Year B, Advent 1
November 30, 201
The Reverent Dr. Brent Was
“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…”
Here we are in the dark time of the year again. The days are short, aren’t they? The clouds have descended and the rain has settled in comfortably. School is winding down as the creeks are rising up. (With the grad students it would seem). The last of the folks living outside who have somewhere warmer to be are on their way there. The darkness of December has arrived.
Windy, the girls and I were driving back out to Jasper on Friday night after visiting with friends here in town. It was a cold, dark rainy night, and late as we went down Rt. 58. It is always moments like that that I realize that I really do need new windshield wipers, and I do. The whole world is just squeezed down, just as low as the cloud ceiling, and even our humble Mt. Pisgah was shrouded in the soup on Friday night. Driving along I was thinking about our wet chickens and wetter dogs at home. Of the people I know living in various states of outside: from huts and bungalows, back seats of cars, leaky RVs, tents and tarps and south facing doorways. It was the day after Thanksgiving, later than the girls should have been up (than I should have been up) and no one was out on the roads. I got one of those deep chills in my bones, one of those sympathetic memories you experience, like when someone describes dental work, but this one of how dark and cold and wet it is all around even when you yourself are warm and dry. One of those kinds of shivers went down my spine. “It’s dark out here.”
And following the darkness of the moment my mind strayed to the darkness of the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. We will never know what actually happened in the couple of minutes of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson’s fateful encounter. And truly, who individually was right and wrong in that moment has little to do with anything. The darkness of that encounter is the fact that those two young men met as adversaries, and there was little chance that they would have met as anything else. Moral man, immoral society is what Reinhold Neibuhr might have called it. We can’t know what was in Officer Wilson’s heart when he confronted those boys, it most likely wasn’t evil, but his role, his station in life was that as one of the pointy ends of the spear of empire; enforcing the laws of the rulers. His role was no different than me as a young Marine Corps tank platoon commander. I didn’t have hatred in my heart, most of us didn’t, but we were placed in impossible moral situations by the very nature of our assignments. Charles Graner and Lynn English and the other extremely low ranking soldiers convicted for the Abu Ghraib atrocities were in the same position: the pointy pointy end of the Imperial spear, the rubber meeting the road of a system of violence and oppression so vast that our common reaction to it is to deny its very existence. (It is not too big to fail, maybe it is too big to admit?). And to deny our complicity, the sins done on our behalf, we blame the flunky on the ground, call them an anomaly, label them isolated bad actors in an otherwise just system. He wasn’t indicted? Darren Wilson wasn’t the problem. Michael Brown’s behavior, whatever he did, or Tamir Rice’s or John Crawford’s BB guns or failure to comply instantly wasn’t the problem. It is, in the words of Dorothy Day, a problem of “the dirty, rotten system.” The dirty, rotten system put Wilson and Brown at odds before they ever met on that street in Ferguson and a boy is dead and justice much broader than Officer Wilson is left undone. This is what institutional, systematic racism looks like. This is another example of structural sin playing out in real time. It is dark out there.
It was pouring as we rounded the corner on to Parkway Road, the homestretch to the ranch. Then, something caught my eye: a light. A bunch of lights. The first Christmas lights of the season twinkling away in the pouring rain late on the night after Thanksgiving. And as soon as my judging voice finished his little soliloquy about it being too early for Christmas lights, “It’s not even Advent, yet!” I thought again, “There’s light. There’s hope. (There’s a sermon).”
We have arrived again at the First Sunday of Advent, the start of our Holy season of waiting. It is the advent of the new liturgical year, and is the prelude of what is to come: the incarnation of God, the coming of our savior, the birth of a child.
I don’t know that our world is darker right now that it has been before. It was pretty dark in 1941. And when the first nations were purged by the conquest of the Americas. And when the Black Plague killed half of Europe. And when Rome was burning. The climate looms in all new ways, so that is different, but darkness, living in a world stained with sin, distant from God and shared with people living as if we are all irretrievably distant from God… that is nothing new. But there are those, in every age, that see the light. John was one. St. John the Baptist came not as the light but to prepare the way, to herald its arrival. Mary, the teenage girl, Mary, who would be the Blessed Mother of Our Lord, she was another who responded to the light. And Isaiah, another patron of Advent, he responded to the light as well.
Isaiah’s world was dark. For Israel, it was a Black Death era, the exile into the belly of Babylon. His people were crushed under the boot of empire, and as always, when people are crushed by empire, when their human dignity is disregarded, they behaved poorly. “…we sinned… We have all become like one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf… there is no one who calls on your name… for you have hidden your face from us.”
Ever feel like that? That God’s face is hidden from you? Imagine what Michael Brown might have felt about that. You think your future looks complicated? Try being an 18 year old African-American man in a poor, segregated suburb of St. Louis. Statistically, he had a better chance of ending up in jail than finishing college. Talk about a dark horizon.
“You have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hands of our iniquity,” says Isaiah. It has been really bad, we haven’t kept our side of the bargain, again and again, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father…” Hear the faith! Hear the hope!
“Yet, O Lord…” Even though we have done all that, forgotten you so often, made the wrong choices so frequently, “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay, and you are our potter and we are the work of your hand!!!” What hope! We are not alone.
Isaiah lived in a dark night, but then a light flickered in the distance, in his case Cyrus, king of a small Persian principality who rose up and defeated the Medians and the Babylonians. And in the ascendancy of Persian power, an opening came, a moment of tolerance began and Israel was released from captivity. They went home and Jerusalem was restored. Hallelujah!
Christian hope is the hope that there is in fact a light that shines in the darkness in this and every age no matter how inky black it might seem. There is a glimmer of light on the horizon. There are twinkles of light even in the darkest of dark rainy nights. That is what Jesus Christ has to offer: hope. The hope of Jesus Christ is the beam of a lighthouse warning us of the shoals as we make our way home as the prodigal child or otherwise. The hope of Jesus Christ is one little match after another struck by Andersen’s matchstick girl. The hope of Jesus Christ is the twinkling of Christmas tidings in places a whole lot darker than the road to Jasper the night after Thanksgiving.
But what is it that we are hoping for? What is it that we are practicing patiently waiting for? What is at the end of our Advent observance? God Triumphant? The heavenly chorus of Angles and Archangels singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” for all to hear for eternity? Is it the second coming and the end of the world as we know it? Maybe. Maybe.
It might be, though, that what we are waiting for, what we are hoping for, really, is a bit more subtle, a bit more down to earth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer hoped for the light of Christ to his dying breath in one of the darkest moments in human history. He lived and died for the same Christian hope that we have laid out before us, but it was not spectacle, not for God to enter the world as a warrior casting aside the darkness while wrapped in the armor of light. That was not Bonhoeffer’s hope. No, that is not how God works; God is more subtle, more down to earth. He wrote, “God would have us know that we must live as men (sic.) who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us…” He continues, “Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” As magnificent as the works of the Lord have been and can be, day in, day out, God’s presence is a lot more subtle, a lot more dependent on us than we would ask or could imagine. God dwells in the glimmers of light in the distance, subtle. God tugs on your heart to be more kind than judgmental, early Christmas lights aside. God gives us a nudge to be bit more generous with our things, our time, our affection and love. God puts niggly little questions of right and wrong in our minds, or sometimes very, very big questions of what is right and what is wrong and are things actually the way I think they are or is that just how I want them to be? God’s work in the world manifests in our work, and as daunting as that is, it is a deep occasion for hope.
We are not alone. God is with us. That is the promise. That is our hope. And it is up to us to make real the kingdom of God, to recognize the Christ child born on the darkest and stormiest of nights. It is up to us to welcome, in hope, each and every perfect child born into a less than perfect world. May this be the Advent of hope for each of us. AMEN.