by Ellen Sims
text: Isaiah 2:1-5
Before we can work for peace—we must believe in the possibility of peace.
Before we can offer ourselves in love—we must believe in the power of love.
Before we can move toward joy—we must believe in the potential for joy.
If there is no Hope for peace, love, joy—then the Advent gifts embodied in the Christ child will remain unrealized, like unopened gifts waiting in the dark under an unlit tree. Our necessary participation in actualizing these gifts means these are gifts that come with “batteries not included.” You and I are the energy that activates peace in the world. You and I can connect to a force for love and joy, a charged current that is moving through this world. That means real hope requires commitment to enact God’s vision for us.
Although Advent is a season of waiting, we wait for God’s dawning while acknowledging the terror in dark times; by committing to a full-throttle resistance to willful ignorance, greed, and hatred; and by hopefully engaging in everyday acts of radical peace, love, and joy.
I’ve had a heap of the hope knocked out of me lately. Maybe you have, too. I’d thought we were taking a big step toward addressing climate change thanks to the Paris Agreement. I’d thought we had gained more rights for LGBT persons, were connecting for deeper understandings through interracial and interreligious dialogues, were almost ready to shatter America’s highest glass ceiling. These possibilities seem less likely now. Hate speech and faux news seem more common.
But Advent teaches us each year how to face into the night—and then persistently look for the light. Church tradition schedules this period of yearning for signs of hope to coincide with the days leading to the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice. We celebrate the coming of God’s Light a few weeks before the annual shift from a darkening of the earth to a brightening. Thus, all 4 advent services are observed in intensifying darkness. But each Sunday we will light one more candle to defy the night, to hold out for daybreak, to know that in dark times we wait for the Light. And we work for it.
No mere wishing, no shallow optimism can do the muscular work of hope. Despite its tarnished reputation, the Church offers this world real hope through the God we meet in Jesus Christ.
Our family feasted on hope this Thanksgiving with the safe arrival of our granddaughter. An old friend who came to pay homage to the new mother, father, and babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a hospital crib mentioned a story our daughter shared last Advent at her church at her pastor’s request. It’s a story about hope. With Georgia’s permission I share it with you:
“It’s 3 pm on a fairly typical Thursday. Court started at 9 and we are finally down to the last 2 cases, which are mine. I’m having a hearing with SB, a woman in her late 50s whom I’ve been representing for about 9 months. I can’t tell you much about her because her case is still pending, but I can tell you that nearly every conversation we have ends with SB weeping incoherently and me feeling like every shred of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in my body has been sucked out of me through my pores. Y’all know people like that, right?
Today, SB is begging the judge to fire me, again, because I haven’t gotten her murder case dismissed yet. Predictably, the judge tells her that she is stuck with me unless she hires her own lawyer. Just as predictably, SB begins weeping. There is wailing. There is gnashing of teeth. And the court officer whisks her back through the polished wood door that separates the courtroom from the holding cell: the free from the not free.
The courtroom holding cell has two cages. Each cage has a bench where 2 or 3 people can sit, but on busy days like today 40 or 50 men are crammed in. There’s an open area to the right of the cages. The women, often shackled together, sit shivering in the 68 degree jail air on a line of folding chairs. There’s a drain in the middle of filthy floor, I presume so that the whole place can be hosed down if necessary. It doesn’t appear that anyone has found it necessary to do so yet. It’s actually quite nice, compared to the cells where these men live while they await trial. Because remember, most of these people haven’t been convicted yet. The people in these cages are still presumed innocent by our law. Poverty, and very little else, determines which side of the polished wooden door you sit on while you wait to be processed in this system.
So SB, still wailing, is swapped through the door for my next client. We are only a couple of minutes in to his hearing when, from the other side of the wooden door, there is a great commotion.
A court officer scurries up to the Judge and whispers something.
Judge looks at me and says, “Ms. Sims, that is Ms. B back there.”
“I was afraid of that, Your Honor.”
“Do you think your presence back there might be . . . helpful?”
“Quite frankly, your honor, I doubt it.”
I assume SB is just up to her usual histrionics, and really, I just can’t anymore with her today.
I try to carry on with my hearing but the muffled melee continues and nobody is paying attention to the poor kid on the stand. So I ask for a break, leave this client sitting on the witness stand, and step through the wooden door.
And I find SB seizing on the floor of the holding cell. There are only 5 other inmates in the back by now. One woman is curled up in a ball in a corner, jumpsuit pulled up over her nose, eyes wide in terror. Everyone else is crouched around SB on the floor. Another woman is valiantly trying to hold both of her legs still. A 20-something kid with gang tattoos etched into his brown cheeks has her right arm. A pale white man wearing the branded blue jeans that mark him as the property of the State of Tennessee for 6 years or more, is holding her shoulders. He’s murmuring words of reassurance. A black man of indecipherable age and very few teeth has taken off his orange jumpsuit top and placed it under SB’s head so that she won’t crack her skull on the concrete as she jerks. He grabs the court officer’s newspaper and begins gently fanning her face, explaining that when his mama has seizures, a little cool air sometimes helps her.
The court officer, the man who is paid tens of thousands of dollars more than I am and whose only job responsibilities, as far as I can tell, are to ensure the safety of everyone in this courtroom, including the defendants? He hasn’t moved from his chair. He’s halfheartedly slouched over a bit to hold her left wrist. And I find myself kicking off my heels and kneeling on the filthy jail floor in a freshly dry-cleaned suit and grabbing one of SB’s legs. And we stay like that for another 10 or 15 minutes until a more concerned court officer calls for medical and the nurses from the jail arrive.
The nurses ask me question after question about SB’s medical history. I’ve been representing her for 9 months. I don’t know any of the answers. I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s when the terrified woman-ball in the corner finally speaks. She says, “She’s my cellmate. She always talks about how her head hurts. And she’s so dizzy she can’t get out of bed sometimes. She gets 2 pills every time they come around for meds. I don’t know what they are, but I think one of them is white and round.”
Eventually we get off the floor. The jail nurses take SB somewhere (not to the hospital because that’s expensive). I brush off my pants and put my shoes back on and finish my last hearing, and move on to the next thing.
So why can’t I get this image out of my head when I think about church? There were no prayers said. No one mentioned God. Yet these brothers and sisters, stripped of their humanity and locked away, became just as much of a church for each other inside the cage we built for them as we are today in this beautiful sanctuary we’ve built for ourselves. That community, rapidly formed, became the Body of Christ to one another. The people with the power, and the money, and physical freedom, and the cell phones? We did nothing. But the pariahs and the outcasts? They gave. They gave as their gifts allowed, and they gave sacrificially. Quite literally, a man gave the shirt off his back. Not a single person asked me to tell the judge or the prosecutor or their lawyer of their good deed. Not a single person asked me for legal advice or whether I could help them with their case. None of them seemed to even remember their own woes.
What would a church, one with members and money and power and freedom and a building and land, a church that formally covenants with each other to find where God is at work and join in that work, what would that church look like if we cared for each other like this?
Hope abounds.” (Georgia Sims)
Open Table, if a makeshift part of the Body of Christ can come together in the ad hoc way my daughter described, think what hope there is for intentional faith communities to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Earlier we read another story of hope written by the prophet Isaiah. He envisioned a unified people of every tribe and nation “streaming” to God atop Mt. Zion. Of course, literal streams flow down a mountain, but this stream of people defies our expectations and, with great effort, flows “upstream” so to speak, seeking God. Upon arriving at the house of the God of Jacob, the prophet says they will ask God to teach them to walk in God’s ways. There God’s people will learn to (verse 4) “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” It’s a vision of hope that leads to committed and united action.
In Advent we pray for hope, long for it, feel in our bones our need for it. Unlike the brightly colored lights and tinsel that pave the way for a Christmas of consumerism and consumption, the season’s darkness and the one brave candle we lit today set the appropriate Advent scene for a discouraged people. We won’t decorate away the disappointment. Instead, we’ll travel together upstream. We’ll wait for a counter-cultural vision acknowledging that swords and spears have taken priority over plows and pruning hooks. Then we’ll summon enough energy to come together, imperfect as we are, and speak into the dark a prayer for more light to see by, more light to live by, more light to offer our sisters and brothers in hopeful expectation of God’s coming kin*dom.