“On the Road to Hope”
A sermon offered at First Parish Dorchester on December 3, 2017 by Rev. Tricia Brennan
I confess, this sermon on hope has not been the easiest for me to write.
Not that any of them come all that easily, frankly,
but this one had felt like there was a huge stone
weighing on my heart, blocking access to the feelings
that give rise to the words.
For in truth, we are not living in hopeful times, right?
One doesn’t need to look far
to see reasons to feel worried or discouraged.
The political turmoil of our country, yes,
the mean-spiritedness on daily display,
the plight of our planet,
those reasons alone are enough to feel weighted down.
But you came for hope this December morning, didn’t you?
We all come for a piece of hope
when we walk in these doors and see one another,
and worship together, and sing together and pray together
and this morning to enjoy together
the voices of the Boston Children’s Chorus
which did not disappoint.
Thank you so much for being here
and for working hard to sing beautifully.
We come to be uplifted and comforted
and challenged and inspired,
to be strengthened when we are discouraged,
and helped to find our North Star to orient us in our lives.
On the road to hope is the title
I came up with for this sermon
when the newsletter deadline forced a decision upon me,
and it works just fine.
So let us travel together that road to hope this morning.
There are way stations on the road to hope,
places where we stop and rest, get replenished,
maybe meet up with some fellow travelers,
before we carry on our way.
The first way station on the road to hope could be called Lamentation.
Lamentation means grieving, crying,
saying aloud what hurts, what weighs us down.
It’s an old word, and the need to lament
is an old as human history.
The death of a loved one,
the ruin of a farmer’s field to drought,
the loss of a home in a hurricane,
the ache of love lost, the pain of bodily injury-
things happen in life that hurt and the hurt needs expression.
To lament is to give dignity
to the ordinary human experience of loss and disappointment,
and yes that can include being profoundly disappointed
with one’s political leadership
and deeply discouraged by the state of the world.
We don’t stay forever in the way station of lamentation
but if we bypass it altogether
we never express or release the grief
that can feel so heavy and we risk sinking into despair.
The very first Worlds AIDS day
was launched on December 1, 1988,
29 years ago this past Friday.
It was created as a way to grieve
those who died from this pandemic,
to raise awareness about the disease,
and to advocate for resources and treatment.
Over 35 million people have died of AIDS or HIV.
There are many to grieve, and it is likely that you, like me,
know someone or someones who have died of AIDS.
Yet now, a diagnosis of HIV is not a death sentence.
Now people are living with AIDS and HIV
and managing their illness like other serious chronic diseases.
It is truly a remarkable accomplishment
that medical research and public health and activism
working together has achieved.
From a deep sense of loss and lament, both private and public,
arose the fierce fight for the rights of people infected with the virus,
and for drugs that would stem the infection.
Now there is hope, where once there was only grief and fear.
Lament was part of what got us there, to more health and life,
more safety and resources, more hope.
I don’t think we can go far along this road by ourselves.
At least in my life I cannot maintain or generate hope alone.
My hope sort of peters out all by itself;
and so I call the second way station Community.
It is the place where hope is born and reborn
by the support we give each other,
and also by the goodness we witness in each other.
To maintain hope I need to see goodness in others.
I somehow need to see it in others to believe it true of myself,
and of humanity.
When was in grade school the Vietnam war
was happening, and our country was dropping bombs on Cambodia
and many innocent people were killed and injured.
It affected me to realize that such violence
was happening to other human beings,
it hit me hard in the way that a young person
can feel things so freshly when they first see
the harsh truth of human cruelty.
And so I was crying one night about it,
lamenting really, now that I think about it,
and ended up talked late into the night with my father,
and he listened well for quite awhile, in a comforting way,
and then said, “But where are your eyes
for what is good in the world, Tricia?”
I think the question stays with me always,
It returns to me when I feel discouraged
by humankind’s selfishness or cruelty.
It’s the same point that Mr. Rogers is known to have said-
he actually attributes it to his mother, who told him
that when he would see scary things in the news, he should
“Look to the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
As for me, the goodness I see in others
that restores my hope often comes in small and ordinary things.
Last week I needed to get somewhere
in downtown Boston and I wasn’t sure
what was the best subway or bus
to take so I used my gps on my phone
and that was my first mistake.
It told me that there was no good way to go by train or bus
from over by the State House, where I was,
to a restaurant on Beacon Street where my friend was waiting,
and I should walk.
Now I didn’t want to do that because I had dressy shoes on
and my feet already were hurting.
So I figured I’d go down to the Park Street Station
and I was sure there was a train that get me close.
I hadn’t been in Park street in a long while
but I was encouraged by the sign above the entrance
that said ALL red and green lines enter here.
So I went in and saw from the map that any train to Copley
would work, but as I waited all the green line trains
either were going in the wrong direction,
or had Park Street as their final stop.
This went on for awhile, 20 minutes or so,
Lots of trains, none for me.
It was getting late, I was getting tired,
I was concerned about my friend
Then a young woman came up to me and said-
“Can I help you get somewhere? Are you new in town?”
Now I’m not new in town,
and I didn’t think I was looking particularly distressed or lost
but I said yeah, well actually I’m waiting for train to Copley
but it doesn’t seem to be coming.
And she kindly let me know that I had to go farther into the station,
and down some stairs and under the tracks
and then up the other side where the trains to Copley arrived.
And so that’s what I did, and as I hobbled over,
I felt so buoyed by this stranger,
who noticed me and stepped out of her world and into mine,
to ask if I need help.
And then gave me the magic information
that got me where I needed to go that night.
She didn’t have to do that, but she did.
The kindness of strangers- it fills me with hope every time.
For all that train ride to Copley, I felt warmed by her kindness.
Where are your eyes for the goodness in the world, Tricia?
They are everywhere, the good people, the helpers.
On the road to hope, they find us, we find them.
Coming up with the name for the 3rd way station was stumping me,
until I read a short article by Junot Diaz,
Dominican American writer who lives in Cambridge.
Shortly after last fall’s presidential election
he wrote a piece for the New Yorker
called “Under President Trump, Radical Hope is Our Best Option.”
In it he said:
“What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism
but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope.
“What makes this hope radical, Lear writes,
“is that it is directed toward a future goodness
that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.”
Radical hope is not so much something you have
but something you practice.
It demands flexibility, openness,
and what Lear describes as “Imaginative excellence”.
Now if that sounds like the reading from Vaclac Havel a moment ago,
I agree. I hear in it the same insistence on moving forward
believing in goodness, rooting for it in a way,
regardless of present circumstances.
To quote Havel again:
“(Hope) is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart;
it transcends the world that is immediately experienced,
and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons….
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense,
is not the same as joy that things are going well,
or willingness to invest in enterprises
that are obviously heading for success,
but rather an ability to work for something because it is good,
not just because it stands a chance to succeed.
What I hear in those two writers and thinkers
who know well the pain and glory of our world,
is the importance of imagination.
And that is what I would name our third way station
along the road to hope- Imagination.
A hope-filled imagination enables us to face the world as it is,
lamentable at times and also filled with goodness,
and see through it all to something not yet here, not yet born.
The road to get there isn’t clear
but the hope that we will create the road is strong,
and the will to be part of making the way
to the further goodness is strong too.
It’s a gift to be able to imagine the world that we desire,
not in a fluffy rose-colored lens way, but in committed way.
Where does it come from, this gift?
A grace from God, perhaps, given to us
when we need it and if we are open to it,
or perhaps this capacity to imagine
is intrinsic to the human spirit.
I don’t know, but I do know that a gift like that
is meant to be used and cherished,
and I’m with Junot Diaz when he talks about
practicing hope and cultivating radical hope.
What gives you hope, what cultivates your hope?
Your way stations along the road may be different than
Lamentation, Community and Imagination.
It matters that you know what gives you hope
and that you make space for those things.
And it matters that your hope has legs.
Indeed, a road is a good metaphor for life
and for the practice of hope.
It implies movement and I think hope is something
that must be embodied in our real life struggles
to know and find and seek and grow the good. Every day.
Hope is alive when we organize and form solidarities.
Hope is alive when we lament and protest.
Hope is alive when we are kind and brave.
Hope is alive when we walk through these doors, hoping to find hope.
Hope is alive when we sing.
Hope is alive when we listen to singing.
Hope is alive here.
“The New Yorker”, November 21, 2016. “Aftermath: Sixteen Writers on Trump’s America” includes this piece by Junot Diaz.
Disturbing the Peace, Vaclav Havel, 1986.