Ming, one of our cats, and I have a ritual. When I get up I go to the bathroom, brush my teeth, take a shower, and get dressed. When I come out of the bathroom to get dressed, Ming lays down in the middle of the floor, between me and my dresser, and exposes his tummy. I tell him that he’s a good boy and that he has a fine tummy, and I lean down and give him a tummy rub. Every day.
I don’t remember when this started. Ming has always been a friendly cat, and when we brought him home from the rescue group he’d been with he adapted pretty quickly, but I just don’t remember when the ritual started. Whenever it began, though, there was for Ming an element of risk and an element of hope.
Cats don’t typically expose their most vulnerable parts. Cats don’t just routinely roll over and say “Here’s my belly. Do with it what you will.” I’m sure Ming knew me well enough by then to be reasonably sure that I wouldn’t kick him, at least not on purpose, but he didn’t know for sure. The first time he did it, whenever it was, there was an element of risk that I might hurt him or take advantage of him in some way.
There was also an element of hope. Ming wanted his tummy rubbed. The first time he laid down and exposed his belly, his hope was that I would rub it. I might have kicked him, I might have ignored him, our other cat might have jumped him – there were some possible negatives. But Ming’s hope that I would rub his belly outweighed the risks involved. (Ming’s a big boy. His belly outweighs a lot of things.)
There were risk and hope involved for me as well. Not as much risk as for Ming, but there was risk nevertheless. When they play cats, like to grab whatever they’re playing with by their front paws and scratch it with their back paws. This is what they do with birds and things that they catch in the wild. I was running the risk that Ming would grab me and scratch my arm to pieces. He’s done that before in other contexts. It was a real risk.
But I hoped that I would get to rub his tummy, that he would purr really loud, that we would have a nice bonding moment, and that it would be a nice way to start the day. And for both Ming and I, our risks paid off and our hopes came true. And now we repeat the ritual every day.
“Risk Hope” was this year’s Annual Conference theme. We don’t always think about risk and hope going together, but they do. Think back to the Exodus, the children of God leaving behind their slavery in Egypt. The armies of Egypt are behind them. The Red Sea is in front of them. The Israelites are trapped. And God tells Moses to stretch out his hand, and the sea will be parted.
Now there’s not a lot of risk here for Moses. If he stretches out his hand and nothing happens, they’re no worse off than they were before. So he stretches out his hand – and the sea parts! Exodus 14 verses 21 and 22: “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.”
Now there wasn’t a lot of risk for Moses, but how about that first Israelite who stepped onto the newly dry land? That man or woman was risking hope. They were hoping that this wasn’t an optical illusion of some kind. They were hoping that the water would stay parted, that the land would stay dry. They were hoping that God wouldn’t change his mind.
To have this hope is one thing. To act on that hope, to risk that the hope is real and well-founded, is another. I don’t know how long it took, but eventually someone risked their hope, someone acted and stepped out into the parted sea. Eventually someone else did, and then another and then another, until finally all were safe on the other shore.
Hebrews 10 verse 23 says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” Hold fast to our confession of hope. Do we do that? Do we risk our hope? Do we live in such a way that we must truly rely on our hope in God? Or is our hope, our faith, something that maybe informs our lives or our politics or something, but doesn’t really require risk on our part?
At Annual Conference we heard from the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, the Church of the Brethren in Haiti, the Church of the Brethren in Spain, the Church of the Brethren in Brazil, and other international guests. As I listened to them I was struck once again by the very real risk that hope requires in many of these settings. In parts of the world where Brethren and other Christians literally risk their lives and their livelihoods, or risk the mockery and disapproval of a very secular society, what do I risk here in the United States?
This is something that I come back to a lot, and I don’t know that I have a lot of answers. I don’t mean to give a hard time to American Christians and I don’t mean to sound judgmental; I’m sure we all risk a variety of things in a variety of ways. I find myself wondering if I really risk hope in God, if I really risk acting on my faith in Jesus in all the ways and places that I could. I say I’m wondering but I’m not really wondering – I know that I don’t. I guess what I’m wondering is where and how am I called to risk? Where and how am I called to act on my faith, to believe that God will sustain me, to trust that Jesus really is my savior in this world and in the next? I don’t always know the answers, so I keep asking myself the question.
I don’t always know the answers, but I know what the Bible says. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Let us as a congregation and as a denomination sing together, pray together, worship together, talk together, discern together, and risk hope together. Amen.