The Shape of Hope
Advent 3, 12/12/21
The other week I was sitting in the Cathedral of the Incarnation for a funeral. As it’s a church dedicated to the best news of all time - God with us - the triptych behind the altar is the Incarnation of Christ. Three panels to proclaim Emmanuel.
The first panel on the left is the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel greeting Mary to ask her to partner with God. I told this story in chapel with the kids this week – using the Jesus Storybook bible and in the picture that accompanies the story, the artist put a chicken on the windowsill in Mary’s room.
In a couple of the classes some kids would point it out - a chicken? What’s a chicken doing there? And laugh.
I know! I replied but that’s a really important part of the story. It isn’t in the bible but most of the time when you see a painting of this story - especially if it’s a good one - the artist has put a family pet or a farm animal for a reason.
It’s a reminder that Mary was just in her everyday life. And that’s when a message from God came. She was just hanging out in her room when something extraordinary happened. That’s good news. It is in the everyday reality of our lives God surprises us – with the prompt – is nothing too wonderful for God?
The center panel of that triptych is the birth - the Incarnation of course - but it was the final panel that kept drawing my attention over and over during the course of that service.
Mary and Elizabeth - cousins greeting each other in a joyful mutual embrace. When that image is painted well - I think - you can see the movement of the two women - coming towards each other - one old, one young - but both pregnant with good news of God. So much so that when Mary says - my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord - Elizabeth feels John the baptist leap inside her with joy. (a lot changes with John the Baptist when he gets older I know)
Mary and Elizabeth - are joy and hope - both bearers of glad tidings and good news - for themselves - for their families - and for the whole world - in an extraordinary and very ordinary way.
In Paul’s letter, we hear - Let your gentleness be made known to everyone. The Lord is near. John the Baptist has the same message but a slightly different tone, don’t you think, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come! Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
John goes on to remind the gathered community it’s not the religious identity you claim - it’s not your family lineage - that matters - it’s how you live. Do their lives - their actions - their words - bear fruit?
Do they participate with God in bringing hope. So that joy and hope greet each other. Giving shape to hope in the ordinary circumstances of their lives.
In a way, Paul is worse off than John, if you compare the two in their circumstances. Paul is in prison - but Paul had people. Paul had community. Paul knew he was held in the hearts and minds of people who loved him and he loved. Not just the people he’s writing to in Philippi, but Corinth and Thessalonica, and Ephesus and Rome.
John the Baptist - like most prophets was on his own. He had his disciples - his small band. But he’s the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. We don’t listen to prophets - they see things we ignore - they see God’s reality in a way not everyone does. And I imagine that can get lonely.
Paul has a community - and community shapes hope.
I think we did our first Christmas Café in 2015. The first time we
did it we went down there – and we set up our craft tables and our slime tables
– we brought a delicious lunch – beautifully displayed as were all the gifts
upon gifts for families. And what I remember was that there was more of us than
there were kids and families from Franklin Square and Poppleton.
The second year there were more people from the neighborhood. There was more interaction with everyone. We were more comfortable. People were getting to know each other because Christmas isn’t the only time we were there. Then we hosted up here - and this community does hosting very well. That was a joy - two years in a row I think.
But yesterday - the shape of this community has grown, has transformed so much. We were in the minority. We were not the only guests of SLYC. We didn’t bring the food there was a caterer from the community. We didn’t bring the music, there was a DJ from the community. We did bring the photographer - Wim shout out - he had an incredible Sears Portrait Studio in that undercroft. The community was in full force.
Someone I introduced to SLYC who does community development she said - you know it’s seeing the families - we’re not here taking care of people. People are taking care of themselves - we are empowering them to do so.
John doesn’t say anything revolutionary to the community who comes to him. Who needs him to give shape to their hope by telling them what to do. What do we do? They ask.
In the ordinary circumstances of your life - in your work - as tax collectors - as soldiers - in your everyday interactions - be generous, treat people fairly. Partner with God - not in revolution - but in the work of transforming our world. That is repentance - the transformation of giving ourselves over to the workings of God.
For nothing is too wonderful for God.
A psychologist once told me – if you start thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner that night – you have hope. If you get out of bed – make a cup of coffee – start thinking about your day – you have hope.
John the Baptist – doesn’t tell the people what they need is to overturn the world – he doesn’t say – lay down swords – give up tax collecting jobs – he says – partner with God in transforming the world.
That’s how we shape hope – day by day – in the ordinary circumstances of our life – trusting that messengers of God cross our paths to herald – is nothing too wonderful for God.