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To Have Hope

Thomas J Parlette

“To Have Hope”

Romans 15: 4-13

12/4/16

 

Here’s an interesting concept. Imagine going to a library seeking information, but instead of checking out a book, you check out a person. That’s the idea behind a project called “The Human Library Project” – you can read more about it at HumanLibrary.org.

A Human Library is a place where real people are on loan to the library users. Those real people, because of the facts of their lives, represent categories such as Muslim, bipolar, single young mother, unemployed, HIV victim, soldier with post traumatic stress disorder, homeless, alcoholic, ADHD and so forth.

They are typically available at a scheduled event that might run for several hours over one or more days. Borrowers go to the event and something they would like to know more about. The human book then sits down for 30 minutes or so with the borrower and shares his or her story, and the borrower gets to ask questions.

Want to know what it’s like to be a refugee? There’s likely a refugee in the Human Library ready to explain that experience to you, along with any number of other people with all sorts of experience.

The first occurrence of the Human Library was in Denmark in the spring of 2000. One of the main concerns of the creators of the first Human Library was what would happen if people didn’t get the point of it? Or if the audience just simply did not want to challenged on their prejudices?

Well, given that there were a total of 75 books available, the conclusion was that with so many different people together in a rather small space for a long time, then they are bound to start reading each other even if no one else showed up.

And that’s exactly what happened. Before the first borrower even showed up, the talks were already going on extensively and the feeling of something very special was in the air. The policeman sitting there talking to a street grafitti artist. The politician in discussions with the youth activist and the football fan in a deep chat with the feminist. It was a win-win situation and has been ever since.

That first human library ran for four days straight in Copenhagen and offered some 75 “titles”, chosen to inform and to challenge stereotypes. More than 1000 “readers” showed up, leaving the organizers stunned at the impact of the project.

The idea has since jumped the Danish borders, and Human Library events have now happened on every continent but Antarctica. At a Human Library happening in Rochester, New York, for example, borrowers got to hear from a Vietnam vet, a martial artist, a British butler and a person who had been paralyzed in a car accident, among others.(1)

The Human Library Project sounds like a great way to build empathy in our communities, encouraging a deep appreciation for another’s situation and point of view, to see and hear what others experience. This type of one-on-one contact is a great way to do what Paul talks about this morning in Romans when he says, “Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you.” The Human Library Project offers a hopeful way forward through the prejudice, racism and fear that divides our country and our world.

Hope – that is the theme here at the end of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Through the first 11 chapters, Paul has shown how God’s promises, originally made to the Israelites, is now open to all – Jew and Gentile alike – because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He has spent 11 chapters showing how this works theologically. Now, in the last few chapters, Paul moves on to explaining how this affects the way the Christian community, especially in Rome, should live together. They should live with both hope and hospitality.

He begins by urging the Christian community that they find in the scriptures – that is of course, the Hebrew Scriptures that we call the Old Testament – the encouragement that will produce hope. Paul closes with one of his most well-known benedictions – “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing – so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Hope can be an illusive thing. For many of us, hope may be something of a court of last resort. It is what we do after all our planning and preparing is done. It is what we do if we can not fix whatever the problem is. We do everything we can think of – then we cross our fingers and hope for the best.

For others, hope is buying a lottery ticket or going to a casino. It is imagining that there is some force in the universe that will come to our rescue and give us what we think we want. We may call this “luck” or “fate” or “chance.” What it is, it depends on the random event that falls our way and that just maybe will change our lives for the better.

But neither of those meanings fits with Paul’s intention in this passage. For Paul, “hope” is more like “trust.” The ground for hope is neither the last resort or random chance. The ground for hope is God – the God of steadfastness and encouragement, the God of hope. Because God is the guarantor of whatever is promised, the believer may live with complete confidence. What God has said, is what will be.(2) Hope is not our last resort – hope is our starting point. Everything we do begins with hope.

Paul urges us to show this hope, this confidence, this trust in God’s promises by welcoming one another, by showing respect, practicing empathy and offering hospitality. He reminds us of God’s promises by referring back to the Hebrew scriptures three different times:

“I will confess you among the Gentiles and sing praises to your name.”

Again – “Rejoice O Gentiles… with God’s people.”

And yet again – “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him.”

These are God’s promises – welcome one another.

Then Paul hearkens back to the great prophet Isaiah to bring us back to hope:

“The root of Jesse shall come.”

“The one who rises to rule the Gentiles;”

“in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

Advent is, first and foremost, a time when we prepare ourselves for the hope that will soon come into the world to save us all – Jews and Gentiles alike.

But Advent is also a time of preparation for individuals as well. We prepare for Christ to come and break the power of darkness, death and sorrow in our lives. In Advent, we anticipate that day when our hope will come to fruition. As Phillip Brooks wrote in his wonderful hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

In London during World War II, Hitlers planes were bombing the city so heavily that in order to protect the children, the King of England ordered that the children be evacuated by train out into the surrounding countryside. Somebody asked one of the youngsters on the train, “Where are you going?”

The boy said, “I don’t know, but the King knows.”(3)

We could say the same thing. We don’t know what the future holds, but our King knows. This is the season of the year when we are reminded that this is God’s world. God is at work, and even though we may be surrounded by darkness, we know there is a light shining in the darkness that the darkness can not overcome. That is what it is to have hope in this Advent season.

Damon Runyon once wrote a charming story about a man he called Doc Brackett. Doc Brackett was a beloved old physician whose office was open to the poor and needy. He would get up in the middle of the coldest night and ride twenty miles to tend to the sick or the injured, even though many couldn’t afford to pay.

Everybody in town knew Doc Brackett’s office was over Rice’s clothing store. It was up a narrow flight of stairs. A sign at the foot of the stairs said: Dr Brackett, Office Upstairs.

Doc Brackett never married, never had kids of his own. The day he was supposed to get married he got a call to go out into the country and tend to a child from a Mexican family that had come over to work in the fields. His bride to be was so angry that she cancelled the wedding, the parents of the child were very grateful when their child recovered.

For forty years, the sick, the lame, the suffering had climbed up and down those stairs to Doc Brackett’s office. He never turned anyone away.

Doc Brackett lived into his seventies, and then one day he keeled over on the sofa in his office and died. He had one of the largest funerals ever in those parts. Everyone turned out. The town’s people wanted to erect a nice tombstone for the Doc, but they couldn’t agree on what it should be or what should be engraved on it. The matter just dragged along and nothing was done.

Then one day someone noticed that a proper epitaph had been placed at Doc Brackett’s grave. The parents of the Mexican child that Doc Brackett had saved many years ago had taken the sign from the foot of the stairs at Doc Brackett’s office and stuck it over his grave. Now he had a fitting epitaph. It read simply, Dr. Brackett: Office Upstairs.(4)

During this season of the year we pay homage to all the Doc Brackett’s of this world who have welcomed the people on the margins. In this Advent season, as we gather around the communion table, we do so with hope – hope that is based on everything God has done in the past. A hope that allows us to widen the circle of God’s love and welcome all God’s children. A hope that assures us that Christ is coming to dispel our darkness. A hope that enables us to look forward to our own office upstairs.

Come, Lord Jesus. Quickly come. Amen.

 

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 28, No. 6, p.41, 43.

2.    Cynthia M. Campbell, Feasting On the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p.38, 40

3.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, p.50

4.    Ibid… p.50-51.