Preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Tacoma Washington on December 14, 2014
The third Sunday or Advent, Year B
At times, the darkness seems to build and build and close in and nearly overwhelm – maybe especially so as our days get shorter and shorter; the nights longer. Ferguson. Cleveland. Staten Island. Westlake Center. Puyallup. Marysville. Portland. Seattle. Shootings, protests. Fear, anger, hatred. It’s not a series of isolated events but a system that erupts in violence. It’s a bit like the volcanoes in the Ring of Fire – Mt. St. Helens here in Washington or Mt. Krakataua in Indonesia – they’re part of the same system. The question is, Can we stop this system that erupts in violence?
At times like this, I find it helpful to remember the words of Ursula Niebuhr, a 20th century theologian who wrote
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.
This is worth doing, it is true and good, and we cannot do it alone. We must not allow ourselves to despair simply because we cannot expect to see it all the way to the end. Hope, faith, and love will carry us through the darkness.
I appreciated what Mother Janet shared in her newsletter reflection – what Ann Redding said about the individuals involved in Ferguson – Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. She said they were set-up from birth. That’s what racism does. It’s systemic, it’s pervasive. And people’s lives are ruined or cut short because of it. We are all caught in the web of racism. It seems insurmountable.
I wonder if the Israelites in exile in Babylon felt that way? And even before that while they were still in the Promised Land and doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord. Were they set up from birth; trapped in a system of injustice? Was their exile a way for God to disrupt the systems of sin?
Now Isaiah prophesies to them proclaiming good news to the oppressed, liberty to the captives, the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God; to provide for those who mourn in Zion (those who were left behind). They are going home.
There will be a family reunion.
And what about the people in Jesus’ day, those who came to be baptized by John or to challenge him? Were they trapped, set up from birth? Israelites and Romans. Jews and Samaritans. Pharisees and Sadducees. The Righteous and the Sinners. In that darkness John shows up to tell them that light is coming. He shows up to prepare them for the light that is for all people.
The gospel we heard today is from the prologue of the gospel of John. In it, Jesus is called not only the Word of God, but the light of the world – the whole world – a light that the darkness could not and cannot overcome.
From time to time in my life, I come across something that causes a dramatic shift within me. One of those was the work of Sharon Welch. She writes that “[Ethical] actions begin with the recognition that far too much has been lost and there are no clear means of restitution. The risk is [in] the decision to care and to act although there are no guarantees of success. Such action requires immense daring and enables deep joy. This is an ethos in sharp contrast to the ethos of cynicism that often accompanies a recognition of the depth and persistence of evil.”
She goes on to write that responsible action is that which not only responds to the immediate needs of others, but also creates possibilities for further action. It means working together to provide partial solutions in the present while laying the groundwork for others to build on in the future.
It’s much like what Ursula Niebuhr wrote – Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime. What we do may not make complete sense in our historical context. Nothing we do, no matter how virtuous, can be accomplished alone. We are saved by hope and faith and love.
Another of my eye-opening encounters was with a children’s book called, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. Now, it’s called the Christmas miracle, but it’s actually an advent story.
Jonathan Toomey is a grouchy woodcarver in town. What most people don’t know is that he is trapped in his grief for his young wife and baby who died years and years before. He is so trapped in his grief that he can see no joy or beauty in the world around him.
A widow with a young son moves to town and in her move, her crèche was lost. She asks Mr. Toomey to carve one to replace it and he grudgingly agrees to accept the job. Well, every few days, she and her son show up on his doorstep. She brings food and kindness; her son brings enthusiasm and questions while struggling to keep quiet and still. Each time, he tells the woodcarver how he’s doing it wrong – his cows were happy, his Joseph was kind, and so on. And each day, Jonathan is a little less grumpy and eventually seems to look forward to their visits.
Finally, on Christmas morning, he shows up on her doorstep – with the completed crèche. They go to church together and as they walk home, he lifts up his head and laughs with joy. Through her care and kindness and friendship, she has prepared the way in his life and in his heart for the light and love and healing of Christ to enter.
I finally got it, Advent as a season of preparation is not only about preparing our own hearts. It is also about connecting with others, preparing a way in the wilderness of their lives so that they might see Christ; so that Christ might be born anew.
God loves the whole world. AND God loves and cares about each and every individual person and creature in the world. In the wilderness, in the darkness of our time, prepare a way for the Lord; for the light of Christ – one person at a time.
At least to some extent, that is what our ministry together has been about – yours and mine. Preparing the way. Preparing ourselves, preparing our space, preparing our worship. Meeting and greeting others and preparing a way for them to see and know Christ in this place, in this Body. And just as important, for us to see and know Christ in them.
And now, as most of you know, it is time for me to move on, but your ministry of preparing the way continues. I want you to know that my time here with you has been a blessing to me and to Wes. It has been a joy to be with you, to get to know you. We have appreciated your welcome, your warmth and your kindness.
May God richly bless you that you may be a blessing to all whose lives you touch.
May your doors be always open in welcome and your hearts be always open in love.
God bless you.