Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

Hope…Even for the Past

“Redeeming Our Pasts”

Sunday, April 29, 2007

 

 

Romans 8: 26-30

 

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

There are people who seem to have an amazing ability to always find the silver lining in every cloud. I don’t know if it is nature or nurture, but in any situation of life, no matter how much of a downer it may seem to be, they manage to find an upside.

 

I was reminded of this by some emails I received this week.

 

There is a list serve I signed up for but forgot all about until this week. I vaguely remember that I may have signed up for it last year about this time when I stopped being a vegetarian.

 

Years ago, before I had become a vegetarian, my son David and I used to go on week-long canoe floats. We’d take fishing poles and a few supplies and the dog. Jane would drop us off upriver and pick us up a week later. For a week we’d camp by the side of the river and live off of the fish we caught, and baked beans and pop tarts.

 

Last year when I stopped being a vegetarian, I thought it might be fun to see if David wanted to do a canoe float again, and I remember spending a Sunday evening researching rivers to float in Virginia.

 

That is when I must have signed up for the list serve floatfishermen@yahoo.com. But I forgot because I never got any emails until two dropped in my inbox this week.

 

The first one said: “I'm here to help you guys get on the New River. We'll be out there…this Sunday...Come join us…”

 

The second email, obviously a response to the first, said this: “I appreciate the offer, but it looks like June might be the earliest I can make it down. On Easter, my wife dropped a bomb and announced she's moving out after 21 years together, so my life is in a bit of turmoil at the moment…On the bright side, I'll probably get a lot more paddling in.”

 

There really are apparently people who can find the silver lining in every cloud.

 

The Bible is not like this. The Bible recognizes that there is such a thing as the truly tragic. Pain is real. Oppression is real. Evil is real.

 

One of the questions we ask candidates for ordination in the United Methodist Church is to explain their understanding of evil. How did it come into the world? What is its ontological status? What is its relationship to God? It is a very difficult question for most candidates. It is a difficult question for those of us sitting on the examination committee.

 

The Bible is very clear that evil is real. It does not suggest that evil is illusionary or unreal. Not every cloud has a silver lining. There is such a thing as the truly tragic.

 

But what the Bible does say is that, while the tragic is real, suffering and evil are real, they are not ultimate. They are real but not ultimate or final. Fred Buechner says that Christianity offers no real theoretical explanation for evil. “It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene – not even this – but that God can turn it to good.”[i]

 

This is a fundamental source of Christian hope, and it is expressed perhaps most clearly in Romans 8: 28. It is a favorite verse of many of us. Romans 8: 28 – “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God who are called according to [God’s] purpose.”

 

But unless this verse is understood correctly it can be misleading.

 

After I began this sermon series on hope, someone told me that he tries to avoid using the word “hope.” Hope, he said, seems to him a passive thing. It is almost a posture of resignation or an expression of helplessness. It is like saying, “I guess there’s nothing much I can do about such-and-such a thing, so I just hope it turns out okay somehow.” He was suggesting that it is important to make things happen and not just hope they do.

 

The danger of Romans 8:28 and other verses of Scripture that promise that ultimately all things – even suffering and pain and evil – will work together for good is that, misunderstood, it lets us off the hook. It could be used to suggest that the intolerability is tolerable because someday God will transform it to good.

 

So it is important to really understand Romans 8: 28 and verses like it. “We know [it says] that all things work together for good for those who love God who are called according to [God’s] purpose.”

 

I want us to go a little deeper with this verse this morning. It is a very difficult verse to translate and translators have been debating how it ought to be translated as long as the Bible has been translated.

 

There are actually several different ways translators have argued that the Greek could be translated. One is the way we find it in our NRSV Bibles: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God who are called according to [God’s] purpose.”

 

The alternative translation I find both most compelling and interesting, reads the Greek words so that “God” and not “all things” is the subject of the sentence. This translation says: “We know that God works together in all things with those who love God who are called according to God’s purpose for good.” Or, as the Anchor Bible suggests: “God cooperates in all things with those who love God who are called according to God’s purpose for good.”[ii]

 

Here’s what I like about this translation. Instead of suggesting that God works all things together for good only for those people who love God and are called by God, it suggests that the role and responsibility of those of us who love God and feel a sense of God’s call is to work together with God to take the injustices and oppressions and the evils of the world and transform them into good.

 

What it means to love God and to be called by God is that we are the ones invited to work with God to make sure that evil does not have the last word but that evil is redeemed…that it is turned into something good. This is our work and possibility.

 

This begins with the mistakes and sins of our own lives. Someone shared with me some time ago a poem by David Ray entitled “Thanks, Robert Frost.” The poem says:

 

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought...
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug
of those albatrosses I sadly placed
upon their tender necks. Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago.[iii]

 

Sin is real. We hurt one another. We hurt creation. We hurt God. We hurt ourselves. We hurt those we love the most. Sin is real.

 

But it is not ultimate…even in our own lives. Loving God and being called to God’s purpose means working together with God – cooperating with God – to redeem our own sin and failure – our own pasts.

 

Let me tell you that as I approach 60, the number of things in my past that I feel really guilty and bothered about have diminished to just a few, and I am working on cooperating with God to redeem those. For those of you who are younger and struggling with guilt, let me tell you that in my experience, as you get older, it gets better. I’ve come to realize that some of the things I used to feel guilty about were the wrong things to feel guilty about – let those go. Other things I felt guilty about are actually at the heart of my spiritual education. They have taught me humility and patience and tolerance. And there are now only a couple of things that I have not been able to get past yet – and I discover they are more often sins of omission than sins of commission.

 

One of the church’s ancient prayers of confession says:

“We have done those things we ought not to have done, and

we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.”

 

I find myself worrying more about the later than the former these days…times when I have not been brave enough.

 

The goal of our lives is not to avoid sinning but to live so fully that God can work together with us to redeem our sin in the people we become.

 

It is also our responsibility and possibility to redeem the past of our ancestors. This has actually become a part of my prayer life in a strange way.

 

Years ago I somehow got on the mailing list of a Catholic charismatic prayer/healing group. Every time one of their newsletters came I read it with fascination and amazement.

 

These folk rally believed in prayer. They prayed for things it would have never occurred for me to pray for.

 

I remember one woman asking for prayers for healing for her great-grandmother’s diabetes. Her theory was that if her great-grandmother’s diabetes were healed, it might do away with the hereditary proclivity for diabetes in her family. The fascinating part about her prayers for healing for her great-grandmother’s diabetes is that her great-grandmother had died more than 20 years earlier. So she was praying for healing for a condition who had been dead for more than 20 years.

 

What faith! What wonderful audacity!

 

After reading that it caused me to ask myself why not pray for healing for my dead ancestor’s racism…healing for their anti-Semitism and their sexism and their heterosexism? I don’t know if this is orthodox or not, but sometimes I pray for forgiveness and healing for my dead ancestors.

 

Sometimes I pray for forgiveness and healing for the pastors of Foundry Church of years ago who have died – for forgiveness and healing of their sins, some of which for some of them included racism and sexism.

 

It is not so much our job to criticize those folk, long gone, as it is to redeem their sins and failings. This is important, in part, because we are sinful in our time in ways we don’t understand yet, and we will need generations to come to redeem our sin.     

 

William Faulkner said: "The past is never over.  It isn't even past."

 

“Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right…”

 

 

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[i] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABCs (HarperSanFrancisco), 28.

[ii] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans: The Anchor Bible, Vol. 33 (Doubleday), 523.

[iii] David Ray, Music of Time: New and Selected Poems (The Backwaters Press), 154.