A Year of Hope

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 4 January 2015

You’ve probably heard the story of Pandora’s box, which was really Pandora’s jar.  What a complicated mess, this Greek myth, which has several versions.  It all starts with fire, an appropriate place to begin on this day of our fire communion.  First Zeus, the ruler of all gods, becomes angry at humans.  Who knows why?  They are all men at the time.  He takes away their ability to use fire so that they can’t cook or warm themselves.   So, Prometheus, a mortal man and a trickster, manages to steal fire back from the gods.  Zeus famously punishes Prometheus by chaining him to a rock.  Then he decides that it really isn’t fair to leave poor Prometheus alone in his punishment.  Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus, whom we all seem to have forgotten about, must be punished too.

Zeus devises a diabolical plan.  He arranges the creation of the first human woman out of a heap of clay.  The goddess, Athene, breathes life into her.  Aphrodite makes her beautiful.  Hermes gives her the gift of charm and deceit (or cunning).  Zeus names her Pandora, which means “all gifted.” She’s sent as a gift to Epimetheus who falls in love with her and marries her.  Zeus gives the couple a wedding gift, a beautiful jar with a lid, along with the instructions that they must never, ever open the jar.

Isn’t this interesting?  A woman made from clay.  A forbidden instruction that, of course, becomes a dare.  “Go ahead, just try to defy me and open it.”  Sounds familiar … a bit like Adam and Eve, only the Greek myth predates the Genesis story.  By how long, I can’t say for sure.  Just as Zeus had predicted, Pandora can’t restrain herself.  She opens the jar and everything that is evil and harmful to humanity escapes into the world.  Only one thing remains in the jar, and that is “hope.”

Now, one version of the story sees hope as having a healing power.  Pandora, wounded by the evils of the world released as stinging moths, is gently healed by hope, the last creature in the jar. Of course, this version of the story is really an interpretation with a positive embellishment tacked onto the end.  But in the original myth, we don’t really know what happens.  Is hope freed to help humans cope with the evils of the world? Or is hope trapped forever in the jar, making life truly hopeless? Is hope the worst torment that Zeus could possibly have bestowed upon humans?

This is basically what philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argues. Humans suffer, but hope keeps them from giving up and so their torment and torture is prolonged, much to Zeus’ delight.  If that’s the case, then we are in for one very long and bleak month as we explore what it means to seek a life of hope.

That’s what I love about these monthly themes.  These words and concepts are never as simple as they appear.  Who knew that talking about living a life of story would get us thinking about our own stories in such deep ways.  Those of you who are in Exploration Groups know what I am talking about.  Many of us thought that last month would have been the least interesting of the themes to date. Yet when we delved in, what we discovered was rich.  Several people told me that last month’s theme made them realize that they needed to change the story they had been telling themselves.  They needed to see themselves as loved and loveable, as fortunate and blessed.  They needed to let go of the old stories that told them otherwise. “Yes!”, I said to myself.  This is why we are here.  This is the ministry we share. Those were luminous, hope-filled moments, a perfect transition to this month.

So, now we’re talking about hope.  When I first thought about it, I wondered if there could be any real challenge or real bite in this month’s theme.  Hope is about being positive, right?  We should all smile more and think on the bright side.  But with hope potentially trapped inside Pandora’s box (or jar), we have to ask ourselves to seriously consider what hope means. And here’s the big question that I’m asking myself this month: Is there a difference between optimism and hope?  

Do you remember when, several years ago, I spoke about journalist Barbara Ehrenreich and her book Bright Sided?  When she was diagnosed with cancer, she received nothing but positive affirmations from her family and friends.  Think positively, she was told.  Embrace your illness as a gift.  She wondered why it wasn’t okay to be negative.  The more she looked into it, the more she decided that modern Western culture had put too much of a premium on the positive, much to our detriment.  Everyone had to be a team player.  No one could pose questions.  Everyone was supposed to buy into happiness, until it all blew up in our faces with a worldwide financial crisis.

She says it all began when radical thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson came to reject the bleakness of Calvinism in the nineteenth century.  Trained as a Unitarian minister, Emerson left his post at a church in Boston in 1832 to become the most influential voice of the Transcendentalists.  It was a movement that revitalized our Unitarian movement, and still resonates with many of us today.  

The transcendentalists were the great optimists, whose view of humanity couldn’t have contrasted more with Zeus’ vision of humanity or the vision of any other punishing god.  The transcendentalists saw love and faith as one.  They believed that we could each grow beautiful souls if we had the right elements of sunlight, pure flowing water and good earth.  Emerson and others broke the mould that saw humanity as deeply flawed.  They opened the door to a positive, optimistic and hopeful faith.

Ehrenreich argued that these ideas were co-opted.  She said that “positive thinking” became harnessed by twentieth century consumer capitalism.  “Buy, buy, buy,” was the message.  “You deserve it. Consume and you will be happy.  You’ll feel better about yourself.”

I agree with her.  But I’d like to say that she’s really talking about optimism and not hope.  I keep thinking of other people I have known who, like Ehrenreich, have been diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness.  There is this fine line between being blindly optimistic about surviving a terrible diagnosis and living with hope while facing the challenges of a debilitating disease.  I’ve seen optimism lead to devastating disappointment, while I’ve seen hope lead to realistic courage.

A few years ago, after the terrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, when so many school children were shot and killed by a very ill young man, educator David Henderson wrote a beautiful essay reflecting on the difference between hope and optimism. “How can you ask school leaders to be optimistic given the realities that they face?” he wonders.

Today we could ask the same question as we think about the children who were gunned down last month in a school in Pakistan.  How can you go on as a teacher, as a parent, as a human being in a world where such evil things can happen?

There are so many examples that I could list, from illness to wars to the environment.  We could easily overwhelm ourselves with hopelessness right now.  “Thanks, Diane,” you’d say to me after the service.  “What a great way to start the New Year…”  So I’ll restrain myself.  But you know what I’m talking about.

David Henderson answers his own question by saying that optimism isn’t something that “any leader, or any person for that matter, should model for their followers or for the safety or sanity of their own hearts and minds.  For the truth is, poverty — fiscal and spiritual — will never go away.  Tragedies… will not stop happening.”  He writes:

“Optimism claims everything will be all right despite reality.  Hope accepts reality, the poverty of spirit that underlies all fear, instigates all tragedies, bureaucracy and institutional inertia.  But hope has a trump card — the capacity of the human heart.  When optimism gets ground up by reality, hope will go toe-to-toe with reality because of a heart that simply refuses to quit.  And there is no reality that can overcome the capacity of the human heart to withstand and even to ask boldly, ‘Is that all you got? Is that the best you can do?  My heart and the hearts of these people here with me are way bigger than that.’  …This is the basis for hope.

“Optimism depends on the world’s dark realities relenting — they will not.  Optimism requires externals to work themselves out — they will not.  Hope, on the other hand, doesn’t ignore external realities; it simply knows the human heart’s capacity to withstand those realities, and it trusts in the inexhaustible power of our hearts to choose love over fear.”

I think of Emerson and his seemingly optimistic view of the world.  In truth, he was a realist who had a reverence for life and an obsession with death.  He had lived through great sorrow having lost his first wife and his eldest son.  He knew what it meant to live with hope despite the realities of life.  He knew that hope was never imprisoned.  It was something that enabled you to still see what was beautiful within humanity, despite our weaknesses.

For whatever reason, Pandora’s jar was opened.  There are things that happen in this world and in our lives that seem so unfair, so wrong, things that we may dream of changing but that we may never be able to undo or remove.  Still, we ask of each other to give all that we have, to let our hearts be bigger than our fears.  This is what I have learned from so many of you.

So may this be a year of hope;  realistic hope that neither takes for granted what is good nor accepts what is bad, but moves beyond regret to something more.  May your burdens be lighter now that you have sent your regrets from 2014 up in smoke.  May the fire of hope burn brightly in your hearts for 2015.

Happy New Year!

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