Advent I: Hope for a Better World

I would venture, outside the walls of this church, very few of you will encounter the word “Advent” let alone wishes for a blessed and hope-filled Advent season. So let me be the first, and maybe the only person, to wish you “Happy Advent.” We begin the church year anew today. We’ve decked out the altar and the clergy in blue. We’ve lit the first of four candles in the wreath.

Today Advent begins in earnest, but if you ride the trolly down Delmar into the Loop, or if you walk into any store, it is already Christmas. I worry about that rush to the finish. Advent is a season of delayed gratification (now, truthfully if you’re riding that trolly, you know something of delayed gratification, but maybe not the kind Advent is meant to create). Advent is a time when we build up our capacity to hope. Over the next weeks, I will be preaching a series of sermons on that simple topic: hope.

Outside the church the only word association most folks have with Advent is the “Calendar.” Advent calendars are not all bad. Rewarding kids with chocolate or a small toy each day can be a reminder to look forward, that we are not yet there, not yet to Christmas. But most Advent calendars these days are liturgically incorrect. They start on December 1st. This year Advent starts on December 2nd. Last year it started on December 3rd. The calendars all started on December 1st anyway. Oh well, it just means one more day of chocolate.

Here at church though, you are invited to mark Advent a bit differently. We won’t rush ahead to Christmas. We will build anticipation. Here at Holy Communion, and in most Episcopal churches, we have a special affinity for Advent. It has been said that Christians are an Advent people, a people who wait, who watch, who hope. Christians build their lives on hope. Advent is a fitting season for Christians, a time when we exercise the muscles that help us to live this Christian life. We are a people whose eyes are always on the horizon.

Christianity is about Horizons

Horizons hold a particular importance for Christian people. Twenty odd years ago David Edwards, then provost of Southwark Cathedral in England, preached a sermon at Harvard’s Memorial Church claiming that Christianity is a religion of the dawn. He read the opening of each Gospel’s account of the Resurrection. Every one of them begins in the morning, at dawn, the start of the new day. Jesus is risen at the beginning of the new day. Christians are a people who watch for the Son to break forth.

Jesus today uses the image of the horizon. First he talks about troubling signs in the moon and the stars and the planets, the roaring of the sea and the waves. Jesus quote the Hebrew prophets, and he borrows their foreboding. This is not an easy passage, not an easy pill to swallow. But notice what Jesus doesn’t say.

You might expect Jesus to say: “The end is coming, run, hide.” Or, as a refrigerator magnet I have has it: “Jesus is coming, look busy!” No, Jesus says, “when you see the signs, lift up your heads.” Lift up your heads. Watch. Wait and watch. Christ’s second coming is not terrifying, but a reason for hope. Lifting up your head is a proud act. Lifting up your head is a confident act. Lifting up your head is an action you take out of hope.

Hope is radical. Hope is defiant. Hope takes guts. Lift up your head, Jesus says. When the signs are bad, when the news is scary, when you are terrified by what is going on about you, don’t bury your head in the sand. Lift up your shoulders. Look to the horizon. Hope.

This season of Advent is about practicing hope. Jesus word of prophecy is not about doom and gloom. Jesus tells his followers, despite all the signs, keep hoping, keep dreaming, keep your eyes on that horizon. Christians are a people who live lives oriented toward the future. Advent is not just about waiting for Christmas. We are not waiting simply to remember that Christ once came among us. Advent points us to the promise that Christ will come again, in power and great glory.

Christians believe that the best days are ahead, the best is yet to come. We are a people who look ever forward, look to the horizon. We raise up our heads.

The community organizer Ed Chambers believed in a fundamental tension between “the world as it is”, and “the world as it should be.” As an organizer, Chambers asked people of faith to stand in that tension. For any change to come, we have to inhabit the tension. We have to clearly see “the world as it is,” and work and pray and keep our eyes on the world as it should be.

The Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge has said “Advent is designed to show that the meaning of Christmas is diminished to the vanishing point if we are not willing to take a fearless inventory of the darkness.” We have to take an inventory. We have to be willing to see the world as it is to properly celebrate the hope we have for Christ’s coming reign.

We must know the darkness, and know it well, to feel the blessing fo the light. That is the tension of Advent. Advent is a season of darkness, it always includes the longest night of the year. Advent asks us to slow down, to take stock, to take in the troubling signs. We live with the signs with hope, with heads uplifted. Advent is a time to dream of a better world.

Many of the prayers for this season talk about “casting out the powers of darkness.” I want to propose to you that there is no power darker than denying a group of people the right to dream. But we see that denial all the time. Human beings are told not to dream by systems of economic exploitation: “You won’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 queer, you’re a woman, you’re black.” The message is the same: Don’t cause trouble. Don’t give rise to tension. “Put down your head” is a message of control.

Jesus invites us to radical hope. Imagining the world as it should be causes us to see the imbalances and exploitations of the world as it is. We live in the tension this season, and as I said before, Advent is good practice. Christians live with the Advent tension all year long.

Hope and Refugees

I felt something of that tension this week as I saw the images coming from our southern border. I have said from this pulpit before, and I will say it again, the issues around the border and immigration are complex. When we see photos of women and infants running from canisters of teargas, when we see young men hurdling a barbed-wire fence, we face a temptation to allow our political party affiliation to simplify our interpretation of the images. Resist that temptation to simplify the narrative.

During the Obama administration tear gas was used about once per month at the US border. Yes, the images from this week should make you angry, but the current administration does not bear all of the blame. Systematically, for a generation, we have denied the rights of folks attempting to seek refuge in our country. Year after year we have intensified the militarization of our country’s southern border.

Under the current president out policy and politics have taken a particularly cruel turn. Maybe you saw this news story, an Episcopal Church in Indiana got their manger scene out incredibly early this year. I know, we put our new set out early today, partly to show it off, and partly because of the adult forum. But one Episcopal church got the scene out on the front lawn back in July to make a point. On the lawn in front of the church they separated Mary and Joseph from Jesus and erected a fence around the baby. Our president and justice system have criminalized asylum seekers and treated them reprehensibly. And, tragically, this administration’s policies represent simply an intensification of the injustice that has been going on in our name for decades.

The images of how our border is being enforced should give rise to a tension for us. The “world as it is” seems far from the “world as it should be.” This Advent, don’t rush away from that tension. Dwell there. Stay with the tension. Stay with the images, find and read the personal stories of immigrants and refugees who hope for a better life, who hope for a better world.

Back in October we hosted two leaders from our partner organization in El Salvador, Cristosal. That visit included co-hosting a forum at Washington University’s Danforth Center for Religion and politics. You can read Bob Lowe’s excellent article about the evening, printed in our Winter Newsletter. Cristosal works for human rights in Central America. They work toward hope that fewer Salvadorans, Hondurans, and other citizens of the region will need to flee credible threats of violence.

With Cristosal, we stand alongside Central Americans whose rights are being violated. We stand together because those of us who live in North America have learning to do from would-be refugees. As part of the forum at WashU, a group of local religious leaders responded to Cristosal’s work. My colleague, Jewish leader Maharat Rori Picker Neiss gave this reflection: “We’ve had a history of Jews illegally entering this country…In my childhood, so many of the stories we heard were about how people heroically falsified papers, stole documents, did whatever they needed to do to survive.” Immigration is complicated. Hope is complicated.

From the migrants, from the refugees, we can learn what it means to keep your eyes on the horizon. We can learn what it means to hope. To hope for a better world, a safer place to live, a place of prosperity, often means taking risks. Hope can mean putting your life, all you know, on the line. Hope can be risky. If Christians believe that hope is worth the risk, we have a great deal to learn from our sisters, our brothers, our siblings who have risked it all to seek refuge in another country. The Bible tells the story of Jesus being carried as an infant out of his home country by parents who were worried for his safety.

Advent is an invitation to hope.

We learn quickly from Jesus that hope is not something light and fluffy. Hope takes grit. Hope means taking risks. Hope means leaning into conflict, and living with the complexity, not settling for easy answers.

When the signs appear in the stars, when the sea roars, when the news is scary and frustrating, we need the muscles we build in Advent. The outside world with its chocolate calendars and glittering lights may not equip us to live through difficult times, to cope with the rumbles and tension of a world that is not as it should be. We need the capacity to look beyond the darkness, to keep our eyes on the horizon, to trust in the promise of God.

Today we begin again the cycle of readings. Today is a new year for the church, a new beginning. We begin with hope. This Advent, will you hear the invitation “lift up your heads?” Will you watch, and wait, and hope?

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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