This is a transcription of the video message Adam Fronczek offered on Sunday, April 25, 2021.
Today, as we continue the season of Easter in the church, we will keep asking what it means for us to be Resurrection people. I’d like to consider with you a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians where the people of the church are told this:
“I pray that God…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation…so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which [God] has called you.”
With your heart enlightened—being able to see the truth…you may know hope. Today we’re going to talk about the relationship between truth and hope.
Often in this world, problems are big, and it’s easy to be dismayed by the truth. Sometimes we are tempted to ignore it and to be people of hope but to do so in a way that is naïve and ignorant of reality. Choose your complicated issue: criminal justice, political corruption, environmental protection, racism, voting rights, poverty, education reform, immigration, economic policy, even the desire to care about any of these things and still do a good job of caring for your family. I’m going to suggest that you can’t work on any of these things unless you have the spiritual strength to hold a tension between truth and hope, and work for something better one day at a time.
A few weeks ago, I had occasion to watch the movie The Prince of Egypt with my children. This is Disney’s adaptation of the Moses story in the Bible. It’s pretty well done; kids learn the story of the bondage of the Hebrews under Pharaoh, the call of Moses at the burning bush, and the liberation of the Hebrews as they pass through the parted waters of the sea. Their freedom comes as a result of…the plagues. In dramatic fashion, the waters of the Nile are turned to blood, there are locusts and gnats and frogs, and ultimately, the Passover, and the death of first-born Egyptian children including the son of Pharaoh.
This movie led to a number of good questions that you do not have to be a graduate student of theology in order to ask. My seven- and eight-year-old children wanted to know why one people would enslave another, and why all of those awful plagues had to happen in order for the Hebrews to gain their freedom, and why God let it happen that way.
Because I am not only an outstanding theologian but also an exemplary parent, I offered clear, age-appropriate answers to each of those questions in 50 words or less! Well, of course that’s not the way that it happened, and if you think I’m going to offer you a clear answer to any of those questions in the next 15 minutes, you need to lower your expectations. However, I do think that our faith tradition offers us some rich strategies for thinking about really difficulty problems, and today I’d like to talk about one of those strategies.
It’s a good week for talking about big questions. Today we’re recognizing Earth Day in the church. The Bible tells us that human beings are called to fill the earth and subdue it, to have dominion over it, but if we don’t care for God’s Creation, one day there will be little left to fill or subdue, much less enjoy.
A huge trial concluded this week, but depending upon who you talk to or what you watch or read, the verdict was either a vindication of our quality criminal justice system, or the exception that proves the rule of its injustice.
It could be that some other personal grief or trauma took place in your life this week that overshadows both of those things and causes you to ask why God would allow it.
What are we to make of big questions like these?
When my kids asked me about The Prince of Egypt, I didn’t have simple answers for them, but I didn’t ignore their questions either. My basic feeling about it, which I tried to express clearly, is that sometimes people do really bad things—Christians call that sin or evil. And when genuine evil takes place, it can’t always be erased without other hard things taking place. The Pharaoh in Egypt was so hungry for power that he made other people his slaves. He was so committed to hanging on to that power that he had to lose his own son before he could recognize his need to change.
Did God orchestrate all of the steps in that story—did God want it that way? I don’t know. I hope not. Some people think the story is literally true; others think it’s a myth meant to make an important point. Some people land in the middle. We’ll find out in heaven I suppose. What I do know is that in our own country, the end of slavery required profound suffering and loss of life. And the end of the Civil War was only the beginning of repairing the damage done by slavery. So, it seems like a true statement that repairing real evil often requires painful solutions.
The conversation I had with my sons was a much simpler one than many fathers and mothers were forced to have this week, I mean parents of black and brown children.
In the aftermath of the Derek Chauvin trial this week, I read an excellent article by Esau McCaulley. He’s a New Testament scholar and a professor at Wheaton College. He’s a Black man and a father of four children. If you know anything about Wheaton College, outside of Chicago and with deep evangelical roots, you can safely assume that he teaches to a politically diverse population of students. I’m often aware that you all get as much politics and punditry as you can stand elsewhere in the world, and so I appreciated that McCaulley took a theological approach as he wrote this week about what he says to his children, and to students in his classroom. He wrote about how people of faith respond to difficult questions. I’m going to share a couple of paragraphs from that article:
“[We] wade into the troubled waters. I let [my students] all know that there is no escape from these issues. There is no place to hide. There is no world where they can live, learn, fall in and out of love, other than the one they inhabit. A basic teaching of Christianity is that humans are capable of profound and confounding evil. That is not a truth that exists only outside the students. It also exists within them. They must see the world for what it is. Then they must get about the work of living in a world that too often devalues Black and brown lives. There have been and will be times when that disregard will stun them to silence. In those moments, they may be able to lift only half-coherent prayers and laments to God.
“My children and the students committed to my care have to live in this world and be frustrated by it, but they do not have to accept it as unchangeable. They do not have to give way to apathy. They are free to weep and mourn as long as they need to do so, but they can also resist. They can plan, organize, protest and march. They have to resist not because any one event will bring the change that they seek. They must resist as a declaration of their worth and humanity. The resistance to injustice, then, isn’t only for America. It is for their own souls.” (McCaulley, “How I’m Talking to My Kids about the Derek Chauvin Verdict.” The New York Times, April 20, 2021)
Esau McCaulley spoke to the tension between truth and hope. The need to see the world for what it is, but not to be dismayed; to live in hope and to believe that God is at work bringing about change.
There are a lot of stories where the Bible makes reference to this balance between truth and hope. The Hebrews’ Exodus from Egypt is one of them. Do you remember how hard it was for the enslaved Hebrews to believe Moses when he said that God would set them free? The truth of their suffering was so immense that hope was hard. Do you remember that even after Pharaoh sets them free and they begin their march out of Egypt, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends the army to bring them back. Can you imagine how the Hebrews must have felt as they approached the Red Sea and suddenly they saw the army charging after them.
Of course, their new freedom was too good to be true. Even after God parts the sea and they escape to the Promised Land, they will find in countless ways that freedom is not easy. Truth and hope are hard to hold together.
Perhaps the most succinct naming of this comes in today’s Scripture from the Letter to the Ephesians. Paul is writing to the church about the Resurrection; he says: “I pray that God…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know [God], so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which [God] has called you.”
To have your eyes enlightened means to know the truth. People who know the truth are not fooling themselves by ignoring inconvenient or uncomfortable facts about the real world—they accept things for what they are, they acknowledge the truth and are willing to deal with it. And yet the truth does not cause them to lose hope. Even though they know the truth of sin and evil in the world, they are willing to long for something better, and rejoice when they see signs of goodness in the world.
Faithful people hold truth and hope in tension this way because they’ve seen Jesus, the one who came face to face with evil. Jesus knew the truth of betrayal and denial and rejection in response to all the love he showed to the world. Jesus gave up his very own life, and when they killed him, they saw him rise again and keep on sharing the good news anyway. The story of faith is to know the depth of evil in the world, and to still be people of hope. This is what it means to be Resurrection people.
I suppose what I find most disheartening about much of what I read these days is how often people, due to their political inclinations, are unwilling to hold truth and hope in tension. Either they are unwilling to acknowledge the truth and admit that there are deep structural problems in the world, or they are so steeped in dismay that they refuse to celebrate progress when it happens, so that it might be built upon. Either they want to tell the story of the Exodus and leave out the plagues, or they’ve read the story, but they refuse to believe that God has the power to set people free.
As faithful people, we must take up the challenge to do both—to hold truth in tension with hope. I see this all the time in the challenge of raising my children. I want them to grow up knowing the truth. Even though it is easy enough to live in this neighborhood and shield them from hardship, I want them to know the realities of the world. I want them to understand that evil and the need to repair it does not just exist in storybooks but it is the stuff of reality. And I want them to grow up as people of hope. I want them to rejoice in the gifts of the great country in which they live; I want them to inherit a tradition where regular people have the capacity to make the world better. I want them to believe that we can, with God’s help.
There are a lot of ways of being church. One group of people want just to study the Bible, all by itself, and forget about the troubles of the world. A second group want to find in Scripture the truth that the world is buried in sin, and that we need to clothe ourselves in lament and despair. Still a third group prefer to skip over the plagues, and everything else negative. They cannot stand to talk about the truth, they want Easter, but they want it without the Cross.
I have been all of those people at times. Maybe you have been too. On my best days, I pray that God is shaping me into a fourth way, a way of loving God’s Word and living in the tension between truth and hope. It is a Resurrection way, a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know God, so that with the eyes of our hearts open, we may come to know the hope to which God has called us.