March 14, 2020 Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "The Challenge of Hope"

Mar 14th  |  The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming |  Romans 8:18-25

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     It was on Tuesday, December 17, 1917, that the USS S-4, an eight year old S-class submarine was struck by a Coast Guard destroyer off the cost of Provincetown, Massachusetts.  The destroyer did everything it could do to avoid the collision, but at 18 knots, the ship was not capable of avoiding striking the sub.  The S-4 sank to the bottom, 110 feet down, in freezing water.

     In the submarine, the crew was scrambling gain control of the situation.  They stuffed clothing into the two-foot long gash in the pressure hull, but it was soon clear that the rushing water could not be stopped.  The space was evacuated and the crew gathered in the control room.  At this point, the men were concerned, but not hopeless.  Other subs had experienced sinkings and the crew had survived. 

     The water continued pouring in.  The control room was soon flooded and the crew retreated to the engine room and the torpedo room.  The water shorted out the electrical systems and the sub was plunged into darkness. 

     At 8 o’clock the following morning, Wednesday, December 18, 1917, a rescue ship arrived with ten Navy divers who had been rushed to Cape Cod.  That afternoon, veteran diver Thomas Eadie jumped into the water and five minutes later found the sub and began tapping on the hull, searching for survivors.  His taps were met with six slow taps in reply.  It was a signal that six men were still alive in the space.  But as he continued along the length of the sub, tapping along the way, his taps were met with silence.  The 34 men in the engine and motor rooms had not survived the night.  Eadie was forced to return to the surface.  By the time Eadie had surfaced, Lieutenant Graham Fitch and five enlisted men had been on the bottom of the ocean for nearly 24 hours.

     A storm moved in and conditions on the surface were deteriorating.  A sister sub arrived and with her oscillator began “pinging” the sub using Morse code.  “How many are you?” the sub asked.  “Six,” came the reply from Lieutenant Fitch.  “Please hurry.”  Late on the afternoon of the 18th, another diver went over the side with an air hose that would connect the men to the world above.  The mission failed.

     The following day, Lieutenant Fitch tapped a single word: “Hurry.”  Later he tapped, “Is there any hope?”  “There is hope.  Everything possible is being done.”  But Lieutenant Fitch surely knew that time as running out.

     The sister sub began sending out a message that had been sent to them by the Navy Department.  It read, “Lieutenant Fitch, your wife and mother constantly praying for you.”  They sent it out, over and over again.  The next morning, 63 hours into the ordeal, a reply was received – three short taps – meaning, “I understand.”  It was the last communication received from S-4 and Lieutenant Fitch. 

     Nearly three months later, when the S-4 was returned to the surface on huge pontoons, Lieutenant Fitch’s body was found.  He was lying under a workbench.  Above him were two black spots on the white ceiling.  These were breaks in the paint where he had hammered out his messages, breaking the paint into pieces.  On the floor nearby was a wrench, one side flattened from use, the instrument he had used to communicate.

     “Is there any hope?”  “Is there any hope?”

 

     “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

 

     Christians are not alone in being people of hope.  People of other religious traditions – and those of no tradition – hold on to hope.

     But, for us – as disciples of Jesus Christ – the presence of hope is central to what we believe.  The Apostle Paul reminds us that “Faith, hope, and love abide – these three.”  Here is the triumvirate of the Christian tradition – faith, hope, and love.

 

     Yet, holding on to hope is no easy task.  In every age, God’s people have faced this challenge – the challenge of being people of hope.  When the world around us seems filled with doubt and discouragement, it is hard to be people of hope. When life seems filled with more fear and despair, it is more than challenging to be people who are optimistic and confident. 

     “Is there any hope?”

 

     As Christian people, our hope is not founded on our own work – or the works of any other human being – but is instead built upon the foundation that God, and only God, can and will overcome the inhumanity of the world that is built on the social, political, and economic structures and systems that we have put in place.  We know, accept, and confess that the perfect justice and love that is the hallmark of the Realm of God will never come in history, but will come at the end of history.  We know, accept, and confess that the perfection of the new creation will come in its completeness only when God brings it to its birth at the end of time. 

 

     As Christian people, our hope for the world is that the God who will come to judge and save is the same God who is the powerful and loving Creator and Ruler of this world.  God is at work – here and now – teaching us and empowering us to live genuinely human lives, which are founded on loving God and loving neighbor.  We need not be afraid of God, or live in fear of what God may do.  The One who comes to judge and save is the One who loves us with an inseparable love. 

 

     And therein is the challenge.  The only source of real and authentic hope is God.  It is not in ideologies, philosophies, or political association.  It is not in liberalism or conservatism.  It is not found in revolution, evolution, distribution, prosecution, restitution, or dissolution.  Hope is not found in any humanly created system.

     “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

     We cannot hope for the perfection of some utopia.  But neither can live in the despondency that marks our time. 

 

     The late Professor Shirley Guthrie offers us the challenge:

In short, Christians do not hope for the coming of the Creator, Lord and Savior at the end of the world instead of trying to make the world a more human place now.  On the contrary, just because they know him and expect his coming victory at the end, they have the courage to get to work, confidently expecting here and now at least real preliminary signs to the totally new heaven and earth he will bring.1

 

     And nowhere is that more of a challenge for Christian people than when it comes to bringing God’s shalom in all its wonder and fullness.  Peace is the most elusive of all dreams and visions.  But it is God’s most cherished gift to the world. 

     Peace depends on hope and hope leads the way to peace.  Hope is the driving force in the life of a Christian and in the Church.  Hope is a sign of God’s presence – here-and-now – on earth.  Desmond Tutu tells us, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”  Charles Dickens said, “It’s always something to know you’ve done the most you could.  But, don’t leave off hoping, or its’ of no use doing anything.  Hope, hope to the last!”  Barbara Kingsolver writes, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”

 

     Let us be people of hope, who live into hope, who share hope with those around us.

     Let us be light in darkness,

          comfort in sorrow,

          a voice for goodness in the cacophony of voices that seek to preserve self over other,

          a source of challenge to the injustices of the world.

     Let us be people of hope,

          who dare to dream of a world at peace,

          who have the audacity to envision a world without need,

          who strive to see a world restored to its original perfection.

     “Is there any hope?”

     Always.  Always!  And hope leads the way to peace.

     Hope.  For now and evermore.  Amen.

 

1.)     Basic Christian Doctrine, p. 379