Hope for the Helpless

Lent 5A

The Reverend Phil Tierney

April 6, 2014

Hopeless cases, this morning’s readings describe what seem to be hopeless cases. In the first instance there was the prophet Ezekiel, scanning a valley littered with bones. They were the remains of some bygone battle, which left once vigorous soldiers dead, their remains strewn across a remote field where their loved ones couldn’t even provide their corpses a decent burial. Left there for many years and unattended except by carrion predators and the elements, all that was left of those men were bones, bleached white by the relentless rays of the Middle Eastern sun, the consequences of some long-passed misadventure. In the face of that scene a question came to Ezekiel’s mind, a question from God, no less. “Mortal, can these bones live?” Anyone might be forgiven for replying without missing a beat, “Of course not, those bones can’t possibly live. It’s absurd even to imagine it.” That was a hopeless case.

In the second instance, there was Jesus— scanning a sealed tomb and the faces of his dear friends, Mary and Martha, faces contorted with sadness and tears. Because inside that tomb lay the corpse of his other friend, their brother Lazarus, whose very name literally meant helpless. His body had been dead and buried for days. Martha then Mary—each in turn—had put words to the hopelessness of the situation; as people do under such circumstances. They said, “Lord, if only—if only you’d been here he wouldn’t have died.” They might have gone on to say more, “But now it’s too late. It’s hopeless.” They refrained, though, and left it at that—”if only.”

That phrase epitomizes feelings of hopelessness. If only this had happened. If only that hadn’t happened. If only I had said or done this, that, or the other thing, then maybe, just maybe, it would have turned out differently. If only you had done this, that, or the other thing; then maybe, just maybe, it would have been different. Then come the “would’a, should’a, could’as.” You know what I mean—”If I could only go back, I would have said this; I should have done that; or I could have done the other thing.” They’re the reflections of those who feel regret about a hopeless outcome that might have been prevented. Those sentiments—those feelings of hopelessness and helplessness—come up in all sorts of arenas in people’s lives. We might say, “If only I had exercised more or had had better eating habits.” We might find ourselves thinking, “If only I’d invested in this and not in that.” We might reminisce, “If only I’d gone into this field instead of that field or worked instead of staying at home or had children instead of devoting so much to work.” “If only I’d finished school.” “If only I’d listened to so and so or hadn’t paid attention to so and so.” And it so often comes up when a loved one dies—”if only.” It’s natural for us—like Mary and Martha—to feel despairing, even hopeless, under such circumstances. Rare is the person who never felt the way they did—sad, regretful, and hopeless—because the turns of events in life can be bitter and the consequences of our decisions can sometimes feel hopeless.

The developmental psychologist Erik Eriksson—in his benchmark work, The Epigenesis of Human Identity—found something interesting in his studies of people in the last stage of human life. He discovered that older adults tend to look back and evaluate life concluding either, “I did the best I could under the circumstances.” or “I regret what happened.” He labeled that choice, Integrity vs. Despair. Regret, despair, hopelessness are not the way to live life or leave it. God can help with that. God can provide us with real, palpable forgiveness for the regrets we have for what we didn’t do that we feel we ought to have done or that we did that we wish we hadn’t. God can provide healing for our wounds as well as forgiveness for our mistakes. God can provide resolution for unresolved concerns and new beginnings.

There was a family in the parish I served in California that faced a tragic and—for all appearances—hopeless situation. The family was loving and caring. It was a family of faith, and they were very active in the Episcopal Church there. They were prosperous and well connected in the community, but they had a problem. One of their children—a son named Bill—was chronically depressed from an early age. In his depression and self-consciousness Bill tended to feel like an outsider among his peers, and couldn’t seem to muster the ability to master his courses. The parents were sensitive toward him. He’d undergone therapy several times.

Eventually, initially unbeknownst to them, Bill started to self-medicate—replacing his prescribed drugs with illegal ones—including heroine. Once they discovered it, again, they resorted to physicians, psychologists, and prayer. But eventually Bill was arrested for bank robbery—to support his addiction—and sent to prison. Neither he nor his family could protect him. There he was—alone, relatively frail; a white, upper middle-class teen without drugs for escape—in a harsh and hostile environment. His family wondered if he’d ever survive. The situation seemed hopeless. All they could do was visit him and pray. At first, they confessed their anger at God asking, “Where has God been throughout all this. If only God had been here this wouldn’t have happened.” But eventually, their feelings were too desperate even for that and all they could do was pray, “God please help him.”

Meanwhile, Bill also was thrown into the real hopelessness that he’d only felt before, and all he could do was to pray to God for help as well. The better part of 15 years passed and that teen, now a man in his 30’s, survived. He is out of prison and off parole and making a living and continuing his education—making a contribution to the community in which he lives. With a prison recidivism rate of more than 70% and an even higher relapse rate among heroine addicts, how could he have made that change? It seemed hopeless—especially for someone chronically depressed. Some might well conclude that if his turn around sticks, it was probably due to a much-needed dose of reality to snap him out of his downward spiral. I had occasion to ask him what he thought it was and this is what Bill said. “God did it. God protected me in prison when I could easily have died several times over. Even though there are times when I can exaggerate my problems and feel the depression coming on—that’s just me and when I turn to God for help, He does. He’s the one who got me off drugs and who gives me the strength to resist using them when the craving comes back. He’s the one who gives me the strength and the will to live each day. God’s the one who saved me and who saves me every day.” I guess the more desperate, the more hopeless, a person is the more that person clings to God—just to survive and that isn’t always very subtle when your life depends upon it.

God specializes in hopeless cases.

To Ezekiel the question came, “Can these bones live?” The prophet replied, “O Lord God, you know.” With that openness to possibilities God was able to bring life out of death—not a field of dry bones, but what they represented—the restoration of Israel, as a nation and as a spiritual community. We’ve had occasion to observe it in our lifetime. No matter what you think of the nation of Israel, politically and ethically, in its treatment of Palestinians, there is no question that the ultimate fulfillment of Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones did not come in the aftermath of the Babylonian Captivity in 600 B.C., but even more in the aftermath of the holocaust. We’ve seen God restore Israel with our own eyes in our time.

To Mary and Martha Jesus said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you’d see the glory of God?” And then He shouted, “Lazarus, come out.” And Lazarus came out of the tomb, alive. Hopeless cases are not impossible for God; with Christ all things are possible.

We are privileged both to be able to access God’s incomparable help in hopeless situations and to be instruments of God’s help to those caught in them. It takes a measure of trust. Nothing is hopeless with God, even when we feel helpless. Through Christ God specializes in hope for the helpless and the hopeless. That’s why Christ came—to help the helpless and give hope to the hopeless.

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