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.

The Jesus Movement has a Direction: Out to the Lost, the Least, and Left Out

In 1982 Pope John Paul II became the first Bishop of Rome in over 500 years to set foot on British soil. For five centuries or so the visit would have been unthinkable. At the height of the Reformation the Archbishop of Canterbury was prone to referring to the pope as the “antichrist.” Rome had similar words for the English usurpers.

A few centuries later, on a crisp May morning in 1982, Anglican Archbishop Robert Runcie and the Polish-born pope met outside Canterbury Cathedral, and processed inside for a service of common prayer. There at the site of Becket’s martyrdom together they led the gathered faithful in a renewal of baptismal vows, those promises we are about to make today.

We don’t talk about the Pope much in Episcopal churches. So why bring him up today? The action John Paul II took, on that first papal visit to post-Reformation England, signified a great deal. The Archbishop of Canterbury, titular head of the Anglican Communion, and the Bishop of Rome stood together and recalled their baptismal promises.

Over against all the divisions between these two leaders, divisions of history, nation, culture, language, and the nuances of faith, they stood together. They said, “we acknowledge one baptism.” We all, all Christians, share in one baptism. We aren’t baptized Catholic or Episcopalian. There is one baptism. The movement in which we participate, this Jesus movement, is bigger than any one church, any one communion, any one denomination. Our baptism doesn’t brand us for any human organization or ethnic group.

Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Runcie’s commitment to baptism as a sign of unity was radical because so often in human history we have pretended that we, we were the ones who got to separate sheep from goats. So often we want to make the divisions. We want to count who is in, and who is out. All of us practice this separation. We all form clubs for the purpose of keeping some people out.

Let’s be real for a moment. A number of us just survived another Thanksgiving with family. Even in our own families we pretend we get to decide on sheep and goats. Too often hold on to old grudges. Too often we roll our eyes at the family member who “always has to act this way.” Too often we have already decided that this sibling, or that uncle, is a goat. We like to pretend we get to distinguish.

Baptism reminds us, we don’t get to choose between sheep and goats.

A moment ago I mentioned the “Jesus Movement.” This is the name our Presiding Bishop in The Episcopal Church uses to describe our church. “We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement” he likes to say. I find the name fitting for these days. For too long the Church felt static, like a building you visited, or a club you joined. “Movement” gives a different sense of Christianity all together. “Movement” makes us sound dynamic, helps us to understand that following Jesus means getting up off our duffs.

“The Jesus Movement” also reminds us of the ancient church. Before Christians were known as “Christians” they were called simply “the followers of the way.” Our faith is about motion, it has direction. We follow a leader.

In the Gospel today Jesus makes the direction clear, his movement isn’t random. Both the blessed and the condemned in the story are confused. They ask Jesus “When did we visit you, feed you, clothe you? When did we minister to you?” or “When did we fail to see you?” Jesus says, when you did so to the least of these, to my brothers and sisters.

Jesus’ movement is purposeful. Jesus’ movement has a direction. The Jesus movement is headed out, out toward anyone who has been excluded, anyone who has been abandoned, anyone who has been left hungry, anyone who is ill, anyone who is in prison, out to those who have been judged. When a human wall goes up to separate, Jesus’ direction is out past the wall to the excluded. Jesus’ movement is inclusive, breaks down barriers, goes to those who are lost, least, and left out. God is concerned with all of those hungry sheep.

The Jesus movement leads us out beyond our comfort zones.

Sometimes the Jesus movement can be downright inconvenient. Pastors can talk big. We can preach about inclusion until we’re blue in the face. We can write “all are welcome” again and again on our signs, but meaning these words, living Jesus’ movement to the excluded, can be inconvenient.

Just Monday I had a phone call. Holy Communion, since before I got here, has observed St. Louis’ local custom on Mondays. This was new to me moving here from Washington. Mondays the church office is closed. The phones are usually on Do Not Disturb. It used to drive me nuts that nothing is open on Mondays. Now, I love it. I tend to take Fridays off, so Mondays are often my day in the office to get things done when no one else is around. It’s quiet. But this past Monday I was waiting for an important call, so I was picking up the phone. An unlisted number came up on caller ID, so I picked up.

The woman on the other end of the line was a bit confused. She had to stop and start again a few times. Finally I understood, she wanted to ask about details for our laundry love ministry. The caller must have heard frustration in my voice, because she said, “I’m not trying to be rude, I had a stroke and I get confused.” I waited for her while she went to find a pen and paper. I repeated the name and location and time of our Laundry Love ministry over and over. 7200 Balson, Classic Coin Laundry, 3rd Tuesday of the month, 6:30pm. I told her the details. We provide pizza, conversation, soap, and quarters. You do your laundry. Again and again I repeated.

My phone has a little timer on the caller ID screen, so I can see the length of a call. I know we hit the 18 minute mark around the time she was searching for a second pencil. At one point in the call I found myself thinking, “Maybe Laundry Love was a bad idea. This ministry might mean I spend more time talking to people like this, people who are disorganized, and needy, and who take up a lot of my time. I am supposed to be on an important call. Should we re-think this ministry?” Then I heard myself with those thoughts, and I rolled my eyes at myself. Have you ever had a moment like that? Where you see what you’re doing and just think, “oh self…”

“As you do unto the least of these…” Jesus’ movement can be an inconvenience. The Jesus movement will lead you out among those who are a mess, who are disorganized, who are unable to care for themselves. Jesus movement always pushes us out beyond the walls of our clubs, our churches, our safe spaces. Jesus’ movement has a direction.

And today we are initiating Katelyn Elizabeth (Kate) into this movement. We will promise to support her in her life of faith. Her godparents and parents will promise to help her grow into the “full stature of Christ.” Kate, I love you, and you’re doomed. We’re setting her up for an inconvenient and uncomfortable journey, out to the lost, out to the least, out to the people who take up too much time. And we’ll renew our own promises to resist evil and to follow Jesus. Because out with those we would count as goats, that is where Jesus is to be found.

Baptism reminds us that we are caught up in this work together. Before we can make decisions for ourselves, God has chosen to love us. We don’t do anything to merit God’s love. We can’t merit God’s love. God loves all the wrong people. We don’t get to choose who God loves. But we can come along for the ride. God’s love has a direction in which we can participate.

On that crisp May morning in 1982, when the Pope and the Archbishop renewed their own baptismal promises, their prayers mattered. Standing together mattered. Britain was in the midst of a petty little war with Argentina, a Catholic country, over the Falkland Islands. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Anglicans were actively killing one another. In his homily the Pope talked about the importance of renewing our baptismal vows:

Christ’s promise gives us confidence in the power of this same Holy Spirit to heal the divisions introduced into the Church in the course of the centuries since that first Pentecost day. In this way the renewal of our baptismal vows will become a pledge to do all in our power to co-operate with the grace of the Holy Spirit, who alone can lead us to the day when we will profess the fullness of our faith together.

Baptism is not a mark for insiders. Baptism is bigger than the walls of this church. The Jesus movement is bigger than any one denomination. Without our sisters, brothers, siblings from other walks of life we are not whole. Baptism is incorporation into the least exclusive body in human history. Baptism brings us into a movement, initiates us for following Jesus out beyond our comfort zones, to the lost, the least and the left out. If you take it seriously, baptism will inconvenience the hell out of you.

God’s Economy (part 1): Abundance and Equity

Our Biblical stories this morning, by accident or design, touch on a common theme: economics. The story of Moses and God’s manna from heaven may not deal directly with currency, but God’s provision is the clear message of the story. Jesus’ parable about the workers and the employer makes an economic connection pretty obviously. Jesus was pretty direct about economics. “Give us this day, our daily bread.” There’s an economics stake in this life of faith we practice. This morning, we’re beginning a sermon series on God’s economics. We’ll begin today, pause next week to bless some animals, and pick up where we left off on October 8. In this first sermon, I plan to present two perspectives that I believe at least partly characterize God’s economics: abundance, and equity.

Abundance

Walter Brueggemann is a deeply respected Biblical theologian with ties to St. Louis. He received his PhD from Saint Louis University and his Divinity Degree from Eden Seminary, where he later served as academic Dean. Some of Brueggeman’s most influential work is in the Biblical description of God’s abundance over and against human perceptions of scarcity.

Brueggeman argues that for the first 46 chapters of the Bible, we hear of God’s extravagant abundance. God is lavish in creation. God creates more than God’s creatures need to survive. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God says. There’s room, there’s plenty. This abundance continues through the sojourn of Abraham and Sarah, making them and their descendants a blessing to all the people.
This blessing, this abundance, takes a sharp left turn in the 47th chapter of Genesis. Listen to Brueggeman describe chapter 47:

Pharaoh dreams that there will be a famine in the land. So Pharaoh gets organized to administer, control and monopolize the food supply. Pharaoh introduces the principle of scarcity into the world economy. For the first time in the Bible, someone says, “There’s not enough. Let’s get everything.”

Because Pharaoh is afraid that there aren’t enough good things to go around, he must try to have them all. Because he is fearful, he is ruthless. Pharaoh hires Joseph to manage the monopoly. When the crops fail and the peasants run out of food, they come to Joseph.

And on behalf of Pharaoh, Joseph says, “What’s your collateral?” They give up their land for food, and then, the next year, they give up their cattle. By the third year of the famine they have no collateral but themselves. And that’s how the children of Israel become slaves — through an economic transaction. (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World).

As we know, the people Israel eventually escape Pharaoh. Last week we followed them through the Sea and out into the wilderness. While they have left Egypt behind, that culture of scarcity is still hard to shake. Out there in the Wilderness, they grumble and complain. They miss the storehouses of food. Moses tells them that God will provide. God sends bread from heaven, Manna.

Manna: That Hebrew word translates “what is this?” What is this stuff? God’s people have been so shaped by Pharaoh’s scarcity that they don’t know what it is to receive bread they didn’t pay for, to receive a gift from God, to know God’s abundance. And they don’t know how to trust that God will provide. Despite Moses’ warning, they try and store the manna.

When Foster Care parents are trained, they learn to watch kids closely at the dinner table. Many foster children, even in St. Louis, come from hungry homes. Often for weeks after they arrive, care providers have to very patiently clean out the kids’ pockets after meal times. These children have learned to hoard food. When there were calories available, when the cupboard is full, they know they should save some for later, when they would be hungry. It takes weeks, sometimes months, for kids to trust they will consistently be fed, no matter the time of the month.

When you have learned scarcity, it can be hard to unlearn.It takes practice to trust abundance. Again and again the Bible tells us, “there is enough, more than enough.” God has provided enough food, clean water, and other necessities for all of humanity. No one should go hungry. But people do go hungry every day. Those of us who live in the developed world, who might stand to loose a few pounds (let’s be real), have a hard time hearing these words. I am not here to scold you. I don’t want to be like that nagging mother who says, “eat your food, there are children starving in…” (you fill in the blank). It really isn’t that simple.

Because really, even when you have enough to eat, Pharoah’s scarcity mentality can have an effect. We receive marketing messages almost 24/7 telling us we don’t have enough, we are not enough, we can’t do enough, unless we purchase these new shoes, or that new computer, we won’t be enough.

How do we practice abundance? How do we move away from scarcity? The sociologist Brene Brown, an Episcopalian, does research on questions related to shame and anxiety. She specifically studied a group of folks who emerged in her research. This group could be categorized as folks who defy the norm. They are not anxious about money. They are not anxious about whether they have enough. These folks, according to Brown, came from every economic strata. What unified them was their lack of anxiety. The researcher calls this group: “whole-hearted.”

What made this group different, she found, the one thing they had in common was a practice of gratitude. Note, that’s not an attitude of gratitude, but a practice. When anxiety came knocking them, they had a practice that helped them to pause, to get perspective, and to give thanks. All of us, all of us, have so much for which to be thankful. When scarcity comes knocking, what is your practice? How do you pause and give thanks?
God says, “you are enough. You are more than enough. I created you as a blessing. Go and bless somebody.” If you are anxious about money, join the club. We live in a society that breeds that anxiety, even among the wealthy. But God created us for a different relationship with economics. God created us for abundance.

Equity:

The early laborers who grumble in today’s parable, they are not moving from a place of abundance. It’s easy to judge them. On the one hand, I feel for them. The pay seems unequal. Yet, I would argue, this story teaches us about equity. I have to confess, I have not always had the same reading of this parable. my reading of this parable has shifted a great deal over the last few years.
Growing up, hearing Jesus’ story about the latecomers who receive a full days wage, I always thought this story was about Jewish/Gentile relations. In the early church there was a debate about whether you had to be a practicing Jew in order to become a Christian. That’s why Paul’s letters make us cringe talking so much about circumcision. I always read this as a metaphor for Jewish/Gentile relations. But in my first year of ordained ministry, that reading had to take a back seat to the economics in this story.

In my first parish I served a Latino Congregation. I remember the September when this story came up well. Many of the members of my congregation were undocumented immigrants. For the sake of this specific story, I’m going to call one member Juan. Juan and I had spent quite a bit of time talking to a lawyer through that late summer and early fall. Juan had worked a construction job with a local contractor, but when payday came, the contractor told him to scram. When Juan said, “we agreed on a wage,” the contractor threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Rent was due. Kids were hungry. Juan had worked, but this employer had exploited his labor. Juan was never paid, and he was having a hard time finding work again. Meeting with the attorney was a dead end as well. The brokenness of our immigration system means that millions of laborers have no protection from their employers.
Having spent time talking through Juan’s story with an attorney that month, when I sat down to write my sermon, this parable really presented itself differently. For the first time I saw the story as a teaching about God’s economy of equity. In God’s economy there is enough work for everyone. And in God’s economy everyone receives a wage that allows them to provide for their family. Our reaction to this vision of equity can be strong, and strongly negative. “Why are they getting more?”

There’s a difference between equity and equality. Equality means treating everyone the same. We need more equality in this country, but we also need equity. Equity is economically important. Equity means making sure everyone has the same chances. This parable makes us question the wisdom that everyone is able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. There is a certain danger when those of us with wealth begin thinking, “I worked hard for what I have” or “I got mine.” We may be adopting blinders to an inequitable system of advantages.

We are seeing in our city a struggle over the meaning of equity.  Do children of different races, different classes, grow up with equitable opportunities? Do we all get the same chances when we encounter law enforcement? Study after study show: Black men are more likely to be found guilty of a crime, more likely to serve jail time, more likely to be denied parole. Black children are more likely to attend an underperforming school, to know domestic violence in their family, to know hunger. Systems like these self-perpetuate. They have inertia. Unless an intervention is made, the ground will remain uneven.
This week we have seen a series of economic protests. Activists have shouted: “If we don’t get it, shut it down” and “you kill our kids, we kill your economy.” Yes, the Stockley verdict was the precipitating factor that led to the anger in the streets, but the anger is deeper. The anger is about a lack of equity. We may have laws that protect equal opportunity, but we are not all standing on the same structures that help us to clear the bars on the way to success.

This week Marc and I ended up the poster children for the protest somewhat inadvertently. On Tuesday afternoon we, along with some lay leaders and other Episcopalian colleagues, attended an Interfaith Prayer vigil for Justice and Peace, organized by the office of the Roman Catholic Archbishop. Like good Episcopalians, we were standing at the back of the crowd. I’m looking at you back pew. Then some of the black clergy decided we needed to pray with more than our words, we needed to pray with our feet. At the end of the service they pushed through the crowd, grabbed the clergy at the back, and marched us to City Hall. The last shall be first got a new meaning.
I wasn’t comfortable with all of the protests I attended this week. The news keeps talking about “protest organizers.” I think organizer is a bit of a strong word for many of these actions. They’re not very organized. There is a difference between a crowd and a movement: a movement is going somewhere. A movement means that you have concrete proposals, and you are acting to bring them about.

If the protests lack of organization made me a little uncomfortable, the police response scared me. Last weekend and this weekend we have seen officers injure and abuse those who are being taken into custody. Including clergy, including an air force officer, including journalists. Do not hear me say that I am anti-police. I have several friends who are officers. I respect many of the policewomen and men I know. I pray for them often. We live in a society where gun violence is out of control, and officers put their lives on the line every day. If we want to change police behavior, we could start by changing our relationship with guns. Still the documented behavior in this city of officers of the law toward peaceful protestors has been atrocious and illegal in many instances. As citizens of St. Louis City and County, we deserve better.

The action that made Marc and me accidentally famous on Tuesday afternoon was the most organized I’ve seen, and the police presence was calm. The officers protected our right to assemble and to free speech. They did their job. As I shared in our weekly email, I was particularly moved by the words of my colleagues: The Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould. She spoke about the peace that we seek, the shalom of God, that Hebrew word means both peace and wholeness. She spoke about wholeness, and it brought tears to my eyes. She said, Missouri as a state came into being by compromising. Missouri became a state by compromising the identity of black people, by holding them as slaves. We don’t have streets named after the enslaved Africans that LaClede and Chouteau brought with them as they founded St. Louis. We began with inequity, and, if you look at the statistics, the inequity persists.

God’s economy is one of equity. God provides enough, more than enough, for us all. In God’s economy there are plenty of jobs, there is plenty of wealth, so even those who don’t find a full days work can be paid enough to bring home the daily bread. This parable continues to challenge us today. How do we really provide equitable opportunity? How do we make our economy and our education system work so that all St. Louisans have access to the abundant life?
When we speak about economics, there is a great deal at stake. Life and livelihood. God’s economy does not look like our economy. Where we struggle with scarcity, with anxiety that there will never be enough, God provides abundantly. And God invites us to work for more equity, so that regardless of the color of your skin, or the profession of your parents, all might know God’s abundant blessings in this life. Amen