(A sermon for Advent 1, Matthew 24:36-44)
“…if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”
We’re in that season of the year when it’s all about anticipation and preparation. We’re shopping and wrapping and mailing or hiding, and if we’re not, we’re probably listening to someone else worrying aloud about it. I must admit to being shockingly unprepared. If Christmas were actually a surprise instead of a deadline, I would be in trouble on the home front.
That first Christmas was, of course, a surprise, the kind of surprise most babies are. If you know anyone who has given birth in recent years, you know that despite ultrasounds and prenatal exams, the actual date and time of a birth remains a mystery until the baby makes an appearance.
Snowman got a haircut while he was home for Thanksgiving, at the all lady barber shop in City By the Sea. The gal who cut his hair had a chart up on the wall behind her, a place for customers to enter a fundraising pool by guessing the arrival date and the weight of her baby. On the poster board she lists the due date of the baby, and the weights at birth of mother, father and older sibling. But this kind of arrival has no statistical basis. It always takes us by surprise.
I remember the hopeful excitement and the awesome fear attached to giving birth to each of my children. All three events were different. Oh, the mother was the same, and they all had the thoughtfulness to arrive in daylight hours, but nothing else seemed the same. As I left three different homes to arrive at two different hospitals, I stood on the edge of the unknown.
I thought about mothers of old, mothers who stood at the gateway between life and death for themselves and their babies in the act we think of confidently as “giving birth.”
For several years my friend, Anne, worked with a group of HIV positive mothers in South Africa. At the beginning of their time together, the hope was to give emotional and spiritual support to the mothers, a group of a dozen or so who were part of a medical trial with the purpose of preventing transmission of the AIDS virus from mother to baby during childbirth. Administration of the drug took place during labor and delivery, and everyone involved knew the odds were not in favor of success, since the drug was still under trial, and the medical facilities were not ideal. They hoped some of the babies would be spared the scourge of a disease that may seem to have become almost a chronic ailment in our country, but which is an active killer all over Africa.
“Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”
Among all these women, giving birth around the same time, surely some would have a happy ending!
Sadly, none did. All their babies contracted the AIDS virus.
This was the group Anne met, a dozen or so very discouraged women. The agency Anne served had childcare available for the little ones, a crèche, as they call it there, and the social workers assumed the women would be grateful for a break from the duties of motherhood. They found, to their surprise, that the women did not want to be separated from their children. You see, they understood what it meant to live with the unexpected. They understood that their children might be taken from them, or that they might be taken from their children at any time, by death.
This apocalyptic text from Matthew’s gospel would leave us thinking there is only one time when the sudden ending occurs, one sudden birth, one sudden death, one sudden reappearance, one sudden separation of you from me, of worker from colleague, of mother from child.
But I want to tell you this was not the end of the story. Working together to find a project that would give the women a sense of purpose, Anne and her co-workers brought in a beadworker to teach the women in the group a traditional form of beading, something from their own culture that they did not happen to know…yet.
They began making jewelry, very simple pins, and later ornaments, and eye glass chains and earrings and necklaces that became more and more elaborate. They sold their work and divided the profits among the workers, forming the Sisonke Beadwork Cooperative. The work of their hands traveled by mail to Maine and to Colorado and to Germany, sold at church fairs and denominational meetings and made to order when requested.
I am wearing one of their AIDS badges today, the red ribbon a reminder of World AIDS Day.
Something happened among those women that no one would have predicted in the beginning. As they became enthused about their work, they began to feel better. As they earned money, they were able to buy higher quality groceries and feed themselves, and their families, healthier foods. For people who cannot afford or do not have access to the drugs we assume are available to fight AIDS, basic care of self is the best hedge against entering an active phase of illness.
As they felt less defeated, they arrived at work, which is more than a support group, looking better, making more of an effort with hair and dress. As they felt less doomed, they began to enjoy sending their children off to the crèche instead of having them play on the floor in the workroom.
The crucial moment of the birth of each of their children was not the end of the mothers’ stories. Instead, it marked the beginning of something new, the truly unexpected re-birth of their own lives.
We stand at the beginning of a new church year, at the beginning of Advent, anticipating what we believe lies ahead. Are we prepared to be surprised? Are we looking for new possibilities? Are we open to the many ways Jesus may appear to us? Keep awake. Be ready. He *is* coming. Amen.