A summer sermon related to John 1:1-12
Central Point: To introduce Active Hope as an expression of a faithful inspiration and integrity-based form of hope and action, especially necessary in difficult times of anxiety
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…
For the Word in Scripture,
For the Word among us,
For the Word within us
Thanks Be to God
When I was young, I kept hoping that the Chicago Cubs would win; they would win that day and that they would win the World Series. But that hope was difficult to maintain, particularly in the 1970s and even in the 1980s when they would win more, but still break the hearts of Cub fans like me in stunning fashion during the season or in the playoffs. But now that I've lived a lot of years and given the Cubs plenty more seasons to try, I lived to see my hope realized in 2016. (It only took 108 years between championships.)
This is hope that is based on outcomes. It is based on the prediction of a favorable outcome. Now this year with the Cubs, I have no hope for that kind of favorable outcome. They will not win the World Series nor even make the playoffs. I can always hope for another year in the future for a more likely favorable outcome.
But mostly these days I'm not thinking of such things very much, such objects of hope or even this form of hope. Although it was nice to finally have the hope of a Cubs World Series win realized in 2016, it happened while I was at the Standing Rock Lakota Reservation with my wife, Allison. We were with the Lakota people protesting the Keystone XL pipeline which was unjustly routed through their reservation and near their water supply. Getting the news of the Cubs winning the World Series while I was at standing rock was such an instant teaching of perspective. That win just didn’t matter that much in the scheme of life. Though I had hoped for this event in my life for many, many years (involving baseball which I love), receiving it while at Standing Rock was a profound teaching that not only was hope was better focused on other matters, it would also need to be formed in a different way.
At the camp in Standing Rock, entertainment like baseball was, of course, not our focus. Our mantra was “water is life,” mni wiconi. That gathering was a prayer meeting where the prayer fire never went out and the hope was always to protect the water and therefore to protect life. The likelihood of success was low. The legal system had conspired against the Lakota and the law enforcement was well funded and equipped with vehicles, personnel, and arms.
Yet, that gathering at Standing Rock was a living example of active hope. And that’s what I want to lift up today: active hope.
I'm taking this term active hope from a book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone titled, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy.
And, if you haven't noticed, we are in a mess aren't we?
Business as usual has been and is leading us into what's been called a great unraveling of environmental systems not to mention income inequality and the rise of authoritarian movements in the world. Macy and Johnstone get us right to the point of their book with the subtitle “how to face the mess we are in without going crazy.” For if we really face the truth of it, it could drive us to madness, certainly heartbreak. Our collective behavior seems crazy.
If you don’t know her, Joanna Macy is an elder (93 years old now) and a Buddhist teacher. I find her trustworthy for that reason and also for the reason that this teaching about active hope resonates with the stories of faith in our Scriptures and in the lives of so many of our Saints. It is in these Scripture stories and the stories of the Saints that I see a kind of active hope that Macy talks about.
What is active hope?
Well, it's not hoping that the Cubs will win.
In fact, active hope is not based on the likelihood of an outcome, rather it is hope rooted in a vision of what we long for, or in the case of the people of faith, what God longs for. You could call it the Realm of God or the kin-dom of God or the Beloved Community (as Dr. King was fond of calling it), but it is that vision of blessing and fullness and wholeness, that vision of justice and peace and the integrity of creation of which God dreams and to which God calls us.
And while one side of active hope is rooted in this vision, the other side of active hope is rooted in our action, action that is in integrity with that vision. Not unlike the way that Jesus so often taught that the Realm of God is already here, practicing active hope means that we are living out the values or participating in the energies of that Realm here and now. Through our presence, our choices, and our actions, we can live in that Realm already. Active hope then is a practice, something we do with our imagination and actions. It is not passive and it is not based on the likelihood of external outcome (like hoping that the Cubs win or that it's going to be pleasant weather).
Active hope means we connect with the vision of the Realm of God, the beauty and value of it, of life and community in its blessing, and act from it and for it. We act to bring it further into being, not calculating the likelihood of a short term or even an ‘in our lifetime’ outcome.
It is not about how we feel things are going or might likely turn out. It is about what we do. Active hope is about vision, the vision of what we long for to become manifest in the world and how that draws us into life and action. It is that connection to the vision and values and staying true to it, no matter the situation, that keeps us from becoming hopeless or even lifeless in the face of this mess.
Says Macy, “Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.”
A few moments ago, I read the first 12 verses of the gospel of John. What might that have to do with active hope?
This poetic prologue from John’s community is a wondrous, mystical presentation of the coming of the intangible divine into the tangible Incarnate world. In this case, through the person of Jesus. This miracle of incarnation may be the greatest genius of Christianity, having the Word, the Living Wisdom, the deep invisible life-giving wisdom of all things somehow become flesh, become Incarnate, become real in human life and the life of the creation.
We can talk about high theory and mighty ideals and about grand design and expansive patterns, but that does not matter much to the life of Creation unless it is embodied and expressed and lived out in this complex messy world. It is one thing to talk about love and another to live it out, to incarnate it. In John's prologue we have this amazing poetic summation that the Word became flesh and lived with the people. “And the darkness could not overcome it,” says John.
Active hope is like that. Incarnate. Fleshy. Earthy.
It's like bringing these great aspirations right down into the messiness and even the darkness of the world in our lives. It is about choosing faith, choosing a trust in the way of Jesus and the good news of God even though the outcome is uncertain at best and doubtful at worst. Our tradition is full of situations where it seems there is no way, but somehow God makes a way when the people act. There were the Hebrew people chased by pharaoh's army and pinned up against a great body of water with nowhere to go, but, as the Jewish interpretive story says God made a way after someone went into the water up to their neck. There was the story of Jesus surrounded by an angry mob in his hometown intent on throwing him off a cliff, but somehow Jesus moved and passed through them. There was a woman named Rosa who sat down on a bus where she was not supposed to sit, where they said she would never be allowed to sit, yet somehow she sat, Spirit moved, and the people of color found a way to act into their hopes and, indeed, did sit in the front of the bus, and then vote, and go to any school.
Learning and practicing active hope is timely for there are many reasons to not hope if one is basing hope on the likelihood of a good outcome. Yet, our faith tradition doesn’t say that life is easy or that life unfolds with simple, predictable steps of linear progress toward goodness and liberation, especially in times like these.
The irony here is that finding Active Hope, facing problems, those seemingly intractable difficulties, asks us not to focus first on the problems, on what is wrong, but on what is right, what is worthy, what is beautiful, what is of value that is already present.
Active Hope invites us to build the base of our reality with gratitude. And like Active Hope itself, gratitude is a practice, a learnable way of seeing and living. Gratitude is a basic spiritual practice across traditions. It is the valuing of what is already present that inspires us to protect it, to act for it, to make the changes necessary to nurture it and preserve it.
How important is acting for that vision now? How urgent?
The environmental activist Bill McKibben had a cover story on Rolling Stone magazine a few years ago and then went on what he called a Do the Math tour around the nation. He proclaimed the simple math: according to climate researchers at that time, we could burn 565 more gigatons of carbon and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. Fossil fuel corporations then had 2,795 gigatons in their reserves, five times the safe amount. At the known rates of consumption, McKibben and others, calculated the years we had left to act decisively. Now it would be only about 8 years or so in which to make significant change.
We need hope, my friends, to respond faithfully to our situation and we need it to be active hope.
Oh, and in case you might have forgotten, in July of 2021 the company sponsoring the Keystone XL pipeline declared the project dead.
So remember, our stories of faith are full of people wondering how they would continue, how they would find a way where there was no way, how they would get through a tight spot. Our stories of faith are full of ordinary people just like us, doubting and limited, but who found a way through by sharing God’s hopes and then acting them into being such that the darkness could not overcome their active hope.