Friday, December 04, 2009

Choosing Hope in an Anxious World

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the First Sunday of Advent: Luke 21:25-36

“The Doctor is IN,” says the sign over Lucy’s booth in the comic strip Peanuts. Ever forlorn and confused Charlie Brown confesses to her, “Sometimes I think I don’t know anything about life.” He pleads with her, “Tell me a great truth!”

Lucy asks a question first, “Do you ever wake up at night and want a drink of water?” “Sure,” comes the reply from Charlie. Her voice dripping with “wisdom,” Lucy pronounces, “When you’re getting a drink of water in the dark, always rinse out the glass because there might be a bug in it!”

Charlie reflects, “Great truths are even more simple than I thought they were.”[1]

Perhaps it would be best if we came at this apocalyptic text from Luke with Lucy’s simplicity. It might sound something like the t-shirt and bumper sticker that’s been around for awhile, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.”

The saying, of course, is meant to mock those Christians who are obsessed with the second coming of Christ, as Lucy meant to mock Charlie Brown’s uncertainty about life. Get over it!

This First Sunday of Advent and the Church Year is probably the most difficult Sunday for Christians in our tradition. We are not comfortable with these texts about the second coming, or, perhaps, even the notion of a second coming at all. I myself, during my first years as an Episcopalian, used to cross my fingers behind my back during the Creed at the words, “and he will come again.” It seemed to me that it was a pipe dream at best, a too-long-unfulfilled hope that had no relevance for life today, and one that, frankly, insulted my intelligence.

Of course the world will end some day, millions of years from now when the aging sun turns into a swollen red giant. It might be sooner, if a big enough meteor hits us. Of course, we might do ourselves in, too. Many say that is the more likely option as we continue to warm the planet. But how many of us live each day in anticipation of these things? Wouldn’t that be, literally, madness?

Yet over time I have stopped crossing my fingers and have even found myself from time to time (an increasing amount of time the older I get) yearning for Jesus to come again. I now proclaim in the Great Thanksgiving, “Christ will come again,” not only seriously, but longingly. Why the change?

I cannot say it has anything to do with evidence-based decision-making. It is not about “belief” in the way we usually use that word. To say, “I believe that Christ will come again,” still sounds a bit over the top to me. No, what my change of heart is about is hope and my need for it. Hope is the only way I have of responding to a world broken and battered by injustice and evil.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the good creation (and here I can say “believe” with no problem at all). But it may be that I so fervently believe in God’s having made a good creation, that I need hope so desperately. If you haven’t noticed, the good creation has not been fulfilled. We never quite get it right and often we fail miserably. And our version of the “good life” is so drastically far from God’s intention in the “good creation” that I am left frequently on the brink of despair, by my own actions as well as those of others.

We are now in the yearly season where the difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in this world are most dramatically revealed. I have no doubt that this week I will begin to get the calls and visits from desperate parents frantic to provide their children with Christmas gifts when they cannot pay the rent. In truth, they are the ones who are being “left behind,” not in some future apocalyptic moment, but in the day to day necessities of life.

I’m not so naïve to think that I or we can somehow solve all their problems, or even that the government could if it were doing its job on our behalf of providing for those who find themselves on the margins of our economic system. I’m also not so naïve to believe that they are entirely innocent victims. I’m appalled sometimes at the dumb choices they have made.

But, as the twelve-steppers say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Truth to tell, that statement offends me theologically because it portrays a God who determines fate in too fickle a manner. I’d rather say, “There but for an incoherent mix of a few choices I have made plus a whole lot of dumb luck, go I.”

Dumb choices. Dumb luck. It’s a dumb world all the way around. A good creation. A dumb world. I’d be just as happy if Jesus would come back and get it sorted out, bring the creation as it was intended to be and the world as it too often works back into alignment!

Now I am as committed as the next person to doing what I can to help with this project. “I will strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human person.” But I have no illusions about my ability, or even our collective ability, to save the world, to re-establish the good creation on a global, if not cosmic, scale.

So I’m stuck, if you will, hoping for God’s intervention, saying, pleading, “Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus.” I love my life, and my little world, and I don’t want it to end anytime soon, but it is simple selfishness not to long for a better world for all. This is Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians this morning. “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”

I am positively called not to isolate myself in my comfortable little world. I am called to be troubled, deeply troubled, that people starve to death in this world, that they daily come to our doors to ask for the basic necessities of life. And while I am called to do what I can to change this reality, I am also called to long for God to save us, to pray, as Jeremiah, “fulfill your promise Lord, execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

That’s Advent longing, for justice in this world. It is not longing for true believers to be raptured into heaven. That preoccupation of some Christians, besides being barely biblical, is simply ego-centered selfishness. The Second Coming of Christ is not about me being with my Jesus somewhere in the air, but our world as it is being transformed into God’s world as it should be, where there is justice for all and righteousness by all.

Advent, I think, wants not only to teach us to hope, but teach us to hope for the right things. We’re called not to hope for pie in the sky for some, but pie on the table for all.

So what does hope call us to do? We cannot live on hope alone, can we?

Back to Lucy and Charlie Brown. “When you’re getting a drink of water in the dark, always rinse out the glass because there might be a bug in it!” There’s no hope there at all. There is only a defense mechanism, which is a cheap substitute for hope that we human beings have perfected.

Charlie Brown discovers this in a subsequent strip. The first frame is entirely black with just the outline of Lucy, stumbling in the dark. Perhaps she has stubbed her toe on the bed. “Curse it all!” she cries. Next frame, still black, “Blast the blackness . . . Oh, curse, curse, curse.” Finally in the last frame stands Charlie Brown. In the midst of the dark, he stands in the glow of a candle.[2]

He not only longed for the light, he chose it. That’s the task that is set before us, to choose hope in this battered world of ours, to long for something better, not only for ourselves but for all.

It is about choosing hope instead of anxiety, because the only chance we have of living in the world differently is if we choose to see it differently. And then, by the way, we just might see Jesus come again.

[1] Quoted in Sam Portaro, Daysprings: Meditations for the Weekdays of Advent, Lent, and Easter (Boston: Cowley, 2001), p. 3.
[2] Ibid., p. 5.

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