Last Tuesday several of our members attended the vigil remembering the people slain at the grocery store near Louisville and at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The next day, as I was crossing Clinton Street just outside our church, I saw a student wearing a yarmulke. It struck me because I don’t think I’d ever seen that in the eleven years I’ve been here. It’s not a common sight on campus. . He didn’t fit in. And seeing this so close to the shootings and the vigil, I wondered if the he was wearing this as a way of announcing that he was Jewish and that he would make his identity clear even in the face of rising and very dangerous anti-Semitism across our nation.
It seemed to me an expression of courage, of defiance, and of hope.
Hope—the last of the ten virtues that we’ve been considering as the warm summer days moved into chilly November. Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, it is said, nor optimism shallow.
In these days, hope commends itself to us—not because all is sunny, but because hope offers to a kind of defiant courage in the face of all that threatens, all that destroys.
November brings the early dark and a sense of things coming to an end. Vibrant color is swallowed up by deep shadows. The end of autumnal splendor ushers in a sense of foreboding for many. The chill in the air tells of the cold to come. Longing memory accompanies the season of letting go. This time of fruition and harvest also brings with it a feeling of decay and death.
What do we do in times like these?
In what might seem like a liturgical act of defiance toward the darkness of the season and the darkness of these days in our nation and our world and the darkness of death, we put out our white paraments with their sparkling gold designs. And we put a little swing into our music to remind that even in our grief and sorrow and foreboding, there is a hope that causes us to tap our feet a little.
While hope looks toward the future, it begins in memory—memory of people and groups and nations who persevered in trial and struggle. For people of faith hope finds strength in the memory of what God has done in us and among us and through us.
It helps us to remember. We do this all the time as individuals. A day such as this allows us to engage our common memory, to recall especially those who lived among this congregation, who sat and sang and prayed with us in these pews, who drank coffee and ate with us in Rockwood Hall, who laughed and lamented and worked and hoped with us.
Larry Parsons was part of what has been called the “Greatest Generation”— a World War II veteran who served in Europe, Japan, and the Philippines. But he was known here for his service to the community, for his quiet smile and sense of humor. When I stand at the bottom of the stairs after worship each Sunday, I still see him coming down the stairs, slowly, saying “One step at a time”—reminding me of how all of us go through this life, how we all face whatever challenges and changes come to us: one step at a time.
When Larry Miller joined this congregation, he was in poor health. So, I didn’t know him well. But those in this congregation who were already Larry’s friends from his long life here in Iowa City knew of his love of flight—and of donuts. So how could he not become a member here? Larry could fix anything—and that willingness to tackle any problem commends to us a hope in restoration and recovery and renewal.
Tom Sandersfeld, too, found good reason to join this congregation because he thought the best church was one without all the dogma. His service as a deacon was as often unseen as it was tireless and joyful. A few days before Tom’s death, I sat with him at his home. We talked about those things that one might want to talk about when time was short. This is to say, we talked mostly about people: his family, his friends, and this congregation filled with people whom he loved so much. And, you know, really, there wasn’t a sense of “life is short, time is running out.” There was much more a feeling that “life is good, that, as Paul wrote, “hope does not disappoint.” With so many others, I miss seeing him in the choir loft.
We also remember a son of our congregation, Andy Roberts, who grew up and was confirmed in this church, who loved his family, and, it is said, loved anything that had wheels, and—as his work with the Lone Tree Volunteer Fire Department, as an EMT and at UIHC showed—also had a love and deep respect for people. In remembering someone who grew up in this church, we remember, as we say in baptism, “the hope and happiness that come into our lives through the presence of a child.” We remember the hope with which we send people into the world.
Through illness and difficulty, in the face of loss and death, Larry Parsons, Larry Miller, Tom, and Andy continued to love family and friends, continued to love this life and this world. They kept their covenant with this congregation, walking with us in the ways of Jesus Christ for the full length of their journeys. We give thanks for the unique witness of each these beloved members because in living and in dying, they showed us how to live in hope.
Here we are, surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, surrounded by Larry and Larry and Tom and Andy and those whom you have been thinking about while I have been talking, those who are with you still. And if we call them “saints,” it is not because they lived perfect or even exemplary lives—although there is much in each of their lives that we might want to imitate.
They are “saints” because they engaged fully in life with all its possibilities and challenges, taking life as it came to them. They failed and succeeded, they hurt and they healed.
They rest from their labors. And yet, in a sense, their work is not done. Everyone leaves behind some unfinished business—for as Reinhold Niebuhr famously said: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”[i]
The hope that saves us is the hope that our work for the good will be taken up by others who can see the flaws, who can see the good better than we can and who will, with the forgiveness of another age continue toward the goal, running the race with perseverance.
Recalling men and women of faith, the author of Hebrews writes: “Yet all of these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
The faithful, from Abel to the nameless multitude are commended for their faith. Theirs was a faith that looked to the future. That they did not receive the promise was not due to a flaw in their faith but to the unfolding nature of the purposes of God.
Our remembering them is not looking backward in either sorrow or nostalgia. When we remember in the church we look ahead, recalling our hope, the hope in which others have lived and died—the hope of the resurrection.
In these difficult days, I remember the words of the great 20th Century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he or she ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil…[and] the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised, not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.”
Heschel calls us back to being surprised.
Heschel calls us to being maladjusted, to not fitting in.
Heschel calls us forward into hope.
It is time once more to recover hope in a world that can seem hopeless.
It is time to recover hope in society that can create so much despair.
Hope asks the question: “What kind of future are we building for ourselves?”[ii] In other words, hope is not about positive thinking or wishing hard that something might happen.
Hope asks about what we are doing.
So the question comes to each of us as individuals and all of us as a congregation: What kind of future are we building? What action can we take—even today—to bring us closer to our desires? What harvest do we want to gather?
Yes, fall brings decay. Leaves drop, grass stops growing. But even now it is possible to look ahead with hope to something new, something hidden now that is yet to be revealed. It’s not too late—not too late in the year even with November weather to plant spring bulbs.
The one who sees something more gets out and digs in the soil, puts in bone meal, and covers the bulbs with dirt and leaves. As one person put it: “Fall accentuates the goodness of life and finds its truest meaning in the . . . breath of spring.”
What are you planting in these bleak days?
What is your hope?
It is the vision of what can be in the future that empowers us to act in the present. In hope we defy the hatred and the death that is still so apparent.
Hope is tenacious, enduring—it lives with promises deferred in the conviction that even death does not end God’s love and God’s faithfulness.
Because we hope, we act, even if our work and the work of those who came before us is never really finished. We will work for justice: that the hungry are fed and the homeless are sheltered and deep wounds of racism and sexism, of anti-Semitism and homophobia are healed for the sake of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. And if we are successful in making clear that we worship and serve a living God, by the grace of that God our children and their children will continue running the race set before them and us, knowing that they, too, are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses—all of us looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
[i] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History
Kennon Callahan, ‘Hope, ” in Twelve Keys for Living