Advent: The Tension of Hope

Two weeks ago, in my sermon, I gave you a bit of a preview of today’s Gospel. We read a similar text from Mark two weeks ago, because we were in the second of our three year cycle. Today we start year three, Luke’s year, and so we read the “Little Apocalypse” from Luke. Jesus tells us that the end is coming, watch for the signs.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, I don’t believe that Jesus’ discussion of the end times makes him a doom and gloom prophet. He wouldn’t be standing outside the White House or standing on the Grounds of the Arch in St. Louis with a big sign saying “The End is Near.” That’s not the message of Jesus. Jesus’ message is a message of hope.

You might expect Jesus to say: “The end is coming, run, hide.” Or, as a refrigerator magnet I may have on my refrigerator has it: “Jesus is coming, look busy!” But no, Jesus says, when you see the signs, lift up your heads. Lift up your heads. Watch. Wait and watch. Lifting up your act is a proud act. Lifting up your heads is a confident act. Lifting up your heads is an action you take out of hope.

We enter today into a season of Advent, a season that invites us into a place of waiting, watching, and lifting up our heads. Advent invites us to hope. Never forget that hope is a radical act. Let me say that again. Hope is a radical act. Hope is radical and hope will give rise to tension.

The community organizer Ed Chambers wrote a book he titled “Roots for Radicals.” His work is perhaps the best primer on the methods of social change for organizers, and his first chapter is entitled: “The World as it is, and the World as it should be.” He explains, there exists a tension, between the world as it is, and the world as it should be. For any change to come, we have to inhabit that tension. We have to see the world as it is, and dream about the world as it should be.

Too often, human beings are denied the capacity to live in that tension. Many of the prayers for this season of Advent talk about “casting out the powers of darkness.” I’m convinced there is no power darker than denying a group of people the right to dream. But we see that denial constantly. Human beings are told not to dream by systems of economic exploitation: You can’t ever get out from under this debt, put your head down and work. Human beings are told not to dream by forces of social exclusion: You can never do that: you’re gay, you’re a woman, you’re black, you can fill in the blank. The message is the same: Don’t cause trouble. Don’t give rise to tension. “Put down your head” is a message of control.

Hope is radical. Imagining the world as it should be causes us to see the imbalances and exploitations of the world as it is. Sometimes hope and anger go hand in hand. I know, I know, that might make you uncomfortable. We are good Christians, Episcopalians even, anger is one of those words we don’t really like to hear in church. We might like the word only slightly more than the word Evangelism, or Revival. Some of you just squirmed. But we don’t, we don’t like the word anger.

I have to tell you, to be mature Christians, we need anger. Anger and hope go hand in hand at times. There is a scene in the life of the organizer Harvey Milk that illustrates the balance of anger and hope well. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician elected in the United States, unsurprisingly in California, back in the 70s. (As an aside, when I say back in the 70s, that really isn’t long ago. Our world can change so fast. There is reason to hope.)

The story about anger and hope takes place before he was elected. In 1977 Harvey Milk was a community organizer in the Castro, the emerging gay neighborhood (the “gay-borhood”) of San Francisco. Anita Bryant, an Evangelical Christian who got famous selling orange juice, had convinced Florida’s Dade County voters to overturn a new law protecting civil rights for lesbian and gay people. She told people God didn’t want rights for LGBT people.

On June 7, the night the protections fell in Florida, all the way across the country the Castro was filled with anger. Young LGBT people and their allies were ready to wreak havoc as they ran through streets. Harvey Milk saw the potential rioters and told some of his friends to get them to march downtown. The streets transformed from chaos into a semi-organized protest. Milk ran ahead, leading the group. He then addressed the crowd with a bullhorn. You might remember the telling of the story in the scene from the movie *Milk* when Sean Penn, playing Harvey stands on the steps of the capital and yells, “I know you’re angry. I’m angry.” Without feeling the anger, you don’t get to the hope.

The story in the movie really happened. There in the streets of the Castro in 1977, a group of people found anger. The world as it was, was not the world as it should be. They knew the tension. Harvey Milk helped them to articulate that tension. He helped them to move from the emotion of anger to the perspective of hope. And Milk moved them from chaotic riots to an organized march. The world as it is was not the world as it should be, but to do anything about the tension, they had to lift up their heads. They had to work to realize the dream of the world as it should be.

Advent invites us to lift up our heads to see the world as it is. Jesus invites us to lift up our heads and dream about the world as it should be, and thus see clearly, and perhaps feel some anger about, the world as it is. Advent exists between the two poles. Advent is about living in the tension between the world as it is, and the world as it should be. Advent is all about the tension of hope.

I’ve been talking on the global scale, and the global scale feels salient given all that’s in the news today. But hope is also intensely personal work. We live in a world that responds with tension for those who hope. It is easier to stay in the groove, to not make noise. It’s easier to stand in line. But staying in the groove doesn’t make you very interesting. Standing in line doesn’t bring a sense of wholeness to you life.

Lifting up our heads also means, in the words of Jesus, “that your hearts aren’t weighed down.” Jesus talks about drunkenness. As the holidays come, and we are confronted with family, we could all use some honesty about our relationships with alcohol. Pay attention to the other words as well. Jesus says, “don’t let your heart be weighed down by dissipation.” Dissipation is a great descriptive word. Don’t let your heart be watered down. Don’t let your hopes be washed away by the humdrum of life. He also exhorts the people not to be overcome by worry. The word in Greek is actually probably closer to our word for “anxiety.” Don’t let worrying frustrations overwhelm you. Don’t let your heart be weighed down. Don’t forget to hope.

I once heard the Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh speak at a Catholic college. Hearing a Buddhist monk might seem like a stretch for Catholics, but these were West Coast Catholics. And Thomas Merton wrote “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother.” Thay, as the monk is called, wrote a book about the teachings of Jesus as they resonate with the spiritual traditions of Buddhism. He argued that Jesus would have encouraged his followers to meditate, to clear their minds. Jesus’ exhortations, like the one we have today not to let your “hearts be weighed down” had a resonance for the Buddhist monk.

When he talked about meditation for Christians, Nhat Hanh said something that transformed passages like our reading from Luke for me. He said, Jesus often talked about the coming Kingdom, but you have to understand. “It is not that the Kingdom of God is not available to us. Rather, we are not available to the Kingdom.” Spiritual practice is about being available to God today, now. Meditation, and prayer, and worship, and scripture study, it helps open us to God’s presence with us now.

Lift up your heads. Don’t let your hearts be weighed down. Jesus is concerned about his followers emotional and spiritual state. There’s a story about Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador who campaigned for the poor and died a martyr standing up for the poor. Romero had a legendary prayer life. A journalist who had heard the rumors asked, “In the midst of the war, how do you find time for an hour of prayer a day.” Romero responded, “On the hardest days, I need two hours.” Now, know that your priest sometimes struggles to find 20 minutes in a day. I am no saint like Romero. But, if the world as it is is to be transformed into the world as it should be, we’re going to need people who are awake and alert. We need people with the prayer life to survive the tension. We need practices to help us keep our hearts and heads lifted.

In our world today, hope continues to be a radical act. Living with hope means living in tension. Advent invites us into the tension of hope. This Advent, what will you see clearly? This Advent: for what world will you hope? This Advent, how will you keep your head and your heart lifted up?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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