Sunday, May 6, 2007
Dimnent Memorial Church
Holland, Michigan USA
Delivered by Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia
World Council of Churches
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;today I declare that I will restore to you double. (Zechariah 9:12, NRSV)
...and hope does not disappoint us because God's love has been poured into our hearts through theHoly Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:55, NRSV)
Thank you very much, President Bultman, for those kind words of introduction. Members of the faculty and board of trustees, students and graduates, fellow family members, and all other friends of the Class of 2007, I wanted to start by greeting you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. I am very grateful, I am honoured, I feel privileged to have been invited to speak at this significant moment in our lives.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, whose word is always authority, teach us today to hear your word anew, and let it find a place in our hearts and in our minds. In Jesus Christ, Amen.
"Hope does not disappoint us," the apostle Paul wrote to the earliest congregation in Rome those words, and I have chosen those words to be the theme of my sermon during this Baccalaureate service. Most commentators seem to think that Paul was not speaking explicitly about Hope College in the state of Michigan. Still, it is an accurate phrase in the context of this week's celebrations, and of the warm welcome extended to so many of us by the college community: Hope does not disappoint us!
If students had gathered here during the intensive period of final examinations, we might focus our imaginations on another verse from our Scripture readings: the prophet Zechariah's appeal to the "prisoners of Hope" - but of course we know exams are over, and today the gates are swinging open so that graduates may emerge from academic captivity with a sense of accomplishment and pride in the institution and its continuing heritage.
Hope, as a gift of the Spirit and as an attitude that transforms our actions, is a theme that I have been pondering for some time, as President Bultman indicated [in introducing Rev. Dr. Kobia]. Shortly after being elected general secretary of the World Council of Churches in 2003, I completed a book describing a renewed vision of the work of the churches in Africa. The title of that book is "The Courage to Hope". Last year another volume was published, this time reflecting on my experiences in traveling the world and engaging in various dialogues on behalf of the World Council; the title of that book is "Called to the One Hope". (With pleasure I will donate a copy of each of the books to Hope College Library.) The question to which I returned throughout each of these publications is this: Where do we find hope in our world today?
Why is there such wide-spread malaise about the future? It may be intensified by particular issues and events - like the tragic shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech last month, like the proliferation of poverty, like climate change, like HIV and AIDS, or unrelenting conflict in such places as Darfur in Sudan, Zimbabwe, northern Uganda, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan. But at its base, the pessimistic view of many people grows out of a loss of faith, of belief in the possibility of positive outcomes in this world or indeed in the next. In the world-wide dialectic of hope versus fear of the future especially, the case for fear remains all too persuasive.
The Bible often contrasts hope with fear. Fear consists of negative expectations, and it is often manifested in an anguished despair. Fear freezes us in our tracks or provokes us to inappropriate actions, frenzied actions, destructive actions. At one extreme it causes us to shut down emotionally and live in isolation or alienation; at the other extreme, a sharp sense of fear drives us to seek vengeance for real or even imagined injuries. Out of fear, as the Brazilian theologian Rubem Alvez says, "one acts in order to prevent the future from happening". The mass murder and suicide in Blacksburg, Virginia was just such a case of pathological hopelessness.
Hope stands at the solid centre of St. Paul's triad of "faith, hope and love" (1 Cor. 13). Hope, like faith and love, is the human response to the gift of divine grace, to intimations that tragedy and severe affliction need not deter nor dishearten us as we move into our common future, to spiritually discerned evidence that human relationships, and the world itself, may be transformed for the better.
Hope consists of a positive attitude toward the future - the immediate future, the long future, our ultimate future. I find it fascinating that in the days of an earlier Holland, Michigan, in the nineteenth century, this institution's original name was "PioneerAcademy". The evolution of PioneerAcademy into HopeCollege undoubtedly involved many philosophical and organisational changes, but the two names share a common, forward-looking commitment to the future, lived out within the context of an educational community. "Pioneer" and "Hope" are names that have been embraced by generations of teachers and students as expressions of a shared spirit of exploration, spirit of adventure, spirit of positive expectations, and a spirit of openness to change.
The formation of community around common values is an essential element in building a bright future. The Hebrew prophet Zechariah addressed his audience as "prisoners of hope" at the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The city had been invaded, it had been devastated and occupied generations before, and many of its people had been taken into exile. Now the walls of the city were rising again, and the population was being organised under leaders of their own people. But the exiles and their descendants remained at a distance. Zechariah describes them as "prisoners" because of their enforced separation from the community of God's people in their homeland; however, he called them "prisoners of hope" because of the sure promise that their condition would be transformed. The prophet's call was the commencement of their liberation, and soon they would begin their journey into a new community. Jerusalem began to be rebuilt in their absence, but Zechariah knows that their return is necessary before community can be restored: "Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double."
The words "prisoners of hope" contrast the suffering through which we pass with an assurance that the future is secure in God's hand. And God's will is for the well-being of all of us. The apostle Paul alludes to suffering as one stage in the spiritual and psychological progression towards the realisation of God's promise: "...we rejoice even in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces patience (and endurance), and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us."
"We rejoice in our sufferings" is translated in some other versions that "we boast in" or "we celebrate" our sufferings. How can this be? An English scholar of the New Testament, N.T. Wright, explains Paul's meaning in these words:
Celebrating one's suffering sounds depressingly morbid.
Western Christians easily imbibe from our culture
an inclination to regard not only the pursuit
but also the attainment of happiness
as an inalienable right, and if suffering strikes
we look to technology to solve it
or to the lawyers to apportion the blame.
Paul is unspecific here about which suffering he
means... but his approach is steady and realistic:
suffering produces patience,
and patience produces a tried and tested character.
Neither of these qualities
is much in evidence - or indeed highly prized -
in contemporary Western society,
which wants everything at once
and wants to be free to change character according to the mood of the moment. As a result, we should not be surprised
that we in many respects are a society without hope. 
In the Hebrew scriptures, there are many examples of people whose character was shaped through suffering. Some were literally prisoners, like Joseph in Egypt or Daniel and other exiles in Mesopotamia. Some were transformed through the suffering of their people, like Moses or Esther. All, by the grace of God, became the leaders and liberators of their time, advocates of a more just order of society and the freedom to practice their faith in peace.
In the New Testament, we Christians find in Jesus Christ the pioneer of our faith whose offering of himself was made perfect through suffering. According to the letter to the Hebrews, his suffering is the great gift that has enabled us to find grace to help in our time of need. For Christians, suffering is part and parcel of what makes hope a possibility.
My office is in a cluster of buildings in Geneva, Switzerland known as the "Ecumenical Centre". In that setting, the World Council of Churches co-exists and co-operates with other inter-church, inter-religious and international organisations. As one might expect in a building owned and operated by a council of Christian churches, there are many crosses on display. One metal cross, in the chapel, was made in the aftermath of the Second World War. It was fashioned from scraps of shrapnel gleaned from the remains of two sets of bombs: one set of bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe, the German air force, on the city of Coventry in England; the other set of bombs dropped by the British Royal Air Force on the city of Dresden in Germany. Both bombing raids destroyed the heart of a city; in each city, one of the great Christian cathedrals of Europe was burned to the ground. After the war, the churches of the United Kingdom and Germany jointly donated the cross to the chapel of the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Centre, where it serves as a focus for meditation and prayer.
In our lobby, there is a much larger wooden cross. It was made in Zimbabwe, in southern Africa. The cross-pieces were once railroad ties - part of the railway lines laid by African forced labourers during the era of the British colonial rule. Like the metal cross from Coventry and Dresden, like the cross of Calvary, the great wooden cross from the heart of Africa is, in the words of the gospel song, "an emblem of suffering and shame". But each of these crosses is also a monument of hope: the hope of overcoming injustice, the hope of resurrection, hopes for reconciliation, healing and peace. The old rugged cross, emblematic of suffering, is ultimately a powerful symbol of God's transformative grace.
Now, I have been speaking about the cross and resurrection as a Christian leader, but of course there are other worldviews and religions that provide insights of their own, and a dynamic model for hope. A groundswell of inter-religious dialogue in recent years is a phenomenon of tremendous potential for peace and understanding across cultures, and therefore is a rich source of hope for our common future. There are grounds for authentic hope in the possibilities open to each of us in today's world for the exploration of our own roots and identity, an understanding necessary for meaningful dialogue; we are also invited to develop a more thoughtful and genuine respect for differences and diversity, another condition essential for successful dialogue; as we encounter others, we do well to recognise the suffering and hardships that they have endured, often at the hands of people like ourselves. In this age, we are invited to play an active part in the transformation of human relationships as the fruit of dialogue.
But I need not provide too much further detail at this moment. The graduating class of 2007, looking back at their time at HopeCollege, will recall a pattern of community-building through dialogue and mutual respect. My hope is that you will each take that experience of growth and fellowship, that pattern of Hope, you will take it with you in coming days as you make your transition into other and new contexts. Class of 2007: take the best of Hope with you, and build an even broader community of hope wherever life may lead you.
For hope will never disappoint us! Hope will never disappoint you!! May the God of life bless you now, today, tomorrow and in days to come, so that your life might indeed be a life lived in abundance.
 S. Kobia, The Courage to Hope: The Roots of a New Vision and the Calling of the Church in Africa (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2003).
 S. Kobia, Called to the One Hope: A New Ecumenical Epoch (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2006).
 N.Thomas Wright, "Romans," in The New Interpreters' Bible volume 10 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), page 521.