sermon: hope from joy

Hope Comes from Joy
Scripture: John 17:6-19

Critical thinking without hope is cynicism.
Hope without critical thinking is naiveté.

Journalist Maria Popova offered this dichotomy in a recent podcast about curating meaning. That’s a weird thing to think about: curating meaning. She sees the blog she runs – called brainpickings.com – as being like a forum to discuss things that give and take away meaning from our lives. And this is one of her guiding thoughts:

Critical thinking without hope is cynicism.
Hope without critical thinking is naiveté.

How does that idea resonate with you? Does it make sense to you? That people who are excellent critical thinkers, but who find no hope, make cynical offerings?

Remember the violence throughout the world, especially the violence that occurs at the hands of a powerful group against a powerless group: we can despise it, and call out its atrocity, but without hope, we resign to a belief in its eternal reality.

Likewise, hope without critical thinking is naiveté. “If those people could just get along,” we might think, “then there would be no violence.”

In your mind, in what frame of mind do you dwell? Do you go to the place of critical thinking without hope? Do you go to the place of hope without critical thinking? Do you work to find some balance?

Truly, this is the most difficult thing I work to make sense of, as a pastor. Though these lines of thinking have played out in my various ministry contexts, they were very clearly offered when I worked in an internship as a hospital chaplain in the emergency department and trauma units.

Many people that I met were very bright, insightful people, but who, throughout their lives, received bad news after disease after more bad news. They felt totally hopeless, and the worst part is, they also saw clearly: so they became cynical.

And, for full disclosure, when I let my guard down, this is probably the place I go: those cynical assumptions. I haven’t had a particularly difficult life so far – in fact, I’m grateful for my privileges – but, I watch the news, I know how history seems to repeat itself, and so I become a bit cynical.

On the other side of that same coin, I’d meet people who were quite sick, with very specific and extraordinary hope of healing. Which, I should say, is also a very natural place to go. And when the healing doesn’t pan out in the way they expect, the whole process becomes that much more debilitating.

Here I was: this bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, 25 year old hospital chaplain, coming face to face with some of life’s deepest fears, regrets, challenges, and it all hinged on hope. And people would turn to me, looking for some great insight.

I realize that I’m not selling my pastoral care skills to you, right now. I have to say, I think I’m a pretty good listener, which, I think, is the best I can do.

And so, today, I’m talking a bit about hope and joy. I don’t really have a point, or a  “now what?” message, where this sermon is leading. Please pardon me if you find it a bit too meandering.

Before I go any further, what is our church’s motto? [In essentials, unity; In non-essentials, liberty; in all things love] More than a motto, this is our only real doctrinal statement. It is our only creed. This is the only thing you have to believe in order to be a Moravian Christian. So, how many essentials are there? What are they?

Believe in God as creative, redemptive, and sanctifying.
Respond in faith, hope, and love.

On this sixth and final Sunday of Easter, this is the Easter message, isn’t it? That God creates out of nothing; that God redeems life out of death; that all things are Holy.

As an aside, this is my favorite of God’s movements, that God makes all things holy, all things sacred. Because God created it, or redeemed it, it is good. Not just this space, but our living rooms, bedrooms, and gardens. Not just our moments of prayer, but our moments of play, intimacy, and work. All things are holy, so long as they don’t exploit, or diminish the holiness of life.

So, our response to God is faith, hope, and love which, in reality, are all the same thing. I invite you to think of it this way: faith is our worldview; the way in which we see and understand the world. My starting point is that the world is holy and good, that God is moving and vibrant, and that God is reconciling all things together. Hope, therefore, is the intellectual belief in and response to this. God is moving. Where love is the heartfelt action that you are compelled to do: Because I have witnessed God’s movement bringing all souls together, I will be courageous and go on a peacemaking mission in the Legislature building, in West Edmonton, in the Middle East. You can take your pick, there.

But, I worry, that as a congregation, we get stuck on that second dichotomy of hope: that hope without critical thinking is naiveté. And I think we do it on purpose. First of all, our lives are filled with challenging decisions and experiences. It’s not wrong to want worship and our church community to be a joyful place. And actually, this is a very positive reputation we have in our community: as I meet other pastoral colleagues from nearby churches, they say, “Oh, that’s the church that is celebratory”. People think of us as happy people. I think that’s a good place to be.

Yet  – joy is not ecstasy. We confuse the two. Contrived happiness is not happiness. It is not hopeful, either. We take the concerns of the world seriously, and, though we are challenged by the great pain in the world, we commit to being hopeful.

Jesus, in his last speech before his crucifixion, as he was talking to his disciples, said: “my joy is in you, and your joy is complete.” Think about that, knowing the dreadful thing he was about to do, he said, “my joy is in you, and your joy is complete.”

Joy, in the koine Greek of the bible, is xara. Grace, in the koine Greek of the bible, is xaras. The two are fundamentally related, coming from the same concept. Have you ever stepped outside of your front door on a beautiful day, and as the sun hits you on the face, you remember the presence of God, so you mutter, “thank you God for this beautiful day?” This is the grace and joy that Jesus is speaking about.

Tragically, we most easily remember this joy on good days. Grace is the thing that brings us together, and helps us to feel like whole, functioning people, even in the midst of serious challenge, pain, and violence. Grace is the thing that creates space for cease fires. Grace is the thing that allows us to take on leadership when ready, and to step down from leadership when necessary. Grace is the thing that allows someone to forgive another, mid-argument, and to realize that the petty things we often bicker about are meaningless at the end of the day.

Joy is the recognition of that grace.  Joy is the recognition of the presence of God in all things. Joy is saying, “I see how God is at work here, and I am overwhelmed.”

And, I think, this is the foundation upon which our hope is built.