Happy Solstice to everyone! At 11:19 last night, we reached that astronomical moment when the noontime sun is at its lowest point in the sky. We have arrived at the shortest day of the year. We have been waiting for the return of the sun to the northern hemisphere for so long, and now that return trek has begun. Even though winter has just officially begun and the coldest days are yet to come, there is hope of longer, brighter days ahead!
For many of us, this has also been a season of waiting to see what will happen on the political front. Now that the House of Representatives has voted to impeach the President, will the articles of impeachment get passed to the Senate? Will witnesses be called in the Senate trial? Will new evidence of wrong-doing come forward and sway votes? And what will happen this election cycle? We are all waiting for the answers to these and so many other questions, and we know that lives are depending on the answers.
According to the Christian spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen,
“Waiting is not a very popular attitude. Waiting in not something people think about with great sympathy… For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go. And people do not like such a place.”
He goes on to say, “In our particular historical situation, waiting is even more difficult because we are so fearful,” and “the more afraid we are, the harder waiting becomes.” And yet we continue to hope there will be brighter days ahead on this front, too!
A couple of weeks ago, as we began our month-long reflection on hope, I mentioned that we are also in the midst of the Christian liturgical season of Advent. This is the season of preparation for the birth of Jesus, and, for many Christians, a season of waiting for the so-called second coming. It is, for many, a season of preparing hearts and making room for God to be born within. It is a season of expectant waiting for the prophetic promises of old to be fulfilled at last.
It is, to my mind, an inherently political season, in and of itself. And that is something that I’d like to spend some time unpacking with you this morning.
For many of us, even those of us who celebrate Christmas, Advent is not that well understood. So, this morning, I’d like to take spend a few minutes talking about Advent – what it is and why it might matter to us as Unitarian Universalists – whether we are Christians or not, whether we are theists, or atheists, or agnostics, or anything in between.
I believe there can be deeper meaning found in Advent, but to find it we must look beyond the greens and the crèches, beyond gift-buying, list-making and cookie-baking. Advent doesn’t make much sense at all unless we reflect on the kind of world into which Jesus was said to have been born. Unless we ask, for what or for whom were the people in that part of the world at that time in history waiting?
In Jesus’ time, too, the Jewish people had much cause to fear. This was the time of the so-called Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. The land in which Jesus was born – the place where he lived and taught and where he was later executed – was part of the Roman Empire. The Pax Romana was a so-called peace established through military might and victory, not through justice or mercy. To those in power, to those with privilege, it felt like peace, but to the majority, those who were oppressed, it felt like tyranny.
You may recall that in the beginning of the biblical story of Jesus’ birth, Caesar Augustus declared that all the world should be enrolled. He demanded that a census be taken, in other words. And that is the business of empire, the purposes of which have to do with things like taxation, military induction, general population control. “As to the latter, Rome [wanted] to know the whereabouts and number of able-bodied folks in subject provinces likely to revolt.” (Bill Wylie-Kellerman)
Historical evidence suggests that Jesus was born just before Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE. Herod was the provincial ruler in Israel. He was, in essence, a “puppet-king,” the representative of Rome, who had consolidated his power and was afraid to lose it. He was a cruel and vindictive leader. When he died, there were uprisings all over the Jewish homeland. The Jews wanted to be able to live free of the yoke of oppression. Roman troops were sent in to put down the rebellions and to punish those who rebelled.
One major rebellion happened in a city in Galilee just a few miles north of Nazareth where Jesus was said to have been born. In response, Rome sent about 18,000 elite troops, plus 2000 cavalry, plus 1500 infantry. That may seem like overkill, but they clearly wanted to send a message. According to historical record, the troops captured the city, burned it down, and enslaved those who were living there.
Of course, the Jewish people were afraid. What could they do? How could they respond? They could try to run away, to flee for the hills, and some did. Or they could stay and fight, resist – and some, such as the so-called Zealots did – but that always led to further violence.
Incidentally, this may sound a lot like the lead up to the Hanukkah story of the Maccabees and their heroic resistance, but that was a different rebellion which occurred more than 150 years before this one. The Jewish people lived under oppressive occupation by one foreign power or another for many, many years.
In any case, many in the years leading up to Jesus’ birth were waiting for a messiah, for someone who would come and deliver them from oppression. Many imagined that the messiah would be a kind of military hero who would lead the people to victory.
But there were also those who waited expectantly, we are told, for a different kind of messiah. There were those who believed that there might be a third way forward, a way beyond fleeing or fighting. There were those who believed in the possibility of a kind of peace that would come not through military might, but through justice, through fairness, through compassion and mercy. That is what they believed had been foretold by the prophets. They had a vision of swords beaten into plowshares, of lions lying down next to lambs, and of a young child leading them, and of no one any longer afraid.
And what was unique about Jesus, we are told, is that he said don’t run and don’t fight. He did offer to his followers a kind of “third way,” a way of active, but peaceful resistance. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” If someone sues you for your outer garment, give him your inner garment as well. If a soldier asks you to carry his pack for one mile, carry it for two. He taught his own disciples to put away their weapons, and that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Those teachings that he shared about God and Love and Love’s third way were where he asked his disciples and followers to place their hope.
Today…our world is still a broken place in many ways. There is evidence of injustice and oppression nearly everywhere we turn. There are still those who go to bed hungry at night, not because of a lack of food, but because of a failure to share, because of greed and hardness of heart, and lack of political will. There are still too many who are unjustly imprisoned and detained. And we are surrounded by war and weapons and all manner of violence, in this country and abroad.
And in the midst of all of that, there are many who identify as “Christians” who are aligned with empire, and the idea of a Pax Americana – so-called peace through military might and victory – who want to legislate oppressive control over their citizens – the bodies of women and people of color, in particular. They believe that Jesus will return again one day soon as precisely the kind of messiah that he refused to be before – a militant, king-like leader who will bring victory through might and through the wielding of the sword.
People of many religious traditions – and none – continue to put their faith in arms, weapons, guns, drones, and bombs. Many of us do, too. We continue to believe that in might lies our best hope. We see no other way forward.
And there are still those among us who’d rather just run for the hills, or build walls and stay safe behind them until the danger passes. The world is increasingly fearful, and flight and fight still seem to most of us like the best, if not the only, two solutions.
But there are still some who hope for, who long for – who wait and wish and work for – another way. There are still those who struggle to keep faith in a vision of peace not through power and might, but through love and justice, which, as African American theologian Cornel West says, is what Love looks like in public.
What are you waiting for?
Wherein lies your hope?
Are you waiting for someone or something to save you? To save us? Someone with great power and might?
Are you hoping to lay low and ride out this storm?
What are you waiting for?
In 1978, the African American poet, June Jordan, presented to the United Nations, her “Poem for South African Women,” which as “written in commemoration of the 40,000 women and children who presented themselves in [non-violent] bodily protest” against the unjust laws of apartheid. The final line of that poem has become quite well-known, turned into song by the African American acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and turned into the title of one of Alice Walker’s books. For it was June Jordan who first wrote, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
Chris Hedges, who was once a New York Times journalist and is now an ordained Presbyterian clergyman and columnist for Truthdig who tirelessly advocates for non-violent bodily resistance to empire, has said,
“Hope is not trusting in the ultimate goodness [of anyone in power to save us.] It is not having a positive attitude or pretending that happy thoughts and false optimism will make the world better.
“Hope is not comfortable or easy. Hope requires personal risk… Hope is not about peace of mind. Hope is an action. Hope is doing something…
“If we resist and carry out acts, no matter how small, of open defiance [of whatever is oppressing us in body or soul], hope will not be extinguished. If all we accomplish is to assure [someone who is suffering, physically or emotionally] that he or she is not alone, our resistance will be successful. But hope cannot be sustained if it cannot be seen.
“Any act of rebellion, any physical defiance of those who make war, of those who perpetuate corporate greed and are responsible for state crimes, anything that seeks to draw the good to the good, nourishes our souls and holds out the possibility that we can touch and transform the souls of others. Hope affirms that which we must affirm. And every act that imparts hope is a victory in itself.
What does it mean to believe, to hope, to put your trust in the idea that we are, in fact, the ones that we have been waiting for?
For one thing, it means taking seriously the idea put forth by Rebecca Solnit, the author of this morning’s reading, who says,
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act… [Hope] is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.
Solnit and Hedges and Buddhist ecologist Joanna Macy and others tell us that hope is not passive. Hope is active. Hope is not something we have, so much as something we do. That the very act of resisting is hope incarnated, hope embodied. And that hope is contagious. When we resist and others see us resisting, we pass our hope on to them.
And it’s not just acts of protest, it is also acts of kindness. Such acts, too, assure others that they are not alone. As Vasily Grossman, the author of Life and Fate, has written,
“Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”
May we find hope in the witnessing of resistance.
May we offer hope to others through our own incarnation of resistance.
And may we always remember that kindness, too, is a form of resistance in a world where cruelty too often reigns.