Second Sunday After Pentecost
“Allow me to tell you a little story about the nature of hope and absurdity. In 1989, only a few months before I was to become, to my bewilderment, an actual head of state, I survived my own death.” Those are some of the best opening lines to an essay that I’ve ever read. They come from a piece written a little over twenty-five years ago by Vaclav Havel, the playwright, poet, and activist who emerged from a Cold War era revolution in Czechoslovakia to become the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic.
In his essay, entitled “Never Hope Against Hope,” Havel tells the story, as only a supremely gifted writer can, of a memorable night when he left a party, walked into the darkness, and although completely sober, fell into a black hole that turned out to be a sewer. He writes,
“My attempt to swim in the fundamental mud, this strange vegetation, was in vain, and I began to sink deeper into the ooze. Meanwhile, a tremendous panic broke out above me. Local citizens flashed lights, grasped one another’s arms, legs, offering limbs, articles of clothing to grab; a chaos of impossible rescue techniques followed. This brave fight for my life went on for at least thirty minutes. I could barely keep my nose above the dreadful effluvium and thought this was the end, what a way to go, when someone had the fine idea of putting down a long ladder.”
What would have been a terrifying and indelible experience for anyone became for Havel a kind of metaphor for his life. He reflects: “Who could have known I was to leave this unfortunate sewer only to end up in the president’s office two months later? What was striking about the sewer experience was how hope had emerged from hopelessness, from absurdity.”
Vaclav Havel was a remarkable artist, a remarkable public figure, a remarkable man. But of course, he was not the first person to find himself snatched, against all hope, from an absurdly desperate situation. The Apostle Paul understood this as well, having experienced a remarkable turnaround in his own story, from death to life, from blindness to sight. And so, it’s no surprise that he reflects on these realities in his letter to the Romans, the book that is his most sustained reflection on the ways that God’s righteous love transforms a world that seems to be drowning in sin and despair.
In chapter 5, Paul describes a hope that “does not disappoint us.” This kind of hope, a hope that does not disappoint, is difficult to imagine, even more difficult to trust in, especially in the midst of a world where so many are worn down by injustice and oppression, brokenness and despair. A world where thousands upon thousands take to the streets to declare with conviction that “Black lives matter,” yearning for justice but wondering if this time their cries of protest will be heard, if this time the change they seek will come to pass, or if these hopes will be frustrated. A world where thousands more are reeling from the effects of a pandemic, some struggling with the grief that accompanies the loss of a loved one, others wrestling with anxieties about their own health, and still others facing an uncertain future, one in which those things they thought they could rely on don’t seem so stable anymore.
For all of these people, and for so many more, who struggle simply to keep their heads above water, the kind of hope that Paul talks about here, the kind of hope that does not disappoint, might seem impossible. We could be forgiven for thinking such hope is little more than an absurdity. And yet, when Paul gives us the reason for this hope—because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us—we realize that this is the kind of absurdity on which God’s kingdom is built.
It’s the kind of absurdity that would allow Abraham and Sarah to embrace the laughable notion that they might have a child, and that this child might be a child of promise, a sign of the covenant between the God of the universe and this seemingly ordinary couple. It is the kind of absurdity that would compel Jesus to send the twelve on their mission throughout Israel, knowing that they would face opposition, even knowing that they would do battle with demons. Yet he sent them anyway, in the hope that God would use them to bring in his kingdom harvest. It’s the kind of absurdity that compels the Psalmist, and all of us who seek to follow the Psalmist’s example, to make a joyful noise, to come into God’s presence with singing, even as we acknowledge that we live in a world beset by grief.
The most common, natural tendency, perhaps, is to see such hope as foolish, or at least as escapist. But Paul describes it as something more. To hope in such a way, to persevere and endure in this way, is an act of resistance in the face of all who would seek to defy our God and to trample those whom God loves. We weep with those who weep. We lament the decay of a fallen world and the evil that we human beings perpetrate against others. But we also hope, and such hope empowers us. We work to spread love and justice in the midst of hatred and oppression. We rejoice, and we celebrate, because God has done a new thing and is doing a new thing to bring life out of death, light out of darkness, resurrection out of the ruins.
Ours is a hope that might seem absurd, but at the same time, it is a hope that is solid, a hope that is eternal, because it rests in the character of an eternal God, and in that God’s willingness to pour his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It is a hope that, unlike so many imitations, will not disappoint us.