Prisoners of Hope

FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Prayer of the Day: You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope” Zechariah 9:12.

“Prisoners of hope” is a difficult phrase and resort to the original Hebrew does not give us much further insight into its meaning. Vs. 12. Yet one might well describe both Israel and the church as “prisoners of hope.” Both communities were created by covenants established in the past, yet which also look to the future for their fulfilment. Hope is not a vague optimism that everything will finally work out in the end. It is shaped by promises of a new age, a new heaven and a new earth, resurrection and a new creation. It is fed by sacred narratives of God’s past acts of salvation and God’s steadfast faithfulness to us throughout history. We are in bondage to this hope that will not let us go.

Hope is powerful. It can inspire selfless acts of heroism. It can empower an oppressed people to endure centuries of persecution. Hope can sustain resistance to tyranny and ignite revolutionary change. Often the most slender and fragile hope for a better tomorrow is enough to see us through the darkest of days. It does seem to me that we are held prisoner by hope. Hope appears to be an indispensable element of human existence. It’s what keeps us going. It is as difficult to lose all hope as it is to will oneself to stop breathing. Even those who take their own lives are driven by the desperate hope of finally escaping an existence too painful to endure. And that, of course, brings us to the dark side of hope. Hope can be tragically misplaced.

In last week’s lesson from Jeremiah, the people of Judah were led by the false prophet Hananiah to place their hope in his prediction of Babylon’s imminent collapse and his promise that Judah would be made “great again.” So, too, it seems was the king and his counselors who shaped their foreign policy on the basis of this lie and engineered a revolt against Babylonian domination. Jeremiah’s largely ignored warning that such folly would lead to catastrophic destruction for Judah came true with a vengeance. Babylon crushed the revolt. Judah lost its land, her temple and the royal line of David. The people’s hope in the optimistic promises of Hananiah were sorely disappointed.

History is littered with disappointed hopes. In the midst of economic depression and unemployment following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the German people saw in Adolph Hitler the promise of escape from their wretchedness and a re-birth of national vitality and patriotism. Their misplaced hope plunged them and all of Europe into the greatest mass slaughter of the century. So, too, Donald Trump was swept into office by a wave of white anxiety over losing cultural dominance and a vague but intense fear that our country was somehow being taken away from us. Too many of us desperately wanted to believe Trump would make good on his promise to “make America great again.” But as the United States experiences the world’s highest level of Covid-19 infection due to the government’s failure in dealing with the disease in a timely and comprehensive manner, as racist violence pushes black Americans to the breaking point and unemployment soars, the recent poll numbers suggest that even his staunchest supporters are beginning to realize that their hope in Donald Trump has been cruelly betrayed. Such is always the consequence of misplaced hope.

The prophet Zechariah has a word for his people that I think is helpful for us as well. “Return to your stronghold.” The stronghold of which the prophet speaks is not what we typically look for in a stronghold. Zechariah does not offer us a charismatic “strongman” promising easy solutions to difficult problems, vanquising enemies both real and imagined and imposing law and order on an unruly world. He commends to us a leader who is “humble” and who rides not a warhorse, but a donkey. This leader renounces military power, yet reigns from sea to sea and commands peace to the nations. It turns out that there is no hope in weapons of war or the leaders who brandish them. There is no hope in any flag, any nationalistic aspiration or anyone who traffics in them. The only hope not destined to disappoint is hope grounded in God’s appointed messiah, the humble prince of peace whom we in the church recognize as Jesus.

One of the many benefits of focusing our hope on Jesus is that we no longer place that unbearable burden on our human leaders. After all, what human leader can be expected to do all that God promises to accomplish under God’s gentle reign? When we demand that our leaders give us what only God can accomplish, should it surprise us that we get leaders with delusions of godhood? If one must lie and overpromise in order to get elected, should it surprise us that we end up with a government that cannot be trusted? The problem with idolatry is that our idols cannot bear the weight of our expectations. When they fail to deliver on their promises, we angrily kick them off their pedistals-only to set up new ones in their place. Perhaps the time has come to break this cycle. As we look forward to yet another election, let us expect honesty from our candidates. Let us expect commitment to racial justice and equality. Let us expect them to be zealous for the health and safety of all people. But let us place our hope in Jesus. He alone is our stronghold.

The following poem by Stephanie Burt gives us some perspective on the limits of human power and the permanence of those true things that outlast us and teach us humility.

Advice from Rock Creek Park

What will survive us
has already begun

Oak galls
Two termites’ curious
self-perpetuating bodies

Letting the light through the gaps

They lay out their allegiances
under the roots
of an overturned tree

Almost always better
to build than to wreck

You can build in a wreck

Under the roots
of an overturned tree

Consider the martin that hefts
herself over traffic cones

Consider her shadow
misaligned
over parking-lot cement
Saran Wrap scrap in her beak

Nothing lasts
forever not even
the future we want

The President has never
owned the rain

Source: Advice from the Lights, (Copyright 2017 by Stephanie Burt, pub. by Graywolf Press). Stephanie Burt (b. 1971) is a literary critic, poet, Professor of English at Harvard University and a transgender activist. She has published four collections of poetry and a large amount of literary criticism and research. Burt earned an AB from Harvard University and a PhD from Yale University. She joined the faculty at Macalester College in 2000. In 2007 she joined the faculty of Harvard University and became a tenured professor in 2010. You can read more about Stephanie Burt and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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