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.

Annunciation, a sermon at St. Mary the Virgin San Francisco

A sermon preached at Evensong at St. Mary the Virgin

San Francisco, CA

Let these words be more than words, and give us the spirit of Jesus.

Those words are probably familiar to you.  They are to me too.  I spent several years worshiping, and for awhile working, with Scott your rector, and hearing him start sermons with that phrase: “Let my words be more than words.”  “Give us these spirit of Jesus.”  I am one of several products of Scott’s conversations with parishioners.  “Mike,” he would say, “let’s talk about what you’re going to do with your life.”  I wasn’t alone.  In my years at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego I watched Scott help people hatch plans.  One successful tax attorney left a profitable practice to work for the church.  Another parishioner put a fundraising career on the back burner to help run an orphanage in Tijuana.  Scott also, most notoriously, sent several of us to seminary.  I am grateful, but I’m also here at St. Mary’s partially to give you fair warning.  If your rector Scott Richardson wants to discuss plans for your life, you might want to start walking in the other direction.

Scott sent me to seminary, and he sent me to the good biblical seminary in Virginia, not like that smoky catholic place he went in New York.  So even though I am here with you on the Feast of the Annunciation, a very catholic feast indeed, I am going to talk about the Bible.  You might be wondering why we are hearing this story tonight, of the Angel Gabriel and Mary.  Usually we hear this in the run up to Christmas.  Well, if you think of it, on Tuesday it will be nine months until December 25th, and Mary needs to hear that she’s pregnant.  I want to spend a moment with Luke’s story about the Angel Gabriel and Mary’s unexpected news.  To do so though, I think we need to take a pause.  We have a problem.  We know this story too well.  It’s easy to just think, “oh, yes, the Virgin Mary heard she was pregnant” and skip ahead to the Nativity, but I think we need to pause.  We know this story to well, and so there is a danger that we miss how absurd the story is.

I don’t know if you have heard about a billboard that was put up by St. Matthew’s Anglican Church a few years ago in Auckland, New Zealand.  The billboard has received a lot of international attention.  In many ways the billboard portrait of Mary fits our traditional picture.  Mary is surrounded with enough flowing green and red robe to evoke the Renaissance paintings.  She is blonde, and has that certain otherworldly glow.  In many ways the billboard is like all of the other images we have of Mary.  But this billboard is different.  Mary’s eyes are scared and she covers her mouth with one hand.  In the other hand, she holds a home pregnancy test, with two little blue lines.

virgin-mary-pregnancy-test-billboard

The image had caused no small amount of ire from traditionalists, but the vicar of St. Matthew’s defends the work, as an invitation, an invitation to reconsider the story of Mary, the story we hear today.

From what we know, Mary was young: 12 to 14.  Mary was still unmarried, though things were going well with Joseph, the carpenter.  Mary was poor.  This was an inopportune time to find out she was pregnant.  Luke’s version, written 90-100 years after the fact, improves on the situation.  The Gospel writer wasn’t there, recording the conversation verbatim.  St. Luke was not writing history, the way we think of history.  Luke’s genre was Gospel, “Good News,” so we should not be surprised if he has cleaned the story up a bit.

When you read the Bible, I really encourage you to take your time.  Any student of the Bible, like any student of literature, or history, or psychology knows that you have to listen as much for what is NOT said, as for what is said.  Today’s Gospel story, the story of Mary, is a great example.  If you want the full story, you have to pause and listen for what is being said between the lines:

And the angel came to her and said “Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  But she was much perplexed by his words, and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.

PAUSE

Mary is 12 or 13.  How many 12 or 13 year old girls do you know?  How seriously do they take greetings?  How seriously do they take ANYTHING?  Twelve and thirteen year old girls have a great deal of perplexity, a great deal of wonder, and they come with a great deal of eye-rolling.

But what the Angel tells her next is the frightening part.  The billboard has her fear right.  She will conceive and bear a son.  Mary’s question: “How Can this be?”

PAUSE

Don’t mistake it, this story in many ways is a story of loss.  The angel’s announcement, the awareness of her unplanned pregnancy, it changes the game.  Mary had her life planned out.  She would marry Joseph.  They would by that condo in Nazareth; he made pretty good money after all.  Maybe in a couple of years they would have a couple of kids.  The schools were pretty good in the neighborhood.  I’m riffing in between the lines here, but you get the picture.  Mary would have had plans for her life.  She was a bride-to-be. And Mary had to lay those plans down.  There was a moment, even if it was only a moment, recorded by Luke, when the Incarnation did not seem like good news to Mary.

Mary’s question is so often our question when faced with a significant change of plans: “How can this be?”

“How can this be?”  is the question of the worker who is “downsized” after twenty years service to a business.

“How can this be?” is the question of the high school senior who had always dreamed of going to that particular university, and receives a letter that begins “we regret to inform you.”

“How can this be?” is a very human question, the question so many of us ask when we face significant loss and significant change.

BUT the story does not end there.

The story does not end with loss.  In fact, the loss is only a moment, an important moment, a game-changing moment, but only a moment.  The words of the Angel ring true.  “Nothing is impossible with God.” I wonder how long it actually took Mary to respond.  It only takes until the next sentence in Luke’s Gospel, but I doubt it was really that instantaneous.  The loss of a dream takes time to accept.  I wonder how many minutes, days, weeks, even months, it took Mary.  I wonder how many months it took Mary to utter her line, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

The Good News, for us, is that Mary does utter her line.  Mary becomes a paradigm for Christians facing the loss of their dreams.  Mary is known, especially in the Eastern Church, as the God-bearer, the Theotokos.  Mary reminds us to bear with God, to bear with God even through the pain of loss.  Mary becomes the paradigm of looking for God’s good news, even when your own life is not going as planned.  

This Bible story is too quickly skipped over on the way to the manger.  The story of Mary is a story of finding hope even as your plans crumble around you.  I work now with the Episcopal Church’s office of young adult and campus ministries, and this may be one of the best stories for folks in their twenties and thirties.  A young woman’s plans have to radically shift.  She has to let go of the image she had for her life.  How often does that happen to young adults?   In this antic moment of Mary’s story, she finds a way to turn fear into hope. 

Mary’s transition from “how can this be?” to “let it be with me” is Good News for all of us, at any stage of life.  You all have the blessing of a rector who makes a habit of helping people navigate big transitions in life.  Your rector has helped people hatch all sorts of new plans, but the work does not just belong to Scott.  The business of the church, the church that you and I are members of, is to help the world turn from fear to hope, like Mary did. 

Amen