The Work of Advent

From Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

Not long ago, Jeanne, Clivie, and I spent some time at Lake Tahoe—or Lake Taco, as Clivie calls it.  We spent quite a bit of time walking and soaking in the beauty, and letting Clivie lead the way on hiking trails.  One hike we chose was essentially straight up and had lots of steps.  We thought, we’d just go until Clivie got tired; then we’d just come back down. . . .  But he thrived on that trail.  He was delighted.  He didn’t mind the steep climb.  And he loved leading the way.  We finished the whole trail.

And I thought of that trail when I read our scriptures for this morning:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,  make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up,  and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level,  and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be  revealed,  and all people shall see it together. . . .
“I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:   ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,  make his paths straight. . . .’”     This is the work of Advent. 
Contrary to cultural messages that are decked out all around us, the work of this season is not decorating our homes, lighting the Christmas tree, buying gifts, preparing rich foods.  These things might be fun and special to us, but this is not the work of the Advent Season leading up to Christmas.  The work of Advent is more comparable to the work of the Global Holiday Faire—making sure people receive a living wage for their work, valuing people’s labor, investing in the humanity of others. 

The work of Advent is lifting up every valley, bringing every mountain low, leveling out the uneven ground, making the rough places plain.  The work of Advent is to prepare a way for our God to enter our lives and our world.  The work of Advent is about opening the door for justice.
When I watched Clivie climbing up that mountain with such ease and delight, I thought about another verse from the prophet Isaiah: 

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb.  The leopard shall lie down with the young goat.  The calf and the young lion and the fatling together.  And a little child shall lead them.” 
There are many ways Clivie can lead me and teach us, and those lessons are important for us to think about.  His tiger and his cow always play, eat, and sleep together.  But there are also important ways we must teach him and guide him in becoming a compassionate, peaceful, justice-loving child of God.  And these lessons are the same lessons we all must internalize and own.  Because these are the lessons of Advent. 
What lessons do we teach my tow-headed, blue-eyed, beautiful, wide-open, impressionable, vulnerable, innately loving, white little boy about privilege and race and justice and hope for all people? 
How can we possible explain to any young person today why people like Michael Brown and Eric Garner are killed with no one having to bear responsibility for it?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, [but] when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
The work of Advent is about opening the door for justice—unblocking the dams that obstruct social progress and God’s grace.  And justice is not the same as equality, as the cartoon shows.  Justice balances the playing field in a way that does not privilege one at the expense of another.  But as things stand today in our culture and in our world, there is no balanced playing field.  There is a criminal justice system powered on socio-economic disparities that disproportionately convict and penalize people of color.  There is a political system that overwhelmingly favors the interests of the wealthy over the poor.  And there are innumerable financial and cooperate institutions that focus on people primarily as instruments for profit rather than as worthwhile human beings. 

Where is the justice in that? 
Our systems and institutions are infected with the virus of racism and prejudice that work to eliminate those deemed undesirable and disagreeable.  Yet, personal, institutional, and systemic racism is a condition we find extremely difficult to admit we suffer from.  But denial never constitutes an absence of the disease.  We are all implicated in this situation.  And we all have a role to play in addressing it.  Ignoring it does not make it go away. 
And spiritually, we cannot afford even one more senseless death of an unarmed person of color.  Allowing this behavior—explaining it away—excusing this killing diminishes us; it harms us spiritually; it paralyzes part of our souls.  Do you remember, only 2 weeks ago we read Jesus saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  Jesus emphatically embodies the marginalized and oppressed in our society.  Can you see Jesus—can you see God—in the people you encounter on the street and as you go about your days?  This is part of the work and the challenge of Advent. . . .
You see, Advent is not all about warm-fuzzy, snuggle up by the fire, wait for baby Jesus by the Christmas tree-type feelings. . . .  Advent is work.  And it’s our work.  Jesus is not just going to come, wave his hand, and make everything right.  So much of that is our work.  Advent is our work. “Prepare the way of the Lord,  make his paths straight. . . .”  We don’t have time to sit around.  Justice is pressing, and it’s our work.  It’s not just the work of the one who is coming.  We have to prepare the way.
This means that the church must work to shape a different public conversation about race in our communities—grounded deeply in who we are and what we believe. 
If we believe that each and every human being is created in the image of God, how does that shape and change the conversation?  How might that affect the ways we demand justice in our communities?

Frederick Douglass once said, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them—neither persons nor property will be safe.”

How can we let this be our reality?  How can we sidestep the work of justice?  Let us break that dam and trust that justice can roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. . . .  Let us work diligently, constructively, faithfully for justice in our own neighborhoods and communities.  Let us find ways to make a real difference in people’s lives, even when we aren’t quite sure where to start or how to proceed.  This, too, is the work of Advent.

The poet Wendell Berry puts it this way:

     It may be that when we no longer know what to do

     we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go

      we have come to our real journey.

     The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

     The impeded stream is the one that sings.
The mountains may be really high and the valley really low—and really, how are we going to level them out?  How are we going to prepare this level path?  The good news is that we are not alone.  We don’t have to do this work alone.  The work of Advent is community work.  We are here—part of this community—committed to the Mighty God who comes in the form of a vulnerable baby.  We all have a role to play, and we all have one another.
Let it be so.  Amen.

Signs of Christ's Coming

From Matthew 25:31-46

Earlier this year, Timothy P. Schmalz’s sculpture "Homeless Jesus" finally found a home, but even now, not all people are welcoming it with open arms.  It was first rejected by cathedrals in New York and Canada before being installed at an Episcopal Church in North Carolina.  The rector of the church describes the sculpture as an evocative combination of beauty, art, and religion:  “It's Jesus representing the most marginalized of society. . . .  We're reminded of what our ultimate calling is as Christians, as people of faith, to do what we can individually and systematically to eliminate homelessness. Part of a faith commitment is to care or the needy.”

However, others think the sculpture and its placement in the community are in poor taste. One person even called the police the first time she drove by the realistic bronze statue.  She said, “I was concerned for the safety of the neighborhood. . . .  Jesus is not a vagrant.  Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help.”

Hmmm.  But regardless of what we might think, this woman is not alone. . . .
We have all seen them.  Sleeping on park benches or under overpasses.  Holding signs and asking for money at intersections.  People who are clearly hungry and malnourished.  People whose clothing is shoddy and doesn’t fit right.  People who can’t seem to hold down a job or have troubles with the law.

What questions come to mind when you see them?  What feelings arise in you? 
Are you able to look those people in the eyes?  Do you know their names?

And what do we do when we are approached by people in need on the street. . . . 
For many of us, this is not an easy topic.

•   What do you do?  Do you give money to people who ask for it?  Or not?
•    Do you trust that your contributions to people will be used for what people say it will be used for— food, shelter, travel?  Or do you imagine it will be used for liquor and drugs? 
•    Do you think it is better to give money to people directly, or do you think it is better to channel contributions to social service agencies that address people’s needs?
•    And where does your faith come into these questions? What does your faith call you to do?

Our scripture reading this morning—again from Matthew 25—challenges us on this point.  Jesus is still sitting with his disciples on the Mount of Olives telling them stories about the signs of Christ’s coming. . . .  This is Jesus’ final public sermon in the book of Matthew, and it instructs us about the Parousia—the return or the presence of God.  We’ve heard the parables of the 10 Bridesmaids and the Talents—both startling and troubling.  And perhaps, this story is too.  But it is a little different than the first two. . . .   

Here, we’re not given signs of Christ’s coming; we get Matthew’s apocalyptic vision of the Parousia in the form of the last judgment:  “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him . . .” Some of you may envision Michelangelo’s interpretation of Matthew’s vision, which he used to create his Sistine Chapel masterpiece, "The Last Judgment"—in vivid detail—complete with images of the saved and the damned, many of whom bore the likeness of Michelangelo’s most liked and disliked contemporaries. . . . 

And similarly but in a very different way, Schmalz’s sculpture "Homeless Jesus" was also inspired by this scripture:  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  It is a representation that suggests that Christ exists with, within, and among the most marginalized in our society.  The Christ figure is shrouded in a blanket, and the only indication that it is Jesus are the visible wounds on the feet. This life-size sculpture has enough room for someone to sit next to it on the bench.  Shmalz says that the sculpture was inspired by a homeless man that he saw lying on the ground before Christmas in 2011. In that poignant moment, he says, “My instinctive thought was, that is Jesus Christ.  I just saw Jesus.”

So, more than casting the presence of God as a great divider, this scripture offers us a profound vision of God’s presence that not only prioritizes the needs of the least among us but that is also located precisely in the least among us:  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”  God is present, here and now, in places and ways we might not ever expect.  This is the primary message of Matthew 25.  We hear it again and again.

And this message inspired the Social Gospel Movement that worked to bring God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s grace alive in the world—here and now.  The Social Gospel argued that the selfishness of capitalism had to be challenged and that cooperative economics had to be championed—that Christian ethics had to meet the depths of human suffering and had to offer liberating compassion to all those who had fallen victim to the brokenness of economic systems—including those faced with poverty, alcoholism, crime, child labor, poor schools, racial tensions, inadequate labor unions, and war. 

The Social Gospel considers work to improve the social conditions of others a primary responsibility of faith.  And the message of the Social Gospel continues to inspire people today.  It inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders.  It inspired Gustavo Gutierrez and other liberation theologians.  It inspired religious involvement in the Occupy Movements that took place in this country and around the world.  And I would argue that—stated or not—it inspires our investment in Common Ground and other community organizing efforts.  By advocating a present and abiding “kingdom of God,” the Social Gospel promotes a prophetic, future-focused ideology and a revolutionary, social and political force that judges all creation to be sacred and actively works to transform problematic aspects of the social order.

Liberation theologies take aspects of the Social Gospel and argue that God has a preferential option for the poor.  And the questions that, then, present themselves are

 •    What does that preferential option for the poor look like?
 •    Where do we human beings fit into that preferential option? What are our responsibilities?
 •    And in this scenario, how much agency do the poor have?
 •    Are the poor merely acted upon?  Or do they also have the power to act? 
 •    Do the poor just need?  Or do the poor also give?

And the fact of the matter is that each and every human being has the ability to give and the need to receive.  We are, each one, called to feed others, and we are in need of someone to feed us.  We are charged to give someone something to drink and in need of someone to quench our own thirst.  We are challenged to welcome the stranger in our midst and yearning for someone to see and love those parts of us that we hide or are ashamed of.  We are capable of offering clothing and shelter to those without and wondering if someone cares enough to protect our own vulnerabilities.  We are charged to care for the weak, burdened, and disenfranchised and desperately wanting someone to care for us in our own weakness and helplessness.

We all need, and we all can give.  We are all rich, and we are all poor.  God has a preferential option for all of us.  God recognizes us and is—always—located among us…  The need—those who have the need—and those who supply the need are all part of who God is.

These are all intricately interrelated, and this something important to realize about this scripture passage:  it is not necessarily encouraging or suggesting that we engage in altruistic projects.  It is not telling us whether or not we should hand out money on the street.  It is saying that acknowledging this interrelationship—between the need, those who have the need, and those capable of supplying the need—is the essential, faithful response to the world around us—which ultimately requires that we all get our hands dirty.  Which ultimately requires that we take a long hard look at how our faith and worldview inform our behaviors, social action, and understanding of ethics.  Which ultimately requires that we willingly accept that we are all implicated in the predicaments of hunger, loneliness, sickness, and crime.  

This scripture invites us to see all of these needs, responsibilities, and relationships as signs of Christ’s presence among us.  We are not to be intimidated by the aura of exclusion, powerlessness, and marginalization that surrounds the needy; we are to welcome the opportunities to share.  We are called to celebrate abundance.

Isn’t that what this thanksgiving season is really all about, anyway?  Hasn’t Matthew 25—and the signs offered for Christ’s coming—been telling us that money and resources are ultimately sources of energy capable of powering compassion and openness and possibility in this community and around the world?  And this is certainly something to be thankful about.  We have endless opportunities to make a difference in the world. 

Let it be so!  Amen.

Advent Thought

If you want,
the Virgin will come walking down the road / pregnant with the holy, / and say,
“I need shelter for the night, / please take me inside your heart, / my time is so close.”
Then, under the roof of your soul / you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ / taking birth / forever,
as she grasps your hand for help, / for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.
Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally, / through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul, / as God grasps our arms for help;
for each of us is / His beloved servant / never far.
If you want, the Virgin will come walking / down the street pregnant
with Light and sing. . . .

—St. John of the Cross

This time of year is packed with stress and increasingly long to-do lists.  But it is also a time meant to open our eyes to wonder and hope.  How might we let the wonder and hope of the season take precedence over the busyness?  How might we let the anticipation of Advent slow us down rather than speed us up? 
My prayer for each of us during this Advent season is that we make room for our spirits and our spirits’ deepest longings.  My prayer is that we won’t rush around because it’s become a cultural norm.  My prayer is that we will listen to our hearts and answer them with compassion.  Our homes do not need to be perfectly decorated.  Our meals do not need to be worthy of a magazine cover.  Our gifts do not need to be beautifully wrapped and adorned.  What is most important is that we are present with ourselves, with one another, and with the Sacred that exists all around us.  This season invites us to be a part of the birth of beauty, wonder, hope, and grace.  How might we give birth to these gifts in our own lives?  And in the lives of others we know?
It is a blessing to journey through this sacred season with you!

See you in church,