How ironic–and typical–that just when we need to have a clear eye and ready energy, we are stuffed and sleepy from our Thanksgiving feasts. Of course, merchants and advertisers call us to frantic, competitive shopping, our eyes open to the best deal, but Advent’s call to alertness and readiness to perceive God’s coming in new ways into our lives? Not so much. It’s hard to hear that call over the shouting and blaring of sales and Santa and the promise of that perfect gift which will “show how much you care.”
That brilliant curmudgeon and Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann describes the season we are just entering like this, “Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations, to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give…Advent is an abrupt disruption in our ‘ordinary time’…an utterly new year, new time, new life.” [cited in K. Matthew, sermonseeds, 11/27/16]
“Then two will be in the field…[Jesus says] Two women will be grinding meal together”– ordinary time. Then “one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Of course, you can read this as a description of the Rapture–that fundamentalist notion of God’s “rapturing” the faithful believers up into heaven while leaving the others behind to fend for themselves in the apocalypse. I’ve seen a bumper sticker that says, “Warning: In case of the Rapture, this car will become driverless.” I’m thinking that in such a scenario, if I’m left behind, driverless cars will be the least of my worries.
Or Jesus’ urging here to keep awake and ready may be understood as a wise statement about living your life mindfully and fully because you do not know what day will be your last. “You do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Or, this jarring Advent text may just be what Brueggemann says the whole season is about– an invitation to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations, to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give…” Be ready at any moment for God to appear in your life as inspiration, opportunity, insight, person, possibility. Don’t sleep through that. Two men will be in the field, one cursing his life of hard work, the other thankful for his strong body, his ability to provide for his family. One will taken, one left.
Two women grinding corn, one complaining about her dreadful life, the other grateful her arms are strong and thinking of her children’s growing bodies she is able to fill with bread. One will be taken, one left.
Any moment may become radiant with God’s Light, any moment may be transformed with God’s power, at any moment a window or door may open into God’s possibility. Maybe this is not the end of the world, as some think of it, but rather the beginning. This is true at any time of year, but Advent provides us with a wake-up call.
At the same time, Walter Brueggemann also likens today’s reading from Hebrew Scripture to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
In days to come [says the prophet Isaiah] the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
It is “so evocative of such a deep yearning” [Kate Matthews, sermonseeds, 11/27/16] that it is used in public places. It’s engraved on the wall near the United Nations building in New York City. And in the plaza in front of Marsh Chapel at Boston University is a great metal sculpture, depicting spears transforming into pruning hooks and finally into doves.
In this season when we are surrounded by images of trees, Rebecca Solnik suggests that “The branches are hope; the Roots are memory…Though hope is about the future, grounds for hope lie in the records and recollections of the past.” [Solnik, Hope in the Dark, xix]
So Israel and the church look to God’s actions in the past to ground our hope for the future. God delivered us from slavery in Egypt. God provided food for us during our sojourn in the wilderness. God allowed us to be overrun and taken into exile when we abandoned our trust in God; and God restored us after the exile. God sent us prophets and messengers when we had lost hope, when we had forgotten who we were. And God came to live among us and to show us what a human being fully alive with God looks like. Even though the powers and principalities appeared to have killed him, God raised him from death, and God is still with us–Emmanuel–the Word made flesh in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
Memory is important, but we must remember the whole story. There was never a “golden time,’ in Israel’s history or in ours. Nor is our history one of unmitigated disaster and cruelty. It is a complex, complicated, multi-layered reality of triumph and failure, with room for all of that to be considered and learned from. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” wrote the great African American writer James Baldwin, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
We will never make America great until we face the whole of that history which was not great for everyone. The greatness of America will only be found as we continue to work for “a more perfect union” of all and everyone that is America now. Like the season of Advent, our nation cannot live or yearn for a golden “once upon a time,” but rather live into a season of “not yet.”
“The branches are hope; the roots are memory.” What is the nature of this hope? While it is rooted in our very real lives, it is less about a 10-point plan and more about a state of heart, as Czechoslovakian poet and prime minister Vaclav Havel wrote, back in the mid-1980’s, when Czechoslovakia was still a Soviet satellite–
The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world as immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. [cited in Solnik, p. 11]
“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and unknowable,” Rebecca Solnik writes, “an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists…It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it will matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” [op cit., p. xvi] “To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.” [p. 4] “Keep awake therefore,” Jesus said, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming,” you do not know what opportunities and possibilities will present themselves.
What is the hope we long for? “Authentic hope requires clarity..and imagination,” as Solnik says, for false or inadequate hope is seductive and dangerous. Don’t hope for and work for something that isn’t big enough or deep enough, or true enough, or worthy of your life. What is it we hope will grow and sprout and blossom and bear fruit on these branches? And what are we willing to sacrifice, what of ourselves are we willing to offer, to nourish and care for these hopes? Is it that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, nor learn war anymore? Is it the blossoming of the Beloved Community, which King wrote about, comprised of people of all races, creeds, and colors, living in peace and dignity? Or is it something more personal–a sense of integrity, of living in a way that feels true to your essence, your soul? Is it finding a relationship that honors who you are and promotes your full blossoming into the human being God intended you to be? What is it you hope for, and what are you willing to do, to sacrifice, on behalf of that hope?
Because, after all, as Rebecca Solnik writes, “Hope gets you there; work gets you through.” And it’s not just any work. The images Isaiah uses–plow and pruning hook–are instruments of overturning, digging into, pruning,…that kind of work. We need an education and training for hope. “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,” Isaiah says, “that God may teach us his ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” What would your course in hope look like? An examination of your life and the forces that have shaped you? An honest inventory of your gifts and passions? Would it include training in non-violent resistance? Would it include an exploration of White Privilege or of a more comprehensive view of American history? Would it include Bible study with a group of companions or a commitment to a daily prayer or meditation practice? Would it include new ways of caring for your body? Would it include mending some of the rifts in relationships you experience or a letting go of resentments and hurts? What would your course in hope look like?
“Keep awake,” Jesus said. “You know what time it is,” the apostle Paul wrote, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep…the night is far gone, the day is near..” (Rom. 13:11-12) In the meantime, as we wait for the One who is coming and is already in our midst, we take each day that is given to us. “Every morning you wake up,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow.” [cited in Matthews, op cit.] This is the day given to us, full of hope and possibility. Let us live in expectation. Even now, the Holy One is at hand. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark