Jesus, but already, he has healed some people, and called the disciples, and taught some parables—he has done enough so that crowds gather whenever he shows up, and also he has done enough to make enemies: the Pharisees have begun to collude with supporters of King Herod in order to destroy Jesus.  So it is clear that Jesus has already been seen as someone who is incompatible with the ruling classes of the time. 

In this setting, two people who are dealing with despair come to him—they are desperate, desperate enough to reach beyond social norms and the religious law.  Jairus is a leader in the synagogue, a person of privilege and power within the religious order.  The woman in the story is not named, and she is described as having spent all her money on useless attempts at a cure.  She is poor and powerless.  Worse than powerless, because of her constant bleeding, she is unclean.  She has no place in society.  These two could not be more different.   But what they have in common is that they reach out, beyond their social status, beyond the norms, beyond the institutions, beyond their despair, beyond the religious climate of their time; they reach for hope.  They act.  And they turn to Jesus.  Honestly, I’m not sure what is the greatest miracle in this story—that people took a chance on a new idea, on a person outside the power structure, on reaching beyond the rules…or that their doing so resulted in healing.  This episode doesn’t make any guarantees.  There are plenty of people who showed up to hear Jesus who didn’t get healed.  But I think the story does remind us that God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit are the ground of our hope, not whatever social orders, political structures, or traditions may have given us a sense of stability. 

The writer of Lamentations lived in a difficult time.  It was after the destruction of Jerusalem when many of the leaders had been taken into exile in Babylon.  And yet, in our portion today, the writer insists “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”  In the midst of this time of disruption and dislocation, the writer is praising God and finding in God grounds for hope. 

And as we look at history, and the Bible, we are reminded that there have been a lot of times that were hard, or even terrible.  Progress is not an inevitable straight line.  The idea of inevitable progress is a cornerstone of western thinking, but other cultures, such as the ancient Hebrew culture and various indigenous cultures, tend more to a cyclical view of the world.  Just as individually people go through hard times, so too do nations and societies.   We had some experience of this during the pandemic.  But as we approach the July 4th holiday this week, let’s remember that although it led to the birth of the American idea that transformed the world, it came with a lot of difficulties too.  There was a war.  And the product of that war was the dissolution of the relationship with England.  Everything changed and not everyone had wanted it that way.  And during that war, there were fields that didn’t get planted or harvested.  Life got very disrupted.   As Carter reminded us last week—often transition begins with loss. 

I mentioned that one of the books I’ve been reading lately argues that civilizations rise and collapse, and that much in our culture today resonates with other civilizations in the past that were heading toward collapse—things like the extreme partisanship, and even our veneration of athletes. 

So as I have been thinking about all these things, and the possibility that things could get bad in the world, I’ve found myself wondering about hope.  Usually, our hope is connected to an outcome we want—I hope my guy wins the election, I hope the tests come out negative, I hope I get to see family soon, etc.   But Episcopalian priest and writer Cynthia Bourgeault has said, “Our great mistake is that we tie hope to outcome.”  So what is hope if it is not tied to outcome? 

The poet and first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel wrote about hope, “I am not an optimist, because I am not sure that everything ends well. Nor am I a pessimist, because I am not sure that everything ends badly. Instead, I am a realist who carries hope, and hope is the belief that life and work have a meaning. You either have it or you don’t, regardless of the state of the world that surrounds you.  Life without hope is an empty, boring, and useless life. I cannot imagine that I could strive for something if I did not carry hope in me. I am thankful to God for this gift. It is as big as life itself….”

Environmental writer David Orr has written, “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” 

Our denomination’s biennial General Assembly is going on right now in Utah.  The theme of this year’s General Assembly is “Live into hope.”  They are making decisions about how our church will relate to the world, and they are choosing actions to embody hope.  Hope is not the same as wishing for something.  Hope involves action—the two people in the Gospel story didn’t just wish for healing; they acted.  Wishing for things to go well is not what makes a difference in the world.  What makes a difference is what we do, and even the small things that we can do, because our actions matter.  Often we feel powerless in the face of the big issues—like the doom scenarios facing our world.  God doesn’t expect us to do what we can’t do, but God does expect us to do what we can—and that makes a difference.  Sometimes others join with us, other times our efforts only touch a few people.  But as we live out God’s love in active ways—meeting people’s eyes and smiling, telling someone we appreciate what they did, listening to someone’s story, giving financially what we are able to give—it matters.  Some of our individual choices—what we eat, how we heat our homes, what we plant in our gardens, what we drive—can make a difference in the climate crisis, and might be an example for others.  I stopped eating meat and dairy years ago when I learned that the meat industry is a huge factor in global warming.  I planted over 400 native plants in my yard to attract insects and birds so that they would have the plants they need to survive. Our actions matter—they are votes for the world we want.  We are planting seeds of love that can grow.

Finally, we need to remember that even as we hope actively and do what we can to make a difference, things won’t always turn out as we wish.  In this world, beautiful and terrible things happen.  Relationships end, so do jobs, sometimes the health news is bad, our favorite candidate loses the election, and as far as the global issues go, the things we fear may very well happen.  So what about that?  Are our actions meaningless?  No, in some ways, what we do becomes even more meaningful and important. 

In his book, Life After Doom, Brian McLaren writes, “When our prime motive is love, a different logic comes into play.  We find courage and confidence, not in the likelihood of a good outcome, but in our commitment to love. 

Love always makes a difference, and we are God’s hands, feet, and sometimes words in this world.   And it’s important to remember that even if the worst happens, we can make a difference.  Wherever we are, whatever the circumstances, no matter how old or young we are, each of us has the capacity to make a difference by bearing the love of God into the world God loves so very much, and there are thousands of big and small ways to do that in   We can choose to live into hope.  Amen.