My family and I once lived in a community with a high percentage of immigrants from Serbia-Croatia, people who had fled the war in the early 1990’s. My son is still friends with some of the kids he met.
It was on May 27, 1992, only two days after my son was born, when a line of people, waiting to get bread from the only shop in Sarajevo with flour, was attacked, leaving 21 people dead. Despite the violent attack, the next day people were back in line for bread. They could die from starvation or they could die trying to get food.
A Bosnian man named Vedran lived across the street from the bakery and witnessed the shooting. Vedran had been a cellist in the Opera Theater before the war closed it down. So the day after the shooting Vedran dressed in his concert black suit and tie, crossed the street, sat down in a chair, and began to play his cello for those waiting in line. Every day for twenty one days he came and played Albinoni’s Adagio. He played for all that was lost. He played for all that was to come. He played for hope.
Today there is a statue in that square where Vedran sat, of a man with a cello. The statue is not a commemoration of Vedran, rather it is monument to hope when all seems lost.
Each of our readings today speaks of human struggle, human perseverance, and the amazing grace of hope. First, in Genesis, we have Sarah and Abraham who follow God’s call into the wilderness and wait for decades for their hope, God’s promise of a child. Along the way they struggle, doubt, smirk at God, laugh at God, and create chaos in their lives. But in the end, God comes through, a child is born, hope lives.
In Paul’s letter to the Roman’s he is helping them resolve a conflict over circumcision. The conflict occurred because there was an expulsion of Jewish Christians from Rome in 49CE by Emperor Claudius, which left the Gentile Christians in Rome to build the church. After Claudius’ death in 54 the Jewish Christians returned, and conflict between uncircumcised Gentiles and circumcised Jewish Christians ensued. Which group were the true Christians?
Since the days of Abraham, circumcision was about marking bodies as a sign of the covenant between God and the men who follow God. (there’s no indication that women followers of God were marked physically). Paul’s argument is that the Jewish Christians in Rome were turning this marking, the circumcision, into a kind of idolatry, making it more important than one’s actual relationship with God. Paul is calling the people to remember that marked or not the important aspect of life is one’s relationship with God, with one’s self, and with other people.
Paul recognizes that the conflict is intense and people are suffering. And so when Paul speaks about boasting in suffering he is not trying to encourage the conflict. Rather he’s acknowledging that everyone suffers. But suffering also provides human beings with the opportunity to grow and mature. When people work through their conflicts, when people struggle through problems, when people work to be in and stay in relationship with God, self, and others, then a person is on the path to growing in maturity and wisdom. For people of faith this is about hope.
Hope is not about things getting better on the outside of a person, hope is a process of transformation that takes place inside. One works on one’s self to grow in understanding of self and others, to not judge or blame or shame. Paul reminds them that in God’s eyes everyone is equal, male and female, Jew and Gentile. He urges them to work through their struggles grounded in faith which produces an inner sense of hope. Hope is finding a sense of calmness in the midst of struggle, and the ability to imagine a better day tomorrow.
For me hope is about remembering that I have survived all of life’s challenges so far and I’ve always come out the better - healthier, wiser, more mature, with greater insight, and sometimes happier.
Whatever age one lives in, life will be filled with challenges and suffering, often from human beings hurting other human beings. Christians are called, like Abraham and Sarah, like the people Paul is writing to in Rome, like the disciples Jesus is sending out, to be people of hope. Called to reveal God’s hope not like a badge one wears on the outside, nor a monument of idealized sacrifice, but by cultivating an interior sense of peace and the capacity to love others without the need to shame or blame or judge. To love as God loves, as a sign of hope when all seems lost.
a reflection on the readings for Proper 6: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8