Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Advent 3: Despair and Hope

The decisions made in the next couple of days at the climate talks in Copenhagen will be of great importance to all of us, but their effects will initially be felt most keenly by people from places like island nations and Bangladesh who came to Copenhagen with hope for an agreement that might save their homes. At this point, it's difficult for some people to stay hopeful, as the probability of reaching a significant agreement appears to be lessening.

How do we remain hopeful given the possibility that the world’s response to climate change will be too little and too late? What is the Christian response as we face the historically unique possibility of witnessing the social, economic, cultural, and spiritual consequences of inaction, the unraveling of our ways of life on a worldwide scale?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is in Copenhagen. Archbishop Tutu’s experience in the fight against apartheid in South Africa has helped him develop wisdom about being hopeful in situations that appear to be hopeless. The Hopenhagen blog for December 15 provides video clips of Archbishop Tutu talking about what gives him hope this week.

Our lessons for the Third Sunday of Advent have been good companions while following the climate talks. The short passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Philippians 4:4-7) tells us to rejoice and not worry about anything; Paul says “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”. There is part of the answer to these difficult questions: pray. Pray for the people participating in the climate conference, for the heads of state who will make the final decisions, for the people with little power who will feel the effects of climate change first and worst, and for a change of heart – repentance – when we are tempted to put our own comfort ahead of the basic needs of others.

In our Gospel lesson (Luke 3:7-18) John the Baptist talked about repentance. In my sermon this Sunday, I was not speaking directly about the climate talks, but it was in the back of my mind as I wrote about hope and despair. No matter what the issue, our call as Christians seems to be to a call to witness, to really look at, the places where there is darkness or despair. As we walk through the darkness, we are supported by our faith that the darkness cannot overcome the light of Christ. I believe our call at this time is to proclaim both the truth about what is at stake as the nations decide on a response to the climate crisis and the message of hope grounded in our faith.

Advent 3C: In the Bleak Midwinter
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Luke 3:7-18 (and the Godly Play version of the angel’s visit to the shepherds)
Preached at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Grand Island, Nebraska, December 13, 2009

It’s good to see so many folks dug out from this week’s snowstorm and able to get here this morning. Little did we know last Sunday that our Tuesday and Wednesday evening church activities would be cancelled this week, children would be home from school, and many other plans changed. I was relieved early Tuesday evening to find out that the earliest morning classes at Hastings College had been cancelled already, as I was wondering how I would get from our house to campus for my 9:00 class. If I’d had to, I could have gotten there on foot if no other way, but it would have been a very difficult and very cold walk, and I was more than happy not to attempt it.

Looking out Wednesday morning after more snow had fallen and it had all been blown around by strong winds, one of my favorite Christmas hymns came to mind, Hymn #112, ‘In the bleak midwinter..’, that beautiful combination of Christina Rossetti’s words and Gustav Holst’s music. “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.”
This morning, though, we are singing Advent hymns and thinking about John the Baptist: “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh…” Our Gospel lesson is John the Baptist at his most prophetic, referring to the crowds who have shown up to be baptized as a “brood of vipers” – the children of snakes – and calling everyone to repentance, to a radical change of heart that will become evident in their everyday choices and actions. John says that the one coming after him will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire, and follows this with a very intimidating exhortation about Christ separating the metaphorical wheat from the chaff, in which it becomes very clear that we do not want to part of the chaff. After all of this, which does not at first hearing sound like “tidings of comfort and joy”, Luke writes: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

We heard another part of Luke’s Gospel today from our children as they told us about the angel coming to the shepherds. Most of us are more familiar with this story, and it sounds more like Good News to us. We’re more comfortable with angels and shepherds, but part of that comfort might be that familiarity has lessened the impact of the prophetic element of this story. The announcement of Christ’s birth came to the shepherds first, not to kings or high priests or the people who lived in comparative comfort in town. Shepherds were poor people who lived outside the walls of the town with the sheep, and sheep are some of the smelliest creatures on God’s green Earth.

It must have been surprising at the least, and perhaps even scandalous, that the shepherds would be the first ones told about the birth of the Messiah. But people who knew and understood Scripture would not have been surprised, because the Hebrew prophets repeatedly talk about God’s care for the outcast, for the people who inhabit the margins of society because that’s where people with more power and wealth have pushed them. In our passage from Zephaniah this morning, the prophet announces God’s message of hope: “I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” So this morning we have an angel telling the shepherds about the birth of God’s son, and we have John the Baptist saying that people who have clothing and food must share with those who have nothing, and those with some degree of power – tax collectors and soldiers, for example – must not abuse that power.

The angel says something else, though: “Do not be afraid. Be joyful.” Again we hear an echo of the prophetic voice; Zephaniah says, “The king of Israel is in your midst…Do not fear,” and in our Canticle Isaiah says “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.” These prophetic messages bring hope, but that hope often comes intertwined with information or commands that can make us fearful. John’s message, while meant to literally put the fear of God into us, is ultimately hopeful: We can’t do anything about our ancestors or even who we ourselves have been in the past, but what’s important, says John, isn’t the past but what we do now and in the future. We’re invited to repent and live lives that bear good fruit, lives that show we are wheat to be gathered into God’s granary, people living into the Reign of God.

The prophet’s message is always a message of hope because it’s ultimately a message of God’s faithfulness. We not only have nothing to fear when God is with us, but acting out of fear prevents us from responding to God’s faithfulness in a way that moves us from despair to hope, from darkness to light. The prophet’s message is a message of hope, but it’s also a message that calls for a response from us, a call to deep faith that results in good fruits. The prophet’s message in whatever point in history tells it like it is; it doesn’t sugarcoat or deny the reality of the way things are right now. Looking at the reality of our lives and the effects our choices have on Christ’s beloved poor around the world requires us to be open to experiencing uncomfortable emotions like grief and despair. We might grieve the loss of familiar and comfortable ways that we must give up so that others might live; like Ebenezer Scrooge, we might despair when we look outside of our own small worlds and let ourselves see the reality of other people’s lives, and, in our point in history, when we learn about the effects of our lives on the oceans, the air, and other species.

But we have to be willing to walk through the discomfort and darkness of despair to get to hope; a hope based on burying our heads in the sand isn’t hope at all but denial. Just as I was happy to avoid the discomfort of walking through the snow and bitter cold to get to campus, we are understandably reluctant to experience the discomfort of walking through despair to get to hope.

Advent is a time when we hear the prophetic message in our Sunday readings and in our Daily Office lectionary. The Daily Office this week included readings from Amos and Haggai, difficult messages for people of their time to hear, but messages that were ultimately full of hope, full of the promise of God’s faithfulness to a repentant people. Haggai (Haggai 1:5-6) starts out with this: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.” Yet Haggai moves from this portrait of [in Thoreau’s words] “lives of quiet desperation” to a promise of blessing to a newly obedient people.

The Church calls us to hear the prophet’s message today as well, to hear the words that God is speaking to us in our time. In Advent, the Church calls us to step back a bit and set aside time to enter the silence so we can hear the still, small voice; the Church calls us to enter the darkness so that we can more clearly see the Light of Christ. Advent is about listening to the prophetic call, about hearing the message of hope as we anticipate Christ’s birth and his coming again, and it’s also about choosing our response to a faithful and loving God. But that’s what Christmas is about also: our response to God becoming Incarnate and saying, “Follow me”.

The repentance to which John the Baptist calls us is not simply a matter of adding a few charitable acts to our to-do lists, good though it is to do that. This call is to something deeper, something internal, a profound change of heart. It’s a call to genuine generosity, kindness, compassion, and love. It’s a call to give our fears a nod and then joyfully go ahead and go where Christ calls us to serve as his body in the world – to see with the eyes of Christ, to hear with the ears of Christ, to think with the mind of Christ, to speak with the voice of Christ, and to serve with the hands of Christ.

The last verse of ‘In the bleak midwinter’ talks about how we can respond to our twofold awareness of our spiritual poverty that points to our need for repentance, along with the joy in our hearts when we hear the Good News of God’s promises and Christ’s birth: “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wiseman, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him – give my heart.”
Don’t be afraid; be joyful! God’s promises assure us that when we choose to walk into and look at the dark places where we are called to bring the light of the Gospel, our faithful and loving God will be with us, and Christ will light the way. Amen.