December 18, 2016
A Sermon by Rick Beeman
Advent seems so much to be about waiting, anticipating. As we have observed Advent over these last few weeks, and particularly following the election, we are also, at least for some, anxiously been anticipating what follows during a Trump presidency. Much of what we have seen from the president elect to date has not been comforting. Even Michelle Obama said, yesterday, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, that the nation has lost hope.
For some of us, we are waiting to see what happens in the United Methodist Church, including the special committee that includes Brian Adkins.
“I Am Waiting” Poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (first two stanzas)
I am waiting for my case to come up and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder and I am waiting
for someone to really discover America and wail and I am waiting for the discovery of a new symbolic western frontier and I am waiting
for the American Eagle to really spread its wings and straighten up and fly right and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety to drop dead and I am waiting for the war to be fought which will make the world safe for anarchy and I am waiting for the final withering away of all governments and I am perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder I am waiting
for the Second Coming and I am waiting
for a religious revival to sweep through the state of Arizona and I am waiting for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored and I am waiting
for them to prove that God is really American and I am waiting to see God on television piped’ onto church altars if only they can find the right channel to tune in on and I am waiting for the Last Supper to be served again with a strange new appetizer and I am perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder
We wait anxiously. We wait in frustration. We wait in anger. We wait determined to fight back. We wait in hope for something good to come from all of this.
In his book, Radical Hope—Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, philosopher Jonathan Lear describes Radical Hope as a hope that redefines ethics in light of a world that has been turned completely upside-down. Radical Hope comes at a time the cultural norms no longer operate, have been made irrelevant, and are no longer valid. He describes the Radical Hope of a Crow tribal chieftain, Plenty Coups, the chieftain that negotiated peace with the white man, and then worked his people through the transition from being a warring Plains Indians, as they were known to a land-based, reservation-bound tribe. According to Lear, the Crow were the most successful at retaining a significant base of land, more so than the Souix, Arapaho, and other larger tribes. He did this through understanding that the paradigm had changed, and there would being no winning in the face of white aggression. The glory of war would be gone.
This Advent season we have been looking at the coming of Jesus in parallel with the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Certainly Scrooge’s anxiety leading up to the events of this Christmas eve—the visit of Marley’s Ghost in chains, the re-experiencing his lonely childhood; loving and losing Belle in his quest for success, as shown by the Spirit of Christmas Past; then with the Spirit of Christmas Present, the visit to Cratchett’s house as they prepare for their meager Christmas feast, the horror of seeing Tiny Tim struggle just to live, and the hearing of opinions of him as expressed by Mrs. Cratchett and his nephew.
Things get darker yet for Scrooge, when he meets the Spirit of Christmas-Yet-to-Come. He finds that the life he has been living has done little to enrich the lives of others. In fact, his selfishness and cruelty have, in fact been partially responsible for the death of Tiny Tim. The most pleasure he brought to many, it appeared, was by his death.
Scrooge’s entire sense of world order had, in one night, been completely turned upside-down. And yet…upon awakening the following morning, Scrooge was filled with hope—Radical Hope—a hope that said there was a better way, a new vital way to live. A way that recognized God blesses us, everyone!
In the text today, we find that like Scrooge, Joseph’s world had been completely turned upside down. Like Scrooge, he had been visited by a Spirit, who told him highly unsettling news: that his betrothed, Mary is pregnant!
Now let’s take a moment and flash forward to a story of Jesus: Traditionally found in John 8:1-11. Jesus is being tested by the Pharisees. They bring a woman before him, accused of adultery. When asked if she should be stoned for her sins, he says “let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus then calmly draws in the dirt. After all the accusers leave, he asks the woman if there are any accusers remaining. She says, “not one.” Jesus says to her, “Neither do I accuse you, go and sin no more.”
Jesus was a man of compassion, who ate with sinners, who helped the lame to walk and the blind to see—just ask Tiny Tim, who looked at his life as an example of Joy for others.
Where does Jesus find the power, and the inward calm, to confront the Pharisees and to forgive sinners?
I suggest it began here, with Joseph, who upon finding out that Mary was with child, was afforded several options—none of which, under normal circumstances would have been to raise the child as his own.
He could have quietly divorced her, as the text says. But he had several other options available in that day:
He could have publicly humiliated her
He could have told her family, and an honor killing taken place.
He could have had her stoned
But, no. Instead, he accepted what he was told, wed Mary, and raised Jesus as his own child, imbuing in him the same compassion for others that Joseph modelled with Mary.
Joseph recognized that the old paradigm for justice had changed, if only beginning with him. But the paradigm had changed. He knew that the old ways were no longer working and a new paradigm had to be created. That God was working through him, through Mary, and through “his” son.
Understand, that by embracing Mary, Joseph was putting his own reputation, and perhaps, his own life at risk. But, even so. Instead he embraced the Radical Hope that there was a better way.
The question I have is, “Do we have the same strength as Joseph?” Can we find a new paradigm? Can we find that sense of Radical Hope that points us not to simple optimism, not to hope against hope, but to the radical hope that a new approach is possible. A new way to express love, care, and compassion is available. The old ways are not working—Ask Hillary Clinton. Ask those who voted for change in Donald Trump. Ask those who “wanted to shake things up.”
I went home to see my folks at Thanksgiving. At 89 and 90 years-old, my folks don’t move like they used to. Dad was the public relations director for the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference in 1962. He was a rabble-rousing organizer on behalf of the church. He helped organize the civil rights parades and protests in Seattle and Olympia. There are pictures of him doing so in life magazine. As a family we marched for fair housing—The Beemans—Believe In—Fair Housing—the signs read.
When my youngest brother and my sister came out as gay and lesbian, my folks got involved. Dad became the president of the national board of PFLAG in Washington DC. He was there when Matthew Shepherd was crucified. Mom testified before Congress in Washington DC and Washington State. They were the ultimate progressives back in the day.
So, I was stunned at the calm my folks exhibited following the election. “Well,” Dad said, “you have to recognize that the system isn’t working for a lot of people. Democrats, Republicans, is doesn’t matter—to the out-of-work West Virginia coal miner no one seems to have their interests in mind. Alternative energy is not helping them get work. Civil rights aren’t important if there are no jobs, and no people of color in the area. White privilege and political correctness aren’t a thing here. Addressing climate change doesn’t put food on my table. In Flint, Michigan, no one stepped up to help—they all ducked for cover. In Detroit—don’t get me started.
And he’s right. In all our battles, with all our polarization we have come to a place where maybe we are the Scrooges, maybe we are the Pharisees. We have misplaced that sense of radical hope finally unveiled in Scrooge, and found by Joseph.
I heard a different version of Jesus story of forgiveness a few weeks ago. One that gives me radical hope and a sense of joy that God can be so good, and supportive, even when I am not at my best.
At Len Forfeng‘s memorial service, his son Derek told a story. Derek had sneaked out of the house one night to do whatever kids do when they sneak out. When Derek slipped back through the window in his room, he turned around to find Len sitting on his bed, waiting. Shocked, Derek expected the worst. But, to his surprise, Len simply said, "I'm glad you are safe." And left the room. According to Len: "We each develop our own personal virtual congregation. We allow others to, through our example, capture a small glimpse of Christ."
Poem by e. e. cummings
being to timelessness as it’s to time, love did no more begin than love will end; where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim love is the air the ocean and the land love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear; the strength so strong mere force is feebleness: the truth more first than sun more last than star