“I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not your harm, to give you a future with hope.”
When the last days come, St. Paul tells us, a “trumpet will sound.” Some fear it will happen on Friday when the new President of the United States is inaugurated and blows his own trumpet. Certainly, for those who elected him it will be a time of great expectation, but for many others, it will usher in a time uncertainty and fear for the future in America and world-wide. The Christian response must be defiant hope. This is not the end of the world, so we we will not fear, be seduced by false promises, perpetuate racism, or give way to hatred..
Imagine this morning that we are not in Washington DC, but in Babylon where God’s people are in exile long before the birth of Christ. Imagine how they felt as aliens in that foreign land far from home with little chance of returning. They had lost all hope and even found it difficult to sing songs of praise. It is in that situation that Jeremiah tells them that the Lord has plans for them, plans for good and not ill. He promises them “a future with hope.” Jeremiah was defying the odds. Things did not look good at all, and there was to be no immediate relief. Jeremiah did not promise a quick fix, but his words gave the exiles courage, a “a hope that is against hope” as St. Paul calls it.
Jeremiah proclaimed hope in a time not unlike our own when there is so much uncertainty and anxiety in the world, as well as in our own hearts and minds, irrespective of where we live. It is a time of uncertainty and anxiety for peoples and nations across the globe, for millions of refugees and others suffering from war and famine. It is a time of uncertainty and anxiety for young people as they seek a better education or, having received one, cannot find employment and are losing hope. And it is a time of uncertainty and anxiety for friends and family members whose lives are falling apart, some seriously ill, some diagnosed with cancer, and some facing imminent death.
Every day here at Volmoed we counsel and pray for people who are going through such times. But over the past few weeks we have been praying especially for a close family friend, and also a friend of Volmoed, who was suddenly diagnosed with a severe form of cancer a few weeks ago. Suellen Shay is the daughter of Carolyn Butler who comes here often and is known to several of you. Suellen herself is the godmother of our grandchildren, a Faculty Dean at the University of Cape Town, a leader at the Rondebosch United Church, and she was with me the day I went to the place where our son Steve drowned in the Mooi River seven years ago. Yesterday Isobel and I, along with other friends of the Shay family, received a letter from Suellen and Don her husband. They wrote it from the Vincent Palotti hospital in Cape Town. I take the liberty of reading a section.
… many of you have asked if there is something you can do to be helpful. So here’s an idea… I propose some tangible act that would daily remind us, whether one is spiritual or not it doesn’t matter, that we are part of something that is collectively ‘greater than the sum of the parts’. Hope can activate this. So my idea is to ask anyone who wishes to, to daily light a candle of hope – hope for me and my recovery but for anything else for which you seek hope — hope for UCT’s restoration, hope for South Africa, hope for …. there is plenty of material. It is this hope that will protect us from being people of despair and cynicism and most of all fear.
For the past twelve years we have lit a candle in the sanctuary every Tuesday at Morning Prayer. We called it the HIV candle because on Tuesdays, when we have prayed for the healing of the sick, we remember those suffering from HIV/AIDS. Increasingly that prayer has enlarged to include those suffering from other virulent diseases, and increasingly on those with cancer which seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. But in response to Suellen and Don Shay’s letter we have decided to rename the candle the “candle of hope”. We will light it every day as we do today during this Eucharist.
If you look at the candlestick you may see that it represents a pregnant woman, and specifically a pregnant African woman carrying, as they often do, something on her head. Usually what they carry is a heavy burden, a large basket of food from the market, or some other load. But as shown in this candlestick she is carrying a lit candle as a symbol of hope, hope for the child she is carrying within her, hope for her family, hope for the world. It is no longer simply a candlestick reminding us of those who are suffering from some frightful disease; it has become a symbol of “a future with hope” for all who suffer, all who are afraid, all who struggle for a better world, and for the next generation who will inherit what we leave them.
Such hope is more than cheerful optimism; it is a refusal to go along with anything that will make this world a worse place than it is, a defiant action that bucks the trend of self-interest, greed, and the misuse of power. It is a response that lifts us out of resignation to fate, and commits us to making a difference, to care, to show compassion, to work for justice. It is a refusal to believe that life is meaningless, and an affirmation that we live, move and have our being in a mystery of grace that is beyond our wildest dreams, one that transcends death This is the hope that Suellen and Don ask us to affirm in lighting the “hope candle.” “This hope”, they wrote, “will protect us from being people of despair and cynicism and most of all fear…it will translate to vigilance, courage, and maybe action. It will make a difference.” It is the hope that we have in Jesus the Christa, who is our hope and has the power, to save the world. I don’t know what Trump or Zuma will do this year, But Jeremiah tells us that the Lord will ” give us a future with hope.” That is a promise to hold on to in a time like this. We won’t surrender hope no matter how many trumpets blow of who blows them.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 19 January 2017