In What do you Hope?

By The Rev. Anne Michele Turner, Bridge Interim Rector

In what do you hope?

As an English major, I believe grammar matters, and grammar especially matters here.  I did not ask the more common question, the more expected one—for what do you hope.   A lot of people are asking that question at this time of the year, and most of them are working at the mall selling something.

But in church we ask instead a harder question, a more complex one—in what do you hope.  What is the ground of your hope?  The basis for it?  What allows you to have hope?

Paul’s epistle to the Romans this morning answers that question. And his answer is not what we might expect.

You have to dig a little bit to get at it.  Paul tends to write these long, elliptical sentences that capture elaborate, looping, thoughts, and that’s what he’s doing here, too.  It takes him a while to work up to his point.  He starts off talking about scripture—by which he means the Old Testament, which was the scripture for anyone who first followed Jesus—and he says that scripture was written for “steadfastness” and “encouragement,” that these qualities enable hope.  Sounds pretty straightforward.

But then Paul pokes it at a little more.  He suggests that the whole point of that encouragement is not to help you, or to help me, or to help any one of us.  The purpose of scripture is not the creation of individual hope, but something more profound: it is so that we might live in harmony with one another, that the followers of Jesus might have one voice.

And then he finally gets to what he really wants to say—the conclusion that he’s been building toward: “Welcome one another . . . just as Christ has welcomed you.”  Welcome one another.  That’s his real answer to the question of how hope works; that’s his understanding of where hope is grounded, where it comes from. We are able to hope because of Jesus Christ, of course.  But not just because of Jesus.  We are able to hope because of the way we have known Jesus in one another.   Hope exists not just for one person, but for and because of a people all together.

Paul’s spends a lot of time talking about this point at the end of the letter to the Romans, about the necessity of community for salvation.  If you read before and after what we heard today, you’ll find it all over the place.  Let us resolve never to be a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of one another.  Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.  But here in chapter 15, verse 7, Paul is at his most explicit.  If we are to have hope in this world, we have hope because Christ has shown it to us through one another.  We need to one another to see Christ.   And we need to see Christ so desperately, don’t we?

This idea is maybe a strange pairing with our gospel this week, a gospel that talks about John the Baptist coming after the brood of vipers.  Welcoming one another seems a bit incongruous when we are also hearing how lousy we really are.  It seems kind of crazy that God would make salvation dependent on this broken, messed up pool of human beings.  And it seems even crazier that we could look at one another in all our brokenness and messed-up-ness and know anything other than despair.  But Paul doesn’t seem to think so.  Paul insists that we are the source of one another’s hope.  Paul insists that it is in the face of our neighbor that we have any glimpse of the promises God makes to us.

There is no question that welcoming one another is challenging, of course.  I am willing to be that every single person in this room can name someone who pushes his or her buttons.  Who gets under your skin.  Who knows just how to hurt you.  Who has hurt you.  And I am willing to bet that those people keep showing up in your life.  Maybe they keep showing up in this room. It is really, really hard to think about welcoming them.

The thing is, it was hard 2,000 years ago, too.  There is this tendency to think that no people have ever struggled like we struggle, but history tells us that the early church just had all the same fights we had today.  Broods of vipers have been around for a long time.  The human story is a long account of people who lie to one another, and cheat on one another, and deceive one another, and who get caught in pettiness and nastiness and half truths.  And yet Paul reminds us that we get saved together or not at all.    We cannot know the welcome of Jesus without knowing the welcome of our neighbor.  We cannot see Jesus without seeing our neighbor.   And whatever hope we have is grounded in that.

The best way I can explain this phenomenon is to tell you about my second year in seminary, which was a really rotten year.  It was 2001, and the country was reeling from the attacks of September 11.  Our seminary dean was accused of financial misconduct, and there was talk of losing our affiliation with the university and our accreditation.  The community was imploding.  People were rushing to takes sides before they even figured out what sides there were to take.  And, of course, this happened against the wallpaper of dense and regrettably academic lectures on theology and scripture.

I was writing a paper on hope and, honestly, it made no sense to me.  I was reading theologians with German names and putting in footnotes wherever I could, but I was learning nothing.

Except, there was Jackie.  Jackie was not a professor.  She was the 70-something receptionist who sat at the seminary’s front desk every day and who asked how I was and who remembered my husband’s name, who was never grumpy back even if I was grumpy first.  She welcomed me.  And it was in her daily greeting that I learned what it was to be welcomed.

And it was from her welcome that I realized that maybe others desperately needed that same welcome, too.  It was because she did not judge me that I began to realize that my professors and classmates maybe didn’t need judgment, either.  That maybe we would do better by cutting each other some slack, or maybe even showing each other some compassion.

Jackie was not what I hoped for.  But she made me realize what I hoped in.  I hoped in Christ.  And I would only see Christ if I looked into the longing, scared faces all around me.

Brothers and sisters, Christ has welcomed you.  What would it mean to welcome one another?  What might you lose?  What might you have to lay down?  What would be hard?  What would give you life?

I’m not sure what we are all hoping for.  But I know what we are hoping in.  We hope in Christ, Christ as he is revealed in this body broken, here, in the place.  And so, with Paul, I urge you to give one another the gift of Christ, which is another way to say, give one another the gift of yourselves, the gift of your open hearts.