a sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth
What is the essence of religion? One UU minister says, “Religion is people telling stories of hope.” Many of us are discouraged about personal concerns, health issues, or national and world events. Can we find room for hope? What are the stories of hope?
- From Genesis 42:36 Their father Jacob said to them, “You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!”
- From Jean Kerr (U.S. playwright and humorist), Finishing Touches, 1973
Hope is the feeling you have that the feeling you have isn’t permanent.
When you face difficult challenges, when your heart is broken, what gets you through? In the Bible verse we quoted a moment ago, Jacob was despairing of hope. He had just learned that his sons – who had gone to Egypt to get a grain allotment during a famine – had been accused of being spies, and had to leave Simeon, one of the brothers, behind in an Egyptian prison. An Egyptian prince was demanding that they go home and get their youngest brother, Benjamin, and bring him to Egypt, if they ever wanted to see Simeon again. Jacob’s son, Joseph, had disappeared many years before. And now the old man lamented, “Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin! Everything is against me!”
You might already know this Bible story, and if you do, then you know something that Jacob didn’t know. The Egyptian prince was actually Jacob’s long lost son, Joseph.
Long before, Joseph’s brothers had been jealous of him. Joseph was his father’s favorite, the boy with the coat of many colors. His brothers got tired of playing second fiddle to Joseph, sold him into slavery, and told their father that Joseph was dead.
Joseph was sold to a caravan on its way to Egypt. Once in Egypt he had, through a series of incredible circumstances, risen to a high position in the Egyptian government. He became, we might say, Pharaoh’s Secretary of Agriculture, in charge of the Egyptian grain reserves. Now, many years later, he was dressed as an Egyptian prince, and his brothers didn’t recognize him. But Joseph recognized his brothers. Now Joseph, seated on a throne, had the upper hand. The tables were turned. He put one of the brothers in prison, awaiting the return of the other brothers with their youngest sibling, Benjamin, now his father’s favorite.
Jacob, the father, was in despair. There was a famine, and he had been depending on a grain allotment from their Egyptian masters. But tragedy seem to strike at every turn. One son was missing and presumed dead, one son in prison, one son threatened. Jacob’s heart was breaking. But something good was about to happen, something better than his wildest dreams. For when the family arrived in Egypt, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, and forgave them. Jacob had all of his sons restored, even the one he thought was dead.
When I learned this story many years ago in Sunday School it quickly became my favorite Bible story, and has remained so. It’s a story of forgiveness, a story with a happy ending, a story of joy, a story of hope.
There are a lot of other Bible stories that don’t turn out so well. There are plagues and floods, slavery, murders, rapes, and wars. But the story of Joseph is a bright spot, and it’s even within the realm of possibility: it doesn’t require any miracles. It only requires some hope, some determination, and forgiveness at the end. Despite what his brothers did to him, Joseph forgave. And he shared his good fortune with them. It’s a story with a happy ending, a story of forgiveness, a story that gives hope. And it is a story that will lead us, in a few weeks, to Passover, the Jewish festival celebrating the Exodus from Egypt; and to Palm Sunday and Easter, for Jesus chose his 12 disciples to represent Jacob’s 12 sons and Israel’s 12 tribes.
People telling stories of hope ~
So our question today is: what is your story of hope? When everything is going wrong, what gets you through? What sustains you through the loss of a job, the death of a parent or spouse or sibling, a cancer diagnosis? When your heart is broken, what gets you through? It’s not a rhetorical question. I’m asking, in your darkest hour, what is your story of hope? There are few questions that can be as important as this.
The Rev. Robert Hardies of All Souls Unitarian Church, Washington, D.C., says his definition of religion is: “people telling stories of hope.” That’s people like us, “telling stories that sustain us, that inspire us, stories that give us courage in difficult times.”
As religious people we search for stories of hope. The skeptic might press us for an answer: Is the story we tell about hope true? Is hope something like what Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, California? She said, “There is no there there.”
Siddhartha Gautama almost lost hope when he came to realize that all people get sick, all people grow old, and all people die. But he searched for an answer until he found enlightenment – and became the Buddha, “the one who is awake.”
Even Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He felt alone and abandoned. But three days later, his followers somehow – somehow – experienced his continuing presence among them, and something new was born.
And so, while I don’t know about you, I have faith in the future. And when I talk of faith, I don’t mean “belief” in the way that some people do. By faith I mean trust. It’s not so much a theological position. It’s really a matter of confidence. Faith. Trust. Confidence. It is, as a Warsaw Ghetto survivor said, “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.”
Bernice Johnson Reagon of the singing group Sweet Honey In the Rock, tells about how songs lifted the spirits of the Civil Rights marchers and workers during the 1950s and ‘60s. Raising their voices with freedom songs, in the gospel cadence of the black church, Reagon and her fellow marchers could feel the songs change the atmosphere. The freedom songs built community, nurtured courage, and fostered hope.
Is that realistic? Can we sing ourselves into a better world? Can we live out the stories of hope? I say yes. It is my faith that we can build a better world. I have hope for the future, and trust that we can live in justice and harmony and peace. We cannot expect a world free of illness, suffering or pain, but we can sustain one another in communities of respect and compassion and loving-kindness. I have this faith. And I believe my hope is realistic.
A movement of hope and justice and love ~
Senator Barak Obama campaigned for the presidency with talk about hope. But he knew that it takes more than hope alone. Politics has never been easy.
History has never been easy. Remember the twentieth century? World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, Stalin, the Cold War, Korea, Joe McCarthy, the blacklist, the Berlin Wall, Vietnam, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin; lynchings, segregation, the Klan, the assassinations of John, Bobby, Medgar, Martin, and Malcolm.
Did we think the twenty-first century would be easier? History – and we are living in history – history is not easy. Now we have a man living in the White House who is giving us Trumpism, Trumpcare, Trumpsplaining, and alternate facts.
Rev. William Barber, a Christian (Disciples of Christ) pastor from Goldsboro, NC, a member of the national board of the NAACP, and organizer of the Moral Mondays movement, has words of wisdom and courage and hope for us. He says: “Remember, this is not the first time America has had to deal with a racist president. This is not the worst thing we have ever seen,” he says. “To say that would be to disregard the Trail of Tears that Natives faced, and slavery. But when you know history you know that’s not the only side of our American history. There’s another side in our moral DNA. And that is, people have always stood up.
“So, first, if we’re going to change America we have to change it from state houses on up. The Koch brothers came down to the statehouses and that’s where they got their power. The worst laws about voting and wages and education happened in state legislatures.
“Second, you have to build a new language to pull people together because ‘left’ and ‘right’ automatically sets people apart. So the way we did it,” Rev. Barber says, “is we had Moral Monday as a rallying point. Every Monday. Issue-focused. For ten years North Carolina had been trying to raise the minimum wage and had not been successful. But when we came together, Black and White and Latino, Jew and Christian and Muslim and Hindu, people of faith, people not of faith, gay and straight, Republicans and Democrats, around this moral agenda, and we stopped talking about left and right, and liberal versus conservative, but what’s morally defensible, we won. … “
And you have to build a movement, not a moment: not [just] one rally, not one tweet, not one letter. The Moral Monday movement showed the framework that in the South you can organize Black people and Brown people and White people – you can bring them together when you re-frame the issues around the Constitution, around morality, and around what is economically just. And you can win. So I believe that all of these movements from Moral Monday, to Fight For 15, to Black Lives Matter, and on and on, are signs of hope that people are going to stand up and not stand down; that people are saying that standing down is not an option. If we were able to beat back slavery and Jim Crow, if women were able to win the right to vote, then maybe this is just our time. And from that standpoint,” said Rev. Barber, “I’m glad to be alive. And glad to be alive with so many others who say, we will never give up on the heart of this democracy. We will be the moral defibrillators of our time, and shock the heart of this nation, and build a movement of resistance and hope and justice and love.” Now, that was a long quote from Rev. Barber, but he’s worth quoting. He’s a man of faith who is keeping hope alive in this heartbreaking world. We know that this is can be a world where we humans can be cruel to one another, sometimes even kill one another, because we think the other person is the wrong color, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong social class, the wrong religion, the wrong sex, the wrong sexual orientation. Too often, we act as if someone else’s life doesn’t really matter all much, as long as we are safe, warm, secure, and have our privileges. We must understand, in this broken world, that in order for all lives to matter we must be clear that Black lives really do matter.
I believe it’s time to raise our “Black Lives Matter” banner on the outside of the church. Let me be clear – the minister can’t tell you what to do. I’m not in charge. I have freedom of the pulpit to say what I believe, and you have the freedom of the pew to disagree. I don’t even get a vote on the Board. This is a self-governing congregation. It’s up to you, not me. At the same time, I think we’re ready to do this, and I hope we will, soon. We must keep our message positive, and we must speak up. By speaking up, by standing up for justice, we keep hope alive.
This is a difficult moment in history, but the truth is, most moments in history are difficult. And, as we live in history, our lives are full of difficult moments. If Joseph and his brothers, and their father Jacob, were real people in history – they might have been – then they surely faced adversities. Because no one gets through life unscathed. We all face challenges. We all face sickness. We all face grief.
“How Could We Let Go?”
So do you remember the question we started with? In your darkest hour, what is the source of your hope? Think for a moment.
In my darkest hours, it has been the support of friends, the acceptance of a community, the love of parents and siblings, the forgiveness of my life partner, the good advice given by friends and counselors, the sustenance of a spiritual path, and the remembering of my ability to change and to cope and to grow. It was the knowledge that I had the ability to do what I needed to do, to live through the dark hour, and to be there for the others who needed me as well.
Russell Sanders, in his book Hunting For Hope, tells this true story: “A British couple in their mid-twenties, haggard and bruised, recalled for the television camera how they were on holiday in Indonesia, trying to decide whether to get married, when the ferryboat they were riding between islands sank during a storm. They clamored into a lifeboat, but so did many others, and the lifeboat foundered. So the couple set off swimming, calling back and forth to keep track of one another in the rough seas, until they came upon a floating spar, and there they clung, waiting for rescue. Eventually five other passengers joined them; but one by one the others ran out of strength, let go of the spar and drowned. Asked how they managed to hold on for thirteen hours while the waves hurled them about, the couple smiled shyly at the camera. The woman says, ‘We remembered things we’d done together, we told jokes, we sang.’ ‘We promised one another we’d get married straightaway,’ the man says, ‘if only we survived.’ ‘It seemed like a test,’ the woman says, ‘as though some great power had asked us a question. How could we let go?’” (Re-told by Frederic John Muir in Heretic’s Faith)
As a Unitarian Universalist, my faith is filled with hope. We are a community of hope. The hope I experience here helps me to hold on to all the good things we share. With deep roots in a courageous past, we are grounded in the present, in the here-and-now, looking with hope toward the future. We have a vision of a better world that is possible. We experience the freedom of our faith, a freedom that allows us to dream the dreams, a world where diversity is respected, the earth is cherished, religion is non-dogmatic, and peace is possible. It’s a moral agenda and a commitment to justice. It is a vision we laugh and sing about, we debate and sometimes argue about, a vision we can only reach if we are together. How could we ever let go of that?
There is a bit of the divine, a bit of wholeness and holiness in this beautiful and broken world, and it is called hope. We each have it, and without finding it we can’t live. It is the essence of our faith. Let us trust that hope.