"The Hopelessness of Christ," by Zachary Helton
The following sermon can be viewed at https://youtu.be/T04xOGX4q3U.
My spirit is broken, my days extinguished, the grave, mine. 2 Surely mockers are with me, and my eye looks on their rebellion. 3 Take my guarantee. Who else is willing to make an agreement? 4 You’ve closed their mind to insight; therefore, you won’t be exalted. 5 They denounces his friends for gain, and their children’s eyes fail. 6 They makes me a popular proverb; I’m like spit in people’s faces. 7 My eye is weak from grief; my limbs like a shadow—all of them. 8 Those who do the right thing are amazed at this; the guiltless become troubled about the godless. 9 The innocent clings to their way; the one whose hands are clean grows stronger. 10 But you can bring all of them again, and I won’t find a wise one among you. 11 My days have passed; my goals are destroyed, my heart’s desires. 12 They turn night into day; light is near because of the darkness. 13 If I hope for the death as my dwelling, lay out my bed in darkness, 14 I’ve called corruption “my father,” the worm, “my mother and sister.” 15 Where then is my hope? My hope—who can see it? 16 Will they go down with me to death; will we descend together to the dust? A reading from our sacred poetry of hope and despair, Thanks be to God.
[While the following sermon is my own,
its dominant moves are inspired by the work of Dr. Miguel A. De La Torre.]
“Hope in losing the little that I have keeps me quiet and docile, but when I have no hope, when I realize I have nothing to lose, that’s when I am the most dangerous.” – Dr. Miguel A. De La Torre
A while back, Claire and I had the opportunity to wander for a while through a museum whose sole focus was on the freedom of the press. It was playfully called the “Newseum.” They had exhibits on just about every press-related story you could imagine, on every leap forward and every boundary that had been crossed… but among the exhibits, there is one that I’ll never forget. After a long day of walking, I rounded a corner to find myself in the midst of an installment on Pulitzer Prize winning photographs. It was this dimly lit, round gallery, inviting its guests to walk through a timeline of prize-winning photographs, starting in 1942 and ending in the present. A large, embossed quote from Eddie Adams decorated the entrance wall. “If it makes you laugh,” he wrote, “if it makes you cry, if it rips out your heart, that’s a good picture.” Now, anyone who has ever been to a museum, especially a large one, knows that there are some sections you just have to walk through at a brisk pace, skimming the surface and pausing every now and then… but this exhibit was different. This exhibit demanded that I stop and be still in reverence – to pay a kind of homage to the vast spectrum of human joy and suffering. In some photographs, I saw scenes that radiated with hope and heroism. One featured a large 18-wheeler sliding off of a bridge, while ordinary men and women gathered around to pull the desperate driver to safety. It was incredible. There were lovers jumping into one another’s arms after what must’ve been ages apart. There were Olympians ablaze with glory after performing feats previously considered super-human… But each of these photographs had an opposite. The reverse side of those same coins. I was not prepared to see Vietnamese children, naked and stumbling from their village, screaming from the Napalm burns on their skin. I wasn’t prepared to see Albanian parents desperately passing a frightened child, the same age as my son, through a barbed wire fence, trying to flee from a war in Kosovo. I wasn’t prepared to see the fear on the faces of men and women with guns to their head, photographs snapped in the moments before their lives ended. As I walked on, my senses of hope and optimism proved far more fragile than I ever thought they were. They shattered in pieces around me, cutting my feet as I walked. But for all of the photographs I saw that day, there is one that slips, unbidden, into my thoughts most often. It was a piece called “The Struggling Girl,” even though the child in the photograph was a boy, a young Sudanese boy, no older than 3 or 4. Hunger had eaten him to nothing. He had collapsed onto the ground. He was helpless and alone except for a vulture two yards behind him, just waiting. After the photograph was published in The New York Times in 1993, the photographer, a man named Kevin Carter, was criticized for not reaching out and helping this child, for not picking him up and taking him to find food, for not letting him know, for a moment, that he wasn’t alone… but Carter would admit that they were under strict instructions not to touch the children for fear of disease. Carter became so overwhelmed by the trauma of the experience, the hopelessness of the famine and war he’d witnessed, that four months after receiving the Pulitzer for that photograph, he took his own life. In my whole life, I’d never felt as hopeless as I did looking at that child and reading that story. It was my job, my vocation to imagine hope, to preach hope, to trust hope… but in that moment I realized that until we’ve looked that kind of hopelessness square in its eyes, then nothing we have to say about hope is worth a damn. Of course, I thought of this story this week. It’s the first week of Advent, the season when we learn to wait expectantly and actively for Christ to be born into this world. We wait for the birth of peace, joy, love… and hope. My favorite image for hope comes from a late professor of pastoral care at Brite Divinity named Dr. Andrew Lester. He wrote that hope could be best understood in the language of story. He asserts that each of us are living a story, responding in the present to some kind of perceived narrative trajectory of our past, but it’s not just that. We don’t often think about the fact that we’re also living in response to the perceived narrative trajectory of our future. In other words, we each have a future story, a next chapter that we anticipate living into. We have an imagination for what might be coming tomorrow, next week, or next year, and when this imagined story is good, then we feel hope. When it is bad… we feel despair. Of course, as with any story we tell, there’s always the question of whether it’s true. Are we really living the story we thought we were living? Are we actually as helpless in the face of it as we think we are? Typically, especially on the First Sunday of Advent, it’s the pastor’s job to ask these questions, to help us re-imagine our future in the light of God’s story, God’s redemptive imagination. We draw pictures of the kind of future God imagines and say in the words of Jason Robert Brown, “I know it’s dark right now, but just believe, somehow, that soon there will be light.” But today… I want to ask a different kind of question, in some ways a question we’re more primed to answer this year than ever before in our lifetimes, a question that Sudanese boy will not let me ignore: Could our idea of hope be entirely empty? I can think of two kinds of hope. On one hand, there’s the conservative Christian’s kind of hope. It’s a hope in the Deus Ex Machina. It’s the hope that if we ask the right way with enough faith in our heart, that God will fix problems, heal diseases, and right wrongs. God will crash in and everything will be alright. The problem is, I’ve seen too many desperate prayers go unanswered to believe this could be true. On the other hand, there’s the kind of naïve hope road-weary activists tend to call “liberal idealism.” This is the kind of hope that claims if we just love one another, if we just be kind, go vote… then things will get better and everything will be alright. The problem here is, I’ve seen too many liberals (myself included) too paralyzed by the comforts of the system, too segregated from those they claim to serve to make any kind of real difference. Sure, both of these kinds of hope have merit. There is wisdom to recognizing what is beyond your control, and there is wisdom in recognizing the power of kindness to bring out the best in people. Both are important, but when it comes to the full depth of human suffering, in the end, both are insufficient. For me, both shattered in the face of the pain I saw that day in the museum. Both were exposed as different kinds of escapism, a vain hope that everything will be okay, maintained by a buffer of privilege. The truth is, things are not always going to be okay. The truth is, many, far too many, will live and die in poverty and pain with no hope to speak of. For many of us, this year has shown us just how fragile that kind of hope can be. So, this year, we must ask: Could our idea of hope be entirely empty? Maybe. Probably. But here’s the thing... these cheap hopes do not discount the existence of true hope any more than cheap romance novels discount the existence of true love. The truth is, real hope, just like real love, has a higher cost. For that kind of hope, we need to turn to the Christ story. If they were awarding Pulitzers for photography in the first century and a photographer had managed to snap a picture of Christ as a child, what do you think they would’ve captured? The iconographers would have us believe they would’ve seen a serene and regal child sitting in the lap of his straight-faced and haloed mother… but honestly, I think we should be suspicious. Is this the image of a child born so poor, his birth took place in a stable, alongside the livestock? Is this the image of a child born into a nation shadowed by an imperial superpower, crucifying any who dared speak a word of resistance? With respect to the iconographers, I think Christ would’ve looked far more like those children from Vietnam or Sudan, children born into poverty, pain, and hopelessness. And yet… the Christ story is, somehow, a story of unparalleled hope. The Christ story is not one of resignation or depression, but one of a man holding lepers in his arms, preaching relentless liberation, and marching boldly towards a Roman cross holding his executioners in his heart. How? Andrew Lester told us that when we look into our imagined future stories and see only pain that we’re paralyzed by despair… but in the Christ story, I think we see that this isn’t the whole picture. In the Christ story, we see that when we are hopeless and we have the courage to look despair in the eye, the courage not to look away, then we discover we have, not a limitation, but a superpower: Desperation. The story of Christ is a story of one who looked deeply into his hopelessness and the hopelessness of the nation around him, who looked into a future that ended, unavoidably, in pain and death… and let it set him free. It set him free to do things most never find the courage to do, to love people most think are too dangerous to love, to work for a future that went beyond his own life. He became, in the words often attributed to Oscar Romero, the prophet of a future not his own. Seeing no hope, in his desperation he died to himself, and let the God in him run loose in the world. This is real hope. Earned hope. It is hope that can only be found along a road of honest hopelessness. If we want real hope, lasting and un-fragile, it can only be found by looking hopelessness in the eye. By walking through the gallery of human suffering, sitting, and waiting. It can only come through a recognition that 10,000 children will die of hunger and preventable causes today. It can only come through meaningful contact with the countless children in the US who will be denied quality education, who will be denied quality employment, sentenced to a life of suspicion and violence for having had the audacity to be born poor. It can only come from opening your heart to the 2,203 people in the US, mostly people of color, who died yesterday of COVID-19, having faced the decision to either go to a job that offers no protection or come home to an eviction noticed tacked to their door. It can only come from the honest acceptance of the now unstoppable effects of climate change, calling into question the very survival of our species. Hope… real, lasting hope, can never come from easy answers, escapism, or naïve idealism. Hope comes from a journey into the very heart of hopelessness itself. It comes from the hopelessness of Christ, which gives birth to despair, which gives birth to desperation, then to total freedom to do what must be done. To allow God to live through you, to become the prophet of a future that is not your own – the future of a new heaven and a new earth. This hope through hopelessness, life through a cross, it is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to all being saved, it is the very power and wisdom of God. So, people of God, on this Sunday of Hope, as we journey through the darkness, waiting for the light, may we be always dissatisfied with any empty hope, with any hope that is fragile or threatened by suffering. May we have the courage to embrace the hopelessness of Christ, looking deeply at that which we would rather look away from or explain away… so that we might find the desperation, the liberation, the freedom of Christ. May we live resurrected lives in the service of a Kingdom greater than ourselves. Amen.
Invitation to Respond
On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:
Where did you hear yourself in today’s sermon – what is your relationship to hope, despair, or desperation?
How would you describe the role of hope in the Christ story? How would you read the Christ story if you were in a hopeless situation?
What are the implications for you? What are you being invited to do or to become?