The Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene
Rochester, New York
December 17, 2006
What then should we do? Hush Your Noise
There are two sides to the Advent coin: comfort and challenge. We get both in the readings this week, although the voice of John the Baptist dominates and so we get mostly challenge. And if we paid attention to the Collect for the Day, we saw it coming. “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” Be careful what you pray for, as they say.
As Luke tells the story of John the Baptist’s preaching in the wilderness, he provides more details than any other Gospel writer. In the other Gospels the crowds simply come to John the Baptist. They listen and receive his baptism, but are otherwise silent. In Luke’s Gospel they speak! Specifically, they ask a question, “What then should we do?”
Kudos to John for giving them such a direct answer:
Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.
Advent is not only about the renewal of our hope in a future that belongs to God. It is also a time for the renewal of our commitment to live into that future, to allow that future vision to affect our present reality. Advent is about hope for the future. Advent is also about justice in the present. They are another way of speaking about the two sides of the Advent coin: hope and justice.
One of saints on our calendar during the Advent season who helps us prepare our hearts for Christmas is Ambrose. Ambrose was the Bishop of Milan in the fourth century. Among other things, he is remembered as a great preacher. St. Augustine was attracted to the Christian faith through his preaching. He was also a great poet and is sometimes thought of as the father of hymnody in the western church. Ambrose was also, however, a man with a keen sense of justice.
My favorite Ambrose quote is as devastating an indictment of basic human injustice as I have ever come across, particularly since it rings true across the centuries, from Ambrose’s own fourth century to our own.
The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds—and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor. . . . There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.
These are prophetic words, like those of John the Baptist, that slice into our comfort zone and cause to well up in most of us one (or all) of several reactions. The first might be despair, something like the reaction of the disciples to Jesus’ words about how hard it will be for the rich to enter the kingdom of God that we heard several weeks ago. “Then who can be saved?” the disciples despair.
The second possible reaction is anger that Ambrose, or anyone else, for that matter, should criticize our possessions, for which we have, after all, worked hard, and, therefore deserve. This side of us, when no one else is looking, might go so far as to slip Ambrose the finger.
The third possible reaction is to ask the question the crowd asks John, “What then should we do?” We probably ask it with a mix of sincerity on the one hand and the desire on the other that this will be one of those times when we are told we do not have to take the Bible literally.
What then should we do?
John’s answer is as simple and as good now as it was two millennia ago: share what you have.
Both John and Ambrose knew that God’s dream for this world is that we live as God created it: a world where there is enough for everybody. Enough of those tangible things that we not only need to make life livable, but also pleasurable, and enough of those intangible things that we also need: love, peace, and joy. There is enough for everybody. There is, in fact, an abundance. Despite our deepest fears, we do not live in a world of scarcity. We live in a world of abundance. That this is not really true for everyone is, as Ambrose said, to our shame (and not, by the way, to God’s shame). The shame lies squarely on our shoulders.
We are now in the yearly season where the difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in this world are most dramatically revealed. For those of us with Christian consciences, there ought to be something deeply unsettling this time of year. Something has gone terribly wrong with this season.
And whether we like it or not, we need John to both wake us up to this fact and point us in a different direction.
An e-mail from my one of my sisters this week expressed a sentiment about this time of year that I hear frequently. “We are busy getting ready for Christmas,” she wrote. “I wish it would all just go away.” I can’t wait until it’s over, I also hear a lot.
This feeling is, of course, the end result of a season whose purpose is not the celebration of the gift of unconditional, eternal love, but the celebration of life built on and around consuming things. “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” I say all this as one who loves his toys, and has plenty of them.
What then should we do?
Share what you have, John says, but also, in the answer to the soldiers are two other important words, “be satisfied.”
John says to the soldiers, “be satisfied with your wages.” What about justice, we might ask? What about the workers at the Crowne Plaza Hotel from whom we will hear at the forum later? Are they supposed to shut up and be satisfied with their wages, despite the fact that they are not adequate to live on? What about our own staff, including yours truly, who asked the Vestry to work to move us all to mid-level diocesan wage standards? Should we, instead, have been satisfied with what we have?
John says more than “be satisfied with your wages.” He says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” In other words, do not allow your desire to have more than you do cause you to sin against others, robbing them of what they have. There is no implication that you should not ask for more from the source of your wages.
But the words “be satisfied” still linger in the air and do point us in a direction I think. Consumer culture drives us to mass dissatisfaction with life. We allow ourselves to be driven by the need for more. “Enough” is always a bit more than we have now, and that seems to be as true for the rich as it is for the poor.
Part of what John is getting at—as was Ambrose in the quote I gave you earlier—is the need for our conversion on this matter of “enough,” and our fundamental outlook that is dissatisfied and driven be a sense of scarcity. These things threaten to be our primary motivators for living all of the time in our world, but no more so than this time of year.
Repentance and conversion remain important themes in Advent and necessities in our preparation truly to celebrate Christmas. It is a conversion to hope and it is a conversion to justice. It is a conversion to abundance and satisfaction and trust that God has made a world in which there is enough, and it is not true that the one who dies with the most toys wins. In fact, that is one of the biggest and most dangerous lies ever told. And it is, at rock-bottom, an absolutely un-Christian attitude.
We have another week to get ready, a week that for many of us probably will be filled with frenzy—shopping, cooking, traveling. Most of us will be tempted to join my sister in her thought—I wish it would all just go away.
Well, it’s not just going to all go away. But you and I can be in it in a different way this week. Our mantra can be things like, “Slow down!” We can choose to make quiet moments for ourselves. And most of all, we can offer to God our obsession with possessions, our fundamental attitude of dissatisfaction and mistrust and scarcity, and ask God to birth in us something new and different this Christmas. And if we do that, God will answer and the news will be good.
A line from a Christmas Carol comes to mind,
Oh hush the noise and cease your strife, and hear the angels sing.
They are singing the song of our hope, our justice, our satisfaction, a song of the abundance of creation and the joy of being loved not because of who we are or what we have or haven’t done, but just because we are. Let’s hush the noise and cease our strife and listen for this song this week.