A THEOLOGY OF HOPE–A Sermon for University Congregational Church by Paul E. Ellis Jackson
In ancient Greece there were two brothers named Epimetheus and Prometheus. They upset the gods and annoyed the most powerful of all Gods, Zeus, in particular. This was not the first time humans had upset Zeus, and once before, as punishment, he had taken from humans the ability to make fire. This meant they could no longer cook their meat and could not keep themselves warm.
However, Prometheus was clever and he knew that, on the Isle of Lemnos, lived Hephaestos, the blacksmith. He had a fire burning to keep his forge hot. Prometheus travelled to Lemnos and stole fire from the blacksmith. Zeus was furious and decided that humans had to be punished once and for all for their lack of respect.
Zeus came up with a very cunning plan to punish the two brothers. With the help of Hephaestos, he created a woman from clay. The goddess Athene then breathed life into the clay, Aphrodite made her very beautiful and Hermes taught her how to be both charming and deceitful. Zeus called her Pandora and sent her as a gift to Epimetheus.
His brother Prometheus had warned him not to accept any gifts from the gods but Epimetheus was completely charmed by the woman and thought Pandora was so beautiful that she could never cause any harm, so he agreed to marry her.
Zeus, pleased that his trap was working, gave Pandora a wedding gift of a beautiful box. There was one very, very important condition however, that she must never opened the box. Pandora was very curious about the contents of the box but she had promised that she would never open it.
All she could think about was; what could be in the box? She could not understand why someone would send her a box if she could not see what was in it. It seemed to make no sense at all to her and she could think of nothing else but of opening the box and unlocking its secrets. This was just what Zeus had planned.
Finally, Pandora could stand it no longer. When she knew Epimetheus was out of sight, she crept up to the box, took the huge key off the high shelf, put it carefully into the lock and turned it. But, at the last moment, she felt a pang of guilt, imagined how angry her husband would be and quickly locked the box again without opening the lid and put the key back where she had found it. Three more times she did this until, at last, she knew she had to look inside or she would go completely mad!
She took the key, slid it into the lock and turned it. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and slowly lifted the lid of the box. She opened her eyes and looked into the box, expecting to see fine silks, gowns or gold bracelets and necklaces or even piles of gold coins.
But there was no gleam of gold or treasure. There were no shining bracelets and not one beautiful dress! The look of excitement on her face quickly turned to one of disappointment and then horror. For Zeus had packed the box full of all the terrible evils he could think of. Out of the box poured disease and poverty. Out came misery, out came death, out came sadness – all shaped like tiny buzzing moths.
The creatures stung Pandora over and over again and she slammed the lid shut. Epimetheus ran into the room to see why she was crying in pain. Pandora could still hear a voice calling to her from the box, pleading with her to be let out. Epimetheus agreed that nothing inside the box could be worse than the horrors that had already been released, so they opened the lid once more.
All that remained in the box was Hope. It fluttered from the box like a beautiful dragonfly, touching the wounds created by the evil creatures, and healing them. Even though Pandora had released pain and suffering upon the world, she had also allowed Hope to follow them.
This version of Pandora’s box has HOPE healing the wounds caused by evil, but in the original telling of this tale it was much more ambiguous. In antiquity, indeed until relatively recently in human history, hope was not seen as it is today. Hope was seen as folly—as a way of ignoring the present reality. It is said that “hope and waiting makes many a fool”. That it’s more important to pay attention to the present than hope for some future that may never come. Albert Camus famously said: “Think clearly and do not hope”, because hopes are the playing field of political and economic deceivers, who sell illusions and destroy our real lives.
I think most of us have faced situations that seemed bleak. Where there appeared to be no hope. Where it was almost impossible to imagine that things were ever going to get better. Dark times can cloud our vision of the future and lead us into despair. Without the glimmers of hope, life can often seem unbearable.
The oldest of seven children, fifteen-year old Nyabel is the de-facto leader of her family. Less than three years ago, she was in 10th at her school in Bongki, in South Sudan, and doing well in her studies, particularly in English and Arabic.
When the Sudanese Civil War erupted across South Sudan in December of 2013, Nyabel’s parents thought they might be safe. They weren’t. A few days before Christmas, soldiers attacked Nyabel’s home town of Bongki.
Hundreds of men, women and children were killed. Cattle, goats and other animals were rounded up and butchered, homes were torched to the ground. Nyabel’s mother Angelina – who just days earlier had given birth to a young baby boy, Wal – saw her own sister and brother-in-law both shot dead.
Terrified, Nyabel and her family ran. They ran straight to the bush, aiming for the town of Panyang. They walked carefully through the night, terrified of being seen by soldiers.
“We could hear the sounds of bombs and gunfire. We just had to keep moving,” said Nyabel. “There was no one directing us, we just knew the direction we had to go. We hoped that, if we reached Panyang, we could be safe.”
By morning, the family reached Panyang. They rested under a group of trees on the outskirts of the town. But as they rested, Nyabel’s father explained to the children that he needed to return to Bongki, to defend their hometown. The children were terrified of what would happen to their father. It was a tearful goodbye.
The respite did not last long. Within a few hours, fighting arrived in Panyang too. Guns were fired, shelling began, many more were killed. The NGO run hospital in the town was inundated, with exhausted staff treating more than 200 patients with gunshot wounds in a single day.
With violence again all around them, Nyabel and her family kept moving. Walking without shoes in thick bush at night, Nyabel’s feet were cut and badly swollen. Despite this, in the absence of her father and with her mother nursing days-old baby Wal, Nyabel led her frightened younger brothers and sisters through the bush.
Many strangers who were also fleeing the attack asked to drink from the eight-liter jerry can that Nyabel had been carrying. Within half a day, their water was finished.
“Once the water was gone, we suffered,” explained Nyabel. “But the situation just forces you to move. You just have to, even if you are tired.”
Some three days later, exhausted and overwhelmed, the family reached the outskirts of Yida, a large refugee camp. Baby Wal was now critically ill. Nyabel and her mother took him to a temporary hospital for urgent treatment. He spent the next five months there.
After a few days, they located a family friend, who gave them some space on the floor of his small house. Several weeks later, Nyabel’s father arrived in Yida and reunited with the family. He had, however, lost a leg in an attack.
Eight months later the family had a new threat: hunger. The children went daily to the bush to pick vegetables and edible plants, and were living on one simple meal per day of what the family calls ‘paper food’; usually a paste of mill flour and water.
Nyabel’s mother Angelina says that without a house, food or crops, they are now dependent on others for basic survival.
“This land is not ours. We’re depending on other people, the kindness of strangers,” said Angelina. “We cannot fear to ask for help; we have to. And when we’ve begged, if someone has one or two dollars, they have helped us.”
Nyabel says her life has become focused on basic survival.
“Despite all we’ve been through to get here, we’re still suffering. We’re still lacking a lot of things, like shelter and food,’ said Nyabel.
“I really feel pity about what’s happened to my life. I was going to school; I was in the 10th grade. Now I’ve lost this year without any study.”
“We have nothing to eat. I’m just hoping for peace, so that we can get the possibility of going to school, for a better future.”
Nyabel’s story is one of hundreds of thousands of such stories taking place right now in war-torn regions of our world. Right now—today—millions of human souls are in chaos because of war.
We take so much for granted in our country. We are so distanced from the horrors of war that are taking place right now across the world, that it’s easy for us to brush aside stories like Nyabel’s. It’s a world away. It doesn’t really matter to me. We’ve enjoyed an internal absence of war for so long that we’ve lost the appreciation for peace. We should be working to ensure peace for everyone. Nyabel’s story reminds us that although war is created by nations, its casualties are regular families striving to make a life for themselves. Nyabel is not much different from 10th graders I know. She’s not that different from the young people in all of our lives. What hope is there in a world where war is seen as just another necessity of human endeavor. War just happens. War is a way for me to get my needs met. I got mine—who cares about your needs? And an even bigger question for me is…where is God in all of this? Where does our God of love fit in the spaces of war?
In Mark’s Gospel we get the parable of the Mustard Seed: “Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
For me, this is one of the most hopeful of all bible verses. The community of God, the people who live in covenant with God, is like a mustard seed. One of the smallest of all seeds, once planted and tended to, can grow into a large shrub and grow large branches in which the birds of the air can nest in its shade. What a beautiful metaphor for God’s community of right relationship. We plant seeds, never really knowing if they are going to take root, and hope that they grow into something useful. Something that can change the world.
Jesus came to the world during a dark time. His beloved community of right relationship was in chaos, not unlike Nyabel’s. The world of Palestine in the first century was one of military occupation and political intrigue. If you want a story to rival TV’s House of Cards, read about the Herods and their Machiavellian machinations that subjected entire nations. There’s real political intrigue for you.
And this is the world into which Jesus arrived and spread his revelation of hope. It’s also the world that judged him dangerous, arrested him, tried him and had him executed. That’s the problem with fighting the status quo: If you upset the apple cart (or in this case, the banker’s exchange tables) then you stand a very good chance of losing your life. The Empire of Rome didn’t like having its apple cart upset. It didn’t like resistance to its hegemony. And it really didn’t like anything that interfered with its business. Don’t mess with my money or my ability to accumulate wealth. I gotta get mine. And if you don’t get yours…. well, you must not have worked as hard as me. You’re probably lazy. Or you’re just not as smart as me. Or perhaps you didn’t have the same opportunities that I did, but that’s not MY fault. I’m just part of the system. I can’t change it. It’s always been this way and I’m just doing my best to get along.
Earlier I asked where God was in all of this. Where is God in the wars of Sudan and Afghanistan and Colombia? Where is God in the slaughter that happened in Orlando just two short weeks ago? Or in Sandy Hook a few years ago? Where is God in any act of barbarity?
I’m convinced that God is not present in war…or violence…or even on the football field when players obsequiously proclaim their faith with kneeling and pointing to heaven. God just isn’t there—in spaces filled with violence.
I am convinced that God is in the responses to slaughter and war and violence. God works in the hands of the care-givers. God works in the hearts of those who give counsel and a shoulder to cry on. God is present in the helpers. Mr. Rogers, of Neighborhood fame, gave us this lovely, hopeful way to think on tragedy. He wouldn’t dwell on the horrors of the calamity, instead he would look for the helpers. He would tell children (and adults) to look for the helpers. I believe that is where God is in all of this. In our response.
A THEOLOGY OF HOPE FOR TODAY
I live in hope. I awake each morning in hope. My hope is this: May my actions and my words act as seeds in my small garden of influence. As I encounter beautiful human souls, on their own journeys, may I plant seeds of love and kindness and hope. Just as Pandora gave the world all of its ills, she also gave us hope. Just as Nyabel hopes for peace for her community, may we work to make peace in ours…and in the world. Just as Jesus brought his message of hope—that there is a better way to live our lives and, we, too, can live in that hope. We don’t have to be slaves to Empire and Ego and Orthodoxy. We can resist. We can hope. Hope is an action of resistance against a world that just seems to want our money and our blind obedience and distracts us daily from the real sin—our failure to live up to our promise—our failure to build God’s beloved community.
I’m so grateful for this congregation that plants seeds in this world. Seeds of hope. Seeds of love. Seeds of resistance.
Please stand if you are able and sing our closing song found in your bulletins.