Advent 3, December 17, 2017
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
When it comes to describing our Christian mission, Fr. Mark often refers to what he calls, God’s urgent cry. Two months ago after touring one of the many tent cities that have sprung up around our county, and seeing firsthand what looked like a scene out of the darkest days of the depression – I heard what I believed to be God’s urgent cry:
I found myself imagining the future, many years from now, when perhaps my grandchildren, might come home one day and say, “Grampa, they told us in history class today, that back in your day, people who were homeless, lived on the streets, that they even… died on the streets? Is that true? Did that really happen?”
And it hit me that my answer would be no different than the answer given over and over throughout history, be it slavery, women’s suffrage, segregation…
Whenever a new generation asks a former, how we could have been so blind to a humanity that we now see so clearly? “it was just the way things were back then….we didn’t know any better…we were always waiting for someone to do something about it…”
As the abolitionist preacher James Parker famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
And so we wait…
Advent is a time of waiting…waiting for the birth of the one who would proclaim a new Kingdom, where the fist would last, and the last would be first, one built on inclusion for the outsider, compassion for the forgotten, and justice for the invisible.
It is a Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is already here AND… not yet.
That tension is with us this “ROSE Sunday” as we joyfully celebrate the promise that is to come but that is not yet here. In case you are not familiar with Rose Sunday, I will give you the short hand version. I know something about it because during my first year here, on Rose Sunday -- I famously light the WRONG candle! I didn’t know what that was, as the only other church I had ever attended didn’t observe it – Ahhhh but you were all very gracious about it – there were just a few comments at coffee hour, maybe, 3 or 4 vergers tops said something, maybe a couple members of the altar guild, an usher or two, and maybe the sexton on duty--but that was it!
I’ve since looked it up.
In short, it’s a bit of a throwback to a time when Advent was seen as a more penitential season, closer in character to Lent, with fasting and the same color purple. Rose Sunday was intended as a respite from your fast, and a foretaste for the joy that was to come. In some traditions, the color ROSE symbolized the light of Christ shining through what was traditionally the color purple – hence the pink. And while we no longer see Advent as a penitential season, hence our shift from purple to blue, I have come to appreciate very much the symbolism, of a glimpse of God’s light… shining through.
In today’s Gospel as John cries out in the wilderness, testifying to the coming light that all the darkness of the world could not hold back. It is THAT light that we glimpse today -- the one we’ve been waiting for all along.
We too – each one of us -- are called to be such a voice in OUR time. In the wilderness of our individualistic, consumer world, that worships celebrity, success, busyness -- idols of every kind, we are called to light a beacon of our very lives and illuminate a new way of living, a DIFFERENT way -- the Way of Jesus.
Matthew Works who was our forum speaker for the first week of Advent, was such a voice: He shared his story of how he had lost his job, lost his home and like so many others for whom there was no room in the inn – or in this case the shelter -- found himself on the streets of Boston. Lost, disoriented, not sure where to turn or how to manage getting through each night, he eventually found his bearing when a nearby Episcopal church decided to put an altar on wheels and roll it out into the park to offer communion for the homeless.
Matthew was moved by the service and the community that formed around it…. He attended each Sunday, even started volunteering as an acolyte or a reader. But this would all change as the seasons grew colder and the nights longer -- the morning one of his friends was found frozen to death on a park bench. That tragedy opened Mathew’s eyes to something he had seen but never noticed: the care and attention the church gave to their altar on wheels – after the service they carefully covered it and wheeled it back into the church where it was safe from the cold and the rain, protected from the snow and from vandals or thieves. It hit him that they took such care to protect God’s altar from the elements, yet they were somehow content to leave God’s people in the cold.
Matthew, spoke up that Sunday, and he had been speaking up ever since calling on churches everywhere to open their hearts and their doors to the homeless; to move from offering sympathy to practicing empathy, and in so doing, possibly end homelessness in Boston…that was more than 15 years ago….and Matthew and 3 million homeless in our country…are still waiting.
We have been wrestling with this question of Empathy vs Sympathy all through Advent. Vulnerability researcher, Berne Brown said it well when after years of research, she discovered what Matthew experienced firsthand: Empathy fuels connection while Sympathy drives DIS-connection. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. Which moves us to send cards. To write, “hugs and prayers” on Facebook. We sometimes collect shoes, backpacks, socks, thanksgiving dinners – all of which is a blessing to those who receive it, don’t get me wrong – but all too often these expressions of sympathy are delivered by people we don’t know, to people we’ll never meet, who live in areas of town, we wouldn’t let our kids go to.
We too put God’s altar on wheels, yet keep it locked it away.
And don’t hear me wrong, sympathy and the acts of kindness it generates ARE a blessing, the challenge if for us is to not STOP there. As we were reminded us last week: The greatest poverty in the world ISNT stuff, its it’s feeling unwanted and alone.
But practicing empathy is hard, it IS easier to throw people a rope, than to climb into the hole with them.
And so we play it safe.
And THAT’s the challenge. Its what makes us different from schools, civic clubs, and secular charities who also collect stuff to send to the poor – and its what makes us different than the tax funded social programs to help them on our behalf: Is that as Christians, we have pledged our very lives, to NOT to playing it safe.
The Christians of the 4th Century got this. So motivated to care for the poor and the outcasts of society, they took EVERYONE in, pagan and Christian alike, even the orphans and widows-- who in the ancient word were just as invisible, as our homeless are today.
So uncommon, so unimaginable, was their compassion, that the people of Rome couldn’t help but notice and began converting to this life of radical compassion. Emperor Julian, that last pagan emperor, became convinced that in order to stem the spread of Christianity, the empire would need to “out love” the Christians --and so he created food distribution programs and ordered that pagan priests and Roman officials to begin caring for the poor.
But no matter what they did, it paled in comparison to the person to person, eyebrow to eyebrow, relational love and empathy, practiced, by Christians.
Matthew’s plea for churches to open their doors, is really a call for all of us to return to that example: To move from the expected, to the Unexpected, from the safe to the Unsafe, from the clean and disconnected response, to the likely very messy… but ultimately dazzling one.
If we have any interest in renewing Christianity in this country and in our own lives – I believe we must again experimenting with the same radical compassion, that conquered the world’s greatest empire.
So where might WE start? How might we find ways to move beyond sympathy, and begin practicing empathy? Staying with the example of homelessness, we are getting ready to once again open our Parish Hall to house temporarily homeless families as part of the interfaith rotational shelter.
What if, instead of dropping off a meal for our guests, we also stayed and joined them for dinner? I know several of you already do that – in fact, Maria Doss who was stayed in our shelter, shared with us during our stewardship campaign, of all the shelters she stayed in, St Barts stood out, because some of us took the time to get to know her.
And if you recall from Maria’s story, after we helped her get into an apartment, the shelter called and asked her if she might let someone on the waiting list stay with her until a space opened up. And even though this person was in much the same place as Maria had once been -- she was screened, wasn’t an addict, had a job -- just someone stuck in the gap between working and having a home – she nevertheless hesitated. ‘How would it go? Would we get along? Would this person be safe to have around her son?’
All good reasons to say no, but in the end…she said YES. And in so doing, showed God’s dazzling light.
What if we were to follow in the lead of Matthew, Maria and the early church? What if WE were to tell everyone on the waiting list for a shelter… that their wait was over?
What if some of us, perhaps those of us with a sense of adventure and an empty guest room, pool house, or even an RV in the driveway, were to open our homes? What if we didn’t just make dinner for them, but made dinner WITH them, got to know their story, and shared some of ours? How might inviting them into our lives, help us to invite God in as well?
And then what if we shared our experience with other churches, and with other denominations? What if we built a network throughout San Diego, partnered with ICS and Alpha Project, to end the waiting lists, and ensure that from now on there would always be room in the inn.
What if we stopped waiting, and started writing a NEW history – so that one day our grandchildren and great grandchildren might learn about the day a little church in Poway, lit a beacon, and helped reignite a movement by Christians everywhere -- that eventually conquered homelessness just as we had once conquered an empire.
What if we were the ones we’ve been waiting for?