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.

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.

Never lose heart

Sometimes a preacher really has to work to figure out how to connect the Bible to today’s world. Sometimes the Gospel feels so culturally different, the times of Jesus feel so long ago. Sometimes we struggle to see the relevance of Scripture to our lives today. Then, every once and awhile, our calendar of readings assigns a text like the one we just heard.

“I have no fear of God, and no respect for anyone…”

In my life I have never seen a political campaign season so palpably affect a society. After last week’s debate I know people who found themselves feeling exhausted, frustrated. This week many of us felt a state of depression about the state of our national conversation.

There are a lot of echoes between the widow and the judge and our presidential candidates. I’ll let you have fun finding your own echoes. Feel free to email, or tweet at me, tell me the parallels you can find. I’m not going to dwell in the details today.

The Gospel introduces Jesus story this way: “Jesus told his disciples…about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” I think the two are connected. I think faith is for times like these. I think prayer is for times like these. I confess, I still consider myself a novice at prayer. I know, I look the part, but I still have a lot to learn.

A few weeks ago at Left Bank Books in the Central West End, I picked up a memoir by Scott Cairns, a literature professor at Missou entitled “Short Trip to the Edge.” The book recounts the first of his many travels to a place called “The Holy Mountain.” Mt. Athos is in Greece, it is an entire State of the Country filled with nothing but Orthodox monasteries. The mountainous isthmus is ruled by a collection of monastic foundations. The Greek government really just provides light and power, the monks take care of the rest.

Cairns converted to Orthodox Christianity later in life. In the book, he describes the path of Christianity much the way our parable does today, as an attempt to learn to “pray always.” If you meet an orthodox monk, you might notice him carrying around a knotted loop of rope. He might be silently passing the knots through his fingers while repeating the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Others say shortened versions: “Jesus have mercy” or even simply saying: “Jesus.”

An aside I know some of you have prayed a version that prayer. When I was learning to drive, my father often referred to the handles above the window of the passenger seat of the car as “Jesus handles.” He would often grab them as I braked hard and say, “Jesus!”

Returning to the Holy Mountain though, the simplicity of the prayer, the repetition, the tactile feeling of the rope in your hands, helps the prayer to be constant. Cairns tells his readers he wants to learn to pray constantly. He’s gladdened when he discovers himself falling asleep and waking up saying the words of the Jesus prayer. There is a desire to be a literalist about the Gospel’s words, to learn to “pray always.”

As I said, I’m a novice at prayer. I’m not sure I’ll ever fall asleep and wake up saying the Jesus prayer. But one of my seminary professors inspired me to continue to try to take prayer seriously. Mark Dyer taught systematic theology at Virginia Seminary when I was a student. Before he came to the seminary he was the Episcopal Bishop of Bethlehem Pennsylvania. He once got a laugh out of the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem by telling him that he was the bishop of Bethlehem. Church humor.

Before Mark was an Episcopal Bishop, he was a Roman Catholic benedictine monk. He always took prayer seriously. As a monk, Mark went to church six times a day to chant the office. Along with his brothers he sang psalms and bits of scripture day in and day out. Even after he left the monastery, Mark had a discipline of daily prayer. Even when he wasn’t in the seminary chapel, Mark would read from his prayer book in his study. He’d say the daily morning and evening prayers. When I was a young priest in Washington DC, Bishop Dyer was my first presenter when my young adults group started a program we called “Theology on Tap.” He spoke on the topic: “Monks and Beer.”

Mark told some funny stories about monks making beer, and monks drinking beer, but he found a way to present a life of prayer as an ordinary life. He told one more recent story. Mark talked candidly about a recent health scare. In the last years of his life Mark had heart problems, and at one point he needed an emergency bypass. He recounted finding himself on a hospital gurney, being rolled backwards away from the ER and towards the operating room. As the anesthesia began to take hold, without really thinking about it, Mark said he was surprised to find himself silently chanting some of the prayers from the monastery. He said that’s when he realized how much a life of prayer had shaped his soul. Mark died just two years ago, and is missed by many.

A couple of weeks ago I was back at Virginia Seminary for the annual convocation, and I was asked by Mark’s widow, Dr. Amy Dyer, to join a group that was telling stories about Mark around the lunch table. The story I just told you was what I shared with the group. I’m a novice at prayer, but I’ve had some really great teachers.

The seminary is in Alexandria Virginia, inside the Washington DC Beltway. While I was there, I also had the chance to visit the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. As an American, you have to go. If you have the opportunity, take it. The museum begins underground, telling the progression from slavery to freedom. Down in the basement there are fragments of a slave ship. You see a child’s shackles. As you move up, you begin to see glimmers of hope. There’s Nat Turner’s Bible and Harriet Tubman’s hymnal. There’s posters for rallies, and copies of Dr. King’s speeches. As you make your way back to the ground floor there is a wall sized photo of President Obama taking the Oath of Office.

Above ground there are more exhibits, and one in particular captured my attention. The exhibit focuses on black schools, black colleges, black social organizations, and black churches. The title of this exhibit is simple: “Making a way out of no way.” Making a way out of no way. There are exhibits about African American midwives, about black fraternities and sororities. Artifacts, photos, and videos tell the story of how faced with exclusion from institution, faced with systemic racism, faced with day to day bigotry, black communities came together, educated one another, and built social capital.

The church features prominently. Back when I lived in Washington I spent quite a lot of time in Smithsonian museums. Never have I seen so much religion in one of the National museums. It did my heart proud. “Making a Way Out of No Way”, and the historical sections below make it clear: the Black Community in this country learned to survive, learned to thrive, through prayer. How did they make a way where there was no way? They prayed, constantly, ceaselessly. They prayed with their voices and with their feet. And through that prayer and that persistence, they found a way. And where there wasn’t a way to be found, the black community made a way.

That’s the story of the widow. I heard a preacher once call this widow a saint. “Santa Persista” he called her. She is persistent. Faced with a tyrant. Faced with a man who is so self-involved, so unjust, that he does not fear God, does not respect anyone, she finds a way. That judge might have been caught up in his own image of himself. That judge might have been so focused on himself that he couldn’t hear her pleas, but she wasn’t going to let him off the hook. She persisted. She didn’t lose heart.

Hear the Good News: be persistent. Faced with injustice, faced with depression about the state of our world, be persistent. Keep knocking. Keep asking for justice. Keep looking for hope. Even when the leaders seem callous, uncaring, self-involved, keep praying and keep demanding justice. The Bible isn’t only relevant to ancient culture. Faith is for times like ours. As much as they were for his disciples, Jesus words are words for us today. God will grant justice. God does hear prayer. Pray, pray without ceasing. If you are busy praying, you will never lose heart.