Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
The Weight of Waiting
1st Sunday of Advent
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
This is the first Sunday of Advent. This is New Year’s Day in the church calendar. And the very first reading of Scripture we hear are the words of Isaiah. It is as if a “curtain rises. A prophet walks onto the darkened stage in a circle of light. He begins to sing – of a mountain, and of nations streaming to it willing to hear holy instruction and be judged by it, willing also to make peace with each other. As the song is ending, another sound rises, the ringing sound of hammers striking metal. It fills the room. That sound is the first in the church’s new year.”
Did you hear that sound, the sound of peace being waged, this morning? I’m guessing you probably did not. It is a sound that gets drummed out by all the anxiety and hyper-consumerism and violence and poverty and actual war surrounding us. This passage is found in two books of the Bible, Isaiah and Micah, and the people to whom the prophets were speaking probably found the image of weapons being transformed into agricultural tools as improbable as we do.
It was anything but a peaceful time, the last half of the 8th century BCE. The Assyrian Empire was becoming the world power. A few hundred years ago, the nation of Israel had split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Assyrian had overtaken the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. Now the Southern Kingdom can only watch and wait to see if they will suffer the same fate as their Northern counterparts.
There’s a similar feeling in our reading from Matthew. Jesus is describing the destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem, this time to the Romans. By the time Matthew’s gospel was written down, the city had been captured, the Temple destroyed. Jewish and Christian people are watching and waiting to see what will happen with the Romans firmly in charge.
The 8th century Hebrew people had little control over what was happening. They could only wait. The first century Jewish and Christian people also had little power or influence or control over the situation. They could not do much. They could only wait.
That kind of waiting has a heaviness. It pushes down on the heart, it takes energy from the soul. Being Americans, mostly middle-class Americans, with a certain degree of privilege, we may not live with this kind of waiting on a daily basis, like some do. But it still encroaches on our lives.
Some of us might be waiting for medical test results.
Some of us are waiting to see if the treatment prescribed for us is actually going to work.
Some of us are waiting for a friend to forgive us.
Some of our friends might be waiting for us to forgive them.
Some of us are waiting for grandchildren.
Some of us have lost recently someone dear and we are waiting for the fierceness of fresh grief to subside.
Some of us are already waiting for the holidays to be over, because the 6 weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s are always fraught with stress and memories and family conflict.
Many of us and many around the world are waiting for the situation at Standing Rock to be resolved peacefully and justly.
The entire country is waiting for the inauguration in January. Every day new stories of unprecedented actions by the President-Elect emerge. Unprecedented usually means “unable to be predicted” and if we cannot predict things, we cannot influence or control them. And the weight of that waiting gets heavier.
It was to a people who felt like exactly like that, that Isaiah and Micah spoke of peace. And Jesus also gave instructions to people who felt like that. Jesus’ instructions are not nearly as lovely or as easy to understand as the prophets. Jesus basically says “No one knows when the Human One will return.” He is speaking about himself and not even he knows. Only God knows. Since no one knows, his instructions are “Keep awake. Be ready. Expect the unexpected.”
I think what Jesus is describing is a posture of hopefulness. In the face of things that you can’t control, don’t lose hope. Even though it doesn’t seem likely, be ready for God to act.
Junot Diaz is from the Dominican Republic, but has lived most of his life here. Writing in The New Yorker after the election, he addressed the fears of immigrants and said, “What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. “What makes this hope radical,” Lear writes, “is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.” Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as “imaginative excellence.” Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future.
Radical hope understands a future that is radically different from now. It hears the faint hammering of swords into plowshares under the persistent drums of war. It is something you practice.
Disciples of Jesus practice radical hope by maintaining our mission, preaching and teaching the gospel, practicing reconciliation, showing mercy, working for justice. We preserve hope by trusting that at any moment we may be surprised by the sudden presence of God.”
The Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem was founded in 1808. In recent years, as the neighborhood church, it was in the midst of social dysfunction, burned out buildings, pawn shops, boarded up storefronts and grocery stores, with prostitutes and crack dealers doing business day and night. The Abyssinian Baptist Church decided to practice radical hope. They established a bank, an after school program for children, a housing program, and they conducted boycotts against overpriced supermarkets. A reporter from the New York Times did a story on this church and its remarkable ministries. They interviewed the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts. The reporter said to him, “You’re doing great stuff. But it’s hard to see what difference any of that is making. What enables you and your folks to keep going?” Calvin Butt’s answer was classic. “We’ve read the Bible,” he said, “and we know how it ends. We aren’t at the end yet.”
We know how it ends. It ends with God, and God’s creation complete, healed, fulfilled, reconciled at last, and all of God’s people, all people, living together in justice and kindness and peace.
Don’t hear me saying that radical hope is easy. I am not saying that. I am feeling the weight of waiting myself just now. But I am inspired and encouraged by those who have gone ahead of us and practiced radical hope in truly desperate situations.
Father Alfred Delp was part of the Christian resistance to Hitler. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 and secretly took his final vows as a Jesuit priest in prison that December. He was handcuffed day and night, but he was able to wriggle one hand free enough to write. On scraps of paper smuggled out to his Munich congregation, he wrote this during his final Advent:
“There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to be genuinely shaken up.… Many of the things that are happening today would never have happened if we had been living in that movement and disquiet of heart which results when we are faced with God, the Lord, and when we look clearly at things as they really are. . . .
Then the great question to us is whether we are still capable of being truly shocked or whether it is to remain so that we see thousands of things and know that they should not be and must not be, and that we get hardened to them. How many things have we become used to in the course of the years, of the weeks and months, so that we stand unchecked, unstirred, inwardly unmoved.
Advent is a time when we ought to be shaken and brought to a realization of ourselves. The necessary condition for the fulfillment of Advent is the renunciation of the presumptuous attitudes and alluring dreams in which and by means of which we always build ourselves imaginary worlds. In this way, we force reality to take us to itself by force — by force, in much pain and suffering.”
He was executed in February 1945.
“There is nothing we need more than to be genuinely shaken up.” If Father Delp is right, then those of us who are feeling shaken are perhaps in the right spiritual space this Advent. And perhaps what we need to do is stay awake, expecting God’s transformation of us, and of that which is beyond our control.
Ric Hudgins is an ordained Mennonite Pastor who just completed five years on the pastoral team at Second Baptist Church of Evanston, Illinois, a 135-year-old African American congregation. In November, Ric was one of the 500 clergy persons who responded to the call for religious leaders to join the prayerful protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. He wrote a brief report about his experiences there. I want to share some excerpts from it with you.
“On Wednesday night, Regina Brave, an Oglala from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, took the microphone at the gymnasium where clergy gathered and told us, 'We knew you were coming; that one day you would come here and start asking questions about your government. We are all children of God. Black, red, yellow, white, are all represented.'
It was this sense that we were coming in response to their prayers that grounded this experience for me. I do not comprehend all the reasons that it was right for us to be there. We were answering their prayer. We were responding to the call of God. We were accepting an invitation. We were standing in solidarity with them, with all of you reading this, and with God’s creation.”
Is it just me, or do you also hear echoes of Isaiah 2? Many people, representing different nations, coming to a holy place to receive instruction in the ways of peace.
“On Thursday morning before sunrise we awoke to the Elder’s Cry over the loud speaker: “Sun dancers, get up! Pipe carriers, get up! Christians, dust off your Bible and get up! You are here for a reason. The black snake is getting near the river. Get up and do something!”
Upon his return home, he wrote this poem:
to an unreal world.
Nothing seems true here.
At Oceti Sakowin
we lived outside
in the cold air
under the warm sun
as humus beings
waking from a dream.
Why are we so afraid
of the real world?
I once heard a scholar* say
a non-indigenous civilization
An Inuit woman told him
their art takes something real
and makes it more real.
The Dakota pipeline
this conjured serpent
is a fantasy that may kill us all.
Our resistance is art.
Tell the earth you are awake now.
Listen for your God.
Let your soul speak again.
Sign your name in big letters
so we can find you.
There’s still time
to make the real more real.
Sisters and brothers, there’s still time to make the real more real. Keep awake. Let yourself be shaken and transformed. Practice radical hope. “We’ve read the Bible, and we know how it ends.
We aren’t at the end yet.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Paul Simpson Duke in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), p. 3.
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew: The Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p. 276.
 Theodore J. Wardlaw, “Preaching the Advent Texts,” Journal for Preachers XXXI (Advent 2007): 31:4
 Alfred Delp, “The Shaking of Reality,” in When the Time Was Fulfilled, Plough, 1965, p. 16