hope is the thing with groaning

In my congregation, the preacher preaches and then immediately asks the congregation to share their reflections and responses. This practice preceded my arrival six years ago, and it is one of the best things about our worship together. Interpreting scripture isn’t the sole responsibility of one person; discerning *together* it is how we follow Jesus faithfully. Over the years, my preaching has been affirmed, questioned, repaired and made irrelevant by the discussion that immediately follows whatever I say, thanks be to God.

This week, we began an Advent season focused on the theme of “Close to Home,” using beautiful resources from A Sanctified Art. The creators of the resource invited us to think about HOPE, which is the theme of the first Sunday of Advent, and homesickness – what does it feel like to long for something that doesn’t really exist anymore?

“Awake to Wonder,” by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity

I told the story of my false-start at going to college: raised in a close-knit family in a close-knit church in a relatively small town, I had never, in all my life spent time away from my family. We’d traveled a lot, and I had friends and activities and a full life, but almost everything happened with my family involved. When I moved into a dorm room across the state that fall of 2000, my homesickness overtook me. I remember being excited and curious and totally taken by the classroom discussions, but the sense of being set adrift, far away and alone overpowered all of that. I knew what community felt like, and this wasn’t it. I hadn’t yet learned, I told my congregation, that you can create community in new places with new people. I wanted to go HOME.

And hope is sort of like homesickness: longing for what is yet to come sometimes feels like longing for what has been. We know what is possible because we were created in love and created for love, and when we live in a world that cuts us off from living that love, we feel the pain of it. We long to live the primordial love of our creation.

I finished preaching, and was immediately corrected. “Sometimes,” one person said, “home is not a safe place. Sometimes you do not ever, ever, ever want to go back there. Sometimes you never get homesick because there’s not much at home to miss.”

And someone else said, “you know, I can understand the message of this sermon because I do long and hope for things to be different. But I’ve always felt like I was searching for a place where I belonged, so the feeling was never really ‘homesick.’ My longing is for the future, hoping for the thing that hasn’t arrived, yet.”

And just like that, we broke the fourth wall and tore apart the provided resources and moved ourselves to a deeper understanding of what it means to hope. Hope is not nostalgia. Hope is not wishing the return of what once was. Hope is bigger and more complicated and more painful than homesickness. Hope does not feel like I felt that first semester of college. Hope is rooted in a much bigger crevice between what is and what will be, anchored deep in the wells of pain we all carry around with us.

Paul writes to the Romans that the WHOLE CREATION has been groaning in labor pains with hope of redemption. “Hope that is seen is not hope,” he says. “Who hopes for what is seen?! But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

And sometimes, he goes on, we can’t even find words to wrap around this feeling. It’s not homesickness, it’s not nostalgia, it’s not just patient waiting. It is a deep and unintelligible groaning that only the Spirit can interpret, with sighs too deep for words.

I’m so glad that my congregation corrected me and deepened my understanding, so relieved that the not-quite-right sermon was righted and amended and turned around so that we could all learn to hope, together. Hope is not homesickness or nostalgia, it is longing forward, groaning for release and redemption, acknowledgement that we live in a world where things are all wrong and confidence that the Spirit is translating our pain into divine sighs too deep for words, divine sighs that God knows, hears, and is, even now, acting upon.

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