Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone have held workshops around the world to engage people in conversation and discernment about the current state of our world. They usually open the workshop by asking folks to complete the sentence, “When I consider the condition of our world, I think things are getting….” Over the past several decades, tens of thousands of people have pondered this question, and the most common answers that they call out are, “dangerous,” “frightening,” “out of control…” What comes to mind for you?
This high level of “uncertainty,” Macy and Johnstone have concluded, “is the pivotal psychological reality of our time.” [Active Hope] It’s usually considered too depressing to talk about, so it becomes an unspoken presence in the back of our minds. This shoving it down and not acknowledging it, though, is dangerous, because it deadens our response to the pressing needs of our day. “How can we even begin to tackle the mess we’re in if we consider it too depressing to think about?” they ask in their book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy.”
So, we begin the season of Advent today, lighting the candle of Hope, surrounded by these amazing streams of light and the color purple on our altar cloth and in three of the candles on our Advent wreath. In recent years, many churches, including ours some years, have used a deep blue to signal the season of Advent, the color of the sky just before dawn, a color of anticipation and hope. But this year, we’re using purple, the color of repentance, just like we do during Lent. I am convinced that unless we take repentance seriously, we will not be able to move forward into the fullness and wholeness which God intends for us.
In the ancient world, purple was the most costly dye, made [I found out this week] from sea urchins. It was used by kings to indicate their royal status, but, as one liturgical church website explains, “purple also signifies the repentance of God’s people as they patiently await the arrival of their Lord.” [St. Paul’s Ivy Episcopal Church, Ivy, Virginia] I’m not sure if “patiently” accurately describes how we’re waiting, but this was an Episcopal church website, and they may behave with more restraint than we do!
Purple is the color of repentance, a term originally taken from archery, meaning to re-focus our aim, back to the target. Repentance is “being realigned to reality,” as one writer says, “rather than our own deadly self-delusions.” [Brian K. Peterson, cited by Huey, op cit.] How many deadly self-delusions have been exposed this week?! Purple is “the color of remorse,” another writer says, “warning us not to greet God prematurely or presumptuously…until we acknowledge that we are [as our Isaiah text this morning described it] clay in the divine potter’s hands, people chastened by God’s silence, ready to be molded anew as ‘the work of [God’s] hands.’” [James Brenneman, cited by Kathryn Huey in sermonseeds, 12/3/17]
So the beginning of Advent is signaled by the color purple and these unsettling texts from Isaiah and Mark. “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down…so that the mountains would quake at your presence….so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” And Jesus’ words from Mark–“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken…Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…”
One translator warns us not to try to pin down and interpret these apocalyptic texts too closely, but rather to let them be wild, to jolt us out of our complacency or our paralysis. We could wait around for the end of the planet, but haven’t you experienced the sun being darkened and the stars falling from the sky, when you found out that your daughter was using cocaine, or you lost your job, or the doctor gave you the test results? There is no word-for-word translation necessary here. The world comes to an end for someone every day. If Biblical interpretation is an art, then these texts are graffiti, spray-painted in garish colors across the wall. [Mark Davis] They are meant to shake us up and to speak to us in our unsettledness.
This season of Advent “invites the church to free itself from enslavement to the tyranny of fear,” one preacher writes, as “repentance is the process of letting go of those things which make it impossible for us to receive what God longs to give us.” [Frederick Schmitt, Journal for Preaching, Advent 2017, pp. 5-6] What do you need to let go of, so that you might receive what God longs to give you? That “tyranny of fear” is just what Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone aim to throw off in their work to promote “active hope.”
Hope has two meanings, they say. One is hopefulness, where “the preferred outcome seems reasonably likely to happen.” If we act only when the outcome is relatively assured, that limits our actions. The second meaning of hope, though, is about desire–What is it we want to happen? It is knowing what we hope for and what we’d love to take place. “It is what we do with this hope,” Macy and Johnstone say, “that really makes a difference…Active Hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for.”
Active Hope, like prayer and meditation, like mindfulness, like reading Scripture, like worship, like yoga and exercise and playing the piano, is a practice. It involves, first, taking a clear view of reality, which is why we need to talk about what we see going on in the world that makes us so anxious, or frightened, or concerned, or depressed, and get real about our role in it. (That’s why we’re using purple this year.) Is it climate change, or the activity or inactivity of Congress? Is it the prospect of war with North Korea? Is it the growing gap between the have’s and have not’s? Is it the opioid crisis in our country, let alone our community, maybe even our family? “How can we even begin to tackle the mess we’re in if we consider it too depressing to think about?”
Secondly, in the practice of Active Hope, we identify what we hope for in terms of a direction we need to move toward or the values we want to embody. Is it moving toward an economy that benefits everyone and not just a few, a way of providing for basic human needs without destroying the planet in the process? Do we want to move in the direction of equality of opportunity and dignity for all, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or identification? Is it a diverse culture enriched by customs and colors and traditions of people from all over the world? Is it a community, for starters, where kindness and respect characterize our relationships? Is it a world where every child has enough food and education and health care to have a change at meeting their potential? Can you articulate what values and directions you’d like to see embodied and worked toward as you practice active hope?
And thirdly, the practice of active hope means taking steps –however small–in the direction of your hope. It’s about our intention, it’s about choosing our response to the world. What small steps can you take to move toward your hope, to make it a reality? What particular gifts or talents have you been given that might be used in service of that hope?
In this unsettling time, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone say, there are at least three stories that shape and inspire and describe the world for people. All three stories are happening in our world. The question for us this Advent is, which story do we want to invest our energy in, engage our active hope in? The first story is Business as Usual–it may sound familiar, for its core assumptions are that economic growth is essential for prosperity, nature is a commodity to be used for human purposes, promoting consumption is good for the economy, the central plot is about getting ahead, and the problems of others, nations, and species are not our concern. Where have we heard that platform?
The second story they call “the Great Unraveling”–marked by economic decline, resource depletion, climate change, social division and war, and mass extinction of species; essentially the story that the world’s going to hell in a handbasket and there’s nothing we can do about it. Some evangelical Christians say God is allowing all these things, lying in wait to scoop up the righteous and punish all the rest.
The third story at work in the world, Macy and Johnstone call “The Great Turning,” but it’s also been called the Ecological Revolution, the Sustainability Revolution, the Consciousness Revolution. Jesus called it the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven (on earth). Three stories told about our world today. Which one do we want to invest our energy and hope in?
“Advent reflects the unfinished nature of creation,” Bruce Epperly writes, “the horizon that recedes with each step we take toward it.” [Adventurous Lectionary, 11/23/17] We parti-cipate with God in finishing that creation, we renew our commitment to allow the Christ Child, the Christ Consciousness, to be born in us, and then continue the ministry of Jesus, “beginning again.” “We are waiting to become our deepest selves,” Epperly writes, “to live by love and not fear, to fulfil our dreams and God’s dream of Shalom….Jesus does not want us to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good!” The fig tree that Jesus points to grounds our vision in the natural world, through which transformation will come, and alerts us to the other signs all around us.
Grain and grape–fruits of the natural world– are transformed into bread and wine, and as we share this meal together, we too are transformed into Christ’s body and blood, given for the world’s transformation. “When we consider the condition of our world…”what do we hope for? we pray that we might acknowledge and turn over to God our participation in the heartache, so that we might be trans-formed and participate with God in the renewal of hope for the world. The color purple keeps us real, but the light shines in the darkness. May these words be truth, and courage, and hope for us, for the living of these days. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark