Fasting from Despair; Feasting on Hope
We come to the end of our series on fasting and feasting. Traditionally, Easter ends the time of fasting and initiates the season of feasting. The truth is, however, that if we stick to the guide of this series, we should continue to fast, because Lent has simply given us enough practice to form good habits.
And for the past week, as we have journeyed through Holy Week, the stones (at the entrance to the sanctuary) have been our companions. On Palm Sunday, as Jesus is rebuked by the Pharisees for the noise of the crowd, he tells them that human silence is nothing; even the stones can sing out praise to God. On Maundy Thursday, the ancient stones on which ancient bread was baked gave witness to the Last Supper. And as Jesus carried his cross across the paving stones of Old Jerusalem, he met his death and was buried in a tomb, sealed with a stone.
Today is Easter morning, and we find the stone rolled away. And it is in this scene that we find our hope. Hope is at the heart of our faith; whatever your political affiliation, I'm not talking about a politician's hope. I'm talking about a different kind of hope, a hope that is at the heart of what we do, and a faith whose heart is the resurrection we celebrate today.
There are four versions of the resurrection in the gospels. In each of them, there are four common elements. First, Mary Magdalene is always there at the tomb (sometimes accompanied by other women). Second, an angel (sometimes two) are there to meet her. Three, it is the women who are the first to preach resurrection, something I take great delight in reminding my Southern Baptist friends. Finally, there is tremendous movement, whether that be Peter and John running to the tomb or in the disciples being told to go ahead to Galilee where Jesus will meet them. There is always direction.
But what does all this have to do with hope? How is resurrection hope for us? Is it because there's a heaven, a resurrection that awaits us beyond death? Well, yes, that's part of it. And at the same time, it is a hope for us in the here and now. And that's the focus of our conversation today.
The difference between hope and despair can be put most simply in this way: despair is, quite literally, the absence of hope. When we look at how the word despair is used in Scripture, and as we look at the Biblical languages, we learn that, in Hebrew, despair is lifelessness - not death, but more of a living death. In Greek, it means to be lost, without a way, directionless. And so hope, on the other hand, while it means trust, it is also the opposite of despair. So hope, therefore, is a life lived to its fullest. And hope means being found; having direction.
Today's conversation is really a continuation of last night's, where we talked about the difference between hope and optimism. To sum up, optimism is the belief that things will always get better. Hope, on the other hand, recognizes that things might get better, they might get worse, they might stay the same; and no matter what, God is at work. Christ is with us, even - and especially - when things take a downturn. Or to put it in the language of our resurrection story, optimism gets buried in the tomb, and sealed behind the stone. And when optimism hears that the tomb is empty, it thinks, hopefully, "It must've all been a bad dream!" Hope, on the other hand, knows that Christ died and was buried. And hope knows enough to weep at that loss. But when hope approaches the tomb, it can recognize the angels and can see the resurrection for what it is.
It reminds me of a story I once read by Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest and author. He uses the example of a movie scene to talk about Christian hope. Let's begin with the Hollywood version (or in this case, the optimism version). The scene is a beach, people are having a great time. Suddenly, a cry goes out. Someone is drowning out among the waves. The lifeguard (our wonderful Jesus figure in the movie), leaps from his chair, dashes out into the surf, swims vigorously. We imagine a dramatic rescue scene to build the tension, and then both arrive back on the shore, safe and sound, a reminder of our salvation.
Now the version that Capon would craft (or, as I would name it, the hope version). It begins the same: beach, waves, drowning person, lifeguard (Christ figure), dramatic rescue scene. However, the ending is quite different. Both swimmer and lifeguard sink beneath the waves, drowning together.
For a long time, I hated that story. I much preferred the first version, much happier. But then it dawned on me: that's just it. The second version offers hope because the person does not drown alone. Christ is there with them as they sink together.
Bad things will happen. Can I get a witness? Faith is not, as a friend of mine once said, a "no trespassing" sign. We struggle. We suffer. We get sick. Yes, we even die. But to resist despair and to lean into hope is to trust that God is still at work, that Christ is our companion in struggles, in sufferings, in sickness, and in death.
Not only that, but that's who we are, my friends. We are the body of Christ. Our very purpose is not in simply saying, "there, there, it's OK," although there's a time and a place for that. Ours is to make resurrection real. Lived. Fleshed out. Life in its fullest, and full of direction.
I want to offer you an example. Richard came to OPC last week, a 62 year old man from Florida, a heavy machine operator. He had been shot in the stomach in his own home and robbed at gun point. Because of his injury, he was unable to work, and lost his job. He was also spooked by the break-in, and so decided to find a better life elsewhere, making his way with his meager savings around the Southeast looking for work. He came to us looking for help with a place to stay while he continued to look. As we talked, I happened to ask him if he had family back down in Florida, and he said, yes. And the more we talked, the more we both came to realize that the best answer was for him to head back home, recuperate, and then begin to get back on his feet. We ended up buying him a bus ticket back home and sent him along with a bag full of groceries for the ride.
What's the moral of that story? There's no dramatic rescue there. I can't imagine the road he has to walk from here. He has still been shot, and that will terrify him, no doubt, for years to come. He still has no work, and he's 62, and his eyes are shot. We didn't give him a job. We didn't heal his wounds, physical and emotional. We couldn't save him from the uncertainty that will come. But: we could let him know, even if just for a twelve hour bus ride, that God is at work, and that Christ, the body of Christ, goes with him.
Friends, the church is resurrection hope. How often do you touch base with that hope? Are you here for the first time ever? Or for the first time in a long time? Perhaps it's because the stones called out to you. In any case, as long as the church, as long as the body of Christ, as long as we have direction, as long as we follow Christ, we will continue to be that resurrection hope. The sealed tomb of despair has given way to the empty tomb of hope. The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!