5th Sunday after Pentecost Year A; July 9, 2017
Zech. 9.9-12; Psalm 145.8-14; Rom. 7.15-25a; Matt. 11.16-19, 25-30
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the one who says “Come to me,” Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
About ten years ago I was riding the train home from seminary for a holiday. I was seated next to a young man named Andrew, who was finishing up high school and thinking about going to college. He was pretty talkative and asked me a lot of questions.
He was quite surprised to find out that I was in graduate school to become a pastor. He said he was angry with God, but he used to be a leader in his youth group and read through the whole Bible twice. One day the easy answers to questions about God no longer satisfied him, and there were too many things in his life and in the world that made him question a loving God. He became a self-proclaimed atheist.
Curious, he looked at me and asked, “If you could tell me in one word why you are a Christian, what would it be?”
As I thought about his question, one word kept coming to the forefront of my mind…HOPE. He looked surprised and said, “No one has ever said that word when I have asked them that question. Why hope?”
Let’s pause here with Andrew and turn to the beginning of verse 12 in Zechariah: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope…” Prisoners of hope. Prisoners of hope.
I cannot get this phrase out of my mind. I try and capture an image of what a prisoner of hope might look like. When I say the word, “Prison,” what words come to mind? Shout them out…
We could even think of it in terms of being a prisoner to addiction or despair, but rarely, if ever, do we think of being prisoners of hope. What might this look and feel like? Who is a ‘prisoner of hope’?
Hold these questions in the back of your mind as we look at our reading from Romans. Paul, the writer of Romans can almost sound like he is in his first day of addiction treatment. “Hi, my name is Paul. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it (Rom. 7.15, 18).”
Can’t we resonate with Paul? How many times have we wanted to do something we knew was right, and failed to do it? Or how many times have we felt the struggle within ourselves, knowing what is good and yet doing the opposite?
Paul describes the human condition. We are all wired for the capacity to do great good, and yet we are also wired with the capacity for great evil and destruction.
One thing we must understand about the Romans passage is that when Paul talks about “flesh,” he’s not talking about our physical bodies. God in Genesis creates our bodies and says: “They are very good.” So Paul is not saying our bodies are bad. When he speaks of flesh, he is talking about sin and that part of me that rebels against God, that part of me that can be destructive.
He prays to God: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
After Paul asks who will rescue him, he answers his own question: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 7.25)!” For Paul, no matter how wretched he feels, he cannot help but hope and know that there is a new day for him in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the source of his hope. The same is and can be true for you and for me. Jesus has the power to make us prisoners of hope.
For those of us in this chapel who have faced or are currently experiencing despair, addiction, depression, etc. you are still here today because you have hope, or because someone has hope in you. The power of hope in the face of struggle is greater than what we can imagine. God saves your life and mine through hope.
There is a pastor who has a friend that is now twenty-five years sober who says, “I’m not going to drink today. Tomorrow, I might, but not today (Feasting…p. 208).” Instead of being a prisoner of addiction, this 25-year sober person is a prisoner of hope, and a witness to the power of God and community in his life.
There are many times in life in which we cannot avoid weariness. People in poverty are tired, people fleeing violence are weary, people in broken relationships are exhausted, people who are grieving are drained, people living with a chronic illness are fatigued, people fighting addiction are beat.
But in the middle of all life can throw at us, we have Jesus, the One who gives us hope in our lives who says to us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matt. 11.28-29).”
Jesus offers this rest to you, especially those of you who are weary and burdened. What Jesus offers in Matthew 11 is for those who have been at the bottom of the pit, who have nowhere else to turn but to him because everything and everyone else has not been able to give the hope that is needed. Simply turning to Jesus is an expression of hope.
You and I are invited to come to Jesus not as I think I should be, as I wish I was, not perfect and doing well, but as I am, the whole of me…the goodness of me, but also the mistakes, regrets, and burdens. Again and again, Jesus invites people to come to him. People like tax collectors, prostitutes, people with skin diseases, prisoners, homeless, foreigners…people who are described as “sinners,” and not worth anyone’s time.
He invites you and me today to come to him. What things in life are bearing down on your shoulders these days? What keeps you up at night? What makes you weary?
Perhaps its worry about something or someone. Maybe it’s wondering if you’ll ever get out of here. Perhaps it’s money or making a decision about your future. It could be the hard work of sobriety, or simply the 9-5 that pays the bills. Bring these things to Christ who loves you.You will receive rest and hope.
So let us return back to Andrew now. Andrew was burdened by what didn’t make sense to him about God, but it didn’t mean he did not have hope. By the end of our conversation, he called himself an agnostic, which really means someone who is searching and open to possibilities.
I don’t remember all I said about hope that day on the train, but I remember specifically talking about the hope we have in Jesus in the resurrection of the dead and God’s power to bring new life to devastation circumstances. If I had this quote from Sister Joan Chittister concerning hope, I would have shared it with him. This is what she writes:
Hope is not a matter of waiting for things outside us to get better. It is about getting better inside…it is about allowing ourselves to believe in the future we cannot see…about trusting in God…Hope is what sits by a window and waits for one more dawn, despite the fact that there isn’t an ounce of proof in tonight’s black, black sky that it can possibly come…Hope is the last great gift to rise out of the grave of despair. (Joan D. Chittister, Sacred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003, pp. 110-111.)
Every Sunday when someone leaves this community we say the words of Jeremiah 29.11 together. “For surely I know the plans I have for you says the Lord. Plans for your well-being and not for harm. To give you a future with hope.”
A future with hope. Prisoners of hope. This is what we long for and who we are. Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ in whom we have hope and find rest for our souls.”