The kind of hope that is needed today

Pentecost 5

 Jer 28:5-9; Ps 89:1-4, 15-18; Rom 6:12-23; Matt 10:40-42

Rev’d Dr Deborah Meister, ODM

One of my favorite hours of radio, ever, was an episode of “On Being” called Whale Songs and Elephant Loves. ( It was an extended conversation between the host, Krista Tippet, and Katy Payne, a musician who was actually the first person to realize that when whales make noise, they are singing. And that their songs are not static, but constantly evolving — a kind of cetacean jazz! From there, she tuned into elephants, discovering that they communicate with one another at a frequency just below what our ears can hear. Her life, first as musician, then as scientist, has been a life devoted to listening carefully, to hearing what others are unable to hear.

That work of strange singing and careful listening is central to the Christian life as well. In today’s psalm, the psalmist vows, “Your love, O Lord, forever will I sing” — but what does it mean to sing of God’s love in a world in which, for so many people, that love is so very hard to believe?  What does it mean to proclaim God’s love to someone who is trapped in poverty or ravaged by illness, or to someone whose rights have just been taken away? What does it mean to speak of God’s goodness when our skies are clouded by smoke? It means that we dare to sing a whale’s song: sing something which evokes an inscrutable response, which implies meaning, but is beyond the comprehension of most of those who will hear it.

One hundred years ago, during a time of severe oppression, groups of Black musicians began to create a new form of music — one which surrounds us in this city right now. [1] And while many misunderstood jazz as simply some good tunes to dance to, those musicians knew they were trying to do something much more profound: they were trying to keep the soul of a people alive.

Today, one of the songs which is hardest to hear is hope. Hope — true hope — is God’s gift, but that does not mean we are allowed to hold out false reassurance. The prophets of Israel were God-haunted people, not preachers of easy comfort. We see that in today’s reading from Jeremiah, which takes the form of a showdown between Jeremiah and one of the “official” prophets. Babylon has just conquered Judah and taken most of the people into exile; those few who remain in Jerusalem are dispirited and afraid. Hananiah, a false prophet, comes to the Temple to proclaim liberation: God, he states, will destroy Babylon and free Judah within two years. It’s the message everyone wants to hear, the yearning of their heart. But Jeremiah replies, in essence,  “All the prophets have said that this will be a long, hard time. As for your message of peace and freedom? When we see it, then we will believe you!”

It’s a terrible message, a difficult message to deliver — particularly in the name of a loving God. It makes sense only if what-has-been needed to be torn down, if the social order of Judah, its allegiances, its core beliefs had become so distant from those of God that a time of purification was desperately needed. It speaks of a dark hope: that there is order underneath apparent destruction, life below what appears to be a time of dying. It is the kind of hope we need in our time, when so much seems to be passing away. I read recently that when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, what happens in the cocoon is not some kind of orderly transformation. Rather, what had been the caterpillar dissolves completely into a kind of sludge, out of which, by processes no one understands, a butterfly begins to form.

I believe that is the kind of hope we are called to offer in our time. Yesterday, this nation entered Canada Day as one of the few remaining robust democracies. We are here because brave people have called us to engage in truthful conversations; because this nation has been willing to examine its past abuses even when they challenge its self-image; because this far north, we are all too aware that we need one another to thrive. In times like there, the hope we need is not a facile claim that things will get better soon — worldwide! — but, rather, that this difficult transformation we must undergo is of God, and has the capacity to bring in a more peaceful, more verdant world — IF we can enter it in a spirit of love.

That is a vision which people of faith can help to sustain. Sarah Miles writes, “We’re being called to something harder than being conventional ‘Good Samaritans.’ To understand ourselves, individually and [collectively], being rescued by strangers and foreigners, by the wrong people. To understand ourselves, individually and [collectively], as beaten, hungry, hurting, lost at the side of the road. Called to touch parts of ourselves that are strange and damaged and needy. Called to receive love from people we don’t know and have no reason to trust. And only then, in turn, being called to the second part – knowing it will change us in ways we didn’t plan and may not like.” (Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, pp. 177-178)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of welcoming the prophet, that is, welcoming the one who speaks in the name of God. Preachers often turn these words into a nice message on welcoming others, emphasizing that all are welcome in God’s church. It’s a good message, but it’s not the one Jesus is trying to give us here. Jesus is speaking about being welcomed; that is, he is assuming that his followers will be thorny enough or troubling enough or just outré enough that we will not easily be welcomed into the homes and communities of others. In other words, he is not speaking to worshippers in an institutional church who have beautiful buildings and air conditioning and warm hospitality to share. He is speaking to itinerant preachers or to believers who gather in hiding, to people who are seen as fundamentally dangerous, destabilizing to the status quo, vulnerable in their need to be taken in, fed, and cared for.

It’s a vision which is far from today’s church, although, perhaps, one which the church in Québec needs to hear. It may well be that on this ground, where powerful churches have abused their authority for so long that most of the faithful just walked away, the voice of a dispossessed church may be the voice which is still intelligible as a witness to God. Three generations now have failed to heed the words of prelates dressed in fine robes, pouring out the treasures of their wisdom. But a humbled church, a welcoming church, a church which speaks for the margins, from the margins? That would be a new voice, perhaps a voice worth attending to.

Being that kind of voice calls for a rare kind of endurance in doing what is right. So often, we try to temper our message, offer hope (even if it’s a false hope), speak in ways which reach our listeners where they are, even if where they are is in darkness.  But although we need to reach people where they are, we also need to be sure that what we are speaking is truly of God. We need to risk being misunderstood if that’s what it takes to speak what is true in a world gone deaf.

In that radio broadcast, Katy Payne tells of the day she realized that elephants were communicating all around her. She says, “On the night of the day that I realized we had discovered this immense amount of communication that no one had known about in elephants, I fell asleep and dreamed. And I dreamed that I was surrounded by elephants. Now, at that time, I had only seen Asian elephants in a zoo. In my dream, I was surrounded by African elephants on a flat piece of savannah. And they were reaching out to me with their trunks, sniffing me the way elephants do. And then the matriarch of the group spoke. I didn’t hear her voice, but I heard the words and they were in English because that’s what I understand. And she said, “We did not reveal this to you so that you would tell other people.” So I woke knowing that the elephants had revealed it to me, not that I had discovered something. See, that was the message.”

I guess what I’m saying is that, if we believe the words we have are of God, if we believe the teachings we have are really divine, then we need to act on them, even if they will make no sense to most people. That’s what it is to be a saint: a saint is someone who lets God in. Benjamin Myers writes, “Their lives are completely unintelligible, defying all explanation — unless the explanation is God… God is the grammar of their holy lives, their dark and dazzling intelligibility.” (Myers, Christ the Stranger, p. 81) We need to bear the message of God’s love, be the message of God’s love, because that’s the kind of hope that is needed today. We need to sing of God’s love while acknowledging that it comes with pain. We need to hold out God’s promises, not as cheap gifts, but as pearls of great price for which it is worth surrendering everything. We need to embrace the coming difficult transformations in our society and in our global order as the stony road of repentance which may yet bring life.  We need to remind people in their time of sacrifice that Christ has already given everything for us.

There, in that place of humility, let us join him, for when we do, we shall see all the barren plain of this world blossom.

[1] Sermon preached on the first Sunday of the Montreal Jazz Festival.

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