Personally, I don't think Hope gets enough credit.
I know, Paul said it, so it must be true: Faith, Hope and Love abide, these three, and Love is the greatest of all.
But sometimes I think you can make a pretty good case for hope.
You might think that two people decide to get married because they love each other, or even because they have faith in each other. But what if it's really hope: that they have a hope that it will all work out, and work out for the next fifty-odd years or so? So maybe, if you scratch below the surface, their hope is really a crazy, misplaced dream, and they really were not meant for each other in the end. But in the beginning, they had hope. That's why they got married.
Then there is the opposite: I remember hearing Father Gregory Boyle say once that young men and women joined gangs because of a "fatal deficit of hope." People make choices because they have hope, and they make other choices because they have no hope. Children stay in school and work hard because they have hope that their work will bear fruit and their life will make sense, and their choices will mean something.
At church this morning we hear a parable that makes Lutheran pastors weep. It is the one about the ten bridesmaids, waiting for the bridegroom. Five were wise and five were foolish. The foolish ones were afraid they were running out of oil, and when the hour was late the rushed out to get more, only to have the delayed bridegroom arrive while they were searching around and tell them (gracelessly) "I never knew you." This being a parable and all, we can expect that the story will jar us and offend us, and the details will go against our grain, but Lutheran pastors like it better when the offense is on the merciful side, and so we don't know what to do with this harsh bridegroom slamming the door in the the bridesmaids' faces.
What is the message of the parable? What is Jesus, on his way to the cross, trying to say to us?
Well, more than one or two things, that's for sure. Some people think the missing oil is faith. Some people think that it is good works (as in, "Let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works….."); others think the point is staying put, even when your lamp is going out. Do not leave the church, but stay in the body and keep waiting for the bridegroom!
Me, I can't help thinking about hope. Being that it's a parable and all, I am sure that it is not just about hope, but there is something there about not losing heart for the long haul that grabs me and won't let go. Somehow I think that is something that Matthew might have latched on to, thinking about the destruction of the temple and the temptation to give up and look for someone else or something else to believe in. Somehow I think that this is the issue for our age as well: how to keep going when things look bleak and dark, when all of the news is bleak, and you are tempted to give up and stop voting or at least look for something else to hope for. Good works play a part: after all, we study and work and ladle soup and heal and forgive sins and keep on doing it because of the hope that is (however dimly) burning in those lamps of ours.
It's that hope that he told us about, the hope for a place where the least will be lifted up, where sparrows will be noticed, where bread will be multiplied, where all of us will be recognized for who we are, where we will be saved by grace.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, I can't help thinking this evening, for in the end we are saved … not by grace, and not by good works, but by hope.
The greatest of these.