In 1868, the great American Episcopal preacher, Phillips Brooks, penned his best-known text in the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” inspired by a visit he had made to Israel in 1865. More than once, we have mined this hymn for the beauty of its words and richness of its imagery. The phrase that’s stuck in my head today is the joining of the “hopes and fears of all the years” as they meet at the foot of Bethlehem’s manger, I am drawn to the convergence of these two, presumably opposed, emotions because our own day and age is wrestling with just such a convergence.
Among the readings for Advent, we hear twice Luke’s angel say, first to Zechariah and then to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” As we know, this is a familiar theme in scripture, especially when an angel appears. “Do not be afraid,” seems like an appropriate word when confronted with the mystery of the holy. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’d feel fear if some sacred figure showed up at the foot of my bed in the middle of the night. I know Old Scrooge was shaken to the core as the spirits appeared in his locked chamber, well after midnight.
Somewhere along the way I got on the email list for the Children’s Defense Fund. Undoubtedly, I signed an online petition which gave them my email address. I will confess that I do not always read the long, thoughtful postings by the founder, Marian Wright Edelman, but when I do, I am rarely disappointed. Edelman is a remarkable woman of insight, passion, wisdom and courage. Maybe it was synchronicity or maybe the Spirit, but this week’s posting was titled, “From Hardship to Hope.” Given the sermon title, I had to read it didn’t I?
I’m not going to quote the whole piece, but I want to highlight some of what Edelman has to say. I made of a few copies for those of you who would like to read the entire reflection. The focus of this piece is foster children. Edelman writes, “Foster care is intended to be a temporary solution during one of the darkest times of a child’s life, but the average length of stay is nearly two years, and every year more than 23,000 youths ‘age out’ of foster care at age 18 or older without being connected to a forever family. These vulnerable young people are at huge risk of dropping out of high school and ending up unemployed, homeless, or in the criminal justice system.” In her column, she highlights three remarkable young people who have made their way through the system to success and a passion for helping others in that same system.
The first is Amy Peters, a 24 year old law student at the University of Nebraska. Amy entered the foster care system at age 12 and remained until she “aged out” at 19. Amy says, “Foster care is no fun for anyone,” but, because she excelled in high school and was accepted to the University of Nebraska, she was eligible for a state program that provided housing, health care and financial assistance until she was 21. Edelman writes that “Amy knows very well she was one of the lucky ones.”
Sixto Cancel was taken into the system at 11 months after his drug-addicted mother proved unable to care for him. He had been subjected to poverty, neglect and abuse. He was briefly adopted at age 9 by a woman who eventually abandoned him. Somehow Sixto found a remedial education program that inspired him and today he is a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University. Edelman reports that “He’s not complaining when he says that unlike most of his peers he has no parental safety net to fall back on when the going gets tough.”
Though she only spent 4 months in Idaho’s foster care system, Ashley Kuber grew up in a poverty-stricken family. She went to work at an early age to buy clothes and help her family with the rent. I’m sure each of these stories is reminiscent of tales told by thousands of young people in foster care. What is remarkable about these three, though, and why Edelman highlights them is that they all have become active advocates for foster children, working at the state and national level to improve the lot of others still in the system. They did not let the system destroy them and now they are dedicated to improving the lot of others.
In each situation, the story is inspired and informed by hope held and hope fulfilled. Edelman concludes her column with these words, “A common thread among many of these young child welfare leaders is that they found the courage to speak up after being encouraged by an adult and told that they—and their story—were important. By simply opening up your heart, looking a young person in the eye, and speaking an encouraging word you might change the trajectory of that child’s life and give them hope for a brighter future” (Marian Wright Edelman, “From Hardship to Hope,” childrensdefensefund.org).
This is an example of accounting for hope, of sharing those experiences in which hope is held and realized. It seems to me that this is also what the writer of First Peter is asking of us, that we recognize our hope as people of God and followers of Christ; then live into that hope. Of course, the challenge of living with hope was greater for those who first received this letter. They lived with threat of humiliation and persecution for the hope they held. As people of privilege, living in a land in which Christianity is part of the dominant culture, hope may seem less significant.
We talked a little about this in Bible study on Tuesday. We, in the church talk a lot more about faith and love than we do hope. James Boyce writes that “Every reader of the New Testament is familiar with Paul’s triad of faith, hope, and love, and his remark that the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13). But for the audience of this letter, the more important of these gifts is hope; hope is at risk for those who have difficulty keeping hope alive in the midst of their troubled lives (James Boyce, “Commentary on 1 Peter 3:13-22, May 25, 2014,” workingpreacher.org).
What do we know of hope, how do we hold it, when do we account for it? Hope – “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen; a feeling of trust; to want something to happen or be the case; to want something to be true and think that it could happen; the state which promotes the desire of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one’s life or in the world at large” (Google search for “hope”). What do you think? What insight, understanding, story comes to mind when you hear hope? Would anyone be willing to share?
It’s hard to hope when times are tough. That is part of what is remarkable about Edelman’s witness and Peter’s admonition. When the shadows overwhelm and the way through seems impossible, when the despair descends and the future fades, how does one hold hope and keep on keeping on? We sang the old hymn this morning, “All my hope on God is founded” and we will end the service singing, “Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion.” This is the hope for which we are called to account. We claim to believe in a God who holds the future and to follow a Christ who, in compassion, leads the way into that future. We exist in hope that there is more to life and living than we have known and that we will eventually find our way to “God…who seeks to claim [our] heart[s] as home.”
What would it take for us, you and me, to “make…an accounting for the hope that is in you”? For many, hope is a fragile thing. To share one’s hope is an exercise in vulnerability. You can hear the voices. “Don’t be ridiculous. You know that’s never going to happen.” “Come on. Get real.” “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.” “Science has shown…” “Tradition teaches…” “You’ll never be anything but…” “Give up.” “It’s just foolish to hope for anything more, anything different, anything better.”
Except, remember a couple of weeks ago when Doug shared with us just the power of such foolishness? Perhaps there is more power in hope than we know. In today’s Words of Preparation, William Sloane Coffin claims, “It’s hope that helps us keep the faith, despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing.” There is such wisdom here. It is in holding hope that we begin to believe that things can be different – different now, not just in some sweet bye and bye. And it is in accounting for hope that we begin to make a difference in this world.
The great black, lesbian poet and essayist, Audre Lorde, facing breast cancer, wrote, “In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence…”
So, she continues, “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us” (Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” in Sister Outsider). Hope unaccounted for, unnamed, unspoken will die a certain, strangled death. We hold our hope. We name our hope. We work, in gentleness, reverence and with clear conscience to make our hope real.
This is the legacy of those early Christians who held their hope through thick and thin, who accounted for it at personal peril, who lived it until it became reality for them. This is the testimony of Amy and Sixto and Ashley who are out to change the world, borne on wings of hope. This is the life work of Marian Wright Edelman, William Sloane Coffin, Vincent Harding, who died last week, and a whole host of those whose accounting for hope has been in the knowledge “that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing.”
I know I am looking to others to help me today. Maybe I have my own struggles growing into the hope I have for myself and for us as people of God, body of Christ, fruit of the Spirit. But given that this week was the anniversary of the birth of Harvey Milk and a postage stamp was issued in his honor, I can’t help but conclude with his best known quote. “I ask this…If there should be an assassination, I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out. If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door…And that’s all. I ask for the movement to continue. Because it’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power…it’s about the “us’s” out there. Not only gays, but the Blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s. Without hope, the us’s give up – I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you…You gotta give em’ hope…you gotta give em’ hope”
(Quoted in Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,, p. 275).