Advent: Are You Prepared?

Are you prepared? This week I caught myself saying, “Christmas is coming like a freight train.” Does that feel true for you? Exams to finish? Papers to grade? Food to prepare? Gifts to buy? Family coming to town? Therapy appointments to schedule to deal with the family coming to town? It is a busy season. Are you prepared?

A decade or so ago, I heard one of my theological heroes talk at my alma mater, The University of San Diego. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Friar of the Order of Preachers, is a tiny little Peruvian man. You’ve heard me say this before, but I’ve noticed that many holy people are very short. Mother Teresa was five feet. Desmond Tutu is tiny. Gustavo Gutierrez is short in stature, but he’s a theological giant. He’s the father of Latin American Liberation Theology.

The speech I heard him give was around this time of year, in great Shiley auditorium. He made many fine points about God’s preferential option for the poor, about Scripture’s attention to the least and the lost. But for me the speech culminated when he talked about what he called the defining prayer of our culture. Our defining prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, stay there.” Stay there! We’ve got this handled.

I think he was right to say this is the defining prayer of our culture. We live a society that is more technologically advanced, more militarily dominant, more economically resourced than any society ever, in all of earth’s history. It can feel like we have “it” handled.

And it can feel like it is our job to get “it” together at Christmas. It can feel like if we just wait in one more line at Target, if we just get to the gym one more time to work off the holiday pounds, if we can just get the house cleaned before my mother arrives, we will have it together. We will be prepared for Christmas. It can feel like if we just get that one thing done…

But that’s NOT the point of Advent. That’s not the point of this season of preparation. It’s not.

Christmas isn’t about us having the details ironed out. Christmas is the celebration of God’s biggest invasion of our privacy: the coming of Jesus.

God’s work in Jesus, from the very beginning, is an inconvenience to human plans. In the stories of Mary and Joseph hearing from the angels, they are shocked. Mary and Joseph didn’t plan for this. You don’t plan for unexpected pregnancies. They eventually find the blessing in the disruption, but it takes awhile. It’s a long road to Bethlehem. The stories of Advent can feel like a cascading avalanche of dashed hopes, of ruined expectations. We’re not prepared for God’s entrance into our world, into our lives. We never are.

That’s the beauty. God isn’t waiting for you to be ready. God doesn’t need you to have your act together. God is showing up whether or not you have the presents wrapped and the ham out of the oven. God is always already coming to you.

You’re work is deceptively simple. Get quiet. Wait for the Lord. Be still, as the psalms say. “Be still and know that I am God.”

In the midst of all the rush, can you make room for stillness? In the midst of all our cultures preparing, can you quiet yourself down? Can you wait with hope?

Many of you know that I spent my first years as a priest serving with a Spanish language congregation. Advent sermons are a little easier in Spanish. Wait and hope are the same word: “Esperar.” And the word rhymes well with another good word for Advent: “Respirar.” Breathe.

Slow down and breathe. God is coming. Ready or not, God is coming.

So why slow down? Why breathe? Is this just one more thing on my to-do list? Make room to be quiet. Do I need to add that to my calendar too?

Well, yes, and no. As he worked for the liberation of El Salvador’s poor, and interviewer asked Archbishop Oscar Romero how he made time for an hour of prayer every day. They said, “you are so busy. You have so much work to do.” He said, yes, “on the busy days I need two hours.” We’re not all saintly archbishops. Two hours, an hour, that’s a high standard. Maybe start with five minutes. Work your way to twenty. Then give me a call. The point of the story isn’t the amount of time, it is the practice of taking time. Romero realized that to be fully present to his people, to live into God’s calling, he needed quiet time. He needed space to reflect and to listen, to slow down and be with God.

In Advent, it can seem like the stakes are high. Family members have expectations about what is served at dinner. Kids have expectations about what the gifts they will receive. Let it go. That’s not where the stakes really are. Too often in life we let unimportant expectations set us up for emotional drama. We want something specific under the tree, on the table. Let it go. What if we came together this holiday season with no expectations? What would that Christmas gathering look like?

What if we let go of our small expectations, and looked at the real stakes?

Advent is a season of prophets. Isaiah for two weeks has been speaking about wolves lying down with lambs. He puts forth this incredible vision of God’s Holy Mountain as a place of safety, of strength, of health. Jesus tells John the Baptist’s followers to relate to their leader the story of the blind seeing, the dead being raised. The prophets remind us that the stakes are higher than working Christmas lights.

The stakes are high, but we often use the wrong measuring sticks. God’s vision is one of health, of wholeness, of justice for all creation. God’s vision for humanity is not some postcard of snowflakes and a family gathered around a table, with a goose. In God’s vision we’re all vegetarians anyway (check Isaiah last week, the lion was eating grass like on ox). God would have us involved in the building of God’s kingdom.

In John’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus says “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” I came that you might have LIFE. He uses the plural “you” which our presiding Bishop from North Carolina translates as “all y’all.” Jesus came, God came into our world, to bring health and wholeness to EVERYONE, to the whole planet.

The central image of Isaiah’s prophecy today is the desert blooming. Now, I know that most of you grew up here in the midwest. This is a place that doesn’t lack for water, which means that we also don’t lack for vegetation. All year round something is growing, something is blooming. Let me tell you, my sinuses know. Missouri is fertile territory. In this state, it is always green somewhere. The desert is different.

Most of the year the desert is dry, brown, quiet. But have you ever been in the desert in the springtime? It’s unbelievable. Stretches of parched sand become fields of flowers seemingly overnight. I remember driving through Joshua Tree California one Spring when I was in college and being stunned silent, overwhelmed by the colors. “The desert shall rejoice” Isaiah tells us. The least expected terrain can show God’s blessing most vibrantly.

There are desert places in our world, countries where people are fleeing violence, where hope is hard to find. There are neighborhoods in this city that are deserts, where healthy food is hard to find and violence comes to easily. There are desert places in our lives, projects set aside, dreams differed, relationships left fallow. Can we be quiet enough to let God show us the blessing that is possible? Can we quiet our own small expectations enough to hear the still small voice of God, presenting us with abundance?

I began by asking, are you prepared? Let me conclude by asking: why are you preparing? What are you preparing for? I think all of us, this preacher included, could use a dose of prophecy. We all need a reminder from time to time that we are not in charge. We need to pray, but we need to let go of the prayer of our culture. We need to let go of the busy, commercial, culturally loaded preparation. Let it go. Advent is a time to realize that we don’t have things together. God does not need us to hang the tinsel. We need to pray: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. THY KINGDOM COME.”

Don’t Despair. Hope

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.

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?