Someone has said that hope is like oxygen to the soul—we need hope in order to survive.  Too often, the things that we hope for don’t materialize, and we are left disappointed or even devastated.  The apostle Paul reminds the church in Rome that they can have a lasting hope that is not dependent on circumstances because the Holy Spirit has been poured out on them.  We have access to the same hope today, and it inspires us to share that hope with those who have lost it. 

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage:  Romans 5:1-5

I’m sticking with the one-word sermon title this week.  So we’ve gone from Help to Hope, but I’m switching from songs to movies this week.  Now there are a lot of  movies that deal with hope in one way or another.

Let’s see if you can guess a movie I’m thinking of that has a theme of hope running through it.

First clue: It takes place in a prison.  Morgan Freeman is in it.  It has in its title a theological word that has a lot to do with hope (redemption).   

How many of you have seen The Shawshank Redemption?  If you do some channel surfing late at night, chances are you’ll find it playing on some channel.

The movie centers on a friendship between two inmates in a prison, Andy (Timothy Robbins) and Red (Freeman).  It captures well the hopelessness that can consume the hearts of those who are incarcerated.

But Andy doesn’t let the despair swallow him up completely.  Instead, he finds a way to hold onto hope.  We see Andy’s hope in one of the classic scenes in the film, where Andy and Red and the other inmates are in the dining hall.

Andy had just broken into the sound room, and he played a beautiful aria that resonated through the walls of the prison.  The music provided a little inspiration to Andy and the other inmates.

And then a conversation between Andy and Red about hope goes like this:

Andy says “There are places that aren’t made out of stone.  There’s something inside they can’t get to, that they can’t touch.  It’s yours.

Red responds:  What are you talking about?

And Andy says “Hope”.

And then Red says: “Let me tell you something.  Hope is a dangerous thing.  It can drive a man insane.”

Andy is saying that he can have hope even in the midst of being in prison, because it’s something that is more dependent on what resides inside a person than the circumstances that surround him or her on the outside.

Red has a different perspective, at least at this point in the movie.  He’s skeptical that a person can be hopeful in the bleak and depressing environment of a prison.

Red calls hope a “dangerous thing” that can drive someone insane because there’s very little chance that inmates who are serving life sentences will ever be able to experience freedom outside the barbed wire fences of the prison.

So basically he’s saying, “don’t get your hopes up too high, because you’ll probably end up being disappointed in the end, and the heartache can drive you crazy.

Inside and outside of prisons, all of us have hopes in life.  We have a whole spectrum of hopes, for little more insignificant things and for big life-changing type things, and everything in between.

We hope to get a ticket to a concert of our favorite artist before they sell out or before Ticketmaster crashes.  We hope that our team wins a championship.  (After living in Ohio, I saw how this seemingly little thing in the grand scheme of things is a life or death matter to those Buckeye fans!)

We hope to take that trip to a place on our bucket list.  We hope to get a job that we really want, that fits our skill set and pays well.  We hope the politician we support and voted for wins.

We hope to find a life partner, and maybe have children. We hope that when our children get on the school bus, that they will be safe at school that day.

We hope that we’ll stay healthy enough and have enough money saved to enjoy our retirement.

These are all good hopes to have, but the reality is that we have no guarantees that our hopes will come to fruition.

Sure, we can do some things to increase the chances that we get what we hope for, but some things in life are out of our control.

There are going to be surprises, or decisions made by other people that we have nothing to do with and no say in the matter.

You can log onto Ticketmaster the second the Taylor Swift tickets go on sale, but still end up not getting a ticket to the Eras tour.

You can have a great interview and be a perfect fit for a job, but they might end up hiring someone else—maybe they were more qualified than you, or maybe they just knew the right people.

And you can live in the safest neighborhood, but in a country where people have such easy access to firearms, a shooting can happen anywhere, anytime.  And the suffering can be immeasurable.

So many times in life, hope ends in disappointment.  Or despair.  Or even devastation.

But the truth is that we need hope to survive.  Someone has said that hope is like oxygen to the soul.  We must have hope in order to for our soul to breathe.

How many of you have played that game where you hold your breath going through a tunnel?  We used to do that when we were kids.  But that was nothing compared to what we did when we were at the swim club that we belonged to.

Me and my friends would dive to the bottom of the big pool at the swim club, 10 feet down and just lay on the bottom of the pool to see who could stay down the longest.  We were competitive kids, so we wanted to be the last one down there.

I remember being so oxygen-deprived sometimes that I started seeing spots. Then I knew it was time to come up for air if I wanted to survive!

When we lose hope, it’s like being oxygen-deprived.  Our souls can’t handle it, and we’re gasping for air to survive.  Our lungs are filled with disappointment and despair instead of hope and life.

When we start to lose hope, we worry more, and we are more afraid.  And when we’re in pain or going through a hard time, one of the biggest things we’re afraid of and we worry about is being alone in our suffering.

We fear being cut off from God and from anyone who cares.  Eugene Peterson tells the story of a friend of his who was a pilot during WWII.

The pilot’s plane developed engine trouble and almost crashed in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.  Somehow he was able to make it safely to land.  But when he was thinking that he might go down, he only had one thought:

I’m dying and nobody knows it.  Nobody will know what happened.  I will be lost forever. 

Peterson told this story in reference to the apostle John’s message to the church in Smyrna in the book of Revelation, a church that was suffering under the oppressive weight of the Roman Empire.

To the church at Smyrna John gives God’s words of comfort and hope that say: “I know your suffering and affliction.  Do not fear what you are about to go through.  Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

He’s giving them a hope for a future not alone, but with God, both in this life and in the life to come.  A future and a hope that no one can take away from them.

In our scripture today from Pauls’ letter to the Romans, the church in Rome is in a similar predicament as the church in Smyrna.  Being in Rome puts them right in the dark shadow of the Roman Empire.  They are facing ridicule and persecution for not bowing down to Caesar and saying “Jesus is Lord” instead.

They desperately needed a message of hope in the midst of their suffering under circumstances that were not about to change anytime soon.  And Paul speaks words that breathe the oxygen of hope into their souls.  He says

but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

I love this progression leading to hope, how suffering leads to endurance, endurance to the development of strong character, and finally to a hope that is resilient and that doesn’t end up in disappointment.

It’s all possible because the Holy Spirit of God is present with them—they are not alone in their suffering.  And the Spirit has been poured out onto them, not just in a trickle, but deep into their hearts.

I imagine it being like a fountain or a splash pad, where the water is gushing up and flowing freely, getting everybody soaking wet.

I love the way that Eugene Peterson’s The Message version says it:  we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

We sang earlier the song “Holy Spirit, Come with Power” and this could have easily been a prayer of that church in Rome then as well as our church now:

Holy Spirit come with power breathe into our aching night.  We expect you this glad hour, waiting for your strength and light.  We are fearful, we are ailing, we are weak and selfish too.  Break upon your congregation, give us vigor, life anew. 

Could this also be something you have prayed in some shape or form in your life, when your hopes were flickering, when you were or are going through a tough time, when you were particularly feeling your frailty and mortality?  I know that it would apply to me.

And the good news is that the same Spirit that was poured out on the church in Rome in the first century has been poured out on us in Fairfax Virginia and to the four corners of the globe in the 21st century.

And the same hope that they experienced is a hope that we can experience as well.  It is a hope that does not disappoint us, like so many other hopes that we have.

And this hope that we have through God’s spirit, this peace and grace that we have through Christ as Paul mentions earlier, these are things that not only have the power take away our fears and anxieties of being alone in our suffering.

But having access to peace and grace and hope that comes from our loving God gives us the courage and the compassion to share this hope with those around us, whose hope may be flickering and who may be mired in despair.

The witness of the early Church in Rome and other places shows us this is what they did.  Church historian Brian Daly said:

One thing is clear from the beginning of Christian literature: hope for the future is an inseparable, integral dimension of Christian faith, and the implied condition of possibility for responsible Christian action in the world.

What better witness can we have than to reach beyond ourselves and walk with those who are suffering in some way?  To stand with them and hold hope for them so they don’t have to go it alone.

The late great Mr. Fred Rogers shared the story of what his mother would always say to him when he saw bad things happening around him as a child:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helpers”. 

A few years ago, “Look for the Helpers” became the title of a book written by Fred Gutenburg whose daughter Jamie was killed in the Parkland school shooting in Florida in 2018, along with 16 other people.

It was the helpers who showed up to comfort and console those who were grieving the loss of their children and family members, who held hope for them when they had none left.

I want to close with one more story that gave me hope this week when I was in Harrisonburg at the Global Anabaptist Peacemaking conference.

I went to a workshop led by Peter Sensenig, who works in Chad, Africa teaching at a seminary and building bridges of understanding and friendship with his Muslim neighbors.  We heard some of his story at a service a few months ago.

Peter talked about the Mennonite church in Ethiopia, the Meserete Kristos Church, the largest Mennonite church in the world with about 600,000 members.

The Meserete Kristos Church has a passion to share the hope they have in Jesus with Muslims in their country, and do it in a way that is respectful, and invites dialogue, where Christians and Muslims learn from one another and serve each other.

Sometimes they go into areas and situations that can be tense, risky and hostile, but they are not deterred or ready to give up.  Their hope is rooted in the assurance that God’s Spirit goes with them, empowers them, and never abandons them.

As a result, much fruit is being born through the relationships that are developing and the conversaions that are happening between Christians and Muslims.

Later on in the Shawshank Redemption, Andy says to Red: Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.

Friends, let’s open up our hearts to receive from God the lasting and resilient gift of hope that comes through knowing that Jesus and his Spirit of love are here and will always be with us.

Let us proclaim with the Apostle Paul his declaration in Romans 8:38-39:

for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels, nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  AMEN.