Hope for the Hopeless

Randall Tremba
March 4, 2012
Second Sunday in Lent
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be faithful. I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous."

Mark 8:31-38
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

* * *

Early Wednesday morning, just minutes before the phone rang with news that would shatter my world, I was casually reading the lessons for this Sunday and musing on the story of Abraham and Sarah who had reached what appeared to be the end of their lives. Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah nearly the same. The promise from God in their youth that they would be blessed with many children had not come to pass. Sarah had given birth to exactly none. Zero. And now they were—as the Apostle Paul put it—as good as dead. Hopeless.

Early Wednesday morning, I thought I should work that feeling of “hopelessness” into my sermon for this Sunday. I typed the first sentence: More than once in my life I have come to a dead end not unlike Abraham and Sarah who had reached nearly one hundred years of age and still the promise of birthing a child had not materialized.

And then the phone rang. *[See note at end of sermon]

Two days later when I returned to that half baked sermon, I was now seeing things, not as a preacher, but rather as a parent having at least for one whole day felt the utter darkness of hopelessness. Loss of breath. Wind out of the sails. A sinking feeling. A living nightmare. All my previous so-called dead ends were nothing compared to this one.

I know that many of you have been there. Some more than once.

Abraham and Sarah felt life had passed them by. So much hope at the beginning. So much promise. And now so little fulfillment. So little joy. No hope. A dead end.

And then God appeared.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and Sarah, and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be faithful. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”

Just like that, at the end of life, at the end of their rope, with no hope, God renewed and revitalized the covenant with a promise, with a promising future. Sarah’s heart and mouth would once again be full of laughter.

Just when you think life is over, it’s not. Look up: here comes the sun. The winter is gone. The past is over. The future is open. Life is still full of promise.

Yes, that is true time and time again. But something else is true: things often go awry. The promise fizzles. We end up in a ditch, broken and bleeding. Alone. Scared. Hopeless.

And then God—or something like God—shows up. Not in the way Hollywood portrays God showing up and not even in the way the Bible often portrays God showing up.

As it turns out the divine arrives through the hearts, voices and hands of ordinary people—friends and strangers. And in those moments the covenant between the Holy One and all flesh is felt and realized.

You are mine. And I am yours. Take my hand. I am with you. Through the night, through the storm we are in this together.

That old, old covenant affirmed long, long ago with Abraham and Sarah is not unlike the covenant of marriage which is not unlike the covenant of belonging to the Body of Christ we call the community of the Beloved which includes this little community we call our church, our Presbyterian tribe. You can hear it in our membership vows when we stand at baptism and promise: I will be with you and your children in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want as long as our lives endure.

You are now doing for me and Paula and Jonah what we all have done countless times before for and with others. We are holding on to each other as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death again.

Sure, it would be nice if there were no such valleys—ever. But that’s not life. At least not on this planet. It’s not where any of us live or will live. Suffering is part of life. Life is hard. Getting on with life is accepting that much. Life is hard. It just is.

Peter thought the Messiah of all people should not suffer. And if truth be told, many of us parents wish the same for our children and even ourselves. Some of us may even feel entitled to a painless ride. But guess, what? Ain’t gonna happen.

So, what are we to do when suffering befalls us? We can deny it, resist it or curse it. Or we can take up our lives just as they are or just as they happen to be, suffering and all, including deep disappointments. We take them up, bless them, break them open and give that others might live. Take, bless, break, give. It’s at the heart of our Beloved Lord’s Meal and at the heart of Christian practice. Take, bless, break, give—give of your life for all it is worth that others may live.

I’m now thinking that’s what Jesus meant when he said: If you want to be my disciple, deny yourself—which is to say, forget yourself for awhile—take up your cross and follow me. Notice, he doesn’t compel us or threaten us with Hell or anything else. The Beloved invites. I invite you, he says, to accept the hurt of a harsh, unjust and unkind world and follow me, follow me to where people hunger, thirst, shiver, cower, weep and bleed and I will show you how to love no matter what comes down.

And remember this: No matter what comes down, you are mine. I am yours. We are in this together to the end.

* * *

*[Pastor Tremba shared these remarks with the congregation at the very beginning of the service Sunday, March 4.] 

I’d like to invite your prayers for Paula and me, our son Jonah, his girlfriend Jade, her family and our family, which in many ways includes this congregation and the larger Shepherdstown community. As most of you now know, our son was arrested this week for engaging in criminal activity.

It was a shock that pierced our hearts. The shock is fading but a gut-wrenching sick feeling remains along with grief, fear, anger, shame and guilt. It’s the same cocktail of emotions that comes in the wake of death. I’ve seen it a hundred times; but never, ever felt it so personally as now.

Every parent lives in constant dread of something horrible happening to their children. And when it does, you wonder what, if anything, you might have done to prevent it. And of course Paula and I can’t help but wonder. But we also know the trail of blaming ourselves or others leads to another kind of death.

Parents know we can’t live our children’s lives for them. They must make choices and hopefully learn and grow from them. We all mess up, sometimes badly. It’s what we do next that matters most. And that’s where grace comes in and has come in for Jonah and us.

Even though are hearts ache with and for our son, we are as grateful as he is for this unexpected opportunity, an opportunity to break loose from an oppressive past, turn around, make amends and trust that a new day will dawn.

Paula and I are grateful for the sympathy and support already offered by so many of you. Yes, we’ve entered a wilderness but we have already discovered manna along the way.

We don’t come here this morning in despair but rather in faith, hope and love. Where there is life and work to do, there is reason to hope. Where there is life and work to do, andfaith there are even more reasons to hope. And where there is life, faith and love, there are exceedingly numerous reasons to be hopeful. And we are.

We expect the coming months to be very hard for Jonah and us. But we are trusting that grace will abound. We are looking for the light shining in the darkness.

Let us pray. And let this be our prayer.

May the healing light of the Beloved Christ shine upon and within Jonah and upon any and all who carry troubled and broken hearts this day, here and everywhere.