(Sermon for November 15, 2009 ||Proper 28, Year B, RCL || 1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-25)
Inigo Montoya, the Spanish hired sword who helped kidnap Princess Buttercup, is losing his duel with the Man in Black. The fight has ranged all over the rocky terrain at the precipice of the Cliffs of Insanity. The two swordsmen had both begun left-handed, but have switched to their dominant hands when they recognized the masterful fencing of the other. Thrust. Parry. Riposte. The Man in Black acrobatically flips off the ruins. Inigo stares at him, clearly amazed: “Who are you?” he asks.
“I must know,” pleads the Spaniard.
“Get used to disappointment.”
The fight continues, only to end a minute later with an increasingly flustered Inigo receiving a knock to the back of the head. And the Man in Black sprints off to track down the title character of The Princess Bride.
Get used to disappointment. Sounds like quite sensible advice. Sounds like the Man in Black has been around the block a few times. Sounds like he knows something about the ways of the world. However, this worldly wisdom is often counterproductive to a life of faith. The Letter to the Hebrews urges us this morning to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” In a world that teaches us to “get used to disappointment,” holding fast to our hope can be so very difficult.
Our inoculation begins at an early age. Children enter life with bright, wide eyes and unbounded, unfettered imaginations. Every couch cushion is a stone in a castle under siege by the invading hordes who desire nothing more than to pillage your kingdom. Every bath is a deep-sea expedition to find the lost city of Atlantis. Every day is another chance to see a unicorn. But before long, we start getting used to disappointment. We are told that couch cushions are for sitting, baths are for bathing, and there’s no such thing as unicorns.
I remember my mother shouting: “Young man, there are no dinosaur bones in the backyard. Stop digging up my flowerbeds.” But what she didn’t know was that my imagination was equipped with ground-penetrating sonar and that there was an intact velociraptor skeleton just underneath the gardenias. It was the find of the century. Any moment, Richard Attenborough was going to land in a helicopter and whisk me off to Jurassic Park. (I don’t mean to rag on my mother – she always cultivated her children’s imaginations as long as we left her flowers alone.)
But in the grand scheme of things, from the moment we are born, our imaginations do nothing but shrink as our understanding of so-called reality grows. Only a few people make it to the major leagues or become astronauts or famous singers. But children always start out dreaming about these things. Do you know anyone at age six who wanted to be a CPA?
As we get used to disappointment, our ability to imagine new worlds wanes. The trouble is that hope exists in the imagination’s ability to frustrate the enclosing nature of the so-called “real” world. We are made in the image of God; therefore, our imagination connects us to the creative spark of our Creator within each of us. And hope resides in this spark. As mounting disappointment attempts to snuff out our imaginations, we encounter great difficulty in accessing the hope, which our Creator installed in us.
In this morning’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, Hannah has gotten used to disappointment. She has no children, and her husband’s other, very fertile wife, provokes her on this account. Every year, when the family goes up to the house of the Lord to sacrifice, Hannah weeps and does not eat because of her situation, which is made all the more humiliating by Penninah’s taunting.
But Hannah does not let her disappointment snuff out the hope she has in the Lord. Hannah goes to the temple and asks God to remember her. She pours out her soul before the Lord. She prays so fervently that Eli, the priest, supposes she’s drunk. But no: Hannah is only anxious and vexed. She still believes that God continues to be present in her life, despite the worthlessness, which the world tells her she should be feeling. Hannah combats her own disappointment with the hope that she still has in God to act in her life. Soon God remembers Hannah. She bears a son named Samuel, and he grows up to be the prophet of the Lord.
Hannah’s devotion and perseverance serve as a model for the words of the Letter to the Hebrews. Hannah approaches God “with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” And she “hold[s] fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” for she knows that “he who has promised is faithful.”
We, too, hold fast to the confession of our hope because he who has promised is faithful. Too often, we think that our faith in God needs to sustain us. We think that if we had been just a bit more faith, everything would turn out the way we want and there’d be no more disappointment. But our faith is a wavering, sporadic thing. If we had to feed on our faith alone, we would have starved long ago.
But Hebrews urges us to reorient our understanding of faith. Our wavering, sporadic faith in God pales in comparison with the ultimate reality that God is the faithful One. God keeps God’s promises. God is the rock upon which our disappointments shatter. We do not manufacture our faith. Faith is not self-centered. Faith is God-centered, and God invites us to step into the reality where our faith is as constant as God’s. The confession of our hope proclaims that this reality exists and that we will encounter its utter joy when we finally and fully enter God’s eternal presence.
We believe that this happens in the power of the resurrection when we pass from life through death to new life. But the confession of our hope does not merely cast our thoughts to the life beyond death. Remember, hope exists in the imagination’s ability to frustrate the enclosing nature of the so-called “real” world. This real world is full of disappointments, but it doesn’t have to be. While we may never find the lost city of Atlantis or see a unicorn, concrete disappointments, which may be better termed “crises,” abound in our world.
But God has blessed us with hope-fueled imaginations. God has blessed us with the mission, as Hebrews says, “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” God has blessed us with the resources to feed and clothe everyone in this world. We must only provide the will. We must only get over our own disappointments and harness the hope that God’s own faith makes real in our lives.
When we were children, the magical words “Once upon a time” lost their luster when we heard their counterparts: “Sweetheart, it’s only make-believe.” But I say to you that we have the opportunity, we have the imagination, we have the will to change this world for the better. Because God keeps God’s promises, we are able to keep our promises. We are able to make a difference in people’s lives. We are able because God’s own faithfulness makes us believe.