112821 Advent 1
Journey from Possession to Gifts as Signs of Hope
The sermon begins at minutes 18:00 of the video
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25; Luke 21:25-36
In last Sunday’s Christ the King sermon, I said that we were in the midst of several murder trials motivated by racism. Kyle Rittenhouse’s trial had already been decided. I called it a loss for truth and justice. We awaited news of what the other trials would bring. What a joyous moment to report that justice had 3 victories against that one loss last week: all three men in the Ahmaud Arbery killing were found guilty of murder; the organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. were held liable for the violence, and charged $26 million in damages; and in the case of Elijah McClean, the city of Aurora, 12 police officers, two Fire Department paramedics and the medical director were held accountable for his death.
It was a good week for justice. We celebrate those verdicts as signposts for hope. But we also know that the justice scoreboard isn’t 3-1. The threat to democracy is much bigger than that. The backdrop to Advent this year may be darker than usual, but the message is brighter and more important. Advent is one of two penitential seasons in the church year, together with Lent. But Advent is also a season of hope. Paul says we hope for things we don’t see. This year there’s plenty of room for hope because there’s a lot we’re not seeing. As the beginning of Advent this year, we’re more aware how fragile hope and life are. Things we took for granted just a few years ago are no longer assured: celebrating holidays with family and friends; trusting that there will be a free and fair election next year; other nations looking up to America as the leader of the free world; even using Facebook unquestioningly. This year we ask: are all my friends and family vaccinated for Thanksgiving? Will the maneuvers being carried out by the Republican party in states around the country be successful in undermining our elections? Will the US ever recover its status in the world after four years of Trump and the debacle in Afghanistan? How will I stay connected to my family and friends if I quit Facebook in protest?
The change from taking things for granted to wondering whether we will have them in the future invites us to move from the realm of possession to the realm of gift. We might take possessions for granted; but we can’t take gifts for granted. The transition from possession to gift is an appropriate one during Advent when gifts can be signs of Advent hope. Today’s texts remind us that none of it belong to us; everything depends on God and is a gift of God. We can’t take them for granted, even when we’ve always counted on them.
The generation to which Jeremiah wrote had also lost something they had counted on: namely, God’s approval of them as the chosen people. After centuries of divine patience with Israel’s covenant breaking, Jeremiah spent the chapters leading up to this one saying that God had finally had it with them. But in today’s passage, at the conclusion of the section called the Book of Consolation, Jeremiah promised salvation and safety again. Everyone knew that when Jeremiah promised
that Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety, he was describing the future. They sure weren’t experiencing it then. When that time comes, the place will be called God is our righteousness. Everyone will know that salvation and safety are gifts of God. We are not our own righteousness. We don’t possess these things.
The Psalmist also knew that nothing can be taken for granted. Israel must have been facing a specific threat, because the Psalmist’s first request is to not be humiliated. But the Psalmist didn’t say God would simply make them safe again and eliminate the threat of humiliation. Avoiding humiliation required humility: God guides the humble in doing right and shows the way to the lowly. People had to be humble enough to be guided, taught, and forgiven. They had to acknowledge past errors: Remember not the sins of my youth. That was quite a shift from seeing themselves as God’s chosen people to whom nothing bad could happen.
How do people move toward humility and hope when everything is falling apart? Both Jeremiah and the Psalmist knew that Israel wouldn’t be saved by being God’s chosen people – their exceptionalism. Their hope, like ours, comes from the character of God. And the character of God is not accessed by exceptionalism but through humility, which can be developed by a spiritual practice of lament.
When Israel faced the traumatic loss of the temple, the Book of Lamentations addresses a remnant of Israel that remained in Jerusalem when everyone else was taken to Babylon. They were led in a communal ritual of lament recorded in the Book of Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah. The people’s self-perception of exceptionalism prevented them from embracing God’s hope of restoration. The fall of Jerusalem was especially disturbing to those who held a high view of their home as David’s city and God’s temple. The residents of Jerusalem embraced this sense of exceptionalism and believed they were impervious to God’s judgment and punishment. Jerusalem believed that as the keepers of the temple no judgment would befall them. Surely God would never judge the chosen people and the temple where they worshipped. But Jerusalem did fall to the Babylonians. Their sense of exceptionalism and belief in their inevitable triumph didn’t protect them.
What does humility-that-avoids-humiliation look like for us in the United States? In the book, Unsettling Truths, Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah speak of the challenge of humility for us: Because the US has won virtually every major war and has never been forced into a position of surrender, the country has not had a political, economic, military, and philosophical change mandated by the global community. When a nation loses a war, it endures the scorn and shame of that community… These types of challenges can lead to transformations, such as those that occurred in Germany and Japan following WW II… The US has always been the victor… so American exceptionalism and triumphalism have grown unchecked. (P. 132-3 in Kindle edition)
How do we grow beyond this sickness when it is presented as health? These authors propose the Advent -like path of lament – a practice that combines two core features of Advent: humility and hope. Traumatized people often cling to a false sense of security. These authors argue that white America has been traumatized by embracing a dysfunctional power that oppressed others. Instead of biblical narratives of confession, mercy, and justice, American Christians, like Israel of old, have embraced narratives of exceptionalism and triumphalism, which blind us to corporate sin and corporate trauma. We don’t often think of this as trauma, but it is. And the necessary corrective for it is lament and its healing power. Lament calls for humility in telling the truth, which brings the underlying trauma into the light, and can lead to healing. Lament removes any pretense of the exceptionalism often used to cover it up.
Lament is a communal practice. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to practice it as individuals. That keeps Americans from this healing ritual because we view everything as individuals: we’re racist as individuals; we face a history of oppression as individuals; we see ourselves as individual sinners; we confess and repent as individuals. That leads to defensiveness, not to healing. Jeremiah knew that: In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. Individual Israelites weren’t promised safety. It never happens at an individual level.
Maybe the Advent question isn’t so much, “What are you waiting for?” as “What, or who, are you waiting with?” Jesus described two different communities. In one, people will faint from fear and foreboding. In the other, people will stand up and raise their heads, because their redemption is drawing near. I want to be part of a raised-head community. None of us can do it alone for very long, and it matters who we do it with. So do we dare to be a community of lament this Advent? It’s not a joyless path. In fact, it is the only path to joy, as the carol says:
God rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove the glories of God’s righteousness, and wonders of God’s love.
Shall we prove it – to the nations and to ourselves? I’m in.