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.
Lent, Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Diaconal Minister Shera Nesheim
photo credit: Kristian Stenslie
A poem by Emily Dickinson, called “Hope.”
"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—
I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
What grabs my attention, in this poem, is that hope is a bird that sings its sweetest song despite the force of a violent stormy gale. And from the desolation of the chillest land and depths of the strangest sea, her tune still sings, perched in the soul. Hope, here, is as fragile and resilient as a feathered bird. Birds can often be a sign of hope – the dove that brings the olive branch back to Noah when it found dry ground though the world had been flooding, or when the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove at his baptism. And yet another sign of hope is when even a fragile, tiny hummingbird is resilient enough to fly continuously over 450 miles of water, despite strong winds that push against it!
The song of hope is sweetest amidst the violent storm. Isn’t this also true for us? When we are having our worst day, when the world around us looks as ugly as a blizzard, that is when our hopes are most resilient. I believe it is in moments of our greatest despair that we turn most fervently to hope. A loved one is diagnosed with cancer – hope floods our soul as we pray for healing. We hit a patch of ice while driving and as our car swerves uncontrollably, we desperately hope we don’t crash. When people disappoint us and everything seems bleak, we hope for better relationships.
For what is hope? Why do we hope? Hope is a feeling. A feeling or a thought that things will get better. Hope is the belief and the trust that expectations will be fulfilled. Hope is what we cling to, when there are no answers or clear paths. Hope is the song that flutters in our soul. We hope because sometimes, there is no other choice. We do not have the strength to do much else, and we pray.
Israel is in need of a word of hope. Often, prophets in the Old Testament brought words of judgement and words of hope to the people of God. Tonight we hear Jeremiah telling the Israelites a word of hope during their exile in Babylon. The destructive Babylonians took them from their land and made them serve as slaves. The Israelites were used, beaten and treated poorly. Worst of all, their holy temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. After many years of suffering, persecution, and despair it was hard for them to still have hope that God would deliver them. They hoped for nothing more than returning to Israel to rebuild their lives. In the midst of this chaos, God promises them a future with hope. They knew not when it would come because this hope was not just for them, but for future generations. Life would be better, some day. Even in the wilderness of Babylon, hope still sang in the soul of Jeremiah and his proclamation to the Israelites.
You students here at the Youth Correctional Center are in your own exile, and are in need of a word of hope. Each week at worship, you walk past large posters with the picture of a chickadee flying to a hand filled with seed. One can interpret this picture in many ways – and I see this bird being cared for and fed as a sign of hope. The bird trusts that it may find nourishment, and sings it’s beautiful song, as a gift to those who hear it.
Also on the poster is the verse we hear tonight, from Jeremiah, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” When you leave the Youth Correctional Center after completing your program you are sent with cards with this same picture and verse. You are also sent home with quilts made by people from congregations from across the state of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and even Montana.
These gifts are signs of the Christian community’s hope for you. Our souls sing with the hope that your futures will be much brighter. That you never return to any kind of prison and you are able to build healthy lives – graduate from high school or go to college, or start a career, and continue in your faith journey.
We believe in a God who has plans for your welfare and not for harm, and a future with hope. We pray you experience the forgiving love of God. That you find wholeness and healing. This same message is true for all people, for all of us. May we all have hope and strength to live into the reality that we, who are all sinners, are forgiven and healed, only by the One who created us – God.
The hope we have is not just our desires or our personal wishes for our fortunes to be restored or to enjoy a beautiful future. This hope we have is also for our community, our children and future generations. Our hopes not only shape who we are, but also shape how we act in the world. If we hope that our broken family is to find wholeness again, we pray for healthy relationships. But we also make choices to treat our family in loving ways. If we hope our children, and their children will enjoy earth’s beauty in the future, then we make choices like recycling to reduce the waste that destroys the environment.
Hope has everything to do with prayer. Prayer is how we communicate our hopes with God. God promises us that our prayers are heard. That we can come to God, as we are, and lift all of our hopes up with sweet songs. In fact, many of the Psalms in Scripture are songs that arise from those who hope, despite the hardships in their lives.
God doesn’t listen to our prayers and answer our hopes like a genie in a bottle. Our hopes and God’s hopes meet in prayer. Our attitude ought to be, how do my prayers of hope mesh with God’s hopes for me, and my family, and my community? God already wants you to have a hope-filled future. That is why God assures us that our prayers are heard in verse 12, “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.”
For our hope is more than a temporary band-aid that will solve our problems. It doesn’t guarantee an easy fix to our problems. Life is a daily struggle with the stormy gale of sin and suffering. Despite the storm, hope still sings. Our expectations are filled with the Easter promise we find in Christ’s triumph over death. God loves us so much, that God came to earth in human form, in Jesus Christ, to show us how to live and how to hope. God’s hope for us is healing, forgiveness and renewal. God’s hope for us is redeeming love that brings us a future with God.
So next time you take a walk and hear the sweet song of that bird in a tree, think of it as a sign of hope for you and for your future. Amen.