Contradictions in the Wilderness

4th Sunday in Lent 2018

Rebecca Gordon, lay preacher

In the name of the one, holy and living God. Amen.

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19

Today I’d like to talk about contradictions.

Monseñor_Romero_1979
Saint Óscar Romero

It’s the fourth Sunday in Lent, the fourth Sunday in our journey through the hard emptiness of wilderness to the even harder place of the cross. We know what’s coming, and yet we trudge along anyway, in the crazy hope that something waits for us on the other side of that cross. In the same way, we’re told that the Israelites traveled 40 years, in the crazy hope that they, or their children, or their children’s children would see that promised land. And sometimes, like us they grew tired, frightened, and angry.

My partner Jan and I won’t be with St. John’s on Good Friday evening. As many of have heard me say, I’m a nice Jewish girl who goes to an Episcopal church. (Maybe it’s only half-true, at least according to 23 & Me, who recently informed me that I’m exactly 49.9% Ashkenazi Jew. I figure that other 0.1% on my Papa’s side is the Mongol he always resembled a little bit.)

In any case, this is one of those years when Eastertide overlaps with Pesach — or in English, Passover — and Friday is the first night of Passover. Jan and I will be sitting, as we have for the last 30-odd years, at a table full of women, eating symbolic foods and retelling the Passover story from the book of Exodus. We’ll remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and that therefore we must never allow anyone to be a slave again. We’ll remind ourselves that none of us are free until all of us are free. The exodus story appears in several places in the Hebrew bible. And in the book of Exodus there’s also a part of the story where, as in today’s passage from Numbers, the Israelites get angry and frustrated with Moses. “Were there no graves in Egypt,” they ask him, “that you had to bring us out into the desert to die?” The women around the table often pause at the at that point in the story to talk about the hardship of pilgrimage, about leadership and its costs, and about the risks of accepting a leader — whether it be Moses, Black Lives Matter, or Monseñor Oscar Romero of El Salvador.

The way of the wilderness is hard. Harder still, for the women who sit at the Pesach table every year is accepting the contradictions buried in God’s liberation of the Hebrews. Sure, we Hebrews get to enter the land of Canaan, and it is indeed full of milk and honey, but it turns out that it’s also full of people who were already living there. Told from a Canaanite’s point of view, the exodus is not exactly a story of liberation. It is not just the story that lifted up Harriet Tubman, leader of the Underground Railroad, whose people called her “Moses.” As the Native American theologian Robert Allen Warrior has written, for the Canaanites, the exodus story is a history of massacre and occupation. Liberation and occupation–opposites entwined in the same human history. What are we to make of this contradiction? I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Along our Lenten way through the wilderness at St. John’s, we’re given the weekly lectionary readings as signposts. But sometimes—and I’d count today as one of those times—the signposts seem to be pointing in opposite directions. It’s confusing out here in the wilderness. Take today’s readings, for example. Are we supposed to save ourselves through good deeds? Or by recognizing that our deeds alone cannot save us?

On the one hand, we hear in Numbers that the Hebrews performed evil deeds. They treated Moses badly and were punished with the bites of poisonous snakes. But then, as so often happens in these Hebrew bible stories, God relents. (One of the joys of being Jewish is we’re used to arguing with The Divine, and on occasion even winning the argument.) In this case, God declares that bitten pilgrims can be cured, if they will turn their gaze on the bronze viper Moses has affixed to his staff. Just as they have been condemned to a painful death because of what they did, they can also be cured through their own actions, through something they do.

But what is it they have to do?  They must recognize that they cannot save themselves by themselves. They must look to the visible, physical sign of God’s presence in the snake on the staff. That willingness to look, to recognize The Divine in the world, is a kind of faith. It is the faith that confesses (from the Latin for speaking “with faith”) that we cannot liberate ourselves by ourselves.

Most biblical scholars don’t think that St. Paul himself wrote the letter to the Ephesians, but the passage we heard today is very much in keeping with one of Paul’s central messages — that we are justified not by our works but by faith. “For,” says the letter’s author, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” We cannot save ourselves through our good works.

But really, why not? After all, how bad are we really? Think about St. John’s: we house the Gubbio project so that five days a week people can sleep here in safety. We make room for the Julian Pantry, so people can feed their families (whether directly by eating the food we provide or by selling it on the street–we don’t inquire too deeply!) We stand as witnesses to police and ICE violence. We’re basically pretty good people in a pretty good congregation that proudly hangs a Black Lives Matter banner on the side of our church. We do our best to live out our faith, to be the kind of people the Letter to the Ephesians describes: “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Lent — I always come up with two contradictory ideas. On one hand, like the folks at St. John’s, very few human beings are truly evil. Mostly we do our best, and sometimes it’s close to good enough. Certainly not deserving of the condemnation mentioned in John’s gospel today. Few of us are big enough to be truly terrible, to deserve to be cast out into the outer darkness. And yet. And yet. When you consider humanity as whole, it does seem to be true that — as the Rite I version of the general confession has it—“There is no health in us.” We torture each other. We slaughter each other in the millions and turn millions more into refugees, literal wanderers in the wilderness. We enslave each other and the planet, all for greed. There is no health in us. We are not so bad, and we are a scourge. How can both things be true?

And this brings me back to the contradiction I mentioned earlier. I don’t think it’s an accident that liberation and oppression are so often opposite sides of the same human-minted coin. That truth is implicit in the kind of creature we are. And that is why, as the authors of Ephesians and Numbers tell us, as our namesake evangelist John tells us, our health depends on turning and looking to the signs of grace that God offers us. For John, that sign is the person of Jesus.

When I decided I wanted to go to seminary, I went over to CDSP, the Episcopal school at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. I talked to a professor there about how I understand the Incarnation — the physical presence of God incarnated (made flesh) in humanity. “I think the divine is incarnated in human history,” I told him, “whenever human beings come together to struggle for justice.”

“Yes! Yes!” he said. “And I think you’d be really isolated here.” So I went across the street to the Unitarians, because they don’t care what outlandish thing you think, as long as you do it respectfully. Over the years I’ve become more orthodox, more interested in the actual person I secretly call “the Jesus guy.” But I still believe what I told that professor that day.

This past week, the Vatican announced that it has cleared the way to recognize the sainthood of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador. (It’s more than a little ironic that this should come just as the Trump administration is planning to end Temporary Protective Status for people who have come to this country to escape violence in El Salvador.) You may remember that Romero was an ordinary, relatively conservative Salvadoran priest, who, through his willingness to look clearly at the lives of poor people in his country changed his understanding completely. Though repentance (which is the Lenten task of all of us) he acknowledged that there was no health his country: a country (supported by our own taxes, by the way) that used its military and police to enforce the power and wealth of a very few families by torturing and terrorizing poor people.

Romero could have led a safe and comfortable bishop’s and then archbishop’s life, enjoying the perks that a accrue to a prince of the church. But he repented — re-thought–his own and his country’s situation. Romero, snake-bitten in the desert, chose to gaze at the visible sign of the incarnation. He looked full on at poor people organizing for their own liberation, and in so doing, he allowed God to liberate him.

It cost him his life. Almost 38 years ago, on March 24, 1980, an agent of the US-backed right wing death squads murdered Oscar Romero while he was saying mass. But Romero, and we, too, as we accompany the Jesus guy on his way to the cross this Lent had one more contradiction to encounter. The cross is the most glorious contradiction of them all, that very real and tortured death that–whatever you believe about the actual Resurrection 2,000 years ago–leads to the life of the Divine within and throughout creation. Or as Romero said in his homily on the day he died, “Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ, will live like the grains of the wheat that dies. It only appears to die. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies” and rises again in the people’s Easter.

San Oscar Romero, presente.

Amen.

Epiphany 2018

Matthew 2:1-12
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D.
[Watch a video of this sermon.]

he qi epiphany-themagi

My last sermon at St. John’s…

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the crotchety old priest who announced his departure to his people. He’d been at that parish far too long. He didn’t like them, and they didn’t care much for him either. His last day on the job finally came, and he walked into the pulpit and said, “Well, this is my last day. I’m leaving. I know you’re sorry to hear this, and you hate to see me go. But you’ll just have to accept it as the Lord’s will.” And with that, he returned to his seat.

At that point, the music director stood and said, “Let us now stand and sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Well, before you crank up the organ and join in the chorus, maybe I can say a few words about today’s gospel.

In the Christmas stories we’ve heard these last few weeks, the characters who have it the easiest are the shepherds. In their journey to the newborn child, they have a chatty angel lighting up the night sky with a hallelujah chorus, and sending them joyfully racing to where the child is, with directions that are clear and easy to follow.

But here at St. John’s that’s not how it works. Our path to the newborn child is usually not so clear and direct. Around here, we muddle. Around here, we’re not shepherds. Here we are magi.

It’s the Feast of Epiphany, and we remember the story of how the magi found the child by putting one foot in front of the other, not always sure where they’re going, trying now this way now that, with only a remote star in the night sky to guide them. Sometimes that star was fiercely bright, but on cloudy nights you could barely see it.

But they kept going. Together.

As they traveled along, their camels bleating and bellowing, maybe they’d talk of cabbages and kings, share stories, an occasional glass of wine, a few songs. Sometimes maybe they’d argue, ask strangers for directions, hope for the best.

At one point, they meet King Herod, a deeply insecure man, desperately grasping for power, known for his abuse of women and his cruelty toward children, for his inflated self-image and for driving the poor among his people into greater poverty while he and his friends got richer still. (I’m talking about King Herod here, by the way, and not our current president. It’s easy to get the two mixed up. :-))

But, anyway, these magi do not follow Herod’s decree. He tells them that once they have found the child, they are to return to him with details about where the child is. But their hearts tell them something different: that doing so would put this new child in great danger. So, in one of the first recorded acts of civil disobedience in the Christian scriptures, they go home another way.

During these last five years, we have been magi, putting one foot in front of the other.

  • We’ve watched our kids grow: Elena Claire and Audrey, Harper Dandridge, Rhys Monroe, Ben and Pilar and David and Iris, Isaac and Hannah.
  • And we’ve buried our dead: Dennis Turner, Barbara Colt, Nico, Amilcar, Alex Nieto, Luis Gongora Pat, Dennis Gould, Judy Eastwood.
  • We’ve welcomed new members and said farewell to some who moved away.
  • We’ve supported each other through bad falls, heart surgeries, cancer, grieving the loss of parents and a spouse of many years, a kidney transplant, the physical challenges of aging.
  • We’ve gathered many times around this table: activists and professors; monks and computer nerds; black, white, and brown; straight and gay and everything in-between; nonagenarians, millennials, and babes in arms; middle class and homeless; most of us happily clean and sober, some of us three sheets to the wind.Each with our own stories of love and loss, each with our own ragged edges. How did we all manage to get here?

It’s how we roll here. We are magi who, through all of life’s rhythms, keep putting one foot in front of the other, focused on a remote star in the night sky. This is how we find the Christ child.

  • The one who would later say, “Blessed, blessed, blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for justice;
  • Who would throw aside all the laws of ritual purity and touch the untouchables: the leper, the lame, and the blind;
  • Who would sit at table with those deemed shameful and repulsive, and by eating with them, render them beautiful, acceptable, outcasts no more

Through these very ordinary rhythms, our journey as magi, something happens, almost imperceptibly, inside us. Our hearts change. And, like magi, we, too, find ourselves offering gifts.

  • Some of you have shared your voices in the choir, given your assistance in the altar party, arranged flowers, cleaned this space and arranged the vestments all to make our liturgies more beautiful.
  • Others have generously given their time and expertise on the Bishop’s Committee, as parish treasurer, as delegates to the deanery
  • Several of us have gone on nightwalks along some of the more violent streets of our neighborhood, pausing at times to talk and pray with the families and friends of those killed by gun violence and to call for peace.
  • We continue to support young people fleeing the violence in their own struggling countries in Central America, and, much to our great joy, we’ve celebrated Allan’s baptism.
  • Some of us have come on Saturday mornings to the Julian Pantry to distribute food to seniors and parents struggling to feed their kids.
  • Some have headed to Mission Police Station to spend time with the Frisco Five in their hunger strike calling for an end to police brutality, and demanding justice for Amilcar.
  • Some have gone to rural villages in Nicaragua with El Porvenir to help people there get clean, safe water.
  • Others have helped neighborhood kids through school through the amazing work of Mission Graduates.
  • Some of us have stood outside Senator Feinstein’s office with undocumented leaders demanding simply that our government stop tearing their families apart,
    or at the Federal Building silently calling for an end to the longest war in our nation’s history.

Along the way we’ve discovered something about ourselves, perhaps to our surprise: That we, with all our loose ends, can matter. That our own wild and precious lives can make a difference.

These things we do are part of a magi’s journey that leads to the child, to Jesus who, as Mother Teresa used to say, often comes to us in a distressing disguise. We are magi. It’s what we do.

Our patron St. John came to know this in his own way–that we draw close to God by loving our lives, and by the people and creatures of this world.

One part of our tradition says John was the one our scriptures call “the beloved disciple” who, when all the other men had fled, stood with the women at the foot of Jesus’ cross. The one who, when the disciples reclined at table, would lean back and rest his head on Jesus’ chest.

And there, in that moment, in that privileged and intimate place, he would listen to Jesus’ heart, learn what made him tick, what made him happy, and what made him sad; what made him angry and what made him laugh.

John leans against the heart of Jesus, and from that amazing place, he looks out at the world, seeing it all now with the eyes of Jesus.

When I started as Vicar five years ago, I had a suspicion that the same grace offered to our patron John was also offered to us in this community that bears his name. Five years later, I’m even more convinced of this: that you in this community of St. John, like your patron, are especially invited to listen to the heart of Jesus and from there to look out at this neighborhood and world, becoming the hands and feet of Jesus in this time and place.

And now it is time for you once more to put one foot in front of the other; your journey continues. And in the days ahead, as you, magis that you are, go through all your ordinary rhythms–

  • watching your kids grow,
  • and burying your dead,
  • and welcoming new members;
  • and marrying off your friends
  • after all your coffee hour chats about cabbages and kings,
  • the ministries you do together,
  • all your triumphs and setbacks,
  • your laughter,
  • your fights,
  • your joys

–through this entire journey, one question will remain: Through it all, have your hearts, like that of your patron, like that of magi, become more in tune with the heart of Jesus: full of more joy, more compassion, more life, more love. Yes, more love.

My brothers and sisters, I love you all very much. Blessings on your new beginning. Amen.

 

 

Angels 101

he qi annunciation

Christmas 2017
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D.

It’s Christmas, so I should tell you what you need to know about angels. Think of it as Angels 101.

They can appear out of nowhere. Angels will scare the hell out of you, deliver a revelation that blows your mind, then suddenly depart, leaving you scratching your head and wondering, “OK, What was that all about? Can I trust this revelation? Or was it just the pizza I ate last night? Do I build my life on what I have received here? Or maybe I should just forget this ever happened, go back to business as usual.

A story. In 1914, the guns of August sounded, sending Europe into war. As Christmas drew near, the Pope called for a cease-fire. The generals replied: “Impossible!” The German High Command told their troops, “Let your hearts beat to God during the coming season, but keep your fists on the enemy.”

But on sundown on Christmas Eve, the troops did not heed the generals. The firing stopped. Soldiers on both sides came out of the trenches, sang carols, exchanged gifts. On Christmas Day, they ate together and played soccer. Then, as evening fell, they embraced each other and said good-bye. Christmas was over.

The next day it was war as usual. The vision was gone, the angel had departed as it were, and anger and isolation returned, and more bloodshed, more families back home in tears.

It was a one-time event; it never happened again. A young English soldier wrote home that the Germans were friendly, “jolly good fellows.” At the end of his letter, he stated simply the puzzling thing about that Christmas truce: “Both sides have started firing and are enemies again. Strange it all seems, doesn’t it?”

Strange it all seems, doesn’t it? This strangeness is a door to what some call the miracle of Christmas. For a moment, this young soldier glimpsed a truth beneath everyday logic, a Word deeper than all the other words, a bond with the enemy soldiers that ran beneath all the overwhelming political conflicts and struggles. “Strange it all seems, doesn’t it?”

When such conflicting visions and words alternate rapidly, we become confused. If I say that the Christmas Day communion the soldiers experienced is what is most true, then I’ll be at odds with the majority of people in the world around me, as strange as a Christmas truce. But if I choose the popular line that war is both inevitable and endless, then the Christmas truce becomes a mere blip on the radar screen, a freak occurrence. I may be puzzled or amazed by it for a moment, but then I just go back to business as usual.

Ultimately, whenever a deeper truth reveals itself, we are at a crossroads. We can ignore it and continue with the everyday tasks that claim our attention–holding down our job, caring for loved ones, shopping for groceries, walking the dog–or we can open the gift that has been given, ponder what it means for us.

We find this to be true all through the scriptures. Again and again, as people watch what Jesus does and says, they have to decide what it will mean for them. Some say, “Wow! Did you see what that guy did?! Amazing!” Then they turn around and go back to business as usual. Others shrug their shoulders and say, “OK, well, that was weird.” And they turn and go back to business as usual.

But there are others who bypass the amazement and move to a deeper level. They ponder what the revelation means, and what implications it may have for them. Among these ponderers is Mary, the mother of Jesus.

When the angel first announces she is to be the mother of the Messiah, Luke says she deliberates. She does not immediately answer Yes, does not just blindly obey. She puts the Creator of heaven and earth on hold, carefully considers whether to trust such a preposterous revelation, whether she can build her life on it. Mary is a woman who thinks. She deliberates.

And once she does finally say yes–to God’s great joy and relief–then the pondering begins. What will this mean for her, her relationship with her soon-to-be husband, her family and her community and her people? Are there things she must now set aside, or new things she must now do or do differently? What are the implications of a revelation such as this? Mary ponders what it will mean for her.

And later, as this evening’s gospel reports, after all that happens on this night–the emperor’s census, the perilous journey to Bethlehem, the failed attempt to find lodging, the giving birth in a homeless encampment, the report from scruffy shepherds that an angel had appeared to them, the tiny child in her arms gazing into her eyes–after all this, Luke says “Mary treasured all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” Mary is not merely amazed at it all, she also ponders.

I suspect those of us who are LGBT have a unique insight into pondering.

Because we’ve received a revelation. It’s about who we are at a profound level. In light of this revelation, we deliberate: Do we embrace this revelation? Can we trust it, build a life on it?

And if we do we embrace it, then the pondering goes deeper: What do I do now? Do I tell my family and friends, my colleagues, my boss, my landlord? How will I handle their range of reactions? Should I let myself fall in love? How will I not only survive but also stand against a culture that isn’t always sure of our right to exist? We LGBT folks know how to ponder.

And this feast in which God becomes flesh, this, too, is a moment for pondering. A revelation has been given to us about the very heart of the universe. It’s about Jesus, whom one writer calls the Compassion of God.

  • Jesus, who doesn’t cling to his divine power but becomes a fragile child, gazing up with unspeakable trust into the face of his mother;
  • Who later says, “Blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for justice;
  • Who touches the lame, the crippled, and the blind, goes among the outcasts where love has not yet arrived, and by eating with them, reminds them of their own loveliness and thereby renders them lovely.
  • Who ultimately dies alone, rejected and despised;

Jesus, the Compassion of God.

So much to ponder here. How do we explain this everlasting God becoming an immigrant, crossing the border into our history, sharing fully our moments of love and laughter, our pleasures and delights, our pains and struggles and disappointments, the ups and downs of our days? How to explain this immigrant God?

Tonight’s revelation is mind-blowing. It runs so completely counter to the logic of the world, the logic of Wall Street and national defense programs, the logic that urges us to climb to the top at all costs, acquire more power, more money, more respect, and fame.

How do we account for the downward movement of God on this holy night? We have so much to ponder.

And what will tonight’s revelation mean for you? Can you trust it? Can you build your life on it? How will it affect your relationships? Your career?  

How will it affect how you respond to all that has happened these last few years: 

  • an increasingly shrill white supremacy at Charlottesville; 
  • the police killings of Alex Nieto and Amilcar Perez Lopez, of Mario Woods, Luis Gongora, Philando Castile and so many others; 
  • the sexual exploitation of women, 
  • the brutal tearing apart of immigrant families, 
  • the growing economic inequality and the swelling numbers of homeless on our streets, 
  • the drums of war growing louder each day

After all this, how will the revelation of this holy night how you respond to the way things are now?

If you say yes to the revelation of this night, will there be things you must now set aside, and new tasks to take up in the coming year, new adventures, new risks? What will the revelation of this holy night mean for you?

These are questions I can’t answer for you. Confronted with a revelation like this, we must each stand on our own two feet. There’s not one size that fits us all. We must each make our own decisions before God. I can’t tell you how to respond.

But I can hope that, like Mary, you will ponder this night’s revelation. And maybe these words will help. They come from an unlikely place, from the pen of a 16th-century friar.

I salute you. I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep. There is nothing I can give you which you do not have. But there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace!

The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!

Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you.

Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there. The gift is there and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home.

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.

Grieving with Hope

THE TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
November 12, 2017
The Rev. Dr. John H. Eastwood

Grieving-with-Hope

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 1 THESSALONIANS 4:13-14

Our lessons today are about the Advent theme of Christ’s final coming in judgment, the so-called second coming at the end of time. We hear a portion of Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica which is dominated by the expectation of Christ’s return in glory. Christ had promised to return and gather up the faithful, living and dead, and bring a new era of God’s reign. A life of living fully in God’s eternal joy was what they were waiting for. But as the days and weeks progressed, the church folk were getting restless and beginning to wonder when this was going to happen. As time passed, their hope began to wane. Some had stopped working and were just waiting. They were grieving, as Paul writes, as a people without hope. They were left only with their sadness, a people without hope.

Sometimes mourning can be like that. Darkness all around, everything seems overwhelming for a time. I know what that is like. In those first days after Judy died in mid-January, I could not break into a smile. Life alone without her seemed grim. I was entering into a dark, uncharted territory in my life. After 46 years together, I was alone, without my partner to love and to support, and to feel her warmth and loving care in return. The future seemed bleak.

And so it was for the Thessalonians. But, Paul had a tip-off from Timothy, who had recently visited, about how the people were feeling, and so Paul put on his pastoral hat. He wrote words of comfort and encouragement, placing the strengthening meaning of Christ into their grieving. He reminded them that God had been through what they were going through. In the death and resurrection of his Son, those who believed could find the basis for their hope, a “steadfastness of hope” as Paul puts it earlier in his letter. Here the Thessalonians could find the source from which to draw comfort, encouragement, and faith in the face of their loss.

“Blessed are they who mourn.” Have you ever wondered what Jesus meant by these words? In my experience, I have had to find the meaning of those words, too. One day, in passing, my daughter asked me the question I am asked frequently by friends. “Are you okay?” I don’t like that question. I don’t feel okay sometimes, and I didn’t then. She wondered what was going on. Later, when we had time to talk, I explained that sometimes I feel like I am walking down a road in a fog. As the road goes downhill, the fog darkens. As the road goes uphill, it lightens. That’s the sadness, and that’s how some parts of my days are, but, there is something else about this fog. I see light coming through down the road, sometimes there are glimmers of light, at other times there are times of peace and serenity. After traveling this road for some months, I now see that while the fog remains, it is lighter, and the light is stronger. There is sadness as well as joy, a meaningful life we lived and a new life yet to come. In the end, as the wise ones say, joy follows sadness.

I think for us, in our day, it is important to understand the importance of mourning, and, unlike the people in that long-ago time, have a sense that good news can follow sadness. I was reminded of this by a doctor I see regularly. In our office visits, he is usually quiet, says very little. In March, I saw him and I disclosed to him that my wife, also a patient of his, had died. He asked how I was doing. After I shared with him how I was trying to manage this new life, he said “Pay attention to your grief. Take it seriously. Too many people today don’t do that. Denial is the way people handle it often. It is not healthy. It won’t go away. It will come back and haunt you!” I left his office with that sobering message feeling encouraged.

Mourning is not simply a personal experience. We mourn as a society, don’t we? The headline in a New York Times article recently read “In Places of Worship Scarred by Bullets, Long Memories, and Shared Pain”. The article chronicles the places of worship where we mourn the losses due to gun violence in our culture – a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, Sutherland Springs, Texas and other houses of worship. “Every time this happens we feel the pain again”, said a priest of one of the congregations. Grief remembers other griefs. Violence in all its forms – guns, racial hatred, hatred of gays, and other forms – cause us to mourn for safety and peacefulness on our streets, in houses of worship and all public places.

But do we mourn in hope, or simply grieve like the people in our scripture today who are sad but have given up that anything can be done? That is a question that confronts us all. And our answer, here at St. John’s, is in being a place of safety, sanctuary, and in our providing for ministries like the Gubbio project for the homeless and Night Walks in protest of street violence. That is what it means to grieve as a people with hope!

Clarence Jordan offered an interesting reflection on “Blessed are those who mourn.” He said, “real mourners grieve over injustice in God’s world. There are ‘fake mourners’ who say ‘Sure, the world’s in a mess, and I guess maybe I’m a bit guilty like everybody else, but what can I do about it?’ What they’re really saying is that they are not concerned enough about themselves or the world to look for anything to do.” His point is that mourning elicits courageous, hopeful engagement. When we, at St John’s join with other congregations and walk the streets of the Mission on our regular Night Walks, we do so not simply in sadness for those who have been killed or wounded on our streets. We do so in hope that awareness of the problem is raised and that we witness to the fact that there is plenty to be done with our policing and community support for reforms in justice about gun violence and its root causes. Jordan, clearly not a fake mourner, warned:

You’d better watch out when a fellow gets that certain gleam in his eye and a certain set to his jaw. He’s getting ready to ‘mourn.’ And he’ll be awfully hard to stop because he will be receiving tremendous strength and power and encouragement from seeing his mourning become deeds.

We grieve as those with hope.

Similarly, that is the way Henri Nouwen ended his little book entitled “In Memoriam.” He went to the side of his dying mother as a son and as a priest in the last days of his mother’s life. He read psalms to her, gave her the last rites, celebrated the Eucharist at her funeral, and prayed over her grave. It was a time of safety until he could discover the “strange joy” as he put it, of becoming a “man alone in a new way.”

In closing, Henri wrote these words, about the way losses can bring hope, and hope can bring important new deeds. They are very important to me as I hope they are to you.

Mother’s death is God’s way of converting me, of letting his Spirit set me free. It is all still very new. A great deal has happened in these weeks, but what will happen in the months and years ahead will be far more than I can now understand. I am still waiting, yet already receiving; still hoping, yet already possessing; still wondering, yet already knowing. . . I know that I must be patient and allow her who taught me so much by her life to teach me even more by her death.

AMEN