This is the first Sunday of Advent. The first Sunday of Year C -- the new liturgical year. Happy New Year, Church.
I have a complicated relationship with Advent. I love this season -- the candles and evergreens, talismans against the darkness; the Advent wreath increasingly filled with light even as (here in the Northern Hemisphere) there is increasingly less sunlight in our days. But so much of what I love is the celebration -- which feels inappropriate in a season that is defined by waiting. I love the joy -- and that's not for two more Sundays. The first Sunday in Advent is the Sunday of Hope. I think so much of what I love about Advent is that it means that Christmas is almost here. My joy in Advent is a joy about all the things I have loved around Christmas before and which I know (or hope) I will experience again. Which maybe isn't so inappropriate after all.
Earlier this week I was feeling very anti-Advent, very anti-waiting. I was feeling sad and lonely and I wanted to focus on the Easter truths -- Christ is Risen; we are a resurrection people, redeemed, reclaimed, named, and sustained; death has lost its power over us; we are bright, brilliant, beloved children of God, and we are beautiful to behold. I didn't want to be in the dark waiting period; I wanted to hold on to the fierce power of the Easter truths. And of course at the same time, I knew that the waiting was a good practice. A lot of what was making me sad was that I wanted resolution to things that are a process, that I wanted time and affirmation and renewal and all sorts of things NOW -- in my time rather than in the time of those would be offering these gifts to me.
And so with that in mind, I return to the lectionary.
The prophet Jeremiah says:
"The days are surely coming," says HaShem, "when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; who shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: 'HaShem is our righteousness.' "The days are surely coming.
We do not know when those days will be, but we can trust in the assurance that they are coming.
My NRSV informs me that the Hebrew word for "righteousness" is tzedeq, which also means "legitimate," and talks about issues of legitimate rule. However, when I read that Hebrew word, my first thought was of tzedakah, which Jonathan Sacks devotes an entire chapter to in the the book The Dignity of Difference. Sacks introduces it with a passage from Genesis, where God says to Abraham: "For I have chosen Abraham so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep my way by doing what is right [tzedakah] and just [mishpat]" (Genesis 18:19a). Sacks says that mishpat means retributive justice, or the rule of law, while tzedakah refers to distributive justice; but he goes on to say that tzedakah combines the notions of charity and justice. Sacks say that tzedakah can be understood as what is often called "social justice" and goes on to explain this as "meaning that no one should be without the basic requirements of existence, and that those who have more than they need must share some of that surplus with those who have less" (114) and as being "about alleviating poverty in a way that makes for self-respect and independence" (125).
This surely sounds familiar to those of us at Cambridge Welcoming, the vision of God's Kindom which we are working toward.
My best friend's church is focusing on money and consumption as their theme this Advent, and if I were doing that, I would talk about how Sacks talks about what we have being held in trusteeship from God and what that means, and it would be a great sermon. But that's not the sermon I'm interested in preaching today. So instead we're going to continue to move through the lectionary.
Next is the Psalm. My favorite part of Psalm 25 is verses 6 and 7:
Be mindful of your mercy, O HaShem, and of your steadfast love,I love this idea that God's love for us is so much deeper than our sins and transgressions. We so often turn away from God and outright hurt God, and when others do that to us we often hold a grudge, but God's love is so deep and abiding that we can trust that God will remember us with love.
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness' sake, O HaShem!
Again, we are modeling the Kindom -- As far as the east is from the west, so far have our sins been removed from us (Psalm 103:12). Which, as Paul is at pains to tell us over and over again, does not give us license to sin, but instead we are assured that no matter how much we turn away from God, God is always welcoming us back.
In the letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes:
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.This passage almost makes me forget that we're in the Sunday of Hope rather than the Sunday of Joy. But of course, all of Paul's joy is an anticipatory hopeful joy -- the hope of joyful face-to-face encounter with those who are at the moment distant from us but to whom we are still connected in deep love. Yeah, you see where I'm going with that.
Now may our God and Mother herself and our Sovereign Jesus direct our way to you. And may Christ make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may Christ so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Mother at the coming of our Sovereign Jesus with all the saints.
Paul also expresses his hope that the Thessalonians will be "blameless" before God at the Second Coming. I know it's easy to read this as some sort of demand that we be "good enough," that we be "worthy," but in working on this sermon I keep thinking of the parable of the maidens waiting for the bridegroom, and so when I hear Paul here I think of wanting to be our best for someone we love. Part of waiting for the Second Coming is preparing ourselves.
Moving on to the Gospel, I'm struck by verse 34 from the Luke passage -- "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly."
Weighed down with drunkenness.
I'm not used to thinking of drunkenness as something that weighs you down. I'm used to thinking of it (at least in a Biblical context) as something that gives you such energy and takes you so out of yourself -- recall the times people have been accused of being drunk: Hannah's prayer to God with her lips moving but no sound coming out, the disciples at Pentecost speaking such that all gathered heard in their native language, ...
But Luke cautions us as we wait that our hearts not be "weighed down with drunkenness." The whole passage in Luke is about being alert for the Second Coming of the Christ -- complete with lots of doom and gloom imagery, but what is most important to me in that passage is the emphasis on being alert so that the Second Coming does not catch us unawares. How many times have you been so caught up in the worries of the day that you have failed to see the Holy Spirit moving in the world and in your life? I opened this sermon by talking about how I'd been feeling really down and so I didn't want to do Advent, I wanted to skip ahead to Easter. But of course I know that each day brings with it both joys and sadnesses, and I know the importance of being awake to the moments of joy.
World AIDS Day is this Tuesday -- December 1.
This past week, I saw a blogpost that said, "The HIV travel ban will officially be lifted on January 4. It's about time." I had no idea there was such a ban.
According to the L.A. Times, "The ban on infected foreigners began in 1987, when federal health officials added HIV to the list of communicable diseases that prevented people from entering the country. In 1993, Congress made it law."
I was four years old in 1987 and ten in 1993. I remember junior high school health classes that talked about Ryan White. I remember part of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt being displayed in the gymnasium when I was in high school. When I first knew real live gay men -- in 2000, 2001 -- I don't think AIDS occurred to me. I'd binged on GLBT books (mostly fiction) a few years prior, and many years later I came across one of the books I'd read -- Earthshine by Theresa Nelson -- on a list of young adult fiction about people with AIDS. I had remembered that book as a powerful book, though I couldn't tell you any details about it, and I was completely surprised to see it on a list of books about AIDS. I still haven't gone back to the book to see if I just completely failed at retention or if it named the disease obliquely.
Last week, I also read a piece in The Economist about a report from the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS. The report estimated a 17% drop in the annual number of new infections compared with 2001. The report also states that over the five years to 2008, the number of AIDS-related deaths around the world fell by 10%. Admittedly, this still means that 2 million people die each year of AIDS-related causes, and each year 2.7 million new people are infected -- 1.9 million of them in Africa.
It's easy for me to stand up here a white, middle-class, cisgendered, American citizen, and talk about Hope.
I have hope about Christmas because I have experienced it before. What does it mean to hope for something you have never experienced?
The Christ child born in a stable to a couple of peasants was not how anyone was expecting the promised Messiah to enter the world, and throughout Jesus' life -- and death, and resurrection -- people's expectations about the Messiah were overturned.
Similarly, the Kindom of God will not be what we expect.
This first Sunday of Advent, I invite us to reflect on what it is that we are hoping for -- in our lives, in this Advent season, and in the Kindom.