Prisoner of Hope: June 18, 2023

June 19, 2023

 Year A, Pentecost 3                                        Romans 5:1-8                                                                       

Desmond Tutu
was the Archbishop of Cape Town South Africa for over 30 years.  For even longer than that he led the fight
against apartheid in South Africa.   Being
black in South Africa during that time was a struggle— being black and on the
frontlines of that struggle would have no doubt led to suffering and
frustration.  He didn’t have an easy
life.  Even after apartheid ended in
1994, he continued the hard work of truth telling by leading the Truth and
Reconciliation Committee that worked to address the injustices committed during
apartheid.  Archbishop Tutu never shied
away from hard truths.  Yet I think what
he is best known for is his joy, love, hope and his infectious laugh.  At the same time, he made sure to distinguish
the hope that he practiced from the sunny optimism the world often associates
with the word hope. He said, “I have never been an optimist. I am a prisoner of

Apostle Paul, the author of our 2nd reading, would not have called
himself an optimist, but was definitely a proponent of hope.  In his letters, he mentioned hope over 50
times.  In today’s reading he says, “…
but we also boast in our
sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces
character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”  One commentator described this as “chain
reaction of grace” because it starts with the fact that we are standing in
grace.  Grace is the free, undeserved
gift that God has given all of us.  It’s
the love that God gives us regardless of whether we deserve it or even want it.
We have all been called to stand in grace.

            I have to say that I both love and hate these words of
Paul.  I love the idea that suffering can
create endurance which would then lead to character and inevitably hope.  I love the idea.  What I am not too fond of is the actual
experience of suffering.  I don’t know
anyone who is.  It kind of reminds me of
that phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  I have never liked that phrase much
either.  Because I have witnessed a lot
of suffering that didn’t lead to strength or hope.  Sometimes suffering just leads to anger or

            It would be easy to say well the difference is that as
Christians, we have faith and that enables us to transform our suffering into
strength and hope.  Yet I have seen many
Christians who can’t make it to the other side of suffering. And it’s not
because they weren’t good Christians. 
It’s not because they weren’t faithful enough.  Sometimes it’s because the suffering was too
intense, too endless. There was no reprieve. 
I don’t believe that Christians have some special sauce that enables us
to have hope in the midst of pain.  I
think our hope is different. 

            You see our hope isn’t based in some idyllic life that we
have been promised.  It’s not based
merely on what can be. It’s based on what Jesus did for us and what he
continues to do for us.  Christian hope
is born not in life, but in death, in the death of Jesus Christ.  Jesus suffered in both his life and
death.  That suffering is what enabled
Jesus to be resurrected and thus enables us all to have new life.  Our hope is different than the hope we might
read about in greeting cards and chicken soup for the soul kind of messages.
Our hope was forged out of darkness and death. [1]
That is why darkness and death cannot defeat Christian hope…because darkness
and death—they birthed hope.  That is
what makes the hope we have in Jesus so incredibly powerful.

            But here’s the thing, this Christian hope isn’t
easy.  Having it doesn’t even make our
lives easier. In some ways, life becomes harder with hope.  Esau McCauley, a priest and writer, wrote,
“Hope is a demanding emotion that insists on changing you.  Hope pulls you out of yourself and into the world,
forcing you to believe more is possible.” [2]

            That’s what Archbishop Tutu meant when he said that he
was a “prisoner of hope.” Once that hope took hold of him, he could not give
up.  He could not despair.  Despair is a horrible feeling, it really
is.  No one would want despair.  Yet while hope is demanding, “despair allows
us to give up our resistance and rest.”[3]  That makes being in a state of despair easier
because we can stop trying to make the world better….we can stop being aware of
the pain and anguish that surrounds us. 
We can just stop.  And I have to
say, that can be tempting sometimes.  In
a world that is broken and in desperate need of repair, it’s tempting to throw
our hands up in the air and say, “Well, there is obviously nothing I can do
about this, I might as well just stop trying…stop hoping.”

            We think that hope is something that should come to us naturally…but
it’s not our natural state.  It’s something
we have to work for.  That work can be
exhausting.  You might be thinking, that
doesn’t sound very good.  If that is what
hope is, why would we want it? Why? 
Because we Christians stand in grace.  
That is God’s gift to us.  It’s
our starting point.  And while hope is
challenging, it’s also uplifting.  It
brings joy.  It is life giving.  It gives us life and it gives those around us
life.  Despair, it’s easier because we
don’t have to do anything.  We don’t have
to face the hard truths or our world. We don’t have to face how even our
actions contribute to the despair of others. 
But that is not why God put us on this earth.  We are not here to lean into despair.  We have not been given grace so we can
squander it.  We, (the church) must be
beacons of hope in this dark and lonely world. 
We cannot give into the despair or the hate or the apathy. 

            Our Gospel reading says that Jesus saw the crowds and had
compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless.   Then he told the disciples, “The harvest is
plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to
send out laborers into the harvest.” The harvest is the people who are living
in despair, who can’t see out of their despair. Sometimes we are part of the
harvest.  There are times, when we all
might be in that place.  But there is
also a lot of time when we are the laborers, when we are prisoners of hope who
can’t possibly give up.  The harvest is
plentiful.  Despair and darkness can
indeed feel overwhelming.  But never
forget that Christian hope was forged in darkness and death, which is what
makes it indestructible and impenetrable. 
Be a prisoner of hope.  Let hope
captivate you.   Whatever is happening in
our world, whatever suffering we might encounter, never forget Christianity was
created because death was defeated. And that—that is a hope that never disappoints.

[1] This
idea comes from a commentary by Scott Hoezee and can be found here: