A Living Hope
I Peter 1: 3-9
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One of Europe’s best-selling books during this Covid-19 pandemic is "The Plague" by Albert Camus. In 1947, this thirty-four-year-old French novelist, who was raised in Algeria, published his novel. Then a best seller, it has once again captured the imagination of Europe for all the obvious reasons. It is the story of a 1940’s outbreak of bubonic plague in Oran, Algeria, a Mediterranean coastal city of 200,000 souls. Camus based his story, in part, on an historical event: the 1849 cholera epidemic that devastated Oran.
Camus depicts the way various citizens of Oran responded to this epidemic, which began in April and ended in February the following year. It all began when rats started dying in the streets and people started to get ill. The people of Oran initially responded to the plague with denial. The mayor and the city leaders, trying not to alarm the populace, called the outbreak a “false alarm” and “a special kind of fever.” The hospital designated a “special ward” for the ill victims, still thinking this was a mere annoyance. But when the death toll rises to 30 people a day, finally the authorities took action. The city was sealed as an outbreak of plague was officially declared. Travel was prohibited and all mail service was suspended, making the citizens of Oran feel panic, fear and isolation.
A host of characters show their true colors in this outbreak. One tries to hire criminals to smuggle him out of the city, but changes his mind and decides to stay and help. Another forms what are called “sanitary groups” to clean the streets of dead rats and to transport the ill to the hospital. Another tries to commit suicide then realizes after all he really does want to live.
During the early stages of the crisis a respected Jesuit priest in town, Father Paneloux, gives a sermon at the cathedral. He forcefully insists that the plague is a scourge sent by God on those with hardened hearts. But later Father Paneloux comes to the bedside of a dying boy and prays in vain for his healing. His next sermon suggests that the death of an innocent child presents a real test of faith for all believers.
Now the main character in the novel is Dr. Bernard Rieux, a 35-year-old physician who is the first to urge the authorities to shut down the city; otherwise, he predicts, half the population would die. (Think of a much younger Dr. Fauci.) Through long and grueling clinical hours, he treats the victims of the plague, injecting serum and lancing the abscesses. He has to distance himself emotionally from his patients in order to carry on his difficult task. Wanting to heal human suffering, he knows deep in his heart that his struggle against the plague is almost hopeless. Every day he goes to work without hope yet without despair, trying to do what is decent under the circumstances. This brave doctor does not believe in God, but is committed to relieving human suffering - nothing more, nothing less.
When Albert Camus was asked what his story meant, he acknowledged that there were three ways to read his novel. One, the actual historical events, how people in times of a plague actually behave. Such crises reveal that there is much to admire in humans under duress. Second, he began writing his novel in the summer of 1940 in Paris as the Nazis occupied his beloved City of Lights. Camus said the novel was a parable about the evil of Nazism descending upon a city like rats spreading a plague of evil and death. Third, Camus is portraying what for him is the perennial human condition - what he calls the Absurd, the fact our lives are always subject to random suffering and death. Nevertheless, Camus says we must work without hope yet without despair to make our brief sojourn more palatable. In short, we are all pretty much like Sisyphus, condemned to push the rock up the mountain only to see it roll back again and again. World without end.
There was a time when I thought Camus was right, that finally we can hope for little in this life, that Absurdity faces us at every turn. Like someone young and strong and vital contracting the coronavirus and dying within days. And others, older and more vulnerable, fighting off the illness against all odds. Once I would have called that the Absurd. But no longer. Now I call that a deep sorrow that we lament together before God. It summons us to weep with those who weep, but not without hope.
In these deeply distressing times, I invite you to ponder with me a passage that I cling to through thick and thin. Zechariah 9:12 proclaims that all of us are “prisoners of hope.” What an arresting and illuminating phrase: “prisoners of hope.” Bound by a hope that rises within us, despite it all. Bound by a hope that simply will not let us go, come hell or high water.
Our reading from I Peter 1 echoes that summons to be “prisoners of hope.” Our text proclaims that God’s mercy has given birth to a new and living hope within us - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. A living hope that wells up mysteriously within us, because Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed!
Remember that I Peter was also written in a time of great suffering. In fact, the Greek word for suffering “pathos” is used more in I Peter than any other book of the New Testament. Their suffering was caused by the Roman authorities arresting and executing Christians living in the western part of Turkey. It was a bleak time, an awful time, a deeply troubling time. And yet, I Peter urges his sisters and brothers to hold on to their living hope in the risen Christ, who despite appearances, is still Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
I Peter lifts up a baptismal formula calling upon believers to celebrate a living hope that transcends their present suffering. He asks his people to rejoice in “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for you.” And that living hope means that they can have courage and fortitude facing whatever may come. I Peter calls its readers to become prisoners of hope, bound to the risen Christ, who gives them endurance to face the heartache ahead. So we too face whatever is upon our horizon with a living hope welling up within us. We do not seek to escape the difficulties that may come. For the sake of the risen Christ, we offer ourselves to those who are ill and impoverished because of our plague. Come what may, we cling to the Risen Christ who denies sorrow and death any final victory. So despair does not become us. We remain glad prisoners of hope longing for that day when all will be well and all will be well. In life and in death, we belong to Christ our risen Lord, who was and is and shall be forever. By the grace of God, we remain grateful prisoners of hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.