24 August 2014 Fr. Joseph Britton
Proper 16 A Christ Church, New Haven
The Lord will comfort Zion; joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Is. 51)
Up the hill at Yale Divinity School, there is a framed drawing hanging outside the dean’s office of the Rev. Scot Sloan from Garry Trudeau’s well-known Doonesbury cartoon. Sloan was, of course, based on William Sloan Coffin, the fiery outspoken university chaplain of the 1960s and 70s, and in this drawing he is shown walking outside the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle.
Scrawled across the drawing of Sloan, in William Coffin’s own handwriting, are the words, “Lots of hope! – Bill”
This is freshman weekend at Yale, and it is perhaps fitting that as a new group of students arrive in this city to begin their studies, we should invoke the memory of Coffin, who consistently challenged both faculty and students to think about what they are up to in larger and more consequential terms. Speaking from Battell Chapel’s pulpit, he would thunder, “Socrates had in wrong. It is not the unexamined life that is not worth living, but the uncommitted life.” Or again, chiding the students for their fixation on success, he would remind them that, “you may win the rat race, but you’re still a rat.”
As we all know, Coffin took up some of the most difficult and challenging social issues of his day: nuclear disarmament, the anti-war movement, and the civil rights movement and campaign for gay rights. What really strikes me about Coffin, is that despite how intractable many of these issues seemed at the time, he was always full of hope. We might say that he was an Isaiah of his time: as Isaiah spoke words of hope to the people of Israel when they were exiled in Babylon (proclaiming that “joy and peace will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song”), even so did Bill Coffin speak words of hope to America. Like the Old Testament prophet, he spoke words of encouragement to those who were exiled because of their race, or their resistance to war, or their sexual orientation. It’s said that one night in jail, after Coffin had been arrested with a number of other anti-war protesters, the group began to despair in the cold harsh environment of the jailcell. Down the corridor, however, they could hear Coffin’s deep baritone voice singing hymns of consolation for them all.
Now I don’t know what your politics are, and it’s not my point to draw attention to Coffin’s liberal take on things. What I do want to point to, however, is the consistent, inextinguishable hope that he exuded no matter how improbable the cause. But if Christianity is a prophetic religion (from the prophets of the Old Testament right up to the prophets of our own day), it is so because of the consistent theme of hope that runs all the way through the whole of its history. We sometimes make the mistake of associating the prophets only with their condemnation of various ethical abuses and religious idolatries, or with their readiness to point out lapses of faith—but their real underlying message is of the steadfast and inexhaustible mercy of God, despite our faithlessness.
Think of Jesus’ encounter with Peter in today’s gospel. Jesus and the disciples have just come from the experience of seeing four thousand people fed with only seven loaves and a few fish. And now Jesus is trying to get them to understand that this event was not just about meeting the crowd’s physical hunger, but their spiritual longing as well. Jesus gave the crowd not just bread, but himself, his presence, his compassion: he gave them hope. So to help the disciples get the point, he asks them point blank: who do you now say that I am?
This is the moment when Peter first recognizes and confesses him as the Messiah, the one for whom Israel had hoped. “You are the Christ,” he says, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s answer is often interpreted as if it were a correct answer to a test of doctrinal orthodoxy. But the larger point is that Peter doesn’t just get right who Jesus is; he also gets right the fact that because of who Jesus is, he is the fulfillment of hope. Because Jesus is the one whom God has promised, one can take hope in God’s promises of mercy. Because Jesus is the one whom the prophets had foretold, one can take hope in God’s promises of restoration. Jesus is the sign of God’s fidelity.
In confessing Jesus as the Christ, Peter demonstrates that he has grasped this about Jesus; and the reason that Jesus says that it is Peter who is the rock upon which the church will be built, is that Peter has become a man of hope. He has discovered for himself, deep in his own soul, the message of hope in the psalm we sang today: “I will bow down toward your holy temple, O Lord, and praise your name, because of your love and faithfulness. The Lord will make good his purpose for me.”
It’s easy, this time of year, to be full of hope. The coming of the fall season, with the new goals and ambitions that it evokes, gives us lots of energy and enthusiasm. And the bountiful harvest of the summer surrounds us with ample signs of life’s bounty. But when the cold grey days of February come, it will be harder to feel so buoyant. When those harder days come—and come they will—when we will feel as if we are imprisoned by the amount work that lies before us, or by the inescapable worries of the day—then we will want to listen again for the message that seems much clearer today.
If we take time to hear them, those words of encouragement and hope will come when life seems cold and hard, as they come to us now when all seems bright and possible. They come to us in the psalms that we say day by day; they come to us in the church’s on-going confession of Jesus as Christ, the one who has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the ages. This is the difference between God and us: our confidence and faith go up and down, waxing and waning like the moon in the sky. God, however, is steadfast—like a rock. (And as the founders of this city were deeply aware, we in New Haven are blest to have a visual reminder of the rock of our salvation in the towering East Rock that stands like a beacon of hope over the city. To them this was a landscape of biblical proportions, and we would do well to remember their vision.)
Jesus asked his disciples who they understood him to be following the miracle of feeding the four thousand. In response, Peter named him the messiah, the one who is both the fulfillment and inauguration of hope. Bill Coffin, reflecting on this equation of miracle and hope, had this to say: “Miracles do not a messiah make. But a messiah can do miracles. If you ask me if Jesus literally raised Lazarus from the dead, literally walked on water and changed water into wine, I will answer, ‘For certain, I don’t know. But this I do know: faith must be lived before it is understood, and the more it is lived, the more things become possible.’ I can report,” Coffin continues, “that in home after home I have seen Jesus change sinners into saints, hate-filled relations in loving ones, cowardice into courage, the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. … That’s miracle enough for me.” God bless him!
So remember that drawing of Rev. Sloan? “Lot’s of hope!” scrawled Bill Coffin across the face of it? “Lot’s of hope!” Come February—or whatever your darkest days are—let’s not forget. Now may the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
© Joseph Britton 2014