This music-filled service of celebration and spirit will explore ways we can cultivate hope – even when we’re feeling hopeless.
David B. Smith has served All Souls in Tulsa as Associate Director of Music since 2008 and as the Executive Director of Worship since 2014. Prior to coming on board at All Souls, he served for several years as the Associate Pastor for Worship and Fine Arts for churches founded by Bishop Carlton Pearson. He continues the Gospel Music tradition as director of the New Dimensions Chorale.
David brings his tremendous talent and energy to the well-established tradition of the All Souls Children’s and Youth Choirs. His musical choices range from the classics to Elton John. He excels at creating a nurturing and trusting environment that fosters each singer’s confidence and individuality while working toward a harmonious whole.
Complete Service Audio
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The theme we’re exploring this month is evil and this morning we’re looking at what stands against evil, what sustains us when we are struggling or suffering from great wrong in our own lives, in the world, sometimes, hardest of all, with both at the same time. Our sources this morning are readings from different religions and heritages, and music from different heritages and genres, and the experience we are looking to for this sustenance when things seem so bad, is hope. But not just any hope, extraordinary hope, the hoping against hope kind of hope. Months ago, when David and Beth Armstrong, our Sabbatical Music Director, and I were developing this service, David mentioned this phrase and the story most associated with it, the story of Abraham and Sarah having a child. This kind of hope is mentioned in Romans 4:18, when Abraham is spoken of as ‘hoping against hope’ that he would, as prophesied, have a child – that a 99 year old man would have a baby with his 90 year old wife – if you are familiar with this story, you will remember Sarah laughed – with good reason – this was not more likely to happen back then than it would be now – but he hoped against hope it could come to pass with the even more unlikely prospect of their having so many descendants that he would become ‘the father of many nations.’ That kind of hope seems not just… naïve… but downright ridiculous. Another interesting translation puts it this way: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed….” In other words, it wasn’t just the prophecy he believed in, it was hope – he doubled down on hope and said to Sarah – as my good colleague David put it ‘You know what? Let’s get it on. And let’s see.’
Beth offered a contemporary correlate to that story – the story of Amanda Eller, a hiker who went hiking last May and got lost, very lost. Officials had searched for 3 days, then given up because after that much time they believed they had moved from a search and rescue mission to a recovery scenario. That was when the family took over, believing that though it seemed impossible that she could have survived, that she could still be alive – and so they put forward a massive effort, paying for the helicopters themselves, supported by volunteers who also believed the impossible was still possible. After 17 days, they found her, injured but very much alive. Alive. Amanda had survived on unknown plants and moths and stream water and her own belief that the impossible would be possible.
This is the day we have been given. May we make the very most of it,
We hear a lot about ‘faith in action’ these days. Most of the time that phrase applies to advocacy and justice work. But there’s another kind of faith in action. The stories we heard at the opening of this service were two illustrations, Abraham and Sarah, Amanda Eller, – one timeless and biblical, one recent and factual, were stories about decisions to defy what seemed obviously true, realistic, predictable – and those decisions were the thing on which everything ultimately turned, the thing that changed everything. They were two different decisions – and they were the same decision, another form of faith in action, taking the next step beyond hopelessness into not just hope but also risk. Something in us years for life what is lifegiving in every way, which is part of what pulls us towards the good, towards participating in and upholding what is good, because good is what is lifegiving, and we know that is possible, even sometimes against all odds something better is hoping and so we keep hoping and we act on that hope. It’s not just the act of hope, it’s the actions we take because of the hope – what hope pushes us to do, which in a funny kind of evolution can become the justification for hope in the first place.
All of this is a lot of theology but it’s a theology that matters because we are living in a thrilling and demoralizing time. We have so much possibility before us: new capacities for justice and compassion and saving the earth; and so much selfishness and ignorance and shortsightedness standing between us and the goodness that is possible – well, more than possible, frankly, imperative. We can’t live on this planet if we turn it into a husk. We can’t have peace if we victimize each other. That’s all just basic math. But basic as that math is, here’s a little more – we’ve known for a while that we needed to do better by the planet. We didn’t always know how much was riding on it, but we knew a lot – and so far we’ve done pitiably little as you all know. Likewise the issues of victimizing each other – race and class and heritage and religion and all the ways humankind has timelessly drawn lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ to further our own egos and status at the expense of those we define as other. So while the challenges before us all are very clear, they are also just this side of eternal – what in the world gives us the chutzpah to think we can make the differences that have to be made? What in the world makes us think we might have ‘more love, more joy and laughter, live more fearlessly’, … for lose, finally lose, all the pain and misery.
There are probably a lot of factors in that answer, but the one I want to talk about with you today is hope. And honestly, there’s so little of it in the world right now. Each day floods us with stories of outrage and tragedy from the smallest and most intimate to the greatest and most national or international– ubiquitous, unavoidable, mindblowing, heartbreaking. It’s not really a surprise to learn that birth rates in the last few years in this country are the lowest they’ve been in decades. Analysts tell us this is a ‘barometer of despair,’ when people don’t have babies it’s because the world doesn’t feel like one they want to raise a family in. [NPR.com, Bill Chappell, 5/15/19) And this is part of the reality hope has to respond to, because if hope can’t get real, it’s not worth wasting our time on, not in this sermon, and not in our daily living.
Back in 2000 when I relocated to take a solo ministry in the Washington, DC area, I no idea what I had ahead of me. No idea of the rich and relevant and inspiring journey that was ahead of me serving a congregation there for many years; and no idea that a year from then I would wake up one morning to watch the twin towers collapse on television, to watch the Pentagon burn from the roof of my DC apartment building, to learn late that night that a family tied to my church had died in the plane that hit the Pentagon, including two very young and very wonderful daughters. I didn’t know one of my parishioners would be prey to the anthrax attacks on our government that quickly followed 9/11. I didn’t know that just a year after that, the DC snipers would kill half their victims in the same town as our congregation, a harrowing time for us all. And I didn’t know that the day after the DC snipers were caught, Al Qaida operatives would shoot to death a parishioner’s father who was working in Jordan, a smart and good man, an American who was a supporter of Palestinian rights, a man who worked in politics for peace and people’s empowerment his whole life. I had no idea any of that was coming, and once in that turbulent, terrible time I also had no idea how to hold it all, how to walk with and lead my people through all this destruction and death and anguish and chaos without crumbling myself. This was not what expected when I went into ministry, when I took that congregation on the outskirts of DC.
And that was fair, it wasn’t what I thought I had signed up for. But you know what? That didn’t matter. It didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now, because that’s life. We don’t always get to pick our battles. Sometimes we do – and that helps. At least then the struggle is our choice. But so often the struggle is not our choice, it comes upon us whether we are ready or not, whether we want it or not, whether we are prepared or suited or skilled or informed, whether we have any sense of what the heck we ought to be doing – or not. And every time that happens, every time the struggle comes upon us, we don’t get to choose ‘whether’ – we only get to choose ‘how.’
This is a point deeply ingrained in all the readings we’ve heard today. Pope Francis who says hope requires that we not dwell in the past, we’ve got to steel ourselves and look forward. W. E. B. DuBois’ beautiful prayer that we be and stay absolutely resolute, and that out of all that is wrong may come all that is good. The Jewish teachings that life is a process of engagement and commitment, considering always not just what the world is but what it should be, and what we not can but must do with our own living, to co-create that better world that depends on us for its making. A passage you’ll hear shortly, by Egyptian American Muslim writer Yasmin Mogahed; she reminds us it is possible, not just possible but essential, to go forward towards the sacred, even when that going forward is a progress that carries pain and hardship throughout the journey.
Western society has offered itself an ‘onward and upward’ narrative for a long time. It has perceived history and reality with that lens, even when it’s taken a lot of angling that lens to make it work. Our own religion has done the same thing. At another dark and despairing time in our nation’s history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached that even when evil seems pre-eminent and goodness seems beaten and crucified, still good will rise again, and the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. Dr. King was quoting one of our great Unitarian ministers, Rev. Theodore Parker, a fiery 18th c. preacher and abolitionist who first created that phrase about the arc of the universe, with its long lens of resilience and justification of hope.
But nowadays we don’t believe that our direction is always onward and upward. The arc just isn’t that clear or clean, and while its long line over millenia has arguably bent in the direction of betterment and justice this far, the more our mortal powers grow, the more the whole end point of that arc can be prey to the whims of a few, maybe a very few. There’s so much wrong with our world, with our nation, with many of our leaders, with many of our institutions, with many of our communities, and with, let’s not forget, our own selves with all our inherent racism and sexism and classism, all the -ism’s we are wrestling so hard to free ourselves of, usually with uneven –at best – success. They’re deep-rooted and they’ve been part of us so long, it’s going to be a long haul, this journey of being better to each other, to our planet, and yes to ourselves, and as we all know, windows for saving – well, everything – are closing all the time. There’s a kind of cosmic claustrophobia creeping up on us as we begin to wonder whether we really are trapped in here, in all … this, whether we can really find our way out.
Of course, this is where hope comes in. But what does that really mean? Sometimes we refer to hope as if it just comes – and sometimes it does – like a warm, sunny day after this remarkably bleak spring, it lifts our spirits all the more, and reminds us of goodness that simply is in the world, goodness that we can’t compel and have no responsibility for whatsoever and what a relief that is. But hope that comes so easily can also leave us just as easily with the next bleak day or dire discovery or outrageous news cycle.
In which case, what justifies hope at all? Not the ephemeral hope that flits in and out, lifting us and letting us fall, but a stronger, better, realer hope, that the world, society, we, can actually can become different, that we can make a difference – not just a difference but enough of a difference?
Rev. Dr. Miguel de la Torre teaches at Iliff School of Theology in Colorado. He studies how religion intersects with race, class and gender oppression. He also focuses on the issue of immigrant justice, about which he has extensive and ongoing knowledge. As a theologian he doesn’t pussyfoot around and this is most evident in his Theology of Hopelessness. Where most of us are always looking for hope, Rev. Dr. de la Torre has abandoned it. He has not just abandoned hope, he has embraced hopelessness, because he believes that when we cling to hope and hopefulness, this brings with it a kind of complacency. When we look at the bright side, or content ourselves with the belief that things always work out in the end, we let ourselves off the hook, and we let down all those whose lives are hanging in the balance right then. Instead, Rev. Dr. de la Torre believes, it’s only when hope dies that action begins. It’s only when – if – we wake up and realize all will not be well if we don’t get in the game – not just get in the game, that’s not enough anymore – if we don’t change the game, before it’s too late – that we really begin to make a difference.
But my point isn’t that you, we, need to give up hope. I think of his idea of embracing hopelessness as the other side of a coin I hold onto – and am offering you today. The other way to look at this is that yes, people say there’s always hope – I think that’s largely true. But not because hope is always out there, hanging like a light bulb or a star that you just need to look around you until you see it. In my experience hope doesn’t work that way at all. In my experience, the hope that really matters isn’t the hope you look around for, but the hope you look inside yourself for. Hope that isn’t about wishing, hope that is about strength. Hope that comes from a refusal to accept what is unacceptable, a refusal to allow what is reprehensible, a refusal to ignore what is deathly.
That kind of hope may be a wellspring in you already. Or, you may have to do some deep digging and discernment to find it, you may have to excavate, it may take work and time. That’s what I have had to learn to do, when I didn’t have what I needed already as a wellspring in me. Life and work have repeatedly required me to grow and dig down in order to be equal to the times and places I found myself in. But the work of finding that kind of dogged hope does not let you down. In fact it makes you bigger, more courageous, more of a risk taker, more capable. All that is in every one of us and if we work for it, we begin to find it, hope grounded not in complacency but in strength, not in certainty but in possibility, an understanding not that everything will be fine, but that there is something for us to do and that we can do it and so we will do it. If we can do something, then we must do something, so we will do it – and if we all get on that train, if we all get on that train – things change. And that is what justifies hope; not eternal optimism but developed strength, not certainty but possibility.
That is the virtue of Pope Francis’ unlocked heart, that is W. E. B. DuBois’ resolution to persist in good work, that is Jesus’ passion that overwhelms corruption, that is Yasmin Mogahed’s hajji who will not be deterred by pain and hardship. That’s it. We have already known struggle in life – we will encounter more struggles. And possibilities beyond all expectation. And our options are not ‘whether’ but only ‘how.’ Choose deep. Choose strong. Choose compassion. Choose risk. Choose the deep work of hope built on strength. I’m not saying this because it sounds good. That’s not ever how I roll. I’m saying this because history shows us that the most important victories have been won by people who doubled down on hope – not ignorant or naïve, no they were informed and committed, and doubled down on hope against all odds – and acted in ways that were not ‘realistic’ – and sometimes that wins miracles. And I’m saying this because everything in my life, all I have suffered and accomplished, all I have mourned and exulted in, all of it has taught me to give everything I have to hope built on strength. In my own life of struggle and pain, in my life of achievement and fulfillment, everything has taught me this: hope built on strength will bless you. And then you must bless the world. Amen.