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The Architecture of Hope

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Oct 15

Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9 and Philippians 4:1-9

This morning I want to speak about hope.

Both of our scripture readings speak of hope. For Isaiah, it’s the sweeping eschatological promise of a rich banquet: deliverance from exile, the vanquishing of all grief and sorrow, a time when God will wipe away every tear, and all will be comforted and all will be fed. Isaiah’s passage tugs at our hearts. Who among us does not yearn for this heavenly banquet? Who does not long for the comfort of knowing that—in God’s time—all will be well? Isaiah assures us that God is powerful. Our hope lies in God, who has all of creation in her care and is making all things new.

Paul’s letter to the young church at Philippi speaks of a much more intimate kind of hope. The letter is filled with sonorous advice. “Be of the same mind in the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord always. God is near. Do not worry about anything.” Paul’s letter abounds with assurances. “Through prayer and supplication…let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s hope lies in the community of the church, in the midst of human relationships and in our connection with God. Paul proclaims that God is here—in our midst—not just in in some distant future.

Our scriptures speak about hope, but a lot of us are having trouble finding hope these days. It’s hard, if our hope is based on events unfolding around us.

Who can feel hopeful when wildfires are burning out of control, or when massive pieces of the Antarctic ice shelf break away and plunge into the sea? Who can feel hopeful when environmental protections are dismantled and temperatures rise, or when there’s another mass shooting, or when access to health care is in jeopardy? Are millions of Americans really on the verge of losing health care? Will my family lose our insurance? Possibly.

It can feel a bit apocalyptic these days. And here is where we need to hear Isaiah’s words of comfort. God hears our distress. God meets her people in the midst of destruction, and renews our hope. God will wipe away all our tears. These words from Isaiah are part of a longer passage called “the little apocalypse,” spoken to people in exile, who are undergoing great hardship, in a time of historical uncertainty. They seem like words we need to hear.

We long for justice and we work through familiar avenues—through legislative processes, through lobbying, community organizing, public protest and collective witness. But sometimes it seems like we are facing the limits of our power and it’s hard to feel hopeful.

A recent illustration is the case of undocumented immigrant, Francisco Rodriguez, who entered the U.S. illegally in 2006, fleeing gang violence in his native El Salvador. His story has been in the news because he was taken into custody by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (or ICE) in July.

Francisco is a 43-year old father of four. An immigrant who has worked as a janitor at MIT for the last five years, Francisco started his own small company, contributes to the economy, pays taxes, and has no criminal record. Francisco applied for asylum in the U.S. but his application was denied, and deportation orders were issued. He has reported regularly to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and—four times—the deportation order has been stayed.

Not so, this last July. Francisco was ordered to show up for his ICE hearing with a one-way ticket to El Salvador and promised that, if he did, he would not be taken into custody. Contrary to that promise, when he appeared for his hearing, with a plane ticket in hand, he was taken into custody and has been held in ICE detention ever since. While he was in custody, Francisco’s wife gave birth to their fourth child and he was not able to be with her, or even meet the new baby.

Francisco’s case is heartbreaking. It is painful to see families torn apart. Whatever one’s position on U.S. immigration policy, our tradition calls us to welcome the stranger and the alien. Our scriptures raise the possibility that consequences—according to the laws of the land—may be incommensurate with the offense and that in such cases people of faith may offer sanctuary. It’s not clear that we have the moral option of simply looking away when our brothers and sisters are in trouble.

Francisco’s case makes me wonder what to hope for. His supporters have tried every imaginable strategy to gain his release. Immigrants’ rights groups have rallied at the statehouse and shown up at Immigration and Customs Enforcement hearings. The janitor’s union (to which Rodriguez belongs) has come out in force. There have been calls from Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, a letter from the President of MIT. Excellent attorneys have been engaged. It’s not over. Francisco is still in detention and has not been deported to El Salvador. His legal team is still fighting for him.

But where is God in all of this? And where should we place our hope? It’s easy to feel discouraged when our best efforts don’t seem to be working. We recognize that we learned from the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, but wonder if any of that wisdom is useful in this new era? It’s easy to lose hope when we feel like we’re up against colossal, unresponsive structures. Surely it must have felt that way to Israel under Babylonian captivity, the folks for whom Isaiah was writing.

In what shall we place our hope? We hope in God because we know that God is in the detention center with Francisco. God is in the scriptures that call us to care. God is in the midst of the city—in public squares where people lift their voices in protest. God is in the movement, in the resistance, in the community of the faithful. And God is in our midst, even now.

When we imagine that we’re in this alone, we become vulnerable to despair. When we forget that we have each other, we lose hope. When we forget God’s promises, we falter.

Some of the most powerful words in our liturgy come from the Assurance of Pardon, following the Prayer of Confession. You heard Cathy proclaim them this morning: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not fear, nor strife. Not cynicism. Not despair, nor even death.”

These are days when we need to hear these promises and take them to heart. Cynicism and despair are such great temptations in times like this. They function like a shield against the pain of the world. But can we allow our hearts to be soft enough to hope? Even if that means we sometimes feel our hearts are breaking?

Isaiah urges us to open ourselves to a God who restores hope. In the midst of hardship, God spreads a welcome table, filled with good things, and all are invited to the feast. I don’t know what your favorite comfort food is. Mac ‘n’ cheese, sticky rice, mashed potatoes, pasta?

Isaiah’s comfort food is a heavenly banquet of rich food and well-matured wines. He shows us God’s abundance. A comfort table where all are welcome, where grief is vanquished, and tears are wiped away. In God’s kingdom, it matters less what’s on the table than who’s at the table. And the guests are real people with real needs. Hungry, lost, lonely, broken-hearted. It’s a table of hope where we both wait for the fullness of God, and rejoice in God’s salvation, already here.

What is hope? Does it lie in the eschatological promise of things to come? Does it reside in the deepest desires of our innermost hearts? In the space between us? I’m beginning to suspect that hope is not so much a feeling—an emotion that we register—as a disposition—a posture or way of being.

Our hope does not rest on outward encouragements and signs of progress. It rests in God, who is greater than all our struggles, who holds us—even in despair and exile—and promises to wipe away our tears.

Hope is a way of leaning into God’s promises. Leaning into a God who is making all things new.

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