In 1868, the great American Episcopal preacher, Phillips Brooks, penned his best-known text in the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” inspired by a visit he had made to Israel in 1865. More than once, we have mined this hymn for the beauty of its words and richness of its imagery. The phrase that’s stuck in my head today is the joining of the “hopes and fears of all the years” as they meet at the foot of Bethlehem’s manger, I am drawn to the convergence of these two, presumably opposed, emotions because our own day and age is wrestling with just such a convergence.
Among the readings for Advent, we hear twice Luke’s angel say, first to Zechariah and then to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” As we know, this is a familiar theme in scripture, especially when an angel appears. “Do not be afraid,” seems like an appropriate word when confronted with the mystery of the holy. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’d feel fear if some sacred figure showed up at the foot of my bed in the middle of the night. I know Old Scrooge was shaken to the core as the spirits appeared in his locked chamber, well after midnight.
Setting great literature aside, we are living in a day that is characterized by the real fear that many in this country feel as we face the prospects of the incoming president and his administration. Progress toward justice for all, toward economic equity, toward the common welfare, toward peace, toward saving the planet – all these and more are under threat as the president puts together a leadership team that is on record as racist, xenophobic, homo-hating, misogynist, economically elitist, and just plain crude. I don’t need to rehearse the details here.
You can go to newspapers, magazines, journals, social media, etc. to read the evidence. And in those same resources, you can read the words of those who are afraid, very afraid, for their future, the future of our country, the future of the world, the future of the planet.
The question is: where’s the hope? In my last three sermons, I’ve referred to the audacity of hope and our need for it. The scriptural texts have affirmed that hope can be, ought to be, bigger than our fear. But fear is a fierce foe of hope. The black lesbian poet and essayist, Audre Lorde, wrote, speaking about her personal struggle with breast cancer.
“…of course, I am afraid – you can hear it in my voice – because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger…On the cause of silence, each one of us draws her own fear – fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we also cannot truly live…And that visibility which makes you most vulnerable is also our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind us into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.
“We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is
poisoned, we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and still we will be no less afraid. [Or] we can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us…it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”
I quote extensively here because I think Lorde speaks so eloquently to the fears that bind us. Then, like the angels of old, she says, “Do not be afraid,” or more accurately, from a human perspective, “Do not let fear immobilize you.”
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in you today. Courage is the ability to act in the face of our fears. Some would argue that the silence of too many good people has gotten us in the mess we’re in today. Hope counters fear and invites us to speak our truth – and more.
In a recent sermon, I quoted Stacey Simpson Duke, co-pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan on hope. She declares that “…hope, in the end is action, with the power to overturn old assumptions and sad cynicism, to
give new eyes, and to heal our warring hearts.” In the same vein that faith without works is dead, hope without action means little.
Last Sunday at New York City’s Riverside Church, Amy Butler proclaimed her Advent hope:
“This is why we need Advent. We need to be shaken out of the
ordinary, to realize that all is not right with our world, and that we need something bigger than ourselves…we need God, to take us out of what has become routine and mundane and live as if the world God hopes for us
must come to be.
“Watch, wait, be thinking and acting all the time. A human community of justice and hope is our responsibility. To watch out for each other, to seek out and facilitate justice and mercy, even when we’re scared and unsure and the evidence around us seems to say that this world is going to hell in a handbasket. We live as if we’re paying attention. We live with the conviction that there’s more. There’s more to imagine. There’s more to be done. And complacency and status quo is just not going to do anymore.”
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in us today. How will we respond? Will we retire, mute, to our corners, overwhelmed by fear, unable or unwilling to speak and act for what we know is right? Or will we join the motley crew, gathered in the stable in Bethlehem, to proclaim that God has come near, freeing our voices to sing and our wings to fly? The Beloved Community may not be so far off after all, if we would have it so.
Yours on the journey,