A sermon preached on Lent IV, Year B at St. John’s Episcopal Church on March 11, 2018. You can read the scripture by clicking here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without 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 chilliest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
This poem by Emily Dickinson (“Hope is the thing with feathers”) gives us a vision of Hope. The thing with feathers… like a bird that perches and sings… it has a lightness. Hope is an experience of a lifting or of being lifted from the heaviness that weighs us down. A ray of light in the dark or blue sky on a grey, cold, stormy day.
We experience Hope as an opening, a deep breath where there has been only shallow respiring before. Or a sense of calm or warmth. A sweetness that sinks into our being to nourish and fill us. A smell of earthy spring warmth. Or a breeze that blows through our hair.
And Dickinson says that Hope asks nothing of us. It’s just there for us to see, to experience, to know. Because it never ends. Even when we don’t know it’s there, even when we’re not able to see it, it never stops. Hope remains.
The movie Shawshank Redemption is a movie about hope and how it remains, even in the darkest prisons of our lives. The main character, Andy Dufresne, is sentenced to life in prison after being falsely convicted of 2 murders, one of which, was the spouse who had just left him. He is a person who has every reason to be embittered by life and the circumstances in which he finds himself. A person who has been devastated by the harshness of the world.
Many of the people in prison with him have lost their hope, or they have forgotten how to see it. Cynical. Hardened. Andy’s best friend Red goes so far as to say that hope is a dangerous thing, that it can drive a person insane and has no use in a prison with people who have no expectation of being released, no promise that anything will ever change.
But Andy eventually reminds Red that “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”
Hope always remains. It may not look exactly like we’d like it to look, which is why it’s so hard for us to see. We confuse Hope with expectation. And this is why we are given signs and symbols of Hope – to help us remember, to help us return to that fluttering place where the thing with feathers is perched and sings to us its sweet song.
Today’s scripture is about Hope. This passage from John is often quoted out of context so we easily forget that Jesus is talking to Nicodemus here. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, the kind of religious leader who is so focused on rules and law, that the law becomes conflated with God.
The Pharisee is that part of us that gets irritated when people don’t use their turn signal or don’t load the dishwasher the right way. We want everything to be done the way we want it done. And when we take that to extremes, we have extremists, needing the world to follow a rigid set of rules, making an idol of the rules themselves.
Our Pharisee Nicodemus is searching though. He comes to Jesus in the middle of the night to seek out answers. He comes in the darkness to find the light. He has chosen to walk away from the prison of his rules.
And Jesus tells him that what he seeks is right in front of him.
Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things…” And then he reminds Nicodemus of their ancestor Moses and how Moses offered a sign of hope.
“and Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
The passage from Numbers that Jesus refers to, reads a bit like Moses is performing magic. But it’s much more than a magic trick.
As we know, Moses is leading the people of Israel out of slavery, yet they grow impatient because they thought freedom would look different than wandering around the desert for a bunch of years. They grow bitter and resentful. Soon, they are able realize that their bitterness is a mistake that brings them to death and they ask for forgiveness, which they receive.
And as a remembrance, Moses constructs a symbol of Hope out of their bitterness and resentment so that when he lifts it and people see it, they will remember their mistake and remember the forgiveness, so they may be healed of their impatience and hostility.
Hope comes to us in the memory of forgiveness, in remembering the feeling of being lifted up out of the heaviness by the thing with feathers, being freed from the darkest prisons of our lives.
Through this action of the memory of forgiveness, the bronze serpent becomes a symbol of Hope. Because we remember the temptation to indulge in our narrow, hopeless thinking, as well as we remember the experience of being freed from it.
People do this all the time, keep a symbol of something they have been freed from, or liberated from, something they have survived so they can remember.
It’s a touchstone, a tangible, incarnate memory of this part of their lives.
Sometimes members of 12-step groups keep a bottle cap or beer tab. Sometimes people who have been injured keep a cast or crutch from a fall. For a while, I kept pieces of the broken window after I totaled my car 15 years ago so I would remember to be more attentive to changing my tires in the winter time.
It’s a way of honoring the new life. A way of thanking God for God’s saving Grace.
These, of course, are different than trophies. They don’t celebrate the event themselves but they are the remembrance that there is always a second chance. That God loves us beyond our mistakes and on the other side of the shame we carry for whatever we’ve done wrong… is another world. It’s a resurrected life that awaits us.
This action of remembering – remembering the mistake and the forgiveness of it – is the essence of Hope. We have lots of words for different aspects of this experience – forgiveness, mercy, grace, favor, charity, blessing, kindness, liberation. Salvation.
Salvation, the focus of John’s mystical Gospel. The cross we carry as Christians, the cross we bear, is not one of shame, as in “we all have a cross to bear.” The cross is the memory of forgiveness from a mistake that is so devastating, so incredibly inhumane… so we might be healed of the impulse to ever indulge in such a barbaric act again.
We place the cross in our worship spaces, not because we love gory images, but so that we might look at it and remember the life of Jesus and never do that to another one of God’s children ever again.
We might never sacrifice another for the sake of a greedy institution.
We might never sacrifice another because its more convenient to have them expelled from our lives.
We might never sacrifice another because they challenge our comfort.
So that we might, instead, offer kindness. Offer sanctuary. Offer Hope.
This is our Christian salvation. Our Christian Hope.
We remember the Resurrection, which is the incarnate act of forgiveness. We remember that the God of Life will always return us to Life, always return us to Hope even in the darkest prisons of our lives, the worst mistakes we have made.
And as the Body of Christ, we are called to offer that to one another whenever and however we possibly can. Forgiveness. Mercy. Sanctuary.
I know I’ve had times in my life, when I was feeling so hurt by what someone did, I desperately wanted them to learn their lesson. Certainly not injury or death, but I wanted them to experience shame or regret for what they did to me. There is a sense of satisfaction in that, after all.
And I cannot say that I’ve been purged of this tendency completely because I don’t think we ever really are. But there’s no hope in that. And there is certainly no love.
And so we continue looking for the path. Because we are broken humans, we continue looking for the path, like Nicodemus.
This is how Hope functions in our lives. It’s a place that holds forgiveness for us until we can forgive. Because these places where we’ve been hurt, where we store anger and pain and shame… they are the darkest prisons of our lives. And they spawn same the bitterness and resentment and hostility as the people walking in the desert with Moses. They bring death.
Because sometimes the hardest thing, when standing in one of these prisons, in one of these deserts… is to make the choice to walk out of it. Instead of holding on to our resentment, we look for the path or the tunnel that will lead us out.
We relieve ourselves of the expectation that the world must be right and follow rules and laws, like the Pharisees.
And, instead, we forgive the world its mistakes.
And we forgive ourselves our mistakes… for not meeting everyone’s expectations or needs. For, not being the person we wish we were. For not living up to whatever yardstick we measure our worth by. Because Hope asks nothing of us, even in the darkest moments, and the strangest seas.
The choice to walk out of the narrow prison, is the choice to return to the Hope that is already waiting for us. Where we come to know, once again, the lightness of our being. To return to the experience of being lifted from the heaviness that weighs us down. This is liberation. This is salvation.
The ray of light in the dark or blue sky on a grey, cold, stormy day. The deep inhalation where there has been only shallow breathing before. The calm and the warmth. The sweetness that sinks into our being to nourish us. The smell of warm, spring earth.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without words,
And never stops at all.
Hope remains because God remains and waits for us. Always.