Advent often begins with an admonition to wait, patiently. I am not good at patience. I never have been. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be back in the church this Sunday. I was done waiting out the construction, in fact I was ready to be back about two Sundays after we started worshiping over in the Parish Hall. I am an impatient sort.
You would think that Advent would be among my least favorite of the church’s seasons, this patient time of expectation, of hope, of waiting. But in fact, it is my favorite time of year. Advent isn’t just about biding time
Part of what I love is the music. The Advent hymns are some of the best in the tradition. There are so many good hymns, and the season is so short that in a couple of weeks we will have a festival of lessons and carols, without a sermon, so we can get more of the music into the season. But for me, today, the first Sunday of the church year, belongs to Johann Sebastian Bach.
Wachet Auf, Sleepers Wake, which Jae played for a prelude, and the tune of our closing hymn is one of my favorite pieces of music. The counterpoint in which Bach arranged the traditional melodies has a special alchemy. And Jae knows, I am still impatiently waiting for our organ to arrive, so that I can hear the piece played in all of its glory. Next year can’t come fast enough. Because Bach’s music captures the sleepiness and the urgency of Advent.
Advent often begins with an admonition to be patient, but I want to capture the counterpoint as well. Because Advent also requires a certain holy impatience. Advent asks us to wait impatiently.
“The hour has already come for you to wake up,” St. Paul tells the Romans. “Be prepared because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know” Jesus tells the disciples. Be alert. Isaiah gives the promise, “they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning hooks…they will no longer learn how to make war.” We should be impatient for that day.
Advent asks us to take a fearless inventory of where we are, of all the ways our world is off course. We live in difficult times. We live with a great deal of injustice. Our neighbors are suffering. Advent asked us to take stock. Advent asks us what we will do…￼
The Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, the first black preacher to hold the office of pastor at Harvard’s Memorial church, used to talk about his father’s work as a cranberry farmer. “The farmer lives in proximity to two ultimate truths,” he said, “which are held in balance by the authority of his own experience. Ultimate truth number one is that the harvest is the result of incredible patience; and ultimate truth number two is that the harvest is the result of incredible work.” Idle farmers don’t gather great harvests: “what is worth waiting for is also worth working for…” Dr. Gomes of course was not just preaching about cranberries. We wait for, we work for, the coming reign of Christ.
As Christians our patience, and our holy impatience, has a direction. We aren’t waiting simply for Christmas. As far as the stores are concerned, Christmas has been here since at least Halloween anyway. We aren’t just waiting for the baby Jesus to appear. We are waiting for Christ to come in glory. We are waiting for justice to triumph over injustice. We are waiting for truth to triumph over the insanity of the news cycle. We are waiting for mercy, and hope, and above all love to return and conquer. We are waiting for those weapons to be beat into more useful tools.
So this Advent, I am not going to counsel you to be patient. Instead I say, be impatient. Be impatient for the coming of the reign of love. Be impatient for Christ to reign in glory. Let your impatience fuel your work, your diligence.
Dr. King wrote famously from a Birmingham jail:
Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every [African American] with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Have you noticed that it is always those in power who counsel patience? How often have legislators asked communities to be patient, to wait, to quiet down? How often have civic leaders promised solutions, improved schools, public transit, economic developments which will lift neighborhoods, and then followed their promises with the words “just wait.” As Dr. King reminded us, timing is everything. In questions of justice, impatience is everything.
Because today is first Day of December, we also remember the activism of those affected by HIV and AIDS. World AIDS Day reminds us that in the lifetime of many in this congregation, impatience has saved lives.
World AIDS day was first marked in 1988, just as the activism of ACT UP and other organizations was forcing the Reagan Administration to start working to cure the virus. I was a little kid when HIV/AIDS became a major story. It took a lot of hard work, a lot of organizing to draw the nation’s attention, and eventually the world’s attention to the virus.
When Ellis and I were first dating, we lived at a distance. Ellis was here in St. Louis and I was living in Washington DC. We spent quite a few evenings on the phone together watching movies. We’d open up Netflix and we’d countdown 3-2-1 before hitting play.
One summer evening we watched the documentary, “How to Survive a Plague.” Before the film, I knew vaguely that the LGBTQ+ community and their allies community had fought hard to raise awareness about HIV. I didn’t know how hard the fight had been.
I’ll never forget a particular scene, footage from 1992, when a group of activists brought the ashes of their loved ones to Washington. They made a procession to the White House lawn, outflanked the guards, and poured ashes over the fence in protest of the administration’s inaction on AIDS.
At the time, I worked at a church a block from the White House, and the next day I was assigned the daily noon mass. I left my office about an hour before and walked around the perimeter fence. I brought my prayer book, and when I reached the back of the White House, the fence nearest the ellipse, I paused and prayed some of the prayers said at the graveside. I realized the prayers were for me. I needed to know this story. I can be prone to frustration, to a sense that there is so little I can do. I needed to know how my forerunners, facing loss, facing death, chose defiance and hope.
The dead didn’t need my prayers. The ground was already holy. It had been made holy by the love, the faithfulness, and the action of those who fought back, who forced our government to fund research and to lead the way in the creation of lifesaving HIV therapies. I hope someday there is a memorial on that South lawn fence line, a reminder for the nation of the fierce love and impatience of the LGBTQ+ folks who organized to fight AIDS.
Today we celebrate the restlessness, the creativity, the anger that forced our government to move, to recognize the suffering of a people they once tried to ignore. Today we commit ourselves again to the active prayer that one day no one will die of HIV/AIDS. And no one will be forgotten.
I know we are in a season typically associated with patience. But, this Advent, remember holy impatience has saved lives. Be alert. Stay awake. The world is already rushing on toward Christmas. In this season, the world is content with nostalgia and consumption. Don’t settle for the shallow saccharine version of the season. Dig deeper. Christ’s coming is more consequential than the Black Friday sales, than tinsel, than tinny holiday music. Advent promises a deeper hope.
Christians know there is work to be done before we get there. While we wait, we also get busy. We prepare. We acknowledge that the world as it is is not the world as it should be. We long for Emmanuel, God with us. We rejoice in the promise even as we hold those in power accountable.
We are not simply waiting to tell a nice story about the arrival of a sweet child. Advent is the season when we await Christ’s coming into the world. Advent is the time when we remember what is always true for Christians. God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s love is coming. And we work for that for which we wait.
Advent is a season of hope, and a time which requires patience. But it is not the patience so often asked by the world. Don’t bide time. Advent is a season of counterpoint. The quiet has a certain urgency. A little restlessness is necessary when the stakes are as high as Scripture tells us. God is coming into this world. Truth, and justice, and love will conquer. So wait, impatiently. Amen.