When I was 19 years old, my parish priest, Fr. John Donaldson, died of cancer. I was privileged to be the acolyte and crucifer at his requiem and burial. It was a very formal, high-church affair. In all honesty, I remember very little of Fr. John’s funeral. I don’t remember Bishop Bloy’s homily at all, but I do remember the committal at the graveside. You see, it was my first experience of a burial using the liturgy of the Episcopal Church.

I had been to plenty of funerals by then: my father died when I was five, my grandfather when I was eight, my paternal uncle when I was twelve. But I had been an Episcopalian for only five years when Fr. John died and until then I’d never been to a Prayer Book funeral and I’d never heard the words spoken as dirt is tossed onto the coffin:

Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ….[1]

Those words, “in sure and certain hope,” really hit me and have stuck with me through the years. They have been used in Anglican burials since Archbishop Cranmer first penned them for the original Prayer Book in 1549. We still use them in the Prayer Book of 1979. They are fundamental to the Anglican expression of the Christian faith.

Several years later, I attended another requiem. When my son was in the 5th Grade, one of his classmates, a member of his Cub Scout pack, accidentally killed himself with his father’s firearm. We joined many other families in our small Kansas community for the funeral mass. I learned that day that the same words, “in sure and certain hope,” are found in the Roman Catholic Church’s Order for Christian Funerals, though they are in the post-communion prayer rather than the Committal. At that mass, however, they were overshadowed by the contradictory message of the pastor’s funeral homily which, in distilled form, basically said, “Everything happens for a reason. God’s plans are mysterious and we cannot hope to comprehend them, only accept with faith that everything will turn out for the best.” Optimistic claptrap! There was no reason for that boy’s death! Nothing about it made sense; it was no part of any plan God may have. There may have been optimism in that homily, but there was no hope.

Those two funerals came to mind this week because of the closing words of today’s epistle lesson:

For by hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.[2]

There is a substantial difference between the hope that St. Paul writes about in Romans, the hope that Abp. Cranmer expressed in those words of the funeral liturgy (words now used in the funeral liturgies of nearly all English-speaking Christians), and the blithe optimism of “Everything happens for a reason; everything will turn out for the best.” “Hope is a sense that things can be made better through action, while optimism is [nothing more than an] ephemeral belief that everything will be OK.”[3] Optimism is simply fatalism dressed up in Sunday clothes.

Gene Alarcon, a research psychologist with the U.S. Air Force, says that optimism is the assumption that “somehow … [one’s] future will be successful and fulfilling.” The “somehow” is not specified; it could be “luck, the actions of others, or one’s own actions.”[4] It doesn’t matter; things are just going to turn out for the best. An anonymous writer on the website Difference Between suggests that optimism disregards reality.[5] Arthur Brooks, who teaches at the Harvard School of Business and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, would go further than that; he wrote recently in The Atlantic that optimism distorts reality.[6] I think Brooks is right. Optimism – particularly the sort dressed up in the deterministic “God has an inscrutable plan” theology of that funeral oration – distorts reality and deforms hope.

As Benjamin Corey, writer of the Progressive Christian blog on Patheos, says to those who offer this and similar supposedly comforting platitudes, such language

…makes it sound as if all the horrible things in our life came from God. Can you pause for a moment and imagine how that might feel to us?
[W]hat we hear is:
God gave the cancer.
God caused the car accident.
God took the child.
God sparked the fire or blew in the hurricane.
God gave you this horrible pain.
Please consider that what you’re telling us – and in the midst of our despair no less – is that the very things that make us question if we’ll wake up breathing tomorrow, are all things that God somehow did to us. Instead of being the one safe place we can turn for comfort and solace, you turn God into the ultimate source of all of our pain and sorrow.[7]

But as Jesus makes clear in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in today’s Gospel lesson, these weeds – the car crash, the cancer, the accidental shooting – did not come from God.

Yes, things happen for a reason, but not necessarily God’s reasons. Yes, God has a plan, but the power of evil is constantly at work attempting to thwart God’s plan. Yes, everything will be well in the end, but in the meantime there are weeds in the field. “An enemy has done this.”[8] Optimism turns a blind eye to, and practically denies, this reality.

Hope, on the other hand, “works within the framework of reality.”[9] “Hope is a sense that things can be made better through action.”[10] It “is a conviction that one can act to make things better in some way. *** [Hope] is a theological virtue [which] implies [indeed, it demands!] voluntary action, not just happy prediction.”[11]

In an editorial with which I otherwise disagree (inasmuch as it champions the banning of abortion), the editors of the Jesuit magazine America wrote:

[I]n the Christian tradition, optimism is no virtue. To assume things will get better in the end may be helpful for maintaining a positive outlook, but it offers little else.[12]

Optimism is a conjecture; hope is a conviction. Optimism is an assumption; hope is an assertion. Optimism is passive; hope is active.

Writing specifically about the concluding verses of today’s epistle lesson, Anglican Bishop Tom Wright has said, “The word Paul uses for ‘wait’ here is apekdechometha [in which] most interpreters recognize a note of eagerness, of excited expectation.”[13] The hopeful waiting to which Paul refers is not a passive sitting on one’s thumbs. As Wright says, “[O]ne cannot expect present Christian living to be anything other than a matter of straining forward for what is yet to come … anxiously {scanning] the horizon.”[14] In other words, hopeful waiting is active waiting. Therefore, Wright proposes a rather different interpretation of the final verse of the lesson than we heard today: “If we hope for what we do not yet see, then, with steady patience, we maintain an eager expectation.”[15] That is the attitude encouraged by the owner of the field in Jesus’ parable; his servants are to look forward to the harvest when the weeds will be gathered apart from the wheat and burned. Meanwhile, there is work to be done.

Henri Nouwen describes Christian waiting in his book, Finding My Way Home:

Those who are waiting are waiting very actively. They know that what they are waiting for is growing from the ground on which they are standing. That’s the secret. The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun. Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.[16]

It is this presence to the moment that characterizes hope. To quote again from Bishop Tom Wright’s commentary on our passage from Romans:

If the Christian is called to live (to use one standard jargon) at the overlap of the old and new creations, this is hardly a matter of passive acceptance of a difficult and tense moment in God’s purposes, or of sitting back to await better times when the overlap is done and the new creation present. Rather, … the Christian is to embody the tension involved in bringing the new to birth already within the old.[17]

Hopeful waiting means being “ready when the moment is ripe for fulfillment. It is to do in each moment that which we can, to prepare our lives to receive [God’s] blessing — repentance, forgiving others, prayer, opening ourselves to perceive the holy in the mundane.”[18]

Unlike passive optimism, hope is motivational. It affirms our agency and encourages us to do what we can do to build what we hope for. The things we can and should do include:
taking part in activities we care about
engaging in a variety of spiritual practices
intentionally imagining the futures we desire and making plans that excite and inspire us
helping others (remember the sheep and the goats: feed the hungry, give refreshment to the thirsty, comfort the suffering, house the homeless)[19]
staying in close contact with those we care about and minding our social connections (again, remember the sheep and the goats: visit those in prison and those who are sick)
taking care of our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls.

Optimism grasps at quick fixes, current fads, easy answers, and contemporary trends that are fleeting. Hope holds fast to that which is, in the words of the funeral liturgy, “sure and certain.” The Scottish Baptist preacher Andrew MacLaren likened hope to a hiking pole or stave. “If,” he said, “you have a staff to lean upon which will neither give, nor warp, nor crack, whatever stress is put upon it, see that you lean upon it, not with a tremulous finger, but with your whole hand.”[20] As the editors of America said,

For the Christian, hope is the virtue that lives where optimism claims to abide: trust in the assurance of God’s fidelity and the belief that we can participate in God’s faithful action in the world. For the Christian, hope does not tell us that things will get better, but that in the end, with God, all shall be well.[21]

Ours is a faith that saves us from optimism. The Christian knows that everything will not be okay — there will still be injustice, suffering, sorrow; beloved pastors will still die of cancer; children will still die from gunshots; there will still be weeds mixed in amongst the wheat — but the Christian gets out of bed anyway, and gets on with the work of hope.


This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2023, to the people of Harcourt Parish, Gambier, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was supply preacher during that parish’s rector’s sabbatical.

The lessons were from Proper 11A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23; Romans 8:12-25; and St. Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

The illustration is the Theological Virtue of Hope by an unknown Umbrian painter, ca. 1500. It is held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.


Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer 1928, p. 333

[2] Romans 8:24-25 (NRSV)

[3] Anonymous, The Difference Between Hope and Optimism—and Why it Matters, Equinox Counseling & Wellness Center, undated, accessed 17 July 2023

[4] Gene M. Alarcon, et al., Great expectations: A meta-analytic examination of optimism and hope, Personality and Individual Differences, Vol. 54:7, May 2013, Pages 821-827, 822

[5] Anonymous, Difference Between Hope and Optimism, DifferenceBetween,com, March 15, 2015, accessed 19 July 2023

[6] See Arthur C. Brooks, The Difference Between Hope and Optimism, The Atlantic, September 23, 2021, accessed 19 July 2023

[7] Benjamin L. Corey, To Those Christians Who Say, “God Doesn’t Give Us More Than We Can Handle”, Progressive Christian on Patheos, October 12, 2017, accessed 21 July 2023?

[8] Matthew 13:28a (NRSV)

[9] DifferenceBetween.com, op. cit.

[10] Equinox Counseling, op. cit.

[11] Brooks, op. cit.

[12] The Editors, The difference between optimism and hope — and which one Christians should practice, America: The Jesuit Review, November 17, 2022, accessed 17 July 2023

[13] N.T. Wright, Commentary on Romans, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN:2002), page 598

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Henri Nouwen, Finding My Way Home (Crossroad, New York:2001), p. 87 et seq.

[17] Wright, op. cit., page 605

[18] Barry Casey, The Nature of Waiting, Spectrum, December 17, 2019, accessed 21 July 2023

[19] Matthew 25:31-46

[20] Andrew MacLaren, Sure and Certain Hope, in Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vol. II (Hodder & Stoughton, London:1905), online at Blue Letter Bible, accessed 22 July 2023

[21] America, op. cit.