Today, I want to talk to you about one of the wonderful words of life, hope. In Romans 8, St.Paul reminds us that hope belongs not to the present, “for who hopes for what is seen,” but hope dominates the future, and “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Here, as everywhere in Scripture, patient waiting does not mean we sit on our hands and wait for God or fortune to do something for us. It means that we work with God to accomplish what God wants to do in us, and through us, and for us.
It goes almost without saying that the Ancient Greek Philosophers were fascinated with hope. Everyone knows the story of Pandora. Mighty Zeus gave Pandora a mysterious and wonderful box with instructions never to open it. Of course, like any of us, Pandora was curious, so she threw caution to the wind and pried open the lid. Immediately she did, horrible things flew out of the box including greed, envy, hatred, pain, disease, hunger, poverty, war, and death. Pandora let loose all of life’s miseries on the world. Fortunately, so the story goes, she slammed the lid of the box close to trap the last thing that remained, hope.
Now, we all know this story to be just one of hundreds of myths that the Greeks used to explain their world. Many people think that a myth is no more than a fairy tale. That is not so. While the framework of a myth is pure fiction—every myth contains a core of irrefutable truth. The myth of Pandora reminds us of the irrefutable truth that without hope, we human beings would be crushed under the weight of the afflictions all too common to that brief interlude we call life.
In this world, life and hope are always intimately related. For instance, it was the Roman philosopher Cicero who lived just prior to the birth of Jesus who said, “For one who is sick, as long as there is life, there is hope.”
King David knew this. In 2nd Samuel 12, we read how the child that Bathsheba bore to David was sick. And for six days David prayed and fasted, and lay all night on the ground. And when his servants tried to get him to get up and take food, he refused. On the seventh day, the child died. And when his servants reluctantly gave him the news, David stood up, washed, anointed himself, changed his clothes, and went to the house of the LORD and worshiped. Then David went to his own house and broke his fast by eating.
And his servants said, “Your behavior is quite curious. While the child was alive you fasted and wept, then when he died, you arose and ate food.”
And David said:
“While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
Cicero and David both knew: “For one who is sick, as long as there’s life, there’s hope.” We, or someone we love, maybe desperately ill with time running out; but we can still hope and pray that there will be a better response to their treatment, or a new treatment, or maybe a miracle from God, or perhaps, the person who is ill we summon the courage, and grit, and will that they need to make a stand against the further progress of the disease. The choice is often up to us, we can see ourselves as living with a disease, or we can see ourselves as dying with a disease.
Cicero said, “For one who is sick, as long as there is life, there is hope.” The 16th-century English scholar Richard Taverner broadened the appeal of Cicero’s proverb by dropping the first clause. He simply said, “As long as there’s life, there’s hope.” Taverner knew that hope applied to many facets of life.
For generations, the United States has been a Mecca of hope for pilgrims from other lands. Every immigrant knows that not everyone in America is going attain the wealth and power of Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or Mary Bara; but they also know that everyone in America with a reasonable degree of intelligence who has not fried their brain on alcohol and drugs has the chance of a good public education. And everyone whose body has not been broken by accident, or disease, or neglect, or overindulgence, has the hope of a decent job with a regular wage.
Personally, I am glad that I had the opportunity to go to college and seminary; but I am equally proud that when I was in junior high school, I carried a paper route, cleaned and waxed cars, and mowed yards to make spending money. And when I was in high school, I worked three or four hours three nights a week at Frozen Food Portion Pack loading and unloading trucks, stacking heavy cases of 6/10 cans in a warehouse, and thirty-pound boxes of French Fries in a freezer. . And after I graduated from high school, I spent my college summers digging ditches ten hours a day in the summer heat for a month or more until I was called into R.J. Reynolds to hang trays. And when I graduated from college, I went to Quantico where I survived 12 weeks of basic training, and then six months of the Tactical Basic School. I am thankful that I had the health to do these jobs, and I am equally thankful that I did not have to do them for the rest of my life.
Some people are not so lucky. Millions upon millions of people all around the world would give anything if they only had a chance at what you and I think of as a menial job. Let’s zero in our own nation, for there are people around us who feel the same. Suppose that one of your neighbors just lost his job. His credit cards are maxed out and the bank has already repossessed his car. Without a job, he does not have the money to make his next mortgage payment. In short, he is impoverished. In the first year of his catastrophe, people like your imaginary neighbor have a 56% chance of climbing back out of the poverty into which they have fallen. That is better than an even chance. Unfortunately, the chances of climbing back out of poverty decline with each passing year. After seven years, an individual has only a 13% chance of climbing out of the poverty into which they have fallen.
Generational poverty is still more difficult to escape. Yet, within just a few short miles of this church adults with children are living in the same public housing that they lived in when they were children. Can you imagine what it is like to live in Winston-Salem—and watch all the new cars drive up and down Reynolda Road, and watch all the affluence of Daytime TV, or the Hallmark Channel, all the while knowing that such affluence will never be yours? Last night I watched a Christmas movie on Hallmark, and every house I saw cost a million dollars or more. And the little community had as much invested in Christmas decorations as some smaller nations invest in their national defense.
When trapped in generational poverty, people react in different ways. Some say, “I am tired of working in a fast-food restaurant.”
“The system is against me, so I am going to be against the system. I am going to sell drugs, or sell my body, or sell my soul, or do whatever it is I have to do to live a better life.”
Others resort to fantasy and false hopes. I know a man who always enters the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes and buys lottery tickets every time he buys gas. In all the years he has played the lottery he has invested thousands of dollars. He has won a hundred dollars or more just one time, and his hobby keeps him in the red. I know that the Bible never condemns gambling, but I have personally never bought a lottery ticket and consider the various lotteries the diminishing of the American Dream. More than that, the lottery itself is a pipe dream. For instance, did you know that the odds of winning a Powerball jackpot — no matter the size — stands at about 1 in 292 million? And the chances of taking home the Mega Millions’ top prize are even lower, at about 1 in 302 million.
Some young men and women trapped in poverty think they are pretty good at high school sports, so they convince themselves that they have what it takes to play in college and maybe even become a professional. According to the NCAA, a really good high school baseball player has about a 2% chance of playing Division I college baseball. And a really good high school basketball player has about a 1% chance of playing Division I college basketball. And only about 2% of those who play a sport in college go on to play in the pros.
How much better to be like Charlie Schultz who grew up living over his daddy’s barber shop? As a young child, he was the youngest in his class and not a very good student. The only thing he was good at was drawing, and his teachers downplayed that. When he was not yet a teenager he saw an advertisement in the back of a comic book with a picture of a pretty girl and a caption that read, “Make big bucks as an artist! Draw this and win a free scholarship to art school.” He entered the contest. He did not win a scholarship. But when a representative of the school called on him and his family, they decided it was worth a gamble. He went on to graduate from high school and from art school. He went into the service, then he came home to become a teacher in the same art school. You know him better for his comic strip, once called Little Folks. It features little kids with big heads, no grown-ups, and a dog that lives in a dog house with a jacuzzi and a pool table, that doubled as a Sopwith Camel. The strip is better known as Peanuts, and the artist is Charles Schultz. And back in the 1960s, he made $4,000.00 a day when that was real money. Later he made more, a lot more. Near the end of his life, the man that helped us better understand ourselves, Charles Schultz was asked what he wanted to be remembered for. He said, “I want to be remembered as doing the best I had with what I had.”
I once knew a woman whose father was murdered when she was just a child. She dropped out of school in 4th grade to move with her mother from Easley, South Carolina to Graham, North Carolina. In Graham, she worked at odd jobs until at the age of 16 when she married a man, who was already 29 years old. She had her first child when she was 17. She had six children. She worked long hard hours so that those children could have a better life. Two of the six became the valedictorians of their respective high school classes. Another had a thirty-year career in the Air Force. Another took a job at Western Electric and won two $5,000.00 maximum efficiency awards for making suggestions that improved production. Another married well, worked hard, lived a comfortable life, and saw both her children start successful businesses. The youngest child, a girl was known as a great beauty. She lived a life of travel and adventure that I will always envy. She remains one of my heroes.
My grandmother is the embodiment of St. Paul’s admonition that “children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children.” Sometimes a young person with vision can buckle down and beat the odds. Sometimes, it takes the sacrifice of one generation to help future generations out of poverty, and on up the ladder that leads to success.
Like most of you, I like to think that I would do “anything necessary,” to better my situation in life, and that of my family after me. I like to think I would take the advice of the late Tom Pleasants who called me to his bed, as he lay dying and said, “Worth, never give up, never give up, never give up.”
General Hanson Ely was American General in the First World War. As the War reached its most critical stage, his division had been decimated. Yet, he had to order his troops back into battle. He told his commanders that battles and wars are won by remnants. He said;
“It is the last five percent of the possible exertion that wins the battle… battles are won by remnants, remnants of divisions, regiments, battalions and companies, remnants of unity, remnants of material, remnants of morale, remnants of intellectual effort, remnants of physical strength.”
The same thing is true in life. Often times it is the last five percent of our effort—that helps us realized the hope that we have held for years and years. Democritus a Greek philosopher who lived before Socrates and Plato said long before Jesus Christ said, “The hopes of the (foolish) are impossible—but the hopes of those who think rightly are attainable.”
The problem is knowing what kind of hopes are false hopes—and what kinds of hopes are genuine and achievable. Even for Christians—this is not always easy, and that is why there has to be a second sermon on Hope.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.