Advent: “In Times Like These”

“In times like these.” I’ve found myself reading, writing and preaching that phrase a great deal over the past year. “In times like these.” Since the election last year many of have used these words. We’ve used them to name, without naming, the sorrow, the hurt, the fear we feel at our social and political reality. The world can feel unsteady and unsafe. “In times like these,” how do we practice hope? What does it mean to hope?

The Sunday after the election last year, I offered a poem. The writer, Nayirrah Waheed is a young black queer woman from Muslim heritage. This is a very short poem from her collection *Salt*:

i don’t pay attention to the
world ending.
it has ended for me
many times
and began again in the morning.

It has ended for me many times, and began again in the morning.” I thought of this poem, and this past year, as I read Jesus’ words from the Gospel.

 

Jesus’ words about the end time seem fitting today. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, I suspect this year has been difficult. Friends from both political parties are doubtful about leadership. Our world seems more divided, more hateful, and closer to nuclear war than it has been in a generation. My friends who are therapists and social workers, everyone I know in the mental health field, is barely keeping up with the needs of their clients.

In times like these, what does it mean to hope? How do you practice hope? 

This passage is known as Mark’s little apocalypse. Jesus describes the end of the world. “Lo he comes with clouds descending,” as we’ll sing at the end of our service. This passage is set in a wider warning for Jesus’ disciples. “beware…they will hand you over to councils, and you will be beaten…” Jesus warns of suffering, then he does something fascinating. Jesus quotes Isaiah.

“In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened.”

Jesus does not invent his own signs. He reaches back into his haftarah, back into the prophets. His people have been through this kind of suffering, this kind of dread before. For us the world has ended many times. Jesus looks to his spiritual ancestors, and he finds a way to hope. So he says to his disciples “Keep awake.” 

As I said to you a few weeks ago when we read Jesus’ story about the Bridesmaids and their lanterns, when he says “keep awake” I don’t think Jesus is talking about sleeplessness. We know enough about that kind of wakefulness. Jesus isn’t telling his disciples not to rest. This isn’t a literal “awake,” but a way of speaking about hope and awareness.

In the week following last year’s election, the New Yorker published a series of responses by famous writers. Junot Diaz, a black Dominican Pulitzer Prize winner wrote a letter to his God-daughter. It was titled: “Under President Trump, Radical Hope is our Best Weapon.” I want to read just a few of his words:

Colonial power, patriarchal power, capitalist power must always and everywhere be battled, because they never, ever quit. We have to keep fighting, because otherwise there will be no future—all will be consumed. Those of us whose ancestors were owned and bred like animals know that future all too well, because it is, in part, our past. And we know that by fighting, against all odds, we who had nothing, not even our real names, transformed the universe. Our ancestors did this with very little, and we who have more must do the same. This is the joyous destiny of our people—to bury the arc of the moral universe so deep in justice that it will never be undone.

Stay awake, Diaz says. These powers must always be battled because they never quit. Stay awake. Keep fighting. Our people have been here before.

We find ourselves again today in Advent.

Advent is a time to practice hope. Hope needs practice, especially if that hope is going to become radical. Today most of us experience Advent as a busy season. We rush around getting ready for Christmas. Most people, when they think of the word Advent immediately think of the word “calendar.” We experience Advent like a ticking countdown.

But in the earlier church Advent was a time for slowing down. We didn’t rush to Christmas. We sat in these stories. This year could this Advent be one of prayer, breathing, and slowing down?

I would argue that this year, more than most, we could use a good Advent. In the calendar of Bible readings we encounter stories and poems from a people in exile. We remember the angst, the frustration and the longing of God’s people across time. The season helps people to hope.

Like Jesus, we also read from the prophet Isaiah this morning. He writes from exile in Babylon. God’s people have been torn from the promised land. They are enslaved, alienated, and far from home. They have left behind the world they have known. In that strange land Isaiah laments that his people fade like a leaf. And the prophet cries to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” What an image.

Isaiah’s hope is not pretty. Isaiah’s hope is big. The prophet names a holy longing. Isaiah transforms his suffering into a longing for God, for God’s justice, for God’s city. Isaiah wants to see the powerful overthrown, the people set free. Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Isaiah pours his anger into desire. Isaiah longs for god. Longing can be holy. Longing reminds us from where we come. Longing reminds us that we are not at home. Longing is an important form of hope.

The community organizer Ed Chambers says that the work of justice lies in a single recognition.

That recognition is simply knowing that “the world as it is” is not “the world as it should be.” The work of the organizer is to help people hear, and feel, and work in the tension between the “world as it is” and the “world as it should be.” Staying awake, hoping, means recognizing, knowing where we are, naming injustice. And hope means orienting ourselves toward the world as it should be.

Advent bids us forward, ever forward. Advent is a kind of teacher. There’s a reason the Advent season is longer than the Christmas season. We look forward to Christmas, but Christmas is just 12 short days. Advent reminds us that in this world Christians are a people of hope. We aren’t yet satisfied. We have not reached our destination, not fully. Christians are a people with a direction.

Advent is not simply a countdown to Christmas. The stories we read are not just about waiting to remember a cute babe in a manger. Advent is not just about recalling the past. The prophets and stories also point us toward the second coming of Christ. Advent points us to the little apocalypse. We will go through the world ending, again and again. For Christians, these dreadful signs and inevitable, but they are also hopeful signs. This season reminds us that we live in hope of God’s world, God’s kin-dom, God’s reign on earth.

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” God will tear open the heavens and come down.

Every time we gather here in the church, no matter the season, we celebrate a little Advent. Christians are always a people of hope. We come to this table not just to celebrate the past, but to mine our sacred history for the courage to move into our future.

In one of our Eucharistic Prayers, in the Book of Common Prayer, the people ask God to “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” We gather around this table because here Christ offers food for the journey. Here we find strength to live in to our “joyous destiny.” From this table we walk ever forward.

“In times like these” may be shorthand for the frustration and the disappointment we’re feeling collectively. But the good news is that we do not have to stay in that disappointment. We do not have to inhabit our dread and our fear. Our ancestors have been here before, and they brought us this far by faith. Even in the dark a candle burns. We can keep on fighting. We will keep on going until the heavens are torn open and God’s reign has come.

In times like these, I invite you to observe this season of Advent. If this year, if recent days have been difficult, take up Advent’s practice of hope. Take a breath. Read some prophetic words written in exile. Join us for prayer. Join us in song. Join us in hope. Christ is coming. The world as it is won’t last much longer. As Arundhati Roy put it: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.” Keep awake. Keep the faith. Keep hoping. She is coming.

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?

Jesus, Paris, and the Prophecy of Justice

For a number of years, in the scholarship about Jesus, it was popular to regard him as a “prophet of the end times.” Passages like our Gospel today from Mark chapter 13, and the verses that follow are Mark’s “Apocalypse.” Jesus describes the end times in detail.

We’re not unfamiliar with this kind of prophecy in our day. Before I moved to St. Louis, I worked at a church just across Lafayette Park from the White House. Boy, we saw and heard a lot of prophecy in downtown Washington. We had our own prophets of doom. There was a homeless man who walked around in nothing but short cut off jeans. He had dreadlocks down to his waist and varied a big knotty walking stick. We called him Moses. Sometimes Moses and his friends held signs about the end times pointing to a specific Bible verse, like our reading from Mark. Prophets don’t just prophecy in Washington DC. I’ve seen would-be prophets here in St. Louis, on the Arch grounds. The end is always near.

As I said, there was a move in Christian theology to see Jesus like the guys at the Arch. Toward the end of the 19th and into the 20th century, it was fashionable to talk about Jesus as primarily an apocalyptic prophet. Johannes Weiss was the most influential of these scholars, but the influence stretched to Albert Schweitzer and more recently to the Jesus seminar: scholars like John Dominic Crossan, and popular writers like Bishop Spong. Thinkers who focus on the end-times prophecy can even wonder whether Jesus and his followers were disappointed when the end time they predicted didn’t come about.

I don’t think Jesus was a disappointed prophet. While I agree that Jesus talked about the end of the world, that the Bible as a whole can be pretty apocalyptic, I think this argument misses the point. Yes, Jesus imagined the end times. But for Jesus, the apocalypse wasn’t the end. Jesus central message is not “the end is near.”

Jesus is interested in what happens next.

In today’s Gospel, one of the disciples turns to Jesus and marvels at the Temple. The stones are huge. If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, and seen the wall that remains of the temple complex, you know this disciple is right. The stones are HUGE. The buildings were massive, bigger than anything these country bumpkins from Nazareth had ever seen.

The theologian James Alison is surprised by Jesus’ indifference toward the temple. In Jesus day, the building was a source of pride and of meaning for Jews. Faced with the power of the Roman occupying force, the temple stood for God’s continuing presence with the people Israel. Those huge stones, the giant buildings, they were reminders that God was bigger than Rome. But Jesus doesn’t care. They’ll tear it down, he says. Don’t be fascinated by this place, by this stuff. The temple isn’t what lasts.

This would have shocked his contemporaries. Jesus’ words could be seen as blasphemy. God was thought to dwell physically in the temple. Jesus’ words could be seen as treason. As I said, the temple was a source of national pride. But Jesus didn’t worry about the temple. He didn’t want his disciples to spend energy on the building, on the debates. He didn’t want them to go through angst if it was destroyed (as it turned out, about 40 years after Jesus’ departure, the temple would be razed by the Romans in response to a Jewish revolt). Jesus doesn’t want them to dwell on the destruction, he wants them focused on what’s next.

My favorite telling of the end times comes in the Gospel of Luke. We’ll actually read Luke’s “little apocalypse” in a couple of weeks at the beginning of Advent. In Luke’s version, Jesus tells his disciples. When you see the signs, when you see the signs in the moon, in the sky, when you see the signs: LIFT UP YOUR HEADS. Lift up your heads. You might expect Jesus to say something else. The end is coming! Duck!

But no, Jesus says, “Lift up your heads.” Or, as Mark has it, these signs are just “the birth pangs.” Jesus doesn’t want us to dwell on the destruction. Jesus doesn’t want us to marvel at the stones. Look for what is next Jesus says. Destruction is commonplace. It was true in Jesus time. It’s too true in ours. Disciples of Jesus focus on what is next.

This “lifting up” of our heads. This stance of expectation and hope, it’s not easy to come by in our world. Our a world that puts a lot of energy into the stones. You can probably tell, I’m reading the stones as figurative, more than literal. We put a lot of love into stones. One of the best explanations of sin that I know comes from the Confessions of St. Augustine. Augustine talked about sin as dis-ordered love. Sin arises when we get our loves out of order.

Examples of Augustine’s sense of sin are easy to come by. In my own life, I love my family more than I love getting my way, but sometimes when I don’t get my way, I behave as if that is more important than my family. Ask my sister, or my husband. Sometimes I get these loves out of order. I act as if getting my way were more important than family. Indeed, your preacher is a sinner.

I make light, but the consequences can be very dark. What we saw Friday night in the streets of Paris, was dark, was sinful. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to explore the events in Paris in the light of Augustine’s “disordered love.”

The American Muslim Scholar Omid Safi likes to point out that The Quran begins differently than the Bible. In the Quran we do not begin with “In the beginning God created.” The Quran doesn’t begin with God’s resume like our Bible. The Quran begins with God’s names: “In the name of God, the All-Merciful, Universally Compassionate, Ever Lovingly Tender.” That is where Islam begins. The men who committed these acts of terror professed a love for God who is named All-Merciful, Universally Compassionate, Ever Lovingly tender.

Loves out of order can become terrorism. When people talk about “Fundamentalism” I confess I get confused. The fundamentals of Islam, the fundamentals of Christianity, the fundamentals of Buddhism and Hinduism, and Judaism, the fundamentals are compassion, prayer, tender-heartedness, justice and love. Those are the fundamentals. Human beings sin when they order other loves in religion above compassion. When we elevate our need for power and control, when we artificially lift up a desire for surety in the system, when we put a need to be right over a need to be merciful, God help us.

As our new Presiding Bishop put it a few weeks ago: “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.” When religious people get our loves get out of order, we find ourselves in a state of sinfulness, missing the point. And we can find ourselves in the midst of tragedy.

“What are you focusing on?” Jesus asks his disciples. Ignore the temple stones. The symbols of power aren’t the point. Don’t get caught up on those buildings, those stones. When you hear them falling, pick up your heads. I think Jesus talked about the end times, because the world around him was ending. The centuries of Jewish rule of Jerusalem was ending. Rome had come to town. Sure, the Romans still allowed the temple to function, for a time, but the world as Jesus’ people had known it was about to change.

It was true in Jesus’ time, and it is true in our own. We know of earthquakes caused by our own exploration for fossil fuels. We see the temperature of the planet changing. We see atrocities carried out in God’s name across our planet. We see signs. The world as we know it ends all the time. But to Jesus, what we might see as the world ending, these signs are birth pangs for something new. Jesus was focused on what was next.

Jesus told his disciples: Seek first the Kingdom of God. Don’t worry about the temple. Don’t worry about it. Seek God’s kingdom. God’s Kingdom is what is next. Seek that place where all the children of God know of God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s tenderness. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.” Build the Kingdom. In the midst of tragedy, get to work. In the midst of fear, go love your neighbor.

We saw glimpses of that kind of love in Paris. As Friday night went on, Parisians started lighting up Twitter with the hashtag #porteouverte “Open Door.” People who had no where to go after the attacks, people who were stuck out in the cold streets, unable to return home, used the words to ask for a place to shelter. We saw the love in response. For every tweet that asked for help, hundreds and hundreds of Parisians were offering an open door without being asked. In the midst of tragedy, Paris took to Twitter to express loving their neighbors by opening their doors.

Jesus invites his followers to move past a captivation with symbols of power, a captivation that ends in destruction. Jesus isn’t a prophet of doom, but a prophet of hope.

Jesus invites us to lift up our heads, to see what is being born. Another world is possible, is coming. We can learn to treat one another with respect. We can learn to overcome ancient divides based on race, class, skin color, religion. We can right past wrongs. We can learn to see one another as created in the image and likeness of a God who is “All-Merciful, Universally Compassionate, Ever Lovingly Tender.” Following Jesus invites us to believe in that world, and look for that world, even in tragedy.

In order to see that world, we have to pay attention to the ordering of our loves. Do we live our lives in a way that shows our priorities? Do our actions demonstrate that we Love the Lord our God with all our mind and all our heart and all our soul? and that we Love our Neighbor as ourselves? In response to all that is happening in our world, Jesus invites us to consider what we love first, and to act out of that love.

Jesus wasn’t a disappointed prophet, because Jesus’ end game wasn’t the end times. For Jesus, the end was love, was justice. Even in the midst of tragedy, Jesus says, keep your heads up, look for the Kingdom of God being born. Justice is coming. Mercy is coming. Compassion is coming. Justice, Mercy, Compassion, love, that is the prophecy of Jesus.