Advent 1B, Sermons

Hope in the Dark

(A sermon for Advent 1B – November 30, 2014 – Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37)

Last Sunday, long before the sun rose, our Boy was up and conducting an early-morning Google search for the amount of sales tax that would be added to the cost of a $30.99 video game he wants. Despite our efforts the day before to coax him into waiting for Christmas, to see what presents might be under the tree, he wanted to make the case that he had enough money to buy Skylanders right now.

As he Googled in the early morning dark, he hoped.

Advent hope has its genesis in the dark. Advent literally means coming into being, and for the church it marks our anticipation of the incarnation, of God’s own self becoming one of us. We prepare for an amazing event. We await new life as the days grow shorter. At first it feels like keeping a secret, like a pregnancy in the first trimester. Even before the mother suspects, life is taking new form in the dark of the womb.

All the way to church last Sunday, our Boy tried to convince us that Christmas was still very far away. Meanwhile, he calculated 7 cents times 31 dollars, and 31 plus 2.17, minus 1 cent equals $33.16. He is good at math. Later in the day, he counted out $35 from his careful savings and put it in an envelope, writing “Skylanders” on it.

We continued to put him off, even as he told us, “I will have $35 to give them at the store, and then I will get change.” $1.84 to be precise. Still, we said to him, “It’s almost Christmas. Why don’t you wait?”

We had a break from the discussion when he went to his dad’s house for Thanksgiving while we got out of town for a couple of days. By the time we were headed back, we were of course discussing Christmas presents, as parents do, and also what to say on Sunday, as preachers must.

On the way home from Maryland,
we passed a white church,
with that sign you sometimes see,
“We preach Christ crucified.”
And usually I smugly comment,
*I* preach Christ resurrected.
So I did.

***

But as the road continued to bend,
as we moved from the coastal highway
to a land of strip malls
and onto park land we admired,
then to cornfields seemingly unending,
and to the crossroads where
a young Amish man stood
on an old-school Segway,
a primitive chariot,
pulled by horses
dragging a sledge of hay –
two horse power said my wife –
I thought about that sign.

***

“They” preach Christ crucified,
and I preach Christ resurrected, I claim, but
crucified and resurrected are both ways
Jesus leaves us,
moments that disconnect him by taking him down into the dark of death,
or raising him beyond our limits.
They take him beyond our capacity to touch and know.

***
We need to know Christ incarnate, I thought.

We need him badly right now. Where else can we find hope in a week full of images of fires burning, and local police dressed out in riot gear standing under a lighted city sign proclaiming, “Season’s Greetings” – where else? Because there has to be some way to make sense of all this violence and hatred and just plain meanness directed at people we think are different from us.

One day last year we took two of our boys to Washington, DC, for a day of touring the Smithsonian. The American History Museum was our last stop, where I was eager to see America’s Doll House. After my patient family watched me ooh and aah over the contents, I took off on my own to look for the book.

In the gift shop, I approached the cash register and waited while the person ahead of me made his purchase. He was about my age, or a few years younger, dressed, like me, for a day of sightseeing, in nice but casual clothes. He had grey in his hair, but not as much as in mine. He bought a shot glass decorated with a TV show’s logo.

When he handed over his credit card, the clerk solemnly asked one thing, to see his ID. He hesitated for a moment, and then he complied.

Immediately, I opened my wallet, readying my driver’s license, which surely I would be asked to show alongside my Disney Princess Castle-themed credit card.

Shot glass wrapped and bagged, the gentleman departed. I presented my book for purchase, and my credit card, and got ready for the ID question, but the young lady smiled broadly and asked something entirely different:

“Are you a Smithsonian member?”

“Oh!” I responded, surprised. “Well, yes, but we just joined–“

“So you have one of those cards that will give you the discount today,” she prompted.

“Yes,” I replied, looking around vaguely, “but I left it with another family member.”

“No problem!” she enthused. “I’ll trust you.”

She rang up the purchase, with the discount, as I reflected on the fact that the grey-haired gentleman in line ahead of me was African-American.

And I know the world is like this. I read up on it; you know, in the newspaper and on blogs. I am here telling you I know it happens. But I rarely see it play out so close up to me, in the flesh like that.

In Mark, we hear Jesus trying to get the attention of his closest disciples. It’s a real “Come to Jesus” moment, a shoulder-shaking truth-telling. The time is coming, and no one quite knows when, he says, and God is going to set things straight. It’s the same hope Isaiah spoke. It’s the same wish the Psalmist cried out to see. Restore us, O God, let your face shine and light up the world again, because it is dark here in the 21st century wilderness, with tanks on city streets and wartime gear on cops and protesters throwing stones and setting fires to get us to take their pleas seriously.

It is dark here. Where is our hope?
We need to know Christ, incarnate,
touchable, knowing, enfleshed.
What other hope do we have?

Some say they preach Christ crucified,
Focused on the death he suffered and the belief it somehow paid for our sins.
But is our hope in forgiveness of the long lists of wrongs done by us, done to us?

I’ve said I preach Christ resurrected,
Focused on cycles of renewal and God’s victory over death.
But is our hope in the vision of life renewed, or life beyond this world?

How do these hopes help us in a season of darkness, of grieving our losses,
despairing of our future, identifying our wrongs against God and each other?

someone's babyThis week, all week, voices have been calling out for justice. My friends both black and white who are the mothers of black boys fear for their sons: babes in arms, little boys of 6 and 7, young men of 15 and 20. A powerful image circulated in social media, an infant boy on the pavement with a chalk outline around his body. “When does he stop being someone’s baby?” asks the caption.

If you have children, you know the truth. They never stop being our babies. Yet “Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime,” according to published earlier this year by the American Psychological Association.[1]

I live in a world of privilege. My grown sons are out in the world; my stepson walks to school every day. I never wonder what a policeman will think of them. I never worry they are at risk from the people who I expect to serve and protect them. I can take it for granted, but I am trying not to, because I have too many friends, I know too many mothers, who are afraid for their sons to leave the house.

I cannot believe this is what God wants for the world.

***

We are still trying to convince our Boy to wait and see if he doesn’t get that game for Christmas. That’s a waiting game he can win; we won’t let him down. But if our Boy insists, and he goes to the store with his $35, to buy his own video game and collect his change, no one will wonder where the money came from, or whether it is really his. No one will ask a question.

It is dark here. Where is our hope?

We need the embodied God who walked the earth, who healed the lame, who ate with sinners, who broke down barriers, and electrified the crowds but alarmed the authorities, and turned the world upside down without wielding a sword, or carrying a gun. We need the embodied God whose life was an action, political and spiritual, but most of all human.

We are waiting for God, but it is not enough to dream or pray away the time. Jesus cautions us to keep alert, to be aware. Are we? Can we see the ways our lives would not match God’s desire? How can we make things better while we wait?

We need to know Christ,
incarnate,
touchable,
knowing,
enfleshed.

We need to know Christ,
incarnate, in each other.

What other hope do we have in the dark?

**********

[1] http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/03/black-boys-older.aspx

Advent, Advent 1B, Luke 1:5-25, Luke 1:57-80, Sermons

A New Hope

(A sermon for Advent 1B–Luke 1:5-25, 57-80 November 27, 2011)

(Yes, I realize it didn’t look this way in 1977.)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

I piled into a woody wagon with a group of teenagers I knew from church. The driver was the youth group leader’s college-age son, and they were all going to see some movie at the Williamsburg Theater. It had been playing all summer, but I’d never heard of it. When I got in the car to go to the movie, I didn’t know I was heading toward something that would become part of my personal mythology, that the crowded station wagon and the Hinson boys (hi on Facebook!), the sons of my youth group leader,  would forever be entwined with my memories of Tatooine and R2D2 and Luke Skywalker.

The only trouble is, the first time I saw Star Wars, we arrived late, and I missed most of the words in the “scroll,” the words that set up the story.  So that first time through I had a hard time understanding what was happening. Every good epic has a prologue, but I was not paying attention.

We know the part of the Luke story we hear on Christmas Eve, the part about Joseph going to Bethlehem to be registered, along with his espoused wife Mary, great with child. We know she wraps the child in swaddling clothes and lays him in the manger. We know about the shepherds who come to see him, following the light of a star. But in Luke’s gospel there are two babies born, cousins who will later meet as adults, one laying out the way for the other.

Every good epic has a prologue, and Luke, Chapter 1, is ours.

A long time ago in a land far, far away, there lived an old couple. They were sad, because they had no children. And in that time and place, children mattered. Everyone wanted strong and beautiful children who would have more strong and beautiful children who would have more strong and beautiful children…well, you get the picture. The land was occupied by an invading army, with all the insults and ugliness and worry that goes along with having soldiers in your town, soldiers who speak a foreign language and worship false gods.


“In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” (Luke 1:5-7, NRSV)

People in the first century had a simplistic understanding of how human reproduction worked, of how it came to be that people produced people. They understood the sex part, but the inner workings were a mystery. They believed that the man implanted the woman with a teeny, tiny person. All men could do that; all men had the seed available.

So if no baby appeared, it was clear, the woman was at fault. She had not provided a good field in which to grow that mini-person. This is what Elizabeth means when she says, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (Luke 1:25, NRSV) But this is more than a story about two people who suffered from infertility and had a late-in-life baby.

Elizabeth and Zechariah symbolize a post-fertile culture, a post-fertile world view, and for the Jewish people of the first century, that infertility equaled a lack of hope for the future. The collective hope was in the coming generations, and this couple had done nothing to contribute to those generations. The line ended with each of them.

This barrenness was about the practical problem of keeping the population up, but it also signified a worry that God’s favor had been withdrawn.

What would be a metaphor for the brokenness in our culture? And what would qualify as a sign of hope? Much as we may love babies, and I do love them, we are living in an over-crowded world. When we hear the Duggars are expecting number 20, we shake our heads and say, “Well, at least they can support their children,” but what we really want to say is, “What are they thinking?!?!!”

In the first century of the Common Era, in the hill country of Judea, a baby was a sign that the future might be a better place.

What would be a sign for us?

At this time of year, I’m looking for light. The days are short, and that’s only going to get worse before it gets better. And where barrenness was a useful image for apocalyptic fear in first century Judea, darkness may well be that metaphor for us, because we are not used to it. We have electric lights, and lights on our cars, and screens—from large and flat to tiny and hand-held—that light up our world all the time. I learned the hard way during the late October snowstorm that I need a directory not just of our Deacons’ home phone numbers, but of their cell phones as well.

Because when the power goes off, we’re stranded. Oh, we might have a candle to light against the darkness, and some of you have generators you can use to keep the basics running, but our understanding of the world has become one of instant communications, long distance included, and in this ten-digit world we feel disconcerted when we can’t make contact.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Well, actually, yesterday…

over on Mountfort Road…

The saw in question.

my son, Peter, and I went to get a Christmas tree. We don’t usually get our tree so early, but having Peter here to help and knowing how busy the next two weekends will be, I decided to go ahead. We came to North Yarmouth, to that place right across from the Dransfields’, to get a tree. It’s only a Christmas tree farm, not the big woods, but for your city-dwelling pastor, this constitutes an epic adventure.

We tromped around in the mud and snow, for which I was naturally prepared…or not…and Peter wielded a saw, and we even managed to get the tree home to Portland with only one stop to tie it down tighter. We came to cut our own tree precisely because it’s so early in the season, and I wanted one that was fresh.  I broke my usual rule of waiting until the 2nd Sunday in Advent because I don’t want to face the darkest weeks of the year, the shortest days and longest nights, without a tree in my house to hold the lights that make it possible to bear the darkness.

Yes, I think darkness is the word we’re looking for, the description of how we feel when we are out of relationship with God and wonder if we’ll ever feel the touch of divine love again. A quick scan of the headlines offers up all sorts of disconnection from God. To those of you who love Black Friday, I do know the term is about the economics of getting companies into the black for the year. But every year there is a story, and some years it’s worse than others, reminding us that even in the midst of holiday lights, people are acting out their despair. Darkness is the word for the madness of using pepper spray at Wal-Mart to try and get ahead of others in line to buy electronic games.

Darkness is the word for loss of hope, for a fear that there is no goodness in the future, for a disconnection from God so profound that sometimes there is barely a crack to let the light break through. But we light the candles on the Advent wreath as a claim against the darkness, all kinds of darkness; we light the candles as a sign we believe in a new hope.

God sent a sign of hope into a broken world: John the Baptist, the miraculously conceived son of parents who were getting on in years. He would bring the message that God was coming, to set things right and to set people right, as prophesied by his no-longer-tongue-tied father, Zechariah.

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79, NRSV)

The new hope of a light in the darkness has been part of the story all along.

John pointed the way to the hope coming after him: God’s own self in the person of Jesus.  God came to us as Jesus, bringing and becoming hope for a broken, barren, darkened world. In these Sundays of Advent, we gather and listen to the prologue and wait for the story to begin, hopefully. Amen.