Homily delivered the Third Sunday of Advent (Advent 3B RCL) The Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.
13 December 2020; 10:00 a.m. Live-Streamed Ante-Communion
Parish Church of Trinity, Ashland (Oregon)
Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
God, give us hearts to feel and love, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
It’s been a hard year. Pandemic plague, isolating quarantines, economic collapse, a devastating fire here with hundreds of people still homeless, deep tribal and political division in our nation and community, and now the apparent unwillingness of many Americans and their leaders to sustain and support the results of an election that those most in a position to judge have called the fairest and most closely watched in our life time.
A friend of mine made the bitter observation several years ago, “Of course, how can you not expect lies and moral confusion in a nation with a myth of divinely ordained exceptional destiny but which found its space through the genocide of the First Nations living here before and built its economy for 2 centuries on the blood and sweat of enslaved people held as chattel?” “The truth will set you free,” said Jesus. I add: And lies will enslave you. Overcoming fear of illness and death, ending oppression, comforting grief, righting wrongs, setting captives free, forgiving debts--these are all what today’s readings from Isaiah and the Psalms is about: Hope amid the things that make us hopeless. Some think it is a just question of having a positive mental attitude. When I was in the foreign service, I saw many people who would have been happy as clams no matter where they were stationed--they took their happiness with them, and remained so whether they were posted in Paris, or Ouagadougou. And there were those who took their unhappiness with them, no matter where they landed. But it isn’t that simple. There are truly horrible things that deserve our sorrow, our grief, and our anger. And there are some things that happen that are so magical and unexpected that they just demand joy.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete or “Rejoice” Sunday. That's why the chasuble I'm wearing and the candle of the Advent Wreath today are rose. We call it “stir up Sunday” not, contrary to many of our mothers’ explanations, as a reminder to mix and cook the Christmas puddings that need to rest and be fed brandy before the holiday. No, it is because of the collect, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”
Surrendering to our loving Lord, submerging ourselves in Jesus’ light and life, this brings joy, hope, and power. It brings the Year of Jubilee, of release from debts and worries, described by Isaiah. It makes us, in the words of Thessalonians, rejoice in the Lord always. Those who have sown in sorrow come back from the fields in joy bearing ripe sheaves.
God stirs up his power, Jesus, and comes mightily to save. Joy comes in the morning. In joy, we open ourselves to thankfulness and kindness. We shake of the stupor of the night. But it is up to us to grasp onto joy.
It is not a question of understanding how everything fits in, or where things are going. It is simply a question of letting that hope and vision of Jesus give us the wherewithal to be present in our lives, our real lives, with all their ambiguities and fears. Thomas Merton, the great contemplative who died 52 years ago this last week, writes, "You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope."
When we let ourselves, like John, be witnesses to the light, all becomes clear. Jesus takes us by the hand and guides us. He heals our wounds and helps keep us from wounding others. In his light, we see light, and know that the day is breaking and the shadows are fleeing away. This is because God is love, as Jesus revealed, and in the presence of this love, all that is broken will mend, and all that is darkness will pass.
The starting point in this process is as simple as showing compassion for others: that is the point of the parable of the sheep and the goats we read just a few weeks ago. It grows from where our hopes lie, where we find our joy. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us have our eyes fixed on the stars.” If our eyes are fixed on the stars, we cannot lose our bearing in the shadows about us. Having a clear hope and vision of joy, grounds us and keeps us oriented. In her wonderful novel Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” This is the openness of heart and clarity of vision discussed by the 2 Thessalonians passage: giving thanks always and remaining open to the critical vision of prophets in our midst who tell us uncomfortable truth. Hope comes, like the Muse, unbidden. Joy comes in the morning. God acts. We recognize it and feel it when we are thus thankful and open. For this we must be present, alive, and honest. On Christmas Eve in 1513, an Italian Humanist (possibly Fra Giovanni Giocondo) wrote the following letter to a colleague:
“I salute you. I am your friend and my love for you goes deep. There is nothing I can give you which you have not got. But there is much, very much, that while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instance. Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. Take joy! Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty . . . that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it, that is all! . . . And so I greet you, with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.”
Advent is a time of awakening. It should be for us like a hot cup of coffee in the sleepy morning, a brisk shower as we try to shake of the stupor of the night. Part of that awakening must be an honest discomfort with what just isn't right in the world, in us. Part of it is feeling the grief, sorrow, regret, and fear that comes with being a spirit living in this broken, broken material world. But the awakening cannot come without a trust in God and the recognition that all things will be well with the world, and all manner of thing well. Because God is love, and judgment is setting things right, not evening scores.
The day breaks, and the shadows flee away.
Thanks be to God.