Sunday, November 30, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 64: 1-9; Mark 13: 24-37

The following was posted on Facebook this week by Emily Padilla, a founding member of Open Table now living in another state:

I teach in Sanford, Florida where Trayvon Martin was killed. I’ve spent most of my life in Missouri where Michael Brown was killed. I’ve read countless articles about whether or not Darren Wilson should have been indicted, but some of us are missing the most important part of this.

For the past few weeks, my American lit students (mostly African American, most living in Sanford at the time of Trayvon Martin) have been debating the existence of the American Dream. It is heartbreaking to watch a bright group of 17-year olds become so cynical and hopeless. Our society has done this to them.

Vandalism and looting are awful, but before we condemn these people, think about the last time you had to fight for your dignity and humanity. If you’re like me, you’ve probably never had to. Which is why we will never understand.

God bless Emily for understanding that a comprehensive and communal tragedy hovering over the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and others is the death of hope for her 17-year-olds and so many others.

I hope we did not light the Advent Candle of Hope this morning out of a reflexive habit, as if the spell of hopelessness can be broken with an Advent litany, as if hope can be rekindled simply by lighting a purple candle.

I want us to take seriously the short-day, long-night darkness of this season of the year. I want us to appreciate the despair of disappointed people, the longings of the human heart. I want us to commend wise and caring teachers like Emily who mourn the hopelessness of her students and want us to at least TRY to understand her students’ daily fight for their “dignity and humanity.” I want us to acknowledge that before there is hope, there is deep longing; before there can be healing, there must be waiting, lamentation, silence, humility, justice. We must sit in the darkest of the darkness before the light of hope dawns.

I want the poetry of the prophet Isaiah to move us—as it was intended to move God—to see injustices done to the poor. I want to follow Isaiah’s example and beg God to “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake . . . so that the nations might tremble!” I want us to pray just as audaciously for those who are mistreated and, as Isaiah did, I want us to demand that God “consider [that] we are all [God’s] people.” And then let’s hope that justice will have the final say.

Hope seems absent from the Gospel lesson in Mark 13. It begins ominously: “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.” But you don’t have to believe in the highly contrived “rapture” theology to find the hope here.

Bible scholars often point out that Mark may be mixing two different understandings of Christ’s return circulating then in the Marcan community. If you reread Mark 13, you’ll see the writer makes the contradictory claims both to know the signs of Jesus’s return and that no one knows when Jesus will return and usher in God’s fullest reign. Theologian David Lose teases out an interesting point that may initially seem unrelated to our search for hope in this passage but is on point. He draws a parallel between the four specific time periods mentioned in this reading and in the next chapter of Mark.

Mark 13: 35-36 reads, “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Lose believes this “mini-parable about the eventual return of the Son of Man foreshadows the betrayal, trial and denial of Jesus, narrated in the following chapter.” In Mark 13 “Jesus warns that the servants do not know whether the master will come back to his house in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn. . . . Now notice the way in which Mark [in the next chapter] divides the scenes leading up to the crucifixion”: Scene 1 is the Last Supper, beginning, “When it was evening he came with the twelve…” (14:17). Scene 2 is Jesus’ prayer and betrayal: “And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy” (14:40) because it was the middle of the night. Scene 3 is the close of Jesus’ trial with Peter denying Jesus for the third time just as the cock crowed for the second time” (14:71-72a). 4) And the Scene 4 is Jesus is delivered to Pilate for trial “As soon as it was morning”(15:1).

Lose suggests Mark names four time periods connected to the return of the Son of Man and these same time periods connected to Christ’s Passion story in order to signal that Jesus’s death was itself a kind of Advent. By paralleling the Son of Man’s return in glory with Jesus’s ignoble arrest, punishment and death, we recognize Jesus’s revelation comes in the darkest of times. From this perspective, Mark “invites us to imagine that whenever Jesus may come again—whether in the imminent or distant future—all of our anticipation and preparation of Jesus’ second advent should be shaped by his first advent in the form of a vulnerable infant and as a man hanging on a tree. More than that . . . Mark is inviting us to look for Jesus – even here, even now – in similar places of vulnerability, openness, and need.”

Imagine: our very weaknesses can be a cause for hope. As some recovering alcoholics attest, they are eventually grateful for the time they hit rock bottom because it allowed them finally to recognize their disease and surrender to recovery.

Here’s why the advent message of hope begins on one of the darkest days of the year and why the Advent Sunday of hope springs from a context of tragedy and despair and why the Advent scriptures reference injustices: Jesus’s coming into this world happened, as one Christmas carol names it, “in the bleak midwinter.” And Jesus’s continuing advents—God’s continual inbreakings into our lives—happen in moments of need and vulnerability. Often it’s in dark times that we see clearly not only what is wrong but how to right that wrong. Hope begins precisely at the apex of hopelessness just as dawn can come only after the dead of night.

Last week Reza Aslan, author of Jesus the Zealot, was asked in a radio interview what gave him hope. He argued that Fundamentalist reactivity can be seen as a sign of hope. “We have a progressive society that is unstoppable,” he explained. “Fundamentalism is a reaction against the natural progress of society. Fundamentalism is reacting to progress. I focus on progress, not the reaction to the progress.”

What gives you the most hope? Have you considered the very reactivity of people who are, for instance, racist or homophobic or anti-environment might be a good sign, evidence that some prejudices and ignorance are in their death throes? Is it possible that the most strident voices of hate are the most desperate because they realize on some level that they have lost their power to control public opinion and policy?

Advent hope not only is birthed in vulnerability and powerlessness; it’s also, like any pregnancy, a process of waiting. Time will aid progress. There’s much we cannot control. Sometimes we simply have to wait. And wait. For the coming of the light.

A rabbi once asked his students, “How can a person tell when the darkness ends and the new day is beginning?” After thinking for a moment, one student replied, “It is when there is enough light to see an animal in the distance and be able to tell if it is a sheep or a goat.” Another student ventured, “It is when there is enough light to see a tree, and tell if it is a fig or an oak tree.” The old rabbi gently said, “No. It is when you can see another person coming towards you and recognize that person as your sister or brother. For if you cannot recognize in another’s face the face of your brother or sister, the darkness has not yet begun to lift, and the light has not yet come.”

Can you think of a time when you wish you’d waited for more light before you reacted to someone without first recognizing them as your sister or brother?

My friend, if you’re wondering where to begin looking for a return appearance of the Christ, look out into the darkness. Look until you can see the figure approaching you and recognize that person as your sister and brother. For surely they are. And surely they are Christ Jesus. And surely in the space between the darkness and the light we’ll find our hope.

The Advent season begins with hope. But before there can be hope, there must be ardent longing—which is different from wishing. What you long for can’t fit inside a Christmas stocking or under a tree. What you long for is God-sized, God-inspired. Advent longing tunes us to God’s longings for justice, for peace, for love. Yes, your individual cares and pains and fears and desires matter. But until your longing encompasses the groanings of this world, you may be wishing rather than hoping. Tune your heart to God’s longings.
Hope persists in community and patiently across time. As Reinhold Niebuhr said: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”

We are not alone. This moment in time is not all that matters. May God use you, as God used Jesus, to fulfill the deep and godly longings of this world. May we persist in hope.

Category Faith, Scripture
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