Onto the scene walks John the Baptist. He has wild eyes. A smell hangs about him, and the people are glad this gathering is outdoors. Camel fur, especially wet camel fur, it’s not a pleasant odor. But then they hear his words. “Prepare the way.” A sense of hope awakens.
John the Baptist lived at a time of infrastructure investment. The Roman highway system was the greatest public works project the world had ever known. Straight roads ran from Rome to all corners of the known world. They were built to move conquering armies, to keep the people in submission. And this wild man starts preaching about roads. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. John is talking about resistance. These are God’s roads, not Rome’s. Prepare. John is a prophet. John is giving the people prophetic hope.
In the first week of Advent, we heard Bach’s famous hymn “sleeper’s wake.” For those who are woke there are two ways to encounter the world, despair or hope. I’ll let you guess which one I’m preaching about.
John Donne once said, “Despair is the damp of hell as joy is the serenity of heaven.” Damp captures it well.
Despair is toxic. Anyone who has struggled with depression can tell you. Despair is disabling. Despair leaves you feeling frozen, unable to move. If you despair the future, you have no desire to go forward, to walk down that road.
Hope is not quite despair’s opposite. Hope can look a little ragged. Hope can be accompanied with tears. Advent is now a blue season here at Holy Communion. Hope can handle sadness. There might be a reason hope was the only thing unable escape Pandora’s box. Hope can be a little wonky. There’s a reason that Emily Dickinson called it “a thing with feathers.” A thing. Hope, especially the early seeds of hope, can look weak, can look rough. Hope might even wriggle in dressed up in stinky camel fur and eating bugs and wild honey.
The real difference between hope and despair is forward motion. With even a little bit of hope, you can start moving down the road. You can make the path straight. With a little bit of hope for the future, you are oriented forward, and you can pick up momentum. Sometimes it takes a bit of a shock to move from despair toward hope.
I think that’s why John is so rough on the Sadducees and Pharisees. He thinks they have “sold out.” He thinks they have given up. They’re accommodating the empire. They’re on Rome’s payroll. They’ve lost hope. John wants to shock them out of that despair. He doesn’t want the people to see the Pax Romana, peace at the tip of a sword, as normal. Oppression can’t be normal in God’s world. For John, hope needs to be nurtured, kept alive. He wants to shock the people back from despair to hope.
A couple years ago, in Advent, my husband Ellis and I took his father Paul to go see “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Black Rep. Hearing Lorraine Hansberry’s dialogue, performed against the backdrop of all that was going on in our city and nation in the year Michael Brown died, was eery.
“A Raisin in the Sun” is set in 1953 and captures the mid-twentieth century tensions around race and black identity. You can see a lot of differences between then and now, if you see the play today. What’s eery is what hasn’t 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. Beneatha is having a moment, a moment of despair. 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.”
Mama and John the Baptist have something in common. They point people beyond despair. They point to the road ahead. They point to God, our hope, our salvation. Both John and Mama know: hope can be hard work. It helps to rest your hope in God.
Some of you know that before I was a priest, I was trained as a community organizer. An organizer has to work to nurture hope in a community. When a new organizer comes into a neighborhood, they can’t just stand on a rooftop and proclaim that God’s justice has come. You have to earn people’s trust. In organizing, there’s a method to growing hope. You look for a campaign that is “winnable.” The organizer gets people together to work on something they know they can win. Often that campaign is small and commonsense. When I was living in Washington DC, I remember a story about community organizers who picked an elementary school bathroom in Anacostia, a neighborhood on the “wrong side of the river.
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. Exhaustion, like despair, is toxic. Exhaustion stifles change. The community organizers knew they had to teach people how to hope, so 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 months.
They got 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 a 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.
We learn to hope 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. Over the last two years of protest, 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’ve seen school kids walk out of class and invite their administration to talk about bias-motivated incidents. 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 in these next years, 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, who consciously encourage 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 librarians who are ready with a snarky remark for the overburdened student or professor, to lighten their day. 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 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 simply prepare, to focus on the little wins. Advent invites us to straighten out our little corner of the road. Because hope is coming. Bit by bit, God is building the Kingdom, yes even now. Yes, even now.
Here’s the promise of John the Baptist. It’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. God’s coming down that road. Don’t despair. Hope.