December 4, 2016: Advent II
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
This is the second Sunday in the season of Advent. And this year we are talking about “ways to peace.” Last week we talked about work as a way to peace. Changing swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Instruments of war into instruments of work. But any longstanding way to peace will likely require some wholesale change in the way our world work….s; a wholesale change in the way we think and act and speak; in the way we interact with each other. In the way we listen to each other. In the way we are willing and able to reorder our instincts; for individual acquisition over the common good, for self-service over selfless service, for safety over peace.
And so this week’s way to peace is a call for education, in the truest sense of the word. Educate, it’s from the Latin educere: to draw forth, to lead out. As in: The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
Nelson Mandela once said: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” But not just change for the sake of change; change for the sake of moving from darkness to light. To educate is to lead out of darkness into light. And that is the sort of change that we await in this season of Advent. The change that will come with the arrival of the child that will turn the world on its head; change the world forever for the better.
But the older I get the more I understand that such change does not happen in a day. Such change is an ongoing endeavor. Every year we await the changer in the manger (I might trademark that phrase!) as though the world will suddenly be completely different on the moment of his arrival. As though peace will suddenly descend upon the earth and all will be well. Maybe it will happen this year! But experience tells us that peace is not an event that will come, once and for all, but an opportunity offered to each of us in different ways at different times in our lives.
I have been reading a lot of Dietrich Bonhoeffer over the last few weeks. I have long been a fan of this brilliant and faithful German pacifist theologian who was convicted and imprisoned for his resistance of the Nazi war machine and executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler….hanged in the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, ten days before the Nazis surrendered. He spent a bit more than two years in prison for his courageous resistance of the Third Reich when most of his countrymen, and sadly the church as well, refused to risk any substantial opposition. But as Bonhoeffer’s biographer said: he saw the gospel risk and knew that there was “no peace along the way to safety.”1
Bonhoeffer was 27 in 1933 when Hitler came to power. He was teaching in a Lutheran seminary and already making a name for himself as an up and coming theologian. But as he watched the complicity of the Christian church in the persecution and genocide of the German Jews he had an ecclesiastical crisis of faith. Which is to say he lost his faith in the power and purpose of the church. And he responded, not by leaving the church, but by helping to found a new branch of the church that was grounded an ecumenical understanding of the Body of Christ. It was a direct refutation of the new nationalism that marked the isolationist atrocities of the Third Reich. It was called the Confessing Church.
He said, and I quote: “The church has three possible ways it can act against the state. First, it can ask the state if its actions are legitimate. Second, it can aid the victims of the state action….The third possibility is not just bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”2 And so Bonhoeffer embarked on a path of gospel resistance.
As I said, I have always been a student and admirer of Bonhoeffer’s gospel theology. But I have never felt such a kindred connection with him and his context as I do now in this time and place, in these United States of America, which we are fond of calling One nation under God; where the rule of law, the sanctity of reason, and the standard of love for all of God’s children and creation – feel very possibly at mortal risk. We do not live in the brutal Fascist state that was Bonhoeffer’s context, but by all accounts, we could well be headed in that direction. And so I have found myself turning more and more to the theological ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this Christian pacifist resistor who was willing to pay the heaviest price for his love of the gospel. I love the gospel too.
And so despite all of the good intentioned advice that we should calm down and wait and see what happens, even as our deepest fears seem to be unfolding before our eyes with each new rally and rant, I am beginning to think that this season of Advent is, or should be, a season of not-waiting. Not waiting to draw the line in the sand between acceptable discourse and disagreement, and irrational boasting and scapegoating. Not waiting to set the limit between respectful reproach and the venom that comes from hate and fear mongering. Not waiting to stand firm for the liberties and wisdoms on which our very society was built: the inalienable rights that belong to all of God’s children. And not waiting for the wholesale assault on our gospel values that include service to others, hospitality from hearts filled with gratitude, mercy without measure, justice for all, and love of our neighbors in the same way that we have been loved by God. This Advent is a season that calls us not to wait. Not even for a second.
I worry that this may sound a bit too political for the pulpit. And then I remember….Jesus. The one from whom Bonhoeffer took his cue for resistance. Jesus, who stood against the power structures of his day with the substance of his life for nothing less than love. Jesus who braved the brutality of the cross to resist oppression, domination, fragmentation and all of the evils that have forever sought to squelch the spirit of the living God; the Spirit that yearns to work through us when we have the courage to speak the truth to power with love. To this end, my friends, we must not wait to see what happens. We must resist. Because the stakes are simply too high.
But we can take some comfort in our not waiting, because in today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist implores us not to wait. He warns: even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees. Do not wait. Turn around! Now! There is not a moment to waste. Not a moment to lose. Prepare yourself for God, says John, because God is on the way! And the coming of God, says Bonhoeffer, is not just a joyous occasion, although the joy of Christmas is usually the thing that we celebrate. But too,the coming of God is a frightful, fearful thing for anyone who has a conscience. And so if we have such a conscience, there is no time to wait. Because we have a date and a reckoning with God.
And yet, Advent remains ecclesiastically, biblically, and theologically the season of waiting. Even Bonhoeffer speaks of Advent as a season of waiting. And that is as it should be. But when Bonhoeffer talks about waiting, I think he is not talking about inaction. I think he is talking about patience; waiting as the virtue of patient anticipation. Patience, from the Latin patior which mean to suffer. Patience is the will to suffer until the objective is achieved. Patience is about integrity. It is about keeping one’s feet on the gospel path for as long as it takes. Patience is about diving into the fullness of time, not waiting passively for its passage. And so when Bonhoeffer speaks of the value of waiting, I think, in my humble opinion, he is not talking about passive inaction he is talking about active patience.
And so Bonhoeffer says that not everyone can wait; not everyone can be patient. “Neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait…..the only ones who can wait are those who carry restlessness around with them…..thus Advent can only be celebrated by those whose souls give them no peace.”3 And I don’t know about you, but right now my soul has no peace. I think for Bonhoeffer, the way to peace is patiently not waiting.
But let us beware. Patient non-waiting can result in…..danger, Will Robinson. Gospel living is risky living. But for Bonhoeffer, his resistance was buoyed by his grounding in the promise of resurrection; and not just his own resurrection, but the resurrection of the world that he felt called to serve. He realized that “to live for Christ is to live for others.”4 And even though that service to others may result in one’s own death, it will ultimately result in resurrection; the promise on which hangs all of our hope as Christians. All of our patient not-waiting is grounded in the promise of resurrection.
Although, resurrection is not a Christian concept. Take this morning’s reading from Isaiah. A shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse. The stump refers to the Davidic dynasty….the dynasty that God promised would live forever. But alas it did not. It was overthrown by the Babylonians in the 6th century before the common era. And all that remained at the writing of this passage, was the stump. The stump of the promise of everlasting life for the dynasty of David, out of which came a shoot of life. A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of its roots. Like the olive branch after the Great Flood. Life comes out of even the most seemingly final death.
If this shoot of Jesse in this morning’s reading from Isaiah does not reflect the concept of resurrection, I don’t know what does! God has been delivering life out of death since…..Cain and Abel. Resurrection is not a New Testament concept. It is a fact of life, at least for we who believe that God is a fact of life. Resurrection has always been the way of God. And it is our ticket to ride. It is the promise that frees us to risk everything we have to move toward the day when the wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid. And a little child will lead us….the same little child that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
My friends, let us embrace the freedom of the promise of resurrection in this season of patiently not- waiting. In his letter from Tegel prison on November 21, 1943 Bonhoeffer likened his time of waiting in prison to the season of Advent. He wrote: “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent: one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other…..the door is shut and can only be opened from the outside.”5 Which is to say that God holds the keys to our ultimate freedom. And so we have nothing to lose and no time to spare. The whole world is waiting for us to not wait a minute more. Let us follow that child who leads us out of our fear and darkness, who educates us in the ways of everlasting light. Let us stand up for truth and mercy and hospitality and kindness, and let us do it right now. Because God knows we have everything to lose.
And if we need any more assurance that all of creation is bidding us to this freedom, Wendell Berry reminds us this in his poem, The Peace of Wild Things:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free.