Text: I Peter 3: 13-16
13Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence.
Ashley Smith had every reason to give up hope. Nine years ago Brian Nichols forced his way into her apartment after murdering four people in an Atlanta courthouse and then he held this young woman hostage for the next seven hours. He told her that he had lost all hope. “Look into my eyes,” he reportedly said, "and you’ll see I’m a dead man already.” But Ashley Smith looked into those eyes, deep and dark as tombs, and told this desperate soul that she saw hope for him. Can you imagine? He could not. He could not imagine a hopeful outcome. So he demanded—I’ll use the language of today’s scripture—“an accounting for the hope that was in [her].” And she gave her account, with a theological vocabulary you and I might not use, but with a gentleness and respect today’s scripture commends. The hope she claimed in the midst of fear she then offered to one who was utterly hopeless.
And the pattern of violence ended there. He called her "an angel sent from God." I offer Ashley Smith as a modern example of Christian hope that transforms fear into love and fosters spiritual imagination.
I’ve been trying to recall if anyone has ever demanded that I “account for the hope that is in me.” I admit no one has ever literally said: “Wow, Ellen, what’s your secret? How is it that you seem—even during the tough times—so darn hopeful?” Yet I look out at you and see folks who regained hope after great disappointments, found hope despite rejection by family or friends or church, lived hope even when disheartened by world events or personal struggles. We as a congregation demonstrate hope by starting a progressive Christian communion in a conservative culture and at a time when church going is in steep decline.
1 Peter has sometimes been called the Epistle of Hope. Whereas Paul sums up the gospel with the word grace, the writer of 1 Peter encapsulates all the good news in that tiny word hope. Resurrection hope of which this epistle speaks sees beyond graves and dead ends to resurrections and possibilities. Hope happens as the Spirit dances out ahead of us, beckoning us forward. Hope is that capacity, even when we have no hope, to long for hope at least and to be sustained enough in that longing until real hope can arrive once more, to at least sing the hopeful tune if we haven’t the words, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson. Hope is rooted in the recognition that you and I are not God; that is, we are not the sum total of life’s goodness and worth, that for all our value, there is more, there is always more beyond us but connected to us and supporting us. The companion of this kind of hope is imagination, which works alongside our best dreams to show us the world as God might see it. Let me illustrate the role of imagination in support of hope.
IMAGINATION AND HOPE
Years ago my mother-in-law gave my husband a waffle iron for his birthday. George hadn’t requested such a gift. He hadn’t realized he needed it. But new culinary possibilities opened up for our family with this simple gadget, and it thrilled our daughter, then about 4-years-old. Soon we developed a family tradition of having waffles for supper on Sunday evenings. On that first evening when we sat down to plates of piping hot waffles dripping with melting butter and maple syrup, Georgia prayed this blessing: “Thank you, God, for giving Gran a brain to know we needed a waffle maker.” It was such an odd way of expressing her thanks that I’ve remembered it all these years. And I think she was on to something. What she was realizing is that our gift of the waffle maker came from her grandmother’s gift of imagination. Her grandmother had to imagine a new good thing for us, a new way for us to have Sunday night suppers, a new paradigm that, from Georgia’s perspective, eliminated vegetables entirely from the dinner table. She was saying, “Thank you, God, for giving Gran the gift of imagination. Thank you that Gran was able to imagine something new and good for us.”
Jesus was the ultimate paradigm shifter who confounded expectations and brought new life out of death and imagined a new way. The table spread before us offers a new kind of sustenance that is imaginatively hopeful. It defies expectations. Rather than being trapped in our routines of meat and vegetables for supper, why not have waffles? Rather than being locked in unhealthy patterns of relating to others, why not experience forgiving forms of community? Rather than pursuing fruitless goals, why not see the full array of possibilities for our lives? Jesus opens up an imaginatively hopeful way.
WHAT HOPE IS NOT
I want to suggest how we can live out that hope. But first let me insist we do not live hopefully through denial. Hope is not about feigning a positive attitude with a superficial smile, something my Southern upbringing instilled and I’m trying to unlearn. Cheerfulness, in the face of suffering, is sickness. Dietrich Bonhoffer coined the phrase cheap grace; I offer the term “cheap hope” to distinguish a romanticized optimism that overlooks human suffering from a deep hope that straightforwardly faces suffering and then grows deeper by seeing God’s transforming presence in the midst of suffering. Rather than a phony or “cheap hope,” deep hope goes all the way to the grave—and then beyond. Deep hope is a lens on life that does not block out the ugly but expands the line of vision in such a way that all is seen in proper perspective. And out on that horizon that Hope permits us to see—is the dawn of resurrection.
Fear, of course, is what threatens Hope. That is why biblical angels say “fear not” before bringing words of hope to shepherds or virgins or women visiting empty tombs. "Fear not" is what modern angels tell men who’ve already murdered. By resisting fear, Ashley Smith was able to become an angel to Brian Nichols. By using hope to dispel fear, we are able to love.
Deep hope is what poet May Sarton captures in her poem entitled “AIDS.” Writing during the worst of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, Sarton bore witness to the physical devastation of the disease as well as the emotional despair as family and friends abandoned HIV-AIDS victims and society in general damned the diseased and persecuted the sufferers. This poem offers a poignant image of one friend regularly giving his dying friend or lover his nightly shot of morphine. But Sarton’s poem, which you’ll hear in a moment, also testifies to the transforming power of hope that stretches people to move beyond fear into an imaginative kind of love to receive a new grace. Thus, “we are blest”—echoing I Peter’s phrase “you are blessed”—even though we suffer.
We are stretched to meet a new dimension
Of love, a more demanding range
Where despair and hope must intertwine.
How grow to meet it? Intention
Here can neither move nor change
The raw truth. Death is on the line.
It comes to separate and estrange
Lover from lover in some reckless design.
Where do we go from here?
Fear. Fear. Fear. Fear.
Our world has never been more stark
Or more in peril.
It is very lonely now in the dark.
Lonely and sterile.
And yet in the simple turn of a head
Mercy lives. I heard it when someone said
“I must go now to a dying friend.
Every night at nine I tuck him into bed,
And give him a shot of morphine.”
And added, “I go where I have never been.”
I saw he meant into a new discipline he
had not imagined before, and a new grace.
Every day now we meet face to face.
Every day now devotion is the test.
Through the long hours, the hard, caring nights
We are forging a new union. We are blest.
As closed hands open to each other
Closed lives open to strange tenderness.
We are learning the hard way how to mother.
Who says it is easy? But we have the power.
I watch the faces deepen all around me.
It is the time of change, the saving hour.
The word is not fear, the word we live.
But an old word suddenly made new,
As we learn it again, as we bring it alive:
Love. Love. Love. Love.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF HOPE
The consequence of living hopefully is that love, not fear, rules our lives, and this transformation will so startle others they’ll demand to know the reason for our hope. Christian witness is simply living hopefully, not debating antagonistically. We are not told to shove Jesus down someone’s throat. Listen once more to our central verse and don’t miss its final phrase: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” or, as others render the last phrase, “with meekness and respect.” We are not told WHAT to say, in accounting for our hope, but HOW to explain why we have hope: respectful of another’s faith perspective, humble about our own. We are challenged to imagine and prepare our response in case we are asked. Each of us has a different story that can be shared about hope we have found in this place, perhaps, and among these people and through our Resurrecting God. Whatever our explanation for our hope, we should respond respectfully to those of a different version of our faith, or of other faiths, or of little faith—or people no faith. But primarily we are simply to live in such a way that hope itself becomes a compelling witness. Our hope during adversity will attract attention —and produce a new kind of love that will change us and others.
Death IS on the line. The gay community Sarton paid poetic tribute to faced and still faces suffering and persecution—as we’ve heard today from our friends at UCC Pensacola. Death WAS on the line. The recipients of the letter we call I Peter risked deadly persecution when they were baptized. Death is CONTINUALLY on the line for us: the death of relationships, of self-images, of the world as we have known it. But God’s hope can enlarge our imaginations, break open constraining prejudices and self-perceptions, rewrite the stories of our lives. The world will be astonished to see this work of Jesus the Christ in us. We, an Easter people, will face suffering, our own and that of others, but DEEP HOPE can move us from fear to love.
We can cultivate a holy imagination to see that a man who has just been on a shooting rampage in an Atlanta courthouse--a man who has just invaded a home and taken a new victim--is nevertheless a man capable of relinquishing violence. No one else thought that event could have ended without more bloodshed. Only deep hope could have planted that possibility in the imagination of a young woman—at a time when Death was on the line. Many likewise doubt that the Church will survive. Only a new discipline of imagination can take us through the “hard caring nights” into a "new union" we might still call church.
Thank you, God, for giving Ashley Smith a brain to know that a desperate man needed a word of hope. Thank you, God, for giving us brains and spirits to imagine something beyond suffering, something deeply hopeful that moves us past fear all the way to love, something past me all the way to the More. Amen