Prisoners of Hope

Posted on

Proper 9 Season of Pentecost Year A; June 3, 2011
Zech. 9.9-12; Psalm 145.8-14; Rom. 7.15-25a; Matt. 11.16-19, 25-30
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

There are many times in life in which we cannot avoid weariness. People affected by floods are weary, people in broken relationships or grieving are weary, people living with a chronic illness or addiction are weary. The list can go on and on. 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).”

Grace and peace to you from the one who keeps us as prisoners of hope, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I don’t normally do this, but I am going to tie in all three readings into the sermon today, so this should be interesting and kind of fun.

First let’s start with a story. About four 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. “I’m in seminary,” or “I’m a pastor,” is not one of the first things I say to people when first meeting them. It’s not that I am ashamed to be a pastor; it’s just that I have found it either cuts conversation off in an awkward way because people think I’m going to judge them, or it plunges me into life, death, and gigantic God questions. I prefer the latter response of course and that is what happened between me and Andrew.

He was quite surprised to find out that I was in graduate school to become a pastor. He said he was angry with God, that he used to be a leader in his youth group and read through the 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 and present 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?”
I asked him to give me a moment to think. As I thought about his very good question, one word kept coming to the forefront of my mind…HOPE.
I replied, “Hope.”
He looked very surprised and said, “No one has ever said that word when I have asked them that question. Tell me, why hope?”

Let’s pause here with Andrew and plunge into the beginning of verse 12 in Zechariah, in which I am blown away. “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…

Most often when we hear, prison, we might think of jail, war, YCC. 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.”
“Hi 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).”

Paul’s confession should make us all squirm a little bit because his confession of struggle within himself is not just his confession; he is speaking of the inner struggle in every last one of us too. How many times have we wanted to do something we knew was right, and failed to do it? For me it has been too many to count.

Paul is at the bottom of the pit as he describes the human condition: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Pastor Shawnthea Monroe puts a humorous spin on Paul’s words. She writes: “Looking out at my congregation on a Sunday morning, I see people who embody the motto ‘Never let ‘em see you sweat’; but God knows the truth and so does Paul: we are all sweating…Paul assures us that we are not alone in this struggle; everyone is engaged in the same hopeless battle…Yes, we are a mess, but so is everyone else. Hallelujah! (Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 3, p. 208, 210.)”

In some weird, messed up way, I find hope in this. There is not some ideal perfection to live up to. This doesn’t mean we don’t try and do the right things, it just means that God loves us anyway and that we are actually in need of grace and forgiveness every day.

After Paul asks who will rescue him, he answers his own question with praise: “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 you (including me) 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.

Pastor Monroe 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, hope, and community in one’s life.

This week I have especially been thinking of those who live in Minot and its surrounding area. What does hope look like when you have water up to the roof of your home? Roughly 12,000 people in Minot have been evacuated and only 200 have needed the emergency shelter that was provided. This means that the majority of people have had others open their homes to them, giving them hope in the midst of devastating loss.

Tomorrow America celebrates Independence Day. It really is a day to celebrate and remember people’s sacrifices, yet at the same time, being a Christian, I cannot help but think about other people and nations, including the Native Americans, who still hope and long for freedom. Our hope as Christians is not limited to those in our family, friend, and church circles, but our hope is that restoration, justice, and peace is realized throughout the whole world. Zechariah paints a vision of the One who will cut off the chariot, war-horse, and battle bow and will command peace to all the nations (Zech. 9.10). To be a prisoner of hope, we not only have hope in our individual lives, but we also have hope for all of creation.

There are many times in life in which we cannot avoid weariness. People affected by floods are weary, people in broken relationships or grieving are weary, people living with a chronic illness or addiction are weary. The list can go on and on. 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 expressing 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. Perhaps we're all agnostics.  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.)

If this is what being a prisoner of hope is, someone can just lock me up and throw away the key. My guess is that you don’t want to be in a prison of anything, but if you are in a prison of something, be a prisoner of hope. I personally need to be a prisoner of hope. My prayer for all of you is that you have hope for yourselves and for the world, and when it feels like you don’t, “Return to your stronghold,” Jesus Christ, “O prisoners of hope,” and “find rest for your souls.”