Advent of Hope
The Advent of Hope – think differently!
Several decades ago, while working with the Anglican Church of Uganda on their AIDS prevention program, an interesting research project showed the correlation between survival and hope. A cohort of Ugandan women were followed by the study, to try to discover why some women survived HIV infection and others did not. Women who expressed they had something to live for (perhaps their children or their work in the local where their contribution was needed) tended to live longer and thrive during those frightening years, when we had no treatment or drugs to treat or prevent HIV. Hope was the invisible co-factor that science could not explain away. Purpose and hope seem to give us super-human powers not only to survive difficult personal and global challenges, like a pandemic, but can make us happier and more grateful people.
Hope-less or Hope-filled?
We are in swimming in uncharted waters this Thanksgiving and Advent. We never imagined having to celebrate the holidays using technology as our significant communication tools. Government and public health strategy to contain the spread of COVID-19 demands a different response from all of us so we minimize social gatherings, particularly in homes and public events. It is an inconvenient sacrifice for many of us, while others will simply ignore the messages of eschatological or apocalyptic consequences. The theme of Thanksgiving and Advent both offer glimpses at how the ancestors lived with bad news and continued to hope. The story we remember this week is how early European settlers in a new and alien land, were threatened with starvation and extinction. Yet the hospitality and common humanity of the native peoples gave then food and sustenance to become the seed of a new and great nation. The gathering of the family tribe for Thanksgiving is a unique American holiday. We are finding other ways and new traditions to ensure the essence of this festival still prevails while protecting the vulnerable and elderly among us. Hospitality, even over Zoom, beats the gloom of not sharing in each other’s lives.
What are you hearing?
We will certainly HEAR the Advent message differently this year. The doom and gloom, end of the planet, corruption, decay and inattention to the signs are not only in the appointed biblical metaphors and stories, but they mirror our wrestling with the angels and demons of 2020. The prophets and John the Baptist, even Jesus, spoke in language that for most of us did not seem to have any relevance to our lives…perhaps until now? The parable of the five bridesmaids who come to the party prepared and ready with their lamps lit, can be compared to the countries who moved heaven and earth to help their community and health care workers to deal with the impact of Covid on our global healthcare system (while the other five wondered what all the fuss was about?) There is a series of powerful interviews of nurses who witness the demise of some many people in states where denial meant the majority of citizens never took this disease seriously. In these poignant interviews and even in death, there is a sense they had simply no idea what was coming. When we ignore the signs and the advice from the heralds of our public health experts, we get in trouble. Read about a nurse in South Dakota where patients ranted at medical staff as they were dying, because they still could not believe what Covid was really about. If only people has simply paid attention. How can there be hope when there is so much denial and our own fantastic projections that fail to meet the reality test? Advent is about sharpening the ears and eyes to SEE what is going on around us and not just look for what we want to see. Real hope can only come about when there is an acknowledgement of repentance (simply put – we all need to think differently). How difficult it is for a country as complex and resourced as the USA to move towards this spiritual truth. Millions of American Christians have simply lost the plot and their false hope and sense of righteous privilege have placed them in a theological cul-de-sac that reminds us all of the importance of discernment and educated and informed biblical interpretation. We might all agree Jesus is the Messiah who comes to bring judgement and peace on the earth, but how he goes about it- this is where we preach an entirely different gospel in the Episcopal church. Many Christian have militarized Jesus and his heavenly armies and cannot wait for the second coming, so they can show the rest of us they have been right all along. One more chance to get saved and right with God before the cosmic bar-b-que! Never mind climate change or being good stewards of the planet because it’s all about to be recycled in the great apocalyptic drama that some hear in the messages of Advent. Episcopalians have a hard time with this view of Advent because it is HOPE_LESS for most of humanity. Why would a loving God and a reconciling Jesus want to inflict such horror on the world given we know what he taught and practiced when he walked on the earth 2000 years ago? Some would ask, why take responsibility when God is going to intervene and fix it for good anyway? The Advent message can be open to both interpretations and one wonders what the reader believes? If the message to “think differently” about life and everything (repent) then where am I making changes in my personal and family priorities?
COVID-19 is an apocalyptic wake-up call for sure, and our human interdependence and solidarity demands we radically re-think so many things. The news of potential vaccines, countries reducing their infection rate to almost negligible and the images of loved ones and first responders surrounding millions of human beings with care and love…all this is the incarnation of hope. God needs us to co-create with God and we cannot leave the garden planet to take care of itself. God has given us minds to dream and invent, to create new relationships and new means of service and corporate responsibility. This is not socialism, it is deeply imbedded in our human nature, like the herd instinct. We have more in common than we may think and hope is a universal gift that we give and recreate for each other every day we get out of bed.
This year, as we light the Advent candles in our homes and in church, we think of the families who lost loved ones, empty chairs at the Thanksgiving and Christmas tables and we light candles for them. We are their hope. We will also honor of first responders this Advent as we give thanks for those who helped us get through an ever-vanishing year “What on earth was all that about and where did it go?”
At St. Paul’s we have never had such an experience of solidarity as right now…the Shop and Drop, the Turkey Dinners, the offering of beautiful uplifting music to out community, the local churches lighting candles together and processing up Germantown Avenue on December 12th at 4.30pm to stop at St Paul’s to give thanks for Jesus and for each other. We support our businesses in the “Walk with the Holy Family” as well as raising funds and awareness about local homelessness. Evictions are on the rise in away we have never seen before and this example of solidarity with the Holy Family needs to extend out to more and more families who are being kicked out of their homes by our current economic inequalities.
Escape or focus?
For some, church provides a cultural escape-mechanism into a frosted spiritual Disneyland, while for others it is a reminder of the broken world that God is helping us to repair, one person and one family at a time. Advent and faith is all about focus…not escape. We also need policy and political changes and the signs are all there, this will begin to happen in 2021 and while others will welcome and support it, others will long for a return to a different America that is fast disappearing (BC may now mean Before COVID!) The Advent Hope is ultimately about a new heaven and a new earth -not necessarily the one we know or want. How can we hold that sacred space open for God to act? How is Jesus re-born, literally, IN us?
The office and church will be closed to allow our staff and volunteers time to regroup, renew and prepare for this new experience that is surely coming, (saith the Lord!) We will close Wednesday mid-day until Tuesday and you can tune in to the Thanksgiving virtual eucharist on Thursday at 9, followed by coffee hour. On Sunday, we will live-stream the 9 am eucharist with Carroll Sheppard preaching, followed by coffee hour at 10 and a great Adult Education program with our friend, Phillip Bennett, at 11 a.m. The people of God need each other as we build a community of expectant hope. As the theme of our stewardship campaign concludes “Yes – we build this church, together.” This is the hope that is within us.