Between Memory and Hope

Written by Rev. Dr. Henry T. Simmons
March 21, 2009

Opening Worship of

A Joint Meeting of the UCC Executive Council

And Covenanted Ministries Boards

Cleveland, OH

"For in this hope we were saved." – Romans 8:24a.

I'm deeply appreciative of the invitation to preach the sermon for the opening worship for this special gathering. But my sense of apprehension has risen now that the moment has come because, first, this is a most challenging crowd. I've been to enough meetings like this to know that when two or three UCC members are gathered there are at least seven opinions! Second, this is a most trying time in the history of our church and society. The global economy is reeling, leaving millions of lives disrupted by loss of homes, health insurance coverage, jobs, life savings and relative sanity. Wars demand continued payment of high costs in fiscal resources but most important civilian and military lives. The specter of proponents of public policies that helped nudge our world to this unnerving precipice now unabashedly attempting to avoid accountability isn't encouraging. Our church shows signs of attrition and anxiety mounts regards its future.

What does one confidently say amid such a disheartening moment as this? Well, very little if I'd been asked to reflect solely on the messages daily chronicled in the media. But I was asked to appeal to a word that's reverberated in the corridors of history with untold power to usher clarity and calm into hearts caught in the cold clutches of confusion and chaos. When I prayerfully ponder God's Word I start humming one of my mother's favorite, old gospel hymns, "I've got a feeling everything's gonna' be all right, be all right, be all right."

I recall a word the ancient apostle Paul put pen to parchment to send to people of faith in a distant yet not too different age of anxiety. In the eight chapter of his pastoral missive to the fledgling community of believers in Rome he dares to proclaim a word of reassurance. He doesn't gloss over the grimness of that present moment. He acknowledges the groans of the whole creation but likens it to labor pains, to the unpleasant yet unavoidable agony that accompanies the arrival of new life. It is a call to beleaguered, early followers in "The Way" to consider an alternative assessment of what's going on. He reminds them in verse 24, "For in this hope we were saved." There's something about them that should grant them another posture in perilous times. Faith in God accords them another vantage point from which to peer beyond what is and envision what can and ought to be by God's grace.

He amplifies his point by stating, "But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what one already has?" Who hopes in an age in which profits are constantly placed before people, unbridled greed is extolled as good, more African American and Latino young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 years are incarcerated in prisons than enrolled in institutions of higher education, when one's sexual orientation can make one a perpetual target of abject, potentially deadly hatred, where one can be roundly discounted as irrelevant simply because one resides in a small town or rural enclave, or left out because of the language one speaks? Who hopes in what consigns folk to languish on islands of loneliness rather than calls them to live on the broad expanse of common ground? "Who hopes for what one already has?"

Some folk with whom I share ministry in St. Albans are given to responding to this unsettling time by longing for the proverbial "good old days": when the cost of living was much lower, when children supposedly obeyed parents, when churches were growing and bustling with activity, when everything was right with the world. If we remember the "good old days" be careful that it's not from selective recall. Not everything about the "good old days" was good for everyone. I'm not going back to the back of the bus and the backdoor. "Who hopes for what one already has?"

I'm not suggesting that all that once was merits jettisoning as irrelevant except when playing "Trivial Pursuit." But I am suggesting some careful sorting out be done. When our eight and four-year old grandsons visited us last Christmas, my wife and I decided it would be good to show them our wedding album to help them gain a better sense of their family history. As we looked at those pictures from thirty-five years ago our grandkids' eyes were rolling to the backs of their heads as my wife and I perused those photos with fond memories. It didn't take long for the oldest grandson to say, "Pop-pop, can we just go play?" And Paul asks, "Who hopes for what one already has?"

I don't remember the themes of all the General Synods, but the one from the 11th General Synod has always stuck with me, "Between Memory and Hope." It reminds me of the immutable reality that we always live with the inescapable tension between the comfort of the familiar and the daunting and often disquieting call of the unknown. The challenge, thus, is discerning how to allow the need to preserve what has proven to be productive to inspire heeding the call to pursue the even more profitable and peaceful. It is the summons to "walk by faith and not by sight alone," to always lean towards and on hope.

How does one do that? Let me share one of my seven opinions! St. Augustine, the ancient African framer of the faith, once wrote, "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are." Hope is a spirit that stirs one to discontentment with needless suffering and determination to shatter it. Hope is a trait of what some deem to be the "foolishness of radical, liberal faith." But if we appeal to our memory as a particular people of God we know the fruit of "foolish, radical, liberal faith." We know that what is sneered at as liberal theology that informs liberal social policies stirred church folk to fight to abolish slavery, sparked the public school movement, established nursing societies and hospitals, and the audacity to ordain women and later gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folk as ministers of the gospel. It was radical, liberal social policy that gave birth to the "Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Women's Suffrage Act of 1920, the Social Security Act of 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and amendments to the Social Security Act in 1965 that established Medicare and Medicaid." Great strides in the movement for securing and sustaining the common good have been made by those possessed by hope's two beautiful daughters, anger and hope. "But if we hope for what we do not yet have," urges the apostle, "we wait for it with patience."

On the evening of November 5, 2008, one day after the most recent Presidential election, we gathered for a service of thanksgiving at St. Albans Congregational Church. Folk were invited to testify to what that historic occasion meant to them. One elderly woman said through tears, "I thought I'd never live to see this day! God sho' works in mysterious ways." That's true. But those who've been "saved by hope" know that a more accurate testimony is, "God works in meticulous ways." Or as one popular theological tenet in the Black church puts it, "God may not come when you want God to, but God's always right on time!"

The story is told of how the fiery abolitionist, Sojourner Truth, was giving a speech at a women's suffragist rally when her spirit was quite low. She was tired of battling and felt as if her soul was slowly descending into a dungeon of deep depression and despair. As she struggled to relight the flame of passion for justice in her heart, someone shouted from the back of the crowded room, "Sojourner, is God dead?" The account goes that Sister Truth's spirit sprang to life and she found new courage and confidence to stay on the battlefield for justice.

Beloved, we live in a time that can hijack hope from our hearts. But we answer that question will determine if it will be forever held hostage. The very fabric of life as we knew it in many ways appears to be unraveling at the seams. We don't know what tomorrow holds, but we do know who holds every tomorrow. We know by whose grace every yesterday of denial has been transformed into a today of deliverance. And we know that when we dare to live in the reality of that interminable unmerited mercy and allow it to activate our courage, loads are lifted, tears are wiped away, and healing arrives. We know that when the "Spirit of Lord is upon us and we boldly and bravely preach good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind and the setting at liberty of those who are oppressed," we have a new word to bear witness to about a God, whose faithfulness can't be obviated by frail and feeble human hearts and frames. God is not dead! God is still redeeming and reconciling. We live between memory and hope. Let our behavior mirror our belief, the belief poetically pronounced by James Russell Lowell,

"Though the cause of evil prosper, Truth alone is strong. Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, But that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown Standeth God within the shadows keeping watch above (God's) own."

And since we have nothing else to do, let us be the church in the meantime. "But in this hope we were saved." Amen.