At the opening of Luke 18, Jesus tells this parable: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” The parable is framed as a call to pray constantly and “not lose heart.”
We often think of hope as a feeling, which makes it more likely that we will feel hopeless when longed-for changes or victories don’t materialize—because who can sustain an emotion all the time? Or we can be left not knowing what to hope for, which happened to Tim and me when Tim’s eldest brother developed brain cancer. Jonathan was so confused, and often in pain, and I remember saying to Tim, “I just don’t know what to hope for.” Remission? A quick end? Sometimes your mind can wish for one outcome, while your heart desperately wants another.
And if hope is a feeling, then how can it also be a virtue? It’s a situation that can make us feel ashamed and guilty for lacking a simple feeling. We know that a momentary feeling of dislike towards our spouse or child doesn’t mean we don’t love them, so why do we let a sense of depression or a moment when we don’t know what to hope for make us feel guilty of something?
I have said before that love is not a feeling, but an action: what you do. Well, just like love is a verb, a matter of choice and deed—so is hope.
Today’s gospel reading comes at the end of chapter 18, and it acts as a sort of illustration of Jesus’ parable at the beginning of the chapter. Not only is the man who calls for Jesus’ help, named Bartimaeus in a parallel story in Mark, blind, but he is a beggar on the streets, without any way of working, and probably without family who can support and care for him. On top of the physical hardship of being blind in a time without disability rights, without Braille or any kind of social safety net, the Gospel of John tells us that blind people—or their parents—were sometimes assumed to have caused blindness by sinning. Imagine the emotional weight of such a social condemnation, imagine the guilt weighing on that blind man’s soul! So this Bartimaeus’ proximity to Jesus is his one chance—his one chance for healing, for working, for some measure of a normal life, even for not being seen as a sinner who brought his blindness on himself, and yet people try to shush him!
But it’s as if this man had listened in on Jesus’ earlier parable; he doesn’t cease to shout, doesn’t do what the others in the crowd want him to do—others who haven’t suffered what this disabled man has suffered, a life of poverty and social isolation. Here is one who hopes against hope, against all reason, against every lesson in his life. Here is a man who doesn’t lose heart, and who teaches us, in fact, what not losing heart looks like. Hope isn’t a feeling; it’s an action, just like love. It’s the courage to demand something different of the world. It’s continuing to act even though everyone around you is just putting up with the status quo. It’s refusing to believe the future is set in stone, allowing the possibility of change to influence how we act in the here and now.
I say we take this blind man as a model. Jesus, at the beginning of Luke 18, tells us to pray always. I bet Bartimaeus has prayed all his life for relief, but he doesn’t stop there. He acts. He disrupts things. He refuses to go on allowing the crowd to be comfortable, or to have the last word on his liberation. He makes noise, and he makes trouble. He should be the patron saint of hope.
The past three summers, what I have heard most often from folks, and what I myself have felt most often in response to reading the news, is anxiety. Anxiety and fear and sadness over where our country is headed, over mass shootings, over racial violence. Things feel dark, and getting darker. So this year I decided to finally read Rebecca Solnit’s book, Hope in the Dark, which had been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years. Her thesis is that darkness is hope’s home turf. It’s when we can’t see how things will turn out that we have the most reason to hope—and when we have the most responsibility to act. “To hope,” she says, “is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety . . . . Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. . . Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency . . . To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable. Anything could happen, and whether we act or not has everything to do with it.”
Bartimaeus won a huge reversal—both his sight and the affirmation of his voice and his faith. But often we who do choose to act, who choose to “give ourselves to the future” and act in hope, find that the effects are tiny or unexpected. Yet they have a way of gaining momentum, of creating a ripple effect of changes that we often cannot foresee. Solnit’s book is full of stories of people who acted despite the cynicism of the world, often despite their own knowledge that they would never see how things turned out, and who succeeded in overturning the status quo. And she writes of activists who wished for big things, who thought they knew how the story needed to turn out, and who went home disappointed, who gave up. But, she says, many of those disappointed activists did change things, but they were too fixed on one particular vision of victory to see all the little victories they were a part of. Her message: It is always too early to go home, always too early to give up.
If nothing else, the gospel is a story of how darkness can incubate radical, unimaginable changes. It is a story of how resistance—to the status quo, to the powers that be, to imperial might—eroded and subverted those powers. It’s about the ability of a meal shared with people of all ethnicities, genders, and social classes to create new communal bonds. It’s about how service to each other, and especially to the poor and outcast, created a community-within-a-community, a community at odds with the larger society’s views of honor, power, and status. It’s about people so devoted to a new idea of creating community that they inspired and converted people even at the cost of being cast out of families and communities of worship. It’s about the transformative power of love even in the face of death. There is simply no other explanation for the way that Jesus’ example spread despite opposition from every other part of society.
I think many have felt—I know I have—that the future is dark, that our whole world has grown dark. I’ve been standing at the corner of the Hanover Green with SURJ every Monday recently, holding a sign that quotes Cornel West: Justice is what love looks like in public. And I have heard such hatred from some people. And I have been discouraged by the simple fact that affirming the worth of the lives of Black people is something that needs to be done in this day and age. But for every act or message of hatred, I’ve heard half a dozen or more messages of support and solidarity. This gives me hope. The world is dark, but we have to remind ourselves that it is in darkness that babies are conceived, and it is in darkness that they grow and take shape. It is in the darkness of the soil that seeds germinate and roots spread. It is in darkness that dead matter is broken down to feed new life. It is in darkness that a stone was rolled away, and new life entered a body that had been brutally put to death.
African American Christianity often speaks of God as the Way-Maker. God makes a way out of no way. God makes a way out of slavery, out of poverty, out of isolation, even out of the powers of death. God is dynamic as opposed to static, working in and through human purposes to accomplish liberation and give us not only life, but abundant life.
In many cultures, including ancient Israel, creation is seen as an ongoing event, not the one-time-only, static view that some Christians hold to. Certainly, the image of God as Way-Maker is based on an idea of ongoing redemption, as a continuation of the creation story. Redemption, or the mending of the world, the building of the kingdom of God, however you want to look at it and whatever you want to call it—is a kind of creation. It is re-creation and renewal. God is dynamic, not static, and therefore so is this world, however dark. And therefore, so must we be.
One final point: Co-creation with God and resistance to the powers that be is fatiguing, especially when we just can’t see the ways we make a difference. It will always be a challenge not to tire of the struggle, and there will always be times we need to rest or recharge. And sometimes there will be victories, and times when we want to celebrate. And there will always be people who think stepping away from the fight—even momentarily—is unacceptable, or that celebration is inherently suspicious, that it indicates a false sense of progress or a too-rosy view of the world. Resist those people. Celebrate. Observe whatever Sabbaths your soul requires.
The world is unfinished, which means that anything is possible. If we want to make a world in which celebration is possible, we need to embody that reality right now. This is one of the things we do in Eucharist, which comes from the Greek word for giving thanks: we celebrate. We give thanks and celebrate that all are invited into a revolutionary community, that we can share meals together without division of race, class, or gender. We celebrate self-giving love, freedom from cynicism, and new life. We celebrate that sometimes, in moments of complete darkness, love wins. Stones are rolled away. A new way is made where once there was no way.
Today is the day of creation. Today and everyday, the world can be changed. Keep your eyes open for new miracles, and keep resisting those who insist on a world without miracles. Don’t give up. Krista Tippett writes that “Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory,” so keep working those spiritual muscles. Like Bartimaeus, refuse to take the status quo as unchanging. Refuse to hush when people tell you hope is unrealistic. Demand change, demand everything that supports life, love, and healthy communities. Demand that people, and the earth itself, be valued higher than the making of money or gaining of power. And celebrate your victories—celebrate even in the face of the world’s cynicism.
I want to end with a few words from the great poet of resistance and hope, Wendell Berry:
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it . . . .
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.