Rev. Danielle K Bartz July 10, 2022
Romans 5:1-5 “Hope Does Not Disappoint”
I’ve told you all the story of a woman named Yamileth before, but hers is one that bears repeating. My interaction with her was brief but it had an impact that will last a lifetime. I met Yamileth when I was in Nicaragua during seminary. We were in the capital, Managua, and visited an area of the city called the La Chureca, which is the largest open-air landfill in Central America – covering approximately 4 kilometers. La Chureca is not just a landfill, however, it is also the home, often a generational home, for hundreds of families. While the numbers are difficult to confirm, it is believed there are around 400-500 families who live there, and about 50% of the population are children. Yamileth was born in La Chureca, like her mother was, and spent her entire childhood living in that community. The people of La Chureca sort the trash to find and sell useable items, make their dwellings out of what they can find, and sometimes eat what is there. It is a harsh existence, one that – at least while I was there – was simply accepted.
As I said, Yamileth grew up there, but was determined to leave – so hers would be the final generation of the family to call the landfill home. And leave she did. Through extraordinary perseverance, resilience, a deep faith in God, and a refusal to give up hope – Yamileth left La Chureca and opened a business selling the art and jewelry made by the women who she grew up with. She didn’t go far, though. When we visited her shop, it was directly across the road from the main entrance to the dump. That was still her community, her family, the people who helped to raise her in impossible circumstances. She left the landfill, but she did not leave behind her people. Her shop helps those living in La Chureca make money, sometimes even enough to leave the landfill themselves.
What is even more amazing about Yamileth isn’t just her story. You see, the reason we went to see her was to visit the church she also started. Yamileth is a devout Christian, someone committed to and proud of her faith. It was her faith in God through the example of Jesus that gave her the strength to ensure the condition of her birth was not the conclusion of her life. I was in Central America with a group of students and a couple of professors studying Liberation Theology – the understanding that the Christian religion is one that, at its center, is meant to liberate the oppressed, the weak, the marginalized. Liberation Theology began in Central and South America, as countries in those regions began to liberate themselves from colonial empires – using the wisdom and tradition of the Old Testament for a foundation, and the teachings of Jesus as a guide. You may have noticed that Liberation Theology is the lens through which I study scripture and interpret Jesus’ teachings.
To study liberation theology at its source, we worshipped with communities who were living it out – and that day we were worshipping with the people of La Chureca in a cinderblock room at the back of Yamileth’s shop. Yamileth, her family, and her community continue to be, for me, living proof of the possibility in the Gospels, the Good News of Christ, the promise of God’s Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven, proof that hope does not disappoint.
As we were talking with Yamileth, she told us that she was told, over and over again, that she was crazy to hope for a life outside of La Chureca. People on the inside who had grown angry and cynical told her to simply accept what fate had offered her. People on the outside told her that it was too big of a mountain to climb. But Yamileth refused to listen, she held on tight to her faith – a faith so profound I have never since encountered its equal – and refused to give up on her hope. It was hope that compelled her. It was hope that gave her strength. It was hope that gave her the ability to approach each obstacle and overcome them. But her hope was not simple or idle. It was active and fierce.
Presbyterian minister and tender to young people’s souls, Mr. Rogers, once said that “love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle.” I think hope is like that. Hope isn’t a state of wishful thinking, it too is an active noun like struggle – something that requires effort and strength. Something that can free one from bonds and liberate spirits. Hope can compel us and drive us if we allow it to. Hope can be a shield against a world filled with fear and cynical thinking. Hope may not be easy to hold on to, but as Paul reminds us in today’s scripture, hope does not disappoint. And in today’s world, a reminder of the power of hope is more important than ever.
“Everything is horrible and the weather is too hot.” That’s what an old friend and colleague said to me the other day while we were catching up on the phone. I had called her seeking her wisdom and learned experience as I discern my faithful response following the overturn of Roe. But I was also eager to just catch up with her, having not had a chance to do so since I left the national setting of the UCC. I asked her how she was and she said, “well, you know – everything is horrible and the weather is too hot.” I laughed, that sad sort of resigned laugh we do when we don’t know what else to do. Yep – agreed. Everything is horrible and it is just too hot outside. Too much is happening, foundations are breaking, and ‘what next…’ has become our common refrain. How do we act kindly, we wonder, when sometimes it doesn’t pay to be kind. Or how do we act wisely in the days when even the greatest wisdom doesn’t seem to suffice. And then we turn to the scriptures and read as Paul writes, “well, suffering produces endurance, and from endurance comes character, and character creates hope.” Those of us who have gotten too comfortable in our anger and cynicism may just roll our eyes in response – too stuck on the notion of suffering and unable to see our way towards hope. And besides, we grumble, it is just too hot and humid out to want to do anything. “Hope doesn’t disappoint you say, huh Paul? Yay, well, let me tell you the story of the last few years.”
Biblical scholars and Christian historians love to debate Paul. He is someone you either love or you hate. But there is something nearly all scholars agree on – his letter to the Roman church is the most mature of his writings. By that I mean, or the scholars teach, this letter is evidence of Paul’s deepening and more discerning faith. Some of the fire of his early ministry has flashed away, and what remains are the teachings of a man deeply committed to the teachings of Jesus and the spread of the Gospel, and a man who now understands that a true and lasting faith isn’t one steeped in yelling or arguing with the so-called opposition. Faith is more subtle, more fluid, and, inexplicably, sturdier whenever allowed to move on its own. In this letter Paul is articulating an understanding of God that has moved beyond some of the rigidity of his early beliefs. His lived experience is evident in his words, ‘hope does not disappoint.’
I have no trouble believing that Paul, and likely Jesus even, heard fairly frequently from the people around them, “everything is horrible and the weather is too hot.” To be honest, it is not hard for me to imagine Paul and Jesus muttering that a time or two as well. Which is why it is such a gift that we have the Gospels and in there find the teachings of Jesus. And the letters of Paul, whether we like him or not, who give us a way of interpreting those teachings. The message we can find in both, the message we can find throughout history and the Christian faith, the message we can glean from the lived experiences of people like Yamileth – is hope does not disappoint. Yes, it is an active noun like struggle – hope, true hope, is not simply wishful thinking. Hope takes energy and courage. But hope does not disappoint.
In a world where everything is horrible and the weather keeps getting hotter, hope does not disappoint. In a world of breaking foundations and a genuine wondering if kindness and wisdom still matter – hope does not disappoint. In today’s world with its divisions and violence and fear and pandemic and anger – hope does not disappoint.
I hear more and more the question being asked, “why are you still a Christian?” This question, I have noticed, often comes from those whose idea of faith in God begins and ends with idle wishful thinking. An immature idea of what faith can do. My answer to that question is simple, I am still a Christian because the strength I have for tomorrow is held in the knowledge that I am, we are, Easter people. And alleluia is our cry. We are people of resurrection, not crucifixion. Of life, not death. Of suffering turned into hope.
I have one more quick story, again one you may have heard before but still bears repeating. The story belongs to a friend, incidentally a friend who was with me in Nicaragua. As a children and youth minister, she was spending the evening with the young people of her church. They were playing games in the fellowship hall of their building, which was in the windowless basement while a storm raged outside. There was a loud crack of lightning and the power in the building went out – leaving the children in pitch dark in that church basement. Frantic, my friend tried to keep the kids calm as she groped in the dark for a flashlight. But, as the children whimpered, a glow appeared in the center of the room – and in the center of that glow was a little girl, dancing with all her heart. On her feet were those shoes once incredibly popular with kids that light up at each step. “If we keep dancing,” this young prophet exclaimed, “the light will never go out.” And soon the children were dancing in that dark room, filling it with the glow of their active hope.
“As long as we keep dancing, the light will never go out.” That is what it means to be an Easter people and to shout alleluia. It is to dance in the darkness, to hope as a response to suffering. To allow the light and life of the Holy Spirit erase even the darkest shadows. It is who we are as Christians and is where Christ is leading us if we are willing to follow.
God of Hope, we come before you in prayer knowing you do not remove obstacles from our paths, but rather give us the strength we need to overcome them. You point us on a journey that leads to your Kingdom and provide for the source of hope we need to take each step, even if we don’t know where it will lead. For this constant and reassuring presence in our lives, we give our great thanks, and it is in this gratitude that we now offer our prayers.
We know, God, for far too many the idea of hope seems naïve or beyond reach. For those who have been stuck too long in cynicism, who have become too comfortable in their anger, or who have decided that apathy is easier – we offer our prayers for their spirits to be enlivened and their lives to be rekindled. And, when it is us who have become cynical, angry, or apathetic, we ask for a reminder of what it means to cry alleluia.
One of the great acts of hope we have is to pray for ourselves and the world around us. So, now in these moments of silence, we turn over to you the prayers of our hearts, seeking to add your strength to ours as we carry them…
God of great and good love, you are the source of what was and is and is yet to come. As we move through this world around us, be with us always. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who taught us to dance in the darkness. And we raise our voices together in the way he taught by saying…Our Father…