The Comfort of a Reasonable and Holy Hope: A Sermon for Proper 21B, 2021

During a funeral last week, I was caught short by a phrase I heard and had never noticed before. After 15 years of being a priest, presiding at who knows how many Rite 1 funerals (15? 20? 30), I was listening as Carol read the prayers. I heard this:

Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that they
may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a
reasonable and holy hope

“The comfort of a reasonable and holy hope.” In case you’re wondering, they’re on p. 481 of the Book of Common Prayer, in the prayers of the people.

I was so taken by these words, so moved by them, that I could hardly return my focus to the service at hand. And over the last week, they have continued to run through my mind. They spoke to me in that moment; they speak to me as I navigate these difficult times; in the midst of my fear, despair, as I listen to the news and see the horrific images of men on horseback whipping desperate Haitian asylum seekers, as I hear about the suffering of COVID victims, as we all wonder when the crises in which we are living will finally give way to some sense of ordinary-ness.

The comfort of a reasonable and holy hope. Hope has certainly been hard to come by the last months and years. As a citizen of the United States, I think my hope began to wane in 2016, if not before, as we have seen the backlash against efforts to make ours a more just and equitable society, to address the legacies of slavery and genocide against Native Americans; the ongoing racism and sexism, our catastrophic wars and the devastation and suffering they have caused. And then came the pandemic, months of fear and isolation, with hope rekindled as the vaccines were rolled out, then the Delta variant, and anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers allowing the pandemic to continue.

I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with the altar guild leader about, of all things, Christmas decorations. The deadline for ordering was coming up and we needed to decide what sort of decorations we will put up this year; something restrained and minimal as we did last year when we weren’t worshiping in person? Or should we go back to the extravagance of past years? It was a hard conversation, not just because planning more than a few weeks in advance is so difficult. We have had to make so many last minute changes in order to adapt to the changing pandemic. It was difficult too because of the memories—of a full church, of the excitement of being together for Christmas, of music and festivity and joy, and the possibility reality of continued social distancing, masks, and fear.

Hope is hard to come by these days, and when it does, it often feels more like self-delusion. With all of the crises we face, with a political establishment apparently unable to honestly and seriously deal with those crises, from climate catastrophe to pandemic, with a media and social media more interested in producing content that generates more views and clicks than conveying the reality of the situation, despair seems not only the appropriate emotional response, it seems like a logical, even necessary stance in the world.

But then those words, “the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope.” You may wonder why I fixated on them. I wonder myself. As I’ve pondered them, and my response to them, I began to focus on the adjectives used—reasonable and holy. I don’t know whether I had ever attached such words to the concept of hope and I began to explore what their presence here might mean.

After all, what is “reasonable” about hope in our current context? Why might hope be “holy”?

As I’ve reflected on these questions, I have thought about how we generally think about hope. We might assume that hope stands in opposition to reason. Perhaps we’re reminded of what St. Paul writes in Romans 8: 

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

And often hope seems to be something far off; a sort of imagined future that bears little resemblance to the world we live in, the lives we lead. So what might a “reasonable hope” be? Given the original context of the phrase, I would assume that it is a reference to our faith in the resurrection—both the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the hope for the resurrection of the faithful. Reasonable, because as Paul writes elsewhere, the resurrection of Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection of the dead; evidence that our hope is justified, thus rational.

But let’s be honest—that hope may seem as distant, as unmoored from reality as the hopes we have for a better life, for change in ourselves, our loved ones, our world. 

But there’s another adjective in that phrase that encourages reflection—“holy” What might a holy hope be? And here I think it’s worth going back to the word’s origin, to its biblical usage. Holy means being set apart—made sacred for God; other than ordinary objects, occupations, concerns. And here is where I think it helps to distinguish “holy” from other sorts of hope. We have desires, wishes, hopes for ourselves and our loved ones but are those based in our own desires or are they something more, something deeper, drawing on God’s love in Christ?

The comfort of a reasonable and holy hope. As I reflect on where we are as followers of Jesus, as members of the body of Christ that gathers in this place, and virtually, that has experienced these last months and years together and is looking ahead into an uncertain and challenging future, “a reasonable and holy hope” may be just what is needed for us to move forward in faith.

Reasonable—what have we as Christians, as God’s people learned over the last months? What resources in ourselves and our congregation have we discovered that have helped us grow more deeply together in community, and in relationship with Christ? What has made us stronger, more resilient to face new challenges that may arise in the future? I’m mindful of our technological adaptations; the months of phone tree activity that kept us in touch with each other, the efforts of the little group that imagined and organized the short Monday videos. I’m mindful of the lay-led bible studies that have continued throughout the pandemic. There has been much we have failed at, but we have a great deal for which to be grateful, much to celebrate.

We have reason to hope; but our hope must be holy. As we continue to adapt to these circumstances, as we tentatively, slowly emerge into a new reality of congregational and community life, our holy hope should help us distinguish those things we desire out of nostalgia or selfishness, and the vision of mission and ministry to which God is leading us. 

My friends, there is much to hope for; the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope is God’s gift to us. Over the coming weeks, we will be talking about the future as changes come to our congregation, our ministry, and mission. We will be talking about our future role in the downtown neighborhood, our leadership in racial reconciliation and addressing the Episcopal Church’s and the US’s treatment of Native Americans, seeking to build relationships with our HoChunk neighbors and other indigenous peoples of Wisconsin. We will be imagining ways of reaching out into the neighborhood and community, to share the love of Christ in new and creative ways. Filled with God’s love, inspired by that reasonable and holy hope, may we step courageously and faithfully into the future.