September 3, 2017: Why Hope? (Doubt)
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-14
29 The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem.
4 The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. 7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
8 The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Don’t let the prophets and diviners in your midst mislead you. Don’t pay attention to your dreams. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I didn’t send them, declares the Lord.
10 The Lord proclaims: When Babylon’s seventy years are up, I will come and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. 12 When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. 13 When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. 14 I will be present for you, declares the Lord, and I will end your captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the Lord.
I recently read a commentary about the origins of the word parson, which is a member of the clergy. It’s where we get the word parsonage, the house owned by the church where I live. Depending on some definitions, I am a parson. You can guess that the word directly relates to the word person, from the Latin persona. By that definition, the parson is the stand-in person of the larger church. While some may see my job as the caretaker of this church, in the larger sense, I am also a stand-in for the personhood of Jesus and the Christian church whole.
That role is sometimes a burden, especially in weeks like this. In the past two weeks, I have witnessed a horrendous hurricane that came dangerously close to friends and family, as well as the many who died that I do not know; a typhoon that we didn’t even notice that is causing even more destruction in South Asia; I have seen threats of nuclear war from unstable regimes; I see daily evidence of the deep resentments and divides of people near and abroad; I’ve prayed for healing of cancer and broken hearts and illness of people here. In those same weeks, I reminisced about faraway places; I got excited about football; I cooked goulash and had dinner with church members. I am just like you; I hurt and celebrate just like you. I am built up and torn down like you. I struggle being a good person like you.
I would love to say that pastors are better than falling victim to basic emotions and fears. But it wouldn’t be true. I carry the same burdens, and I carry some that you may not even know about. Sometimes, I ask really tough questions about God. Sometimes, I wonder if God hears me. I believe God is there, but I also wonder where ‘there’ is and if God ever leaves it. Thankfully, my faith comes back strong at other times, and through all of that, I am the most person-ish person I know.
It is in that deep vulnerability that I sense the same nagging and dread that some of you feel when you think about the nature of the world. I hear it in living rooms and in the sanctuary: “Things have gotten so bad; I wish things were like they used to be.” I wish I had the capability others have who can block it all out and only think of the here and now. I don’t. I see a lot and wonder why God lets certain things happen.
That is why, to begin a series on hope and finding God in the mundane and the darkness, I first feel we must address that hope is not the same as optimism. It is more true and full than optimism. It sees the darkness and still moves on – hope is not fragile. Its counter is doubt, and doubt is greater than pessimism, because it comes easier. Doubt is stronger. Pessimists always see the world as depressing; they are used to it. Doubt can move right past them and get those who are optimistic and pragmatic who are not ready to handle it. Doubt upends centuries old beliefs without being noticed. Doubt is what gives faith and hope meaning, because it is such a powerful force in its ability to go unseen.
I think the prophet Jeremiah offers us a witness to the power of hope in the face of doubt. In today’s reading, he repeats to the leaders of Israel the blessing God gives them, even if it is 70 years down the road. God will protect those who cling to the Law. God promises this as God also promises that the great kingdom of Babylon will strike down Israel and Judah and all the surrounding kingdoms, too. Some will be slaughtered; others taken into slavery; and their lives will be upended. How can one cling to the God in all of that?
When we ask questions about God’s will and God’s goodness, we are asking about something called theodicy. To what extent is God loving and merciful when it comes into conflict with God’s sense of justice and power? Is it merciful for God to kill off a whole kingdom of people? Is it loving to allow those who are evil to oppress and paralyze those who are good?
We ask those same questions today, even if we aren’t thinking about it in those terms. When someone dies in a tragic accident, we ask why. When someone gets cancer after years of healthy living, we ask why. Centuries of asking why have allowed people to come up with theories that we have turned into basic phrases like, “God has a plan and I just don’t know what it is.” Or we say we think there is a purpose to everything. Do those adequately answer why some people go through trials and punishments for minor crimes or no crime at all? Or when a person is harmed by the actions of another? Does it answer why we have phrases like “only the good die young,” and “no good deed goes unpunished”?
We fear the questions and the doubts, I think, because we fear that God has no answer. Someone once told me we don’t ask things like that because it upsets God. I don’t believe that. God wouldn’t have become human in the form of Jesus if God could not handle the questions of the creation. The deeper problem is we may not like that God responds with, “I am doing my best to love you and be just while giving you free will.” Or even the scarier, “I am sorry.”
If one continues reading, it takes a while before we get another passage like this one. That is probably why we don’t read Jeremiah very often – it’s hard to find the good news in it unless you read all the way to the end – but that is why Jeremiah is such a good word for us. He tells the people to live normal lives and marry and continue being God’s people in spite of what they’ve experienced. Hope is found when we do not let doubt take over.
I have doubted a lot in my life. Then I listen to what is happening that isn’t found in the darkness. On Monday, when Brad Fiscus posted that a colleague of ours was trapped in her home in Texas, many people responded to help. I learned about a group of volunteer boat owners from Louisiana called the Cajun Navy that came to help rescue folks trapped by the water. A group of bakers made hundreds of loaves of bread that were given away when they were rescued.
I saw a story about kids with cancer being made into superheroes for a photo shoot; a couple who got engaged 10 years after the woman saved the man’s life; I saw people advocating for loving their neighbors over and over. On Sunday, when we welcomed Jennifer into the church, many of you came to stand with her. I could tell she didn’t expect that; that is what offers hope.
I cannot tell you that the good will always triumph over the bad. There will still be loss and grief in the world. People will still act unfairly and think it is their right to do so. I won’t diminish anyone’s difficulties by saying it will make you stronger or more faithful. I am a person just like you who is hoping beyond the surface things we say and do that somewhere deeper is a real, honest belief that God sees us and is with us and works through people like. I believe that even when my doubt is greatest, God is with me and is doing everything to bring me back to hope.
When trying to understand this idea of theodicy and God’s desire to stop evil, a friend offered this beautiful image: In the beginning, God made a tapestry more beautiful than anything we could ever imagine. That tapestry is creation; we are the strands. As time went on, strands broke and took other strands with them. Some frayed from stress and disaster; some faded from fatigue. All the while, God mends the strands and brings them back to life. When God is finished, it will be the most beautiful tapestry ever. God isn’t done yet.
I hope, because God says good things are coming. It may not be when I want it. I may not even get to see it, but God is bringing heaven to earth through us, the people. When I start thinking all is lost, stories of good people doing good things tells me God is not gone. I believe in hope and will continue to walk in it so you can too.