A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, July 17, 2016
Job 4:1-6 CEB; Reading from The Grapes of Wrath (17)
When John Steinbeck wrote that “The cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and they took the migrant way to the West,” he was referring to the so-called “Mother Road,” historic Route 66, that first, complete cross-country highway that ran from Chicago to the California coast. And the “migrants” that Steinbeck referred to were the post-Depression, Dust Bowl-Era farmers who lost everything due to drought, dust storms, and the banks who took their homes and farms right out from under them. With no land, and no homes to live in, thousands of farmers loaded up what personal belongings they could in whatever old trucks or cars they could find, and they set off from Oklahoma and other states on US Route 66 toward the West—the “Promised Land” of California—not unlike pioneers a century earlier had set their faces westward in covered wagons.
Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is one of the greatest American novels, which contributed to Steinbeck receiving the Nobel Prize in 1962. It is one of my two favorite American novels. My affinity with The Grapes of Wrath and Route 66 goes way back. In the late 1980’s, I picked up a paperback copy of the novel at a mall bookstore. I found it to be one of the most powerful books I had ever read, as Steinbeck brought to life the heartache and hardships of poor farmers who lost everything and set to the highway in search of a better life and chronicled the trials and tragedies they experienced along the way. I became hooked on Steinbeck as an author and ended up reading every one of Steinbeck’s novels and novellas, and eventually wrote a Master’s thesis on him and his works.
And the movie, The Grapes of Wrath, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, is one of my all-time favorite movies as well, and one of the American classics. If you have never seen it, you should do yourself a favor and rent it and watch it.
So traveling that “great cross-country highway,” historic Route 66, has long been on my personal bucket list. Three weeks ago, right after the Coffee Hour, I picked up our grandson Josiah in Brentwood, and the two of us commenced a Route 66 road trip across Missouri, the corner of Kansas, and eastern Oklahoma. It was a marvelous week for both of us, far more wonderful than I had even imagined it would be.
One of the highlights of the trip was stopping at a roadside monument and the last remaining stretch of the original nine-foot-wide roadbed between Miami and Afton, Oklahoma. It is called the “ribbon highway,” because on either side of the narrow pavement is a ribbon of concrete. It was a moving experience to stand on that original, 1930’s roadbed where so many desperate migrants like Steinbeck’s Joad Family traveled in a desperate attempt to find a better life for themselves.
And then there were the old, narrow, steel bridges they crossed; and the historic gas stations where they stopped for Ethyl for their gas tanks, water for their radiators, and air for their tires; the historic motels where weary travelers lodged (at least the ones who could afford it); and the diners where those who could afford it stopped for a bite to eat.
Well, as I have reflected on Steinbeck’s novel and on the Route 66 experience itself, I realized that for many who traveled that historic highway it was nothing short of a journey toward hope. Hope for a better day; hope of landing a decent job with livable wages; hope of having enough to eat; hope of a nice little house for their families—these were the hope-filled dreams that led thousands to pull up stakes and travel the “Mother Road” across America. Steinbeck chronicles all of it in The Grapes of Wrath, and even emphasizes hope when he notes, “the things they hoped form in the new country.” It was nothing short of a journey toward hope!
Today’s entire service was framed around the topic or theme of hope—the Thought for Meditation, Responsive Reading, some of the hymns, and the scripture reading all have to do with hope. Hope is as vital to a healthy existence and a well-balanced soul as water and correct nutrition are to the body. With hope we can endure all kinds of trouble, tragedy and trials. But when all hope is gone, so is the will to live. We all need hope; it is one of the basic human hierarchical needs.
And so it is that from ancient days—as may be inferred from the 4th chapter of Job—religion has been a source of hope for humankind. “Isn’t your religion the source of your confidence; the integrity of your conduct, the source of your hope?” it is asked of Job (Job 4:6 CEB). Granted, the object of hope that religion imparts changes over time. The hope that religion may have imparted three thousand years ago was different from what it imparted two thousand years ago. And the hope religion may have imparted two thousand years ago was different from the hope religion imparted one thousand years ago. And the hope that religion imparted in early 20th century America was different than the hope that religion imparted in the 1960’s Civil Rights era. And so on.
To elaborate, for early humans, religion offered the hope of appeasing the gods so as to procure fertile fields and abundant crops, or perhaps assure safe-keeping from storms and natural disasters. Religion in the time of Jesus and the Apostle Paul offered hope of a restored, resurrected body after death. Religion in the Dark Ages offered hope of escaping Purgatory and the torment of hell. Religion at the turn of the 20th century (often called the Social Gospel Era) offered hope that humankind was evolving toward a more perfect existence where all would be clothed and fed and war would be no more. Religion of the 1960’s America offered the hope of brotherhood and sisterhood and justice and equality for all. Still today in many poor, economically-deprived rural and mountain communities, religion offers the hope of a heaven after death free of pain, hunger, and poverty. Whatever the pressing issues of a people at any given time, religion often picks up the mantle of hope and seeks to impart it so as to make peoples’ lives tolerable and richer.
Curiously, from the words that have come down to us in the gospels, Jesus didn’t have a whole lot to say about hope per se. That is to say, Jesus didn’t actually use the word “hope” that much. And yet, Jesus devoted much of his life and message to imparting hope to a people oppressed. It is said that “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 ESV). Luke shares that when Jesus began his ministry, he quoted the prophet Isaiah as his own personal mission: to proclaim good news, bring recovery of sight to the blind, set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the Lord’s favor; in short, to be a bringer of hope (Luke 4:18-19). And in various ways, Jesus reached out to the people and sought to offer them hope for their lives.
And still today any worthwhile religion seeks to impart hope of some sort. All of the foregoing that I have shared was the easy part. But when I proceeded to ask in what ways is our church imparting hope—or in what ways should we be imparting hope—the answer didn’t come so easily. But if our congregation is to be relevant for today, if we are to continue to be vital and strong, we have to be an imparter of hope to all who darken our doors. What is the hope that the United Church of Oak Ridge imparts? In what tangible ways does the hope we offer become living and real?
Perhaps one of the reasons that at least some of the so-called mega-churches are so attractive to so many is because of the element of hope that they offer. For instance, Joel Osteen and the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, offer the hope that God wants his people to be happy and prosperous. Decades earlier, television evangelist Oral Roberts did the same thing and built a religious empire on preaching the hope that if we give to God financially, God will give back many times over. It is easy to see the attraction for those who are longing, hoping for happiness and wealth.
Well, I am not going to offer members of the United Church of Oak Ridge that kind of hope of prosperity and wealth. I think making the hope of wealth, prosperity and constant happiness a church’s primary focus and platform is poor theology and a bit shallow. But the need to offer our members hope exists nonetheless.
As I have reflected on the hope we offer these past few days, here are some ideas I have come up with. You might add points of hope of your own.
As I see it, the United Church of Oak Ridge offers:
The hope of a loving, supportive community of faith that cares about and supports its members during both good times and bad;
The hope of a place that supports the search for religious truth without dictating the answers or criticizing differences of opinion;
The hope of a better community and better world because of the various mission projects we support, both locally and abroad;
The hope of a more harmonious, peaceful world because of the love, tolerance, openness, and respect we exhibit in our daily lives, and because of what our church stands for;
The hope that the good lives that we live and the good that we do will not be in vain;
The hope of a God who is love who welcomes all;
The hope that whatever awaits us after death, it will be good.
Such is what I believe we are about here at this United Church. And in that regard, we, too, are on a journey together toward hope. And we all need hope. Amen.