Hope in the Midst of Despair – A Homily

My homily from our noon service today can be heard on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.

“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.  After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God.  I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.”  We’ve all heard these words before; many of us more often than we’d like.  This variation on our lesson from Job makes up the second paragraph of the Processional Anthem in the burial office.  They are meant to be words of comfort, words of hope, words of strength.  They are to be read as a certainty: I know that my Redeemer lives; he will raise me up; I shall see God; my friend and not a stranger.

When I was in seminary, I was appalled by many things, not least of which was the strong sense of denominational superiority that pervaded all of seminary life.  Everybody was so sure that Episcopalians were right, meet and right as the old saying goes, especially in our liturgy.  They looked down upon those faithful professors, ordained in a different tradition, when they attempted to offer their style of worship in the chapel.  Being something of a denominational journeyman: baptized Roman Catholic, confirmed Episcopalian, born again in a non-denominational youth group, and married in the Presbyterian Church; I simply couldn’t buy that Episcopalians had it all right.  Except for one place, a place that became supremely important in the midst of my seminary experience: the burial office.  If we were to take one service from each denomination to make a pan-Christian Church, I’m convinced that the best thing The Episcopal Church has to offer is our funeral liturgy, especially that opening anthem, cobbled together from John, Job, and Timothy by Archbishop Cranmer in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.

It is that portion from Job that I think speaks so clearly to the hope of the resurrection.  Job does not speak these words in isolation; he doesn’t just utter them out of thin air.  Instead, they come at the climax of his pain.  In the midst of his back and forth with friends, Job realizes the depth of his sadness[1]:

Job 19:10-19 God breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, he has uprooted my hope like a tree.  11 He has kindled his wrath against me, and counts me as his adversary.  12 His troops come on together; they have thrown up siegeworks against me, and encamp around my tent.  13 “He has put my family far from me, and my acquaintances are wholly estranged from me.  14 My relatives and my close friends have failed me;  15 the guests in my house have forgotten me; my serving girls count me as a stranger; I have become an alien in their eyes.  16 I call to my servant, but he gives me no answer; I must myself plead with him.  17 My breath is repulsive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own family.  18 Even young children despise me; when I rise, they talk against me.  19 All my intimate friends abhor me, and those whom I loved have turned against me.

And he realized that his friends, like God, have been the source of his torment.  Job is at the bottom of the pit: feeling totally alone and rejected by family, friends, and even God, when he says, “I know that my redeemer lives…”  See, this passage assumes that there will be tough times, but even in the pit of despair, hope remains.  God is present, even in the midst of sadness, hardship, and death.  As the burial office says later, “even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”  These are ancient words: words of comfort and hope; words that span across history because of their truth.  There will be hardship, but God will be there.  Amen.

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