Preacher: The Rev. Todd Foster
Hope and Courage
I. The News
This past Sunday night, my daughter Aviva and I were headed out the door when my wife, Becky, received a push notification on her phone. There had been a mass shooting in a church outside of San Antonio, Texas. We went to San Antonio to visit family just this past summer! These reports are beginning to overwhelm me! At the end of this past August, Newsweek published an article entitled “There Have Been More Mass Shootings in the U.S. in 2017 Than Days.” When I looked up the numbers current this week, we were about even: 310 days into 2017, there have been 308 mass shootings recorded. We live in the midst of an epidemic of violence.
As Aviva and I went on our way, we reflected on how we felt about this most recent shooting. More accurately, we reflected on how we did not feel. We did not feel especially shocked or sad or compassionate. Instead, we both felt numb, uncaring. My response was, in a nutshell, cynicism.
So today I want to talk about two ideas from our Epistle reading that speak to a context of violence and cynicism. Today I want to talk about hope and I want to talk about courage. Let’s start with hope.
At the root of any violence lies a lack of hope. In particular, when there are guns involved, that’s a sure sign that fear has taken over and hope has fled. The gunman, and with mass shootings, it’s nearly always a man, decides his victims are beyond hope, condemns them, and carries out the sentence in one fell swoop. He ensures there is no possibility for restoration of relationship, for reconciliation.
Likewise the gunman is hopeless himself. He knows he’s not going back home that day. He knows he probably won’t even live through the day. Suicide by cop is a thing. The perpetrator of a mass shooting is hopelessness incarnate.
Now if I’m going to be honest, I’m going to have to acknowledge that violence isn’t the only possible response to hopelessness. Self-protective cynicism, such as I sometimes indulge in, is just an inner form of violence, one that operates on an emotional plane rather than a physical one. Both violence and cynicism are a cutting off of possibility, a final judgement on those who are the targets of our contempt. Cynicism, too, springs from hopelessness and feeds that hopelessness in others. Cynicism is not going to redirect anyone away from a path of violence.
St. Paul, in one of his earliest epistles to the Church, spoke a message of hope into a context of violence and cynicism that bears some semblance to our own time. The church in Thessalonica was a church born in the midst of persecution: you can see it as you read this short letter. Violence and alienation were the price many paid for their faith.
Into that violence, St. Paul writes:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. … Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess 4.13-14, 18)
Paul writes to encourage the believers in Thessalonica, to remind them that their grief, while real, is different from despair. What makes Christians special is their hope. Christians understand themselves as beloved of God. Christians know themselves to be caught up in a system characterized not by death but by resurrection. Christians enjoy a relationship that is so strong that it is capable of carrying them through the experience of death and out the other side in one unbroken life with God.
When hopelessness reigns in my life, cynicism and violence are the natural result. They are the fruit of hopelessness. Hopelessness makes me tired, powerless, impotent, self-protective and uncaring.
When hope reigns in my life, the fruit of hope is peace. Hope gives me a bigger perspective, power to make change, and the compassion to care for others. Hope gives us energy to push through even difficult circumstances. It was hope that animated all the heroes of peace to whom we look back: heroes like St. Paul and St. Francis, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
So if hope is an action, as Doyt reminded us last week, what can I do when faced with my own cynicism in response to a culture of gun violence? Or a culture of racism? Or a culture of hatred and partisan division? This is where courage comes in. Today we’re talking about hope and courage.
In response to the shooting at Sutherland Springs last weekend, our Bishop Rickel and numerous other signatories released a brief statement . They said, “One does not offer prayers in lieu of demonstrating political courage, but rather in preparation.”
Courage starts with prayer. Prayer is a spiritual discipline, a quieting of the self and an opening up to God. If you feel that you are too small and too powerless to change a culture of violence on your own, maybe you’re right. But our God is not too small. So the more we can let go of our own ego and recognize God at work in us, the better we will be able to get out of the way and to allow God to act through us. My power may be too little: God’s is not.
And prayer is not where courage stops. Prayer is simply a gathering of strength, God’s strength, for the work that God has given us to do.
Political courage certainly includes participating in the democratic process. When voting, discussing, campaigning and contributing, we can choose candidates who demonstrate peace and reconciliation rather than cynicism and partisanship. We can choose candidates who have the courage to act on issues of violence and justice.
I’m not talking about Democrats or Republicans, conservative or progressive. I’m talking about people capable of having a civil conversation, dreaming together, and working together to do good things. I’m talking about hope and courage.
And political courage is about much more than government. Political courage concerns how each of us lives our lives more generally in the polis, the city, the community in which we find ourselves. Courage is demonstrated in the ways we choose to treat our co-workers, our friends, our spouses, our children, and ourselves. Courage is to set aside cynicism, to demonstrate peace and reconciliation in our relationships. Courage is to act justly and mercifully toward others. Courage is a living-out of that baptismal covenant which we reaffirmed just last week! Courage reflects a kind of life that is eternal, fearless, and oriented single-mindedly toward God.
Hope and courage do not demand that you personally change the entire world. Instead, the hope you have in Christ, and the courage you gain from that hope, are an invitation to live fully into your capacity to change the world for those who live around you. As Christians we proclaim with Jesus, “the Kingdom of Heaven is here.” As disciples of Jesus, our mission is to spread hope by loving our neighbor and courageously enacting justice in our daily lives. Hope and courage reflect the freedom that God gives to us and the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us.
1. What is your natural response to reports of violence in the news?
2. What does eternal life mean to you?
3. How does the hope we have in Christ inform the manner in which you live?