Hope

Second Sunday of Advent, Year B
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
The Reverend Richard Smith, Ph.D.

[Watch a video of this sermon.]

crooked ways straight

This past week, I was walking down Folsom Street with a swaggering young businessman. Tall, good-looking, well-educated, charming, he’s got the world by the tail. He owns property on a prominent corner in the neighborhood–property he hopes to sell soon, no doubt for a fortune.

We were talking about all the changes happening in this part of town–the many new luxury condos, the upscale restaurants and coffee shops replacing the old mom-and-pop grocery stores and taquerias.

I told him I wasn’t too excited about all these changes because they come at a great price:

  • So many families, after many generations here, are being forced out, some becoming homeless;
  • More and more homeless encampments–like the ones just outside our church door. So many of the now-homeless used to have apartments and homes here but were evicted after the rents went sky high. With the homeless shelters now full, and over 1000 people on the waiting list, these people have nowhere to go but the streets.
  • I told him about the many undocumented people fleeing here for their lives from Central America, many of them like Floricel, an undocumented mother of three kids who’s been in detention for months, away from her kids, now threatened with deportation back to the country she had fled for her life.
  • And about the constant threat of more police violence as SFPD increases its use of force against young Latinos in the Mission.

Needless to say, I was a regular Little Mary Sunshine.

My businessman acquaintance was stoic. He said the gentrification was one of those inevitable things that, like it or not, we have to get used to. Then he said, “Tell me, what evidence do you see that all the old families will not be driven out by gentrification, and the entire Mission become one big Valencia Street? What evidence?”

I couldn’t think of much, other than the fierce resolve of many of us to resist all the economic and political headwinds for the dignity of struggling families that have made their homes here, have made the Mission what it is today.

I couldn’t come up with many signs of immediate relief. The cloud probably won’t lift anytime soon.

That’s just here in the Mission. I won’t mention the orange nightmare that has engulfed our country and world, bringing us to the brink of war, increasing the numbers of those thrown into poverty, threatening our civil rights and the viability of our planet. Not much evidence this dark cloud will lift anytime soon either.

In such a context, where is the hope? Where’s the hope? It’s a question we ask ourselves in these dark times, and one that threads its way all through these wintry days of Advent.

Vaclav Havel was the first president of the Czech Republic and, prior to that, a political prisoner for many years. He was no great defender of religion. He was asked about the dark years of the 80s in his country. “Do you see a grain of hope anywhere…?” He replied not with an analysis of the world but with a look into his own soul.

I should probably say first that 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’s a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not a [prediction of the future]. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons….I think the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urges us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” I feel that its deepest roots are transcendental.

For Havel, hope is found not in the external world around us, but in the human heart. It’s what enables us, despite the bleakest of forecasts, to withstand the cruel realities of the present. Hope is that relentless and inexhaustible power we have to choose love over fear, to stand firm, to resist whatever the world may throw at us.

And, as Havel also notes, hope is something “transcendental,” “as it were, from elsewhere.”

We followers of Jesus have our own take on all this. With Havel, we say this unstoppable hope really is a transcendental thing in our hearts. But for us, it is also a gift from the One who made us, and it is grounded in an unshakeable promise we’ve been given.

In today’s gospel, Mark lifts two verses from the prophet Isaiah, part of today’s first reading. Those verses were written when most of the Israelites were captives of the Babylonians. Their homeland was no more; the Babylonian armies had destroyed it. Now they were in a strange land, enslaved by their new conquerors. Dark times.

And then, in a transcendental moment, as if out of nowhere, Isaiah proclaims that God is on the way to rescue us.

If the classic metaphor of spiritual writers is that life is a journey, a pilgrimage, in which we overcome various obstacles and meet many challenges to reach our ultimate destination, Isaiah and Mark flip that metaphor around. Now it is not we who are the pilgrims, the travelers. Rather, Someone else, “from elsewhere,” is making the journey toward us. God, in this revised metaphor, is moving heaven and earth to reach us: leveling mountains, sweeping away fallen branches, and straightening ways that are crooked.

This darkness? It is the darkness of the womb and not of the tomb as Gene Robinson reminded us last week.

This crazy, inexplicable, transcendent belief in what we call the coming reign of God grounds the hope we carry. This promise and the hope that rises from it will see us through, help us stand firm, resist whatever the present dark moment throws at us.

But there’s more: This hope is not just for Israel, and Israel as a people must now proclaim that hope to the larger world. Isaiah tells them, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear…” The imagery is beautiful and muscular. And also tender, and understandably savored by Handel and many great poets and composers. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” These are words about a God who comforts, protects, nurtures. Words that give light in a dark world, hope in the midst of despair.

These are words Israel as a people is to proclaim to a larger world plunged in darkness, and what we as a community in a rapidly changing and struggling community must proclaim as well–whether through Nightwalks, or the work of the Gubbio Project, or the other ministries we do here. Words and actions that proclaim hope and a promise–not because we see any evidence the dark clouds will lift anytime soon, but because we stubbornly believe the promise God has made to us, and in the capacity the Creator has given us to choose the holy even in the face of the hellish.

It’s the Second Sunday of Advent. A promise has been given to us, a vision set before us: Someone is approaching, a new world is coming to birth. The question we must answer in these dark, wintry, Advent days is whether to trust that promise, believe the vision.

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