Hope Abides (Sermon)

On Sunday, March 12, 2023, I led a worship service called “The Darkness May Linger, But Hope Abides.” The theme of the service was to honestly lament all that we’d lost over the last three years in the COVID-19 pandemic, and also to proclaim the hope that God provides. This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached.

This sermon will be in two parts. First, we’ll acknowledge together where we are, what the pandemic has done to us. And second, we’ll look at how scripture might be a source of hope for us in a time like this.

First, where we are. Of course to describe where we are, we have to start three years ago. Three years ago, on March 12, 2020, we were all getting really nervous. The news was all about one thing: the coronavirus that was spreading more and more. The number of people who were ill. The number of people who were hospitalized. The number of people who were dying. Three years ago this week, on March 14, Governor Wolf joined the leaders of every state and so many nations in calling for a lockdown. Schools were closed. Businesses were shuttered. Churches went online.

Three years ago. I thought it would last two, maybe three weeks. Perhaps we all thought that. It would just be a quick hiccup. We’d all hunker down at home for a bit, and then the virus would burn itself out. We’d be back to normal by Easter. Okay, maybe Pentecost. Okay, maybe the fall. We started to wonder: When, Lord, when?

As the months went on, we all started to see that this was not going to end quickly. Even as things began to open up again, it wasn’t the same. Masks. Social distancing. And oh, so much politics. Some people hoped that since we were all in this together, perhaps all Americans would come together – we’d put our differences aside and just work through this together. Oh no, that’s not at all what happened.

And even now, three years on, through vaccines and mutations and so much more, even now it lingers. The past three years blur together. Some of us have suffered more than others. Some of us contracted the virus, and some haven’t. For some who got sick, it was a mild case, and for others it was terrifyingly severe. Some of us found our experience of lockdown to be the worst part. I once heard someone say about the pandemic, “We’re not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.” This storm has been mighty. It has been slow, but it has been mighty. And for many, it’s been a trauma that played out very slowly.

I don’t use the word trauma lightly. When we think of trauma, we usually think of a terrible snapshot moment: perhaps an instance of child abuse, or rape, or a wartime experience for a soldier. Those moments of trauma get burned into our brains differently than other memories, and they can stay with us forever. And it takes a lot of work, a lot of processing, to find a way to live with those memories. In some cases that processing that can only be done with a counselor or other professional.

I believe that for many of us, the lingering pandemic has been a trauma in slow-motion. There may not have been a snapshot moment, but it has acted on the same mechanisms in our brains and bodies. And just like any trauma, we can’t just move on from it easily. The only way forward is to work through it, to “do the work,” as they say in 12-step programs, and the amount and type of work we need to do is different for all of us.

Today’s service might be a part of your work to get through this. If it’s helpful, then I am glad. If this service offers you some hope and encouragement, then it’s done what I hoped it would do. For some of us, that might be enough, at least for now. And that’s alright. For others, it won’t be enough, and that’s alright too. There is no shame in needing more help. Reach out if you need help. Come talk to me or someone else you trust. In addition to pastoral conversation, I have a list of recommended counselors who might be able to help.

So much for where we are. Let’s pivot now to scripture, to look at how God can give us hope and comfort through the gift of the Bible. We’ll look through the four readings we just read.

The first reading is from the book of Lamentations. That book, for the most part, is exactly what its name implies, a book of lament, the people of Israel crying out to God for help when things were going terribly for them. But right in the middle of that, we find the gem that we heard today. In the midst of honestly proclaiming and lamenting their misery, the author writes this:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22 (NRSVUE)

The author of Lamentations doesn’t turn away from the suffering or pretend it’s not real. But even then, they proclaim that God’s love is steadfast and faithful.

The author of Psalm 13 cries out:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

Psalm 13:1

But then goes on to write:

But I trust in the your unfailing love.

Psalm 13:5

Like the author of Lamentations, the Psalmist knows and names their pain, but nonetheless calls to God, trusting that God is there and will come and console the people. And Paul takes this consolation one step further. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, he writes:

God consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.

2 Corinthians 1:4

Paul writes that not only will we be consoled, but also that we are called and enabled to share that with one another. For Paul, God’s steadfast compassion to us is a gift that we are then able to share.

And in the gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are in a boat when a great windstorm arises. The boat was being swamped, and the disciples were terrified. They woke Jesus up, and he immediately stopped the storm completely, and asked them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with awe and confusion.

Why are you afraid, Jesus asks them. Why are you afraid, Jesus might ask us. Why have we been so afraid, so anxious, so worried, so overwhelmed these past three years? Why haven’t we had the faith of the Israelites, of Paul? Why are we so much like the disciples in the boat, so confused, so worried, so terrified, even though Jesus is right there beside them? Right here beside us.

Why are we afraid? Because it’s who we are. That’s what human nature is like. And it’s what faith is like. Faith is not something that takes away the pain. Faith is not something that takes away the suffering. No. In fact, you have faith. You have plenty of faith. The very fact that you are attending a service like this, whether it’s here on site, or on YouTube, that means two things about you: first, you have experienced suffering in the past three years. And second, you have faith that God might just be able to make a difference in that suffering.

Faith is not certainty. Faith is not perfect. Faith is trust. Trust that clings to God when things are bad. Trust that clings to God and cries out, “Where are you? You promised!” Trust that clings to God and cries out, “Why can’t I get over this?” Trust that cries out, “God, I don’t know if you’re real or not, but if you are, come here and fix this!” If you have cried out to God, then you have faith. That’s faith. That’s the way faith talks in the midst of suffering.  

And faith gives us moments of peace amid the chaos. Moments of clarity amid the bewilderment. Moments of hope amid the despair. Moments of calm amid the storm. A life lived in faith means that we are going to go up and down. We are going to say like the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord? How long?” and yet we will also say with them, “I trust in your unfailing love.” We are going to lament our suffering like the author of Lamentations, yet we will also join in saying, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him.” We are going to be like the disciples in the boat, knowing on one level that Jesus is here, but still so scared and worried. And we will be like Paul, and in those moments when we receive consolation, we will be able to share it with others.

And slowly, over time, the chaos will rest. Slowly, over time, the fear will subside. And slowly, over time, the moments of consolation will get more and more frequent, and last longer and longer.

We will be whole. We will be comforted. We will have peace and hope. God promises that. God’s promises can be slow, but they are fulfilled. Every time.


Image by NoName_13 from Pixabay

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