Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ross Erb: Light Enhanced Vision

Advent 1: O, that you would reveal your hope!
1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

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It’s an odd thing that here in the northern hemisphere advent,
 the beginning of the church year,
comes just as we enter a time of darkness.
The days are short and the nights are long and cold.
It doesn’t seem like a very auspicious time for a beginning.
It doesn’t match up with the calendar year as we keep it.
I would have arranged things differently if it were up to me!
I’d begin the church year when it is warm and bright,
when I’m full of optimism and hope.
But that is not how it is.

We mark this season as a time to become pregnant with hope,
but are we feeling it?
Where is hope now? Now, things feel oppressive.
I am reminded of how I felt before we moved to Virginia.
When I was employed as a child protection social worker in Ontario,
my job was rather intense.
I worked all day with families who were hurting.
It was children who were being hurt most,
but they were not the only ones,
and sometimes it was children who were perpetrating the harm.
I learned far more than I ever wanted to know
about physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and neglect.
My job began to shape my view of the world,
my understanding of people.

It crept into how I spent time at home.
Some evenings Cathy would begin to watch a tv show,
and if it was a crime show I would generally absent myself from the room.
If it was a crime show that involved children or domestic violence,
I was quick to leave.

It’s not that I wanted to deny the ugliness of the world.
I just could not handle seeing what I worked with every day
portrayed as entertainment.
I felt what the prophet spoke in Isaiah 64,
the basis for our call to worship this morning.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence –
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil –
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence.”

These days, it isn’t just tv dramas that disturb.
Who among us has not been unsettled by what is on the nightly news?
The shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Fergusen, MO in August,
and the subsequent decision by a grand jury to not bring charges against the officer
has raised racial tensions across this country.
The politics of the nation are marked by strident discord.
Partisan politics seem to have governments at a standstill.
Areas of this country are in the grips of a devastating drought.

Globally, Ebola is causing incredible suffering in West Africa,
and fear around the world.
Children are being kidnapped in Nigeria.
One Malaysian airliner disappeared this summer,
another was shot down in the Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine are fighting over territory.
ISIS seeks to carve out a new nation in the Middle East.
We hear from Israel and Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lybia.

Are we at risk of losing hope for humanity?
Are we at risk of despairing that God is at work to redeem this world?
We want God to swoop in to shake things up,
to get our attention in some big way,
to let us know that God is in control and everything will be ok.
We want the world to tremble in the presence and power of God!

And our church itself seems at risk.
Our witness is injured when we act in decidedly un-Christian ways.
I recently heard of a youth pastor at an independent church in Pennsylvania,
married less than a year,
who has been sentenced to years in prison
for sexually abusing young boys in his charge.
And of course,
we are often acting in a less than loving way
as we wrestle with questions of sexuality,
as we wrestle with how we understand scripture,
and as we wrestle with how we are church.
It sometimes seems as though Christ’s body is being torn asunder.

Today as a church we voice our cry for God to burst into the world.
And this is when I think that we have been given a gift
in that we celebrate Advent just as we approach the longest night of the year.
Perhaps in this darkness we are primed for Advent.
We understand that Jesus Christ,
the light of the world,
has been born, and lived, and taught,
and suffered, and loved,
and died, and rose again.

The Light of the World has come.
We look toward Christmas,
to celebrating the coming of the Christ-child.

And in this time of looking forward,
we are reminded that God is birthing something new in us as well.
Our focus on ourselves and on our world as it is,
shifts to anticipation of what will be.
In the midst of the darkness, the messiness of now,
our light-enhanced vision gives us glimpses of the new creation.
We shift from seeing the empires of this world,
and begin to look into the Empire of Christ.
While this world demands gratification NOW,
Advent lets us sit with the pregnant waiting,
filled with hope of what is to come,
witnessing the in-breaking of this Empire of Christ.

We are looking forward to the return of Christ the King.
We are waiting for that time when we see Christ coming
“in the clouds, with great power and glory” as we read in Mark.
That will be a time of darkness, Jesus says,
perhaps not unlike now.
I’m not interested in trying to make predictions of when this prophecy
found in Mark 13 will be fulfilled.
Christians have spent 2000 years,
making predictions and being wrong.
Jesus says we are to be alert, keep awake!
Advent is a reminder to us,
a wake-up call.
We are to watch for Christ,
to live in expectation.

So in the midst of our own darkness,
the Light of the World shines on,
and we wait.
Paul’s prayer for the church in Corinth speaks to us today,
calling us to be enriched in Christ Jesus,
so that we will be strengthened to the end,
to be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In Sounding the Seasons: 70 Sonnets for the Christian Year
Michael Guite wrote the following poem:

O Emmanuel
I cannot think unless I have been thought,?
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.?
I cannot teach except as I am taught,?
Or break the bread except as I am broken.?
O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,
O Light within the light by which I see,
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us?
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,?
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.?
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,?
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace?
And make a womb of all this wounded world.?
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,?
O tiny hope within our hopelessness?
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,?
To touch a dying world with new-made hands?
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

In my role as a child protection worker I sometimes edged toward despair.
But there were also times
where I saw the Light of the World at work.
God was working in ways that I could hardly comprehend.
I saw a 15 year old mother make an impossible decision.
This young mom,
a child herself, who had been abused and neglected,
decided to give her own new-born child,
a child she desperately wanted to keep
because this child would love her,
up for adoption.
This was not an easy decision,
and it did not make the young mother’s life any easier.
It did provide the chance for her daughter to be loved and nurtured
in a way the young mother could not do.

This Advent season,
can we, with the light of Christ aiding our vision,
find evidence of what God is birthing in us and in this world?
Is there evidence of God at work in Fergusen,
as people speak out against systemic racism
and as we look at advantages many of us have simply because of skin color?
I met a young man from Sierra Leone who was here this fall,
and who has gone back to his country to aid in his people’s fight against ebola.
Is there evidence of God at work in the people who are placing their own lives at risk
to try to save the lives of others who are sick?
While we listen to the news of violence around the Middle East,
there is an alternate narrative, a different story there as well.
A young woman from the congregation we attended in Ontario
is serving in Lebanon with the Mennonite Central Committee Program SALT.
I’d like to read a small portion from a blog post she wrote:

I do not expect to see her there,
but the church is right across from Our Lady Dispensary,
the refugee clinic where I first met her,
so lack of expectation does not turn into a great deal of surprise.
She does not speak a word of English, and I speak hardly any Arabic,
but she is a grandmother,
and though there is sadness lining not only her face but her bones
that sadness is laced with love and love cannot be limited by language.
I greet her with the traditional Arabic greeting (three kisses on the cheek),
and she begins speaking to me in Arabic.
I listen to her, not understanding, but listening.
The last time I met her, I had a translator,
so I could understand as she told me about her daughter,
still in Hasakah, her home town in Syria,
and as she talked about her many health problems,
about getting her medications at Our Lady Dispensary.
Later, a classmate translates some of what she says,
but sometimes it is enough just to listen.
A group picture is taken (a necessity for any class visit with the bishop at this church) and she joins us, standing beside me, holding hands.
A part of me wishes I could understand her words,
but as we prepare to leave, and she blesses me in Arabic,
pointing upwards to the sky and to the Lord,
and we leave each other with the phrase “ma’a salaama”
(peace be with you-one of the few phrases I do know in Arabic )
another part of me, the bigger part of me,
treasures the sacred place between two souls
where love transcends the necessity of language
and though nothing else is understood, that one thing is enough.
Can our Light-aided vision show us that God is at work in Lebanon?

And what is being birthed in our own church?
Our congregation is in the midst of working with a Safe Church policy
that is designed to prevent child sexual abuse from happening in our midst.
As we are educated to protect the weak and vulnerable among us,
might we become a more authentic witness to Christ’s message of love?
Some congregations are leaving or have left our conference and our denomination.
But some are choosing to stay despite deep differences.
In Virginia Conference pastors met recently for a whole day.
We wrestled with how we understand the Bible,
equipping ourselves to better engage the question of  how as a church
we talk about and understand our sexuality.

We enter a season where we watch for new things to be birthed.
Therefore, keep awake –
for you do not know when the master of the house will come,
in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,
or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!

May the darkness be dispelled, and may hope rise up within us this Advent season.

–November 30, 2014.

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