A sermon preached for the third Sunday of Advent at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis.
Gracious God, let these words be more than words, and give us the Spirit of Jesus.
When I moved to St. Louis, I didn’t know I was coming to learn how to hope. Now, you have to understand, I grew up in Colorado Rockies territory. Then I went to seminary where the Nationals play ball. I didn’t grow up with teams that teach you to hope, at least not to hope for much October baseball. Then I moved to St. Louis, and the new ballpark shines with all those pennants and World Series Champion banners. Those St. Louis Cardinals, man, they teach you something about hope. I didn’t know I moved to St. Louis to learn about hope, yet here I am, and here we are.
I disagree with Emily Dickinson. I don’t think hope is a thing with feathers, as she says in her poem. Hope is not lightweight and insubstantial, at least not Christian hope. The hope we place in Christ is weighty. Jesus’ yoke may be easy. His burden may be light. But Christ’s hope is heavy. The road of hope is long. Let’s face it, sometimes we grow weary. I know I’ve felt weary sometimes these past weeks. John the Baptist knew some weary hearts.
John the Baptist steps into our Advent narrative kind of awkwardly today. The lectionary committee, the ecumenical team that slices up our readings, tried to keep this Gospel focused on John, on the prophet who points to the light. We’re not ready for Christmas yet. That slicing and dicing makes for some odd timing. John knew the light had already come, but we’re trying to pretend he’s waiting.
While we’re still waiting, at least liturgically, John speaks to the weary hearted. The voice of one rings out in the wilderness of Rome’s weary empire. He speaks his words knowing, knowing that Israel is waiting, groaning, yearning for a savior. He speaks his words in a time when God’s people were weary from oppression.
John says, “Prepare.” Prepare the way of the Lord. You’ve got to remember that he’s speaking in an empire that prided itself on highway construction. That song, “Life is a Highway” could have been written about the Roman empire. My high school history teacher taught me that roads were the great technological innovation that allowed Rome to rule the known world: great roads. Prophets don’t prophesy in a vacuum. John is calling the empire’s great roads crooked. He’s worried about the people who are getting run over by those crooked roads. Prepare the road. Prepare that road of hope. Something new is coming. A savior is coming.
Here’s the nuance of Advent: John knows he isn’t the savior, but he knows there is work to do. Let me say that again. John knows he isn’t the savior, but he has work to do. John, like all the prophets, is a teacher on the long road of hope.
In the midst of this season full of hashtag proclamations that #blacklivesmatter #alllivesmatter, in the midst of this uneasy time, my husband Eli and I decided to take his father Paul and go see “A Raisin in the Sun.” If you haven’t had a chance to see it, the St. Louis Black Rep theater’s production is playing for another week. I’d really encourage you to go. Hearing Lorraine Hansberry’s dialogue, performed against the backdrop of all that has gone on in our city and nation these past weeks, was inspiring and eery.
“A Raisin in the Sun” was first performed in 1959. The play is set in 1953 and captures the contemporary tensions around race and black identity. You can see a lot of differences between then and now, seeing the play today. What’s eery is how little has changed.
A great deal about the play resonates today, but one scene in particular caught my attention. The younger sister, Beneatha, a college student, is fretting aloud, as college students do. She is worried that she won’t make it to medical school, she won’t reach her potential. She launches into a tirade about God, about how her mother and father were wrong to take her to church. She says she is tired of hearing about God. God is just an idea, and doesn’t have relevance for her life. Mama stands up. Walks across the room. Mama towers over Beneatha. The room grows quiet.
And Mama says, “Now you repeat after me: In my mother’s house, there is still God.” In my mother’s house, there is still God.
Mama and John the Baptist have something in common. They both point beyond themselves. They don’t pretend they can care people alone. Mama and John the Baptist know that we need a savior, we need God. If we’re going to make it to that place Isaiah promises, if all the oppressed are going to be lifted up, if all the prisoners are going to be set free, we need God. We are invited to keep waiting and watching, because we need God. God is the one who will carry our hope all the way.
God is the one who can carry us all, but we still have work to do. We have a way to prepare. We have broken hearts to bind up. Isaiah says
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
Who are the “they?” “They” are the whole nation. “They” are God’s people. “They” can be us. The long road of hope will demand some heavy lifting. This is the invitation of life with God, an invitation to prepare, and invitation to point the way. God invites us to rebuild. God invites us to bind up the brokenhearted. God invites us to examine the structures of our society, and to build something new. God invites us to hope, to the long road of hope.
Some of you know that before I was a priest, I was trained as a community organizer. In organizing, there’s a method to growing hope. You’ve got to work to generate the hope. When an organizer comes into a community, they look for a campaign that is “winnable.” The organizer gets people together to work on something they know they will win. Often that campaign is small and commonsense. In Anacostia, a neighborhood on the “wrong side of the river” in Washington DC, I remember a story about community organizers who picked an elementary school bathroom.
The school system in DC was a mess, is still a mess. There are always campaigns going on. Everyone knows the schools in Washington are broken. They’re tired of trying to fix them. That exhaustion is toxic to change. The community organizers knew they had to teach people how to hope. They focused on one elementary school, close to a couple of churches which belonged to the organization. They started meeting with parents and listening to their frustrations. Over and over again they heard about the little boys lining up to use the one functioning bathroom at the elementary school. The other bathroom had been broken for years.
They got the parents together. They organized meetings at the churches and circulated a petition. Clergy, parents, teachers, and church members went together to city hall. The ask was small: fix the broken bathroom. Low and behold, money was moved around and the other boys’ bathroom was repaired. They won. They started to see the power they had as a community. They became the repairers of a ruined city, or at least of a little boys’ bathroom. They held fast to what was good. They learned how to hope.
I was making a joke at the beginning, about the Cardinals and hope, but the joke has a kernel of truth. When you live in a town where the baseball team consistently loses, you don’t learn to expect the best. You don’t have those little victories that lead up to a pennant on your wall. This is true in our public life, and in our personal lives. We need the little victories. Parents thrive when strangers comment and say, “Your children are behaving so well.” Workers perform better when they get consistent positive feedback from managers. Business owners do well when they are celebrated for paying a good wage and providing good benefits. School children do well when parents and teachers notice their accomplishments and take the time to say, “Good Job!” We need to celebrate the little wins our our lives, to hold fast to those little victories.
St. Louis knows about hope. As I’ve watched the news, and walked the streets of this town, I’ve seen little wins. I’ve seen painters covering boarded up windows with art. I’ve seen black and white people praying together. I’ve seen police officers help to close down streets so that protestors can cross safely. I’ve seen trained leaders de-escalating violence. I know you may be thinking, Mike, we’ve seen a lot more than just these optimistic pollyanna positive moments. True. I think God invites us to hold fast to what is good.
We need little victories if we’re going to learn how to hope. If we’re going to walk the long road of hope, we need the little wins. We need to let them build up. We need the teachers who choose to work with the kids our society writes off and teaches them to dream about college. We need the bus drivers who warmly greet the early morning riders, trying to hold onto a job. We need the laborers who wake up early to gather their fellow workers together about asking for a raise and better benefits. We need the police who walk their beat with open eyes AND open hearts, helping the community to grow safer. We need the investors who choose to give capital to black entrepreneurs, knowing that a thriving small business can lift up a family and a neighborhood. We need churchgoers who are willing to show up to city council meetings, or a school board meetings, saying with our presence that God cares about the equality of our city and our schools. We need the little victories, the daily work, that makes up the long road of hope.
John invites us to prepare the hopeful road. John invites us to stop pretending we have all the answers. God doesn’t need us to be the grand savior. That’s Jesus job. That’s God’s job. John invites us to simply prepare, to focus on the little wins. Advent invites us to straighten out our little corner of the road.
Here’s the promise of John the Baptist. Here’s the promise of Mama from “A Raisin in the Sun.” Here is the promise to St. Louis: God is coming. Those little wins, they will count for something. The road we prepare, it’ll count. That long road of hope, if we walk it together, that road will lead us home. God’s coming to Bethlehem. God’s coming to St. Louis and to New York. God’s coming. Prepare the way. Hope.