Hope Grows Like a Forest

SJF • Lent 2c • Tobias Haller BSG
Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there we are expecting a savior... +
Last week we began our Lenten exploration of the great, enduring virtues by looking at Faith. Today we turn our attention to the second virtue, Hope. I said last week that Faith looks both to the past and to the future. Hope, however, by definition, looks to the future alone. The problem is, when things aren’t going well, a miserable present can make the future look grim, especially if one has not cultivated this particular virtue.

We can learn something about the nature of hope by looking at those who are hopeful. Take Abraham in this morning’s reading from Genesis. God promises Abraham a rich reward. And at first, Abraham makes use of that wonderful freedom to talk back to God, to “give God a hard time” in the way I referred to a few weeks ago. He makes ample use of his freedom to speak up, and to speak out: a freedom nourished through an intimate relationship with God, that peculiar Jewish virtue called chutzpah, which is clearly related to hope — for who argues if he has no hope of winning the argument? When God tells Abraham that he will receive a very great reward, Abraham doesn’t just give thanks — because he’s got a bone to pick with God. So he puts God on the spot by saying, “What will you give me, for I continue childless. You have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” He’s saying, essentially, “What good can you do for me if it is only for me — if it is not something I can pass on to the future. Whatever good you give me will be bitter if I know that only a slave will inherit it, and not my own flesh and blood.”

So God shows Abraham the stars of heaven, and assures him that not only will he have a child, but his descendants will be more numerous than the number of those stars. And then, having sweetened the hope for the future — that is, a host of descendants to whom to pass along the blessing — God names the blessing itself, and promises Abraham the land from Egypt to Assyria, for him, and more importantly, for his descendants for ever.

Abraham’s story tells us two things about Hope. Hope is a flower that blooms in the desert, about believing in a promise yet to be fulfilled. It is about a promised future, not a present reality. It comes to be in the midst of awareness of what is lacked, of what is needed. It is those who thirst who hope for water, those who hungerwho hope for bread. In this case, it is the childless man who hopes for descendants. We hope for what we do not have: As Saint Paul wrote to the Romans, “Who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

It is precisely when things look bad that hope springs up to rescue our hearts from falling into desolation. Those who are “hopeless” have nothing to live for. Just as memory for God’s generosity in the past gives rise to thanksgiving and faith, so anticipation of God’s goodness for the future is the gift of hope. Hope rings in the voice of God telling a childless man that he will have more descendants than there are stars in the heavens. Hope is God’s promise to a homeless man wandering in a land far from the place of his birth, that this strange land will be his children’s and his children’s children’s home. So it is that hope is most needed precisely when things look their worst; the promise is most dear when things look most unpromising.

The second thing Abraham’s story tells us about hope is that it embraces others. Hope is about sharing. The reward God gives to Abraham is not just for Abraham, but for his descendants: to enjoy the land the Lord has given them. Hope is not just for yourself. Faith is something you have for yourself — you may have faith in someone else, but you don’t have faith for someone else; though your faith may encourage others to find their own faith. But hope, at its most hopeful, goes beyond your own hopes, to include others — and you can have hopes for others, even when they have no hopes of their own, when they have given up; and you can have hopes for others even when you defer realizing your hopes for yourself. How many parents work extra hard to raise money - not to make themselves rich, but to provide for their children’s education? Their hope is not for themselves, but for their children. And so it is with Abraham’s hope, nourished by God’s promise, for the generations and generations to come: life in a promised land.

Hope is shown in the ability to postpone an immediate reward for the sake of a greater one down the road. Some years ago a study was done with young children, to examine just this question. Each child sat at a table with a plate and a single cookie. The researcher would say the cookie was theirs, and they could eat it now, but if they would wait for five minutes until the researcher came back, they could have twocookies. Each child would then be left alone for five minutes, with the hidden cameras rolling. You can guess what happened: some of the children took the cookie right away, and others waited, some unable to overcome their impatience giving in and taking the cookie after a struggle — and for those that endured to the end, that wait of five minutes seemed an eternity. But that wasn’t the end of the study. I don’t think anyone would be surprised at these results. The researchers kept track of those children for ten years, to see what happened to them. And it seems that the children who deferred eating one cookie in the hopes of getting two generally did better at school and in life than the ones who gobbled the cookie as soon as the researcher left the room. I can’t tell you how many of them became investment bankers; but on average they did well for themselves. Hope that looks to the future, the ability to defer in patience, can help equip one for a hopeful and productive life.

Let me tell you the story of another kind of hope, the kind of patient hope that looks to the future. French author Jean Giono was hiking in the Alps in 1913. Due to the growth in industry, the whole region had been deforested, and the barren landscape, dry streambeds and abandoned villages bore testimony to the wastefulness of going for short term profits. Industrialization had eaten the cookie, so to speak. Giono met an old shepherd who invited him to share his hut for the night. After a humble dinner, he watched the old man carefully sort through a pile of acorns, casting aside the ones that were cracked or moldy, until he had 100 perfect uncracked acorns. Giono asked what the acorns were for. The shepherd told him that in his travels over the last three years, he had planted 100,000 trees, poking holes in the ground with his shepherds staff as he walked along, and dropping in an acorn here and there, and of those he reckoned that a fifth had sprouted. Of the sprouts, he expected about half to survive the weather. But even with a return of only ten percent — a tithe, I might add! — he would go on planting.

Some years later, after the Great War ended, Giono returned to the region, and discovered how far the forest had grown. And with the forest had come renewal to the streams, the beginnings of meadows. After the Second World War Giono, himself now an old man, visited the area again, and found it aglow with prosperity. He wrote, “On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms... The old streams...are flowing again. The villages have been rebuilt... People have moved in, bringing youth, motion, the spirit of adventure.” The old shepherd who planted acorns in 1913 knewthat the forest that was yet to come was not for him to enjoy. He not only deferred the one cookie, but decided that the double portion, when it came, would be for others to enjoy. He did not live to see the forest, but in his heart he walked every day through a forest of hope.

Hope is not about individual good fortune, but about shared joy, joy that is a gift to others.

In today’s Gospel we see Jesus standing between the two realities of hope, the promise and the sharing. Jesus confronts the unpromising reality of the earthly Jerusalem. Here is a city that murders the prophets, a city that is like an obstinate child who refuses the comforting embrace of its mother, who would rather be miserable and sulk than be held and fed; who grabs the cookie even before the researcher has left the room! But Jesus can see, even in that unpromising town, the glimmer of a future heavenly banquet, at which people will come from east and west, from north and south, to join Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets sharing in the great feast in the kingdom of God, in the new Jerusalem. Jesus can look at the empty plot of land, or the devastated wreck of a ruined town, and see a forest. He can look at Jerusalem in all its imperfection and see the promise of what it can be, of what it will be. He can look at Jerusalem in all its obstinate self-will, its murderous ingratitude, its selfish grasping, and see the sharing of the heavenly banquet. Jesus has hope, hope in the promise that is shared.

We too live between the two Jerusalems, the spoiled and unpromising Jerusalem of much of our daily life, and the hopeful joy of the Jerusalem in which the Lord’s table is set, and in which our true citizenship lies, a citizenship shared with the multitudes who gather for the banquet. May we, as our Lenten pilgrimage continues, learn to see the promise and the sharing and the hope, even when things seem unpromising, when people prove selfish, and hope seems impractical. May we learn to hope in God’s promise for generations to come who will worship in this place, setting aside that dedicated portion of our treasure, that tithe out of all that God has given us, to preserve and protect and rebuild this place. May we sit in patience, not gobbling our resources for immediate needs and pleasures, as we wait for the realization of a better promise. May we learn to plant acorns; even as we hope for the forest that will be.+