Episode 2 - Podcast Transcript

 

Advent


Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson

As we enter into the Advent season moving toward Christmas, I love picking devotionals and study guides for a season. That's always been one of my geeky joys. This season, I happened upon a book by Fleming Rutledge. Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopalian priest and preacher extraordinary. She really does have great sermons. My favorite Advent sermon by Fleming Rutledge begins with these words, "Advent begins in the dark." I ponder that every Advent season because to really appreciate the coming of Christ, the first time and when he will come again and take full charge, means that we really look and peer into the darkness and acknowledge how far away our world is, our relationships are, our church is from how God envisions them to be. We are to be agents of reconciliation, yet we find ourselves at each other's throats often. We are to be beating swords into plow shares and studying war no more, but it seems everywhere we are arming up instead of disarming. And so, Advent begins in the dark.

It also was a great Advent theme to use one year, much like this year, when the first Sunday of Advent fell on the Thanksgiving weekend (and anybody who's worked in the local church knows it's hard to find folks to help decorate the sanctuary for Advent and for Christmas when it's right near Thanksgiving). We began with "Advent begins in the dark," and really the only light in the sanctuary was the one lit candle of the Advent wreath. That one flame burns in the darkness.

Advent does begin in the dark. It begins in the prophets. I love the advent texts of Isaiah, where Isaiah gives us a vision of how the world is, how the nation of Israel is, and then the beautiful images of God's city on a hill, where all the nations gather, where we do beat swords into plow shares and study war no more. The vision of the beloved community, the vision of God's reign that is so compelling.

When I was a kid, I loved the time lapse photography where they would show flowers opening. You know, they'd show a bud and they would show it fully open and how beautiful that was. But one compelling film I saw years ago was in the desert, in the wilderness, and the photographer went around and found these amazing blooms in the wilderness. They would show a cactus or a plant that looked like nothing and do the time lapse photography and show it open into beauty, and how much beauty there was even in these desert wilderness places. I think that's why Isaiah says "the wilderness shall bloom." It'll be lush again and water will run vision of new life, and resurrection in these harsh desert pictures are a compelling image for Advent.

Isaiah also says, "Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, oh Lord." That's my prayer constantly every day as I see refugees and children wandering without a home and really no hope for the future, of the immediate future. When I see the opioid crisis and families shattered. When I see just the heartbreak of illness and death, and just the lack of potential, you know? I think part of God's beloved community is a place where every person can fully live into and use the gifts God gave them. In so many places, that's not the case. And so, how do we build a community where everyone lives up to their potential and where every single person is cherished?

I have always loved Oprah, how she says, "This I know for sure." I think as after studying scripture, and a life as a Christian, and deeply into spiritual formation, I think I know for sure that Jesus Christ and God the father and God the spirit are all calling us to be transformed so that we have the mind of Christ, but also calling us to cherish every human being.

I think that God's word to us through Advent is how are we not cherishing every human being? Who is being forgotten, who's being left out, who's being forsaken, and how do we cherish them in the name of God? This is probably a redundant theme. I might have even said it in my earlier podcast, but that continues to be my heartbreak, anybody who doesn't know the love of God through the love of another human being. That's our job, if we're to be ambassadors of Christ, if we're to be agents of Christ's reconciliation in the world.

I also think about in my own Advent time, my own rededication to the spiritual disciplines. I know I talked a lot about that in the first podcast. But probably the most compelling Christmas story that I read every year is Charles Dickens, A Christmas Story. I've seen every iteration of it. I was talking to somebody today about Mr. Magoo's version. That dates me. I remember as a child watching that.

Interestingly enough, the version that is closest to Dickens' words, to Dickens story, it's almost a verbatim depiction of it, is Disney's Christmas Carol with Jim Carey. The nuances that are in that movie that are directly from Dickens' story are well done, especially the scene with Jacob Marley. When Scrooge says to Jacob Marley, "You are good at business," and Marley says, "Oh, no. Oh, no. The world was my business. People were my business and I didn't do anything." He's lugging the chains after death and and as a ghost and never gets rest because he didn't pay attention to the people who were left out or who were not cherished. He warned Scrooge, then Scrooge looks out the window and it's full of souls who have ignored need throughout their lives on Earth, who are in perpetual ghost status because they didn't care.

That gives me pause during this season.

Also in Dickens story, there's a great scene with Christmas Present. Christmas Present is tall, very big, larger than life, incredibly handsome, a man with a big red robe. He looks a lot like Santa, but more rugged, kind of like the Marlboro Man does Christmas. That dates me also. Let me think, just macho guy who is Christmas Present in robes and the picture of health. But as he leads Scrooge through Christmas Day and shows him the need all around, he gets older. Scrooge notices by the end of Christmas that he's looking bad. He says, "I only live for 24 hours. You can celebrate me and you can have me for one day, but you need to pay attention to what's left." Then he opens his robe and there are two wretched looking children, a boy and a girl. One is Want and one is Ignorance.

And so, I think about that during this Christmas season, how much want and how much ignorance. John Wesley saw the two as intimately connected. That's why he emphasized education and emphasized knowledge and paying attention to the wisdom of the past, and how education equips people to understand those that they may never have come in contact with and helps him reflect on God's beloved community in a different way. Here's a shout out for all the United Methodist higher education institutions. I sit on the board of nine of them and they do a tremendous job of transforming folks into critical thinkers and equips them to realize how much there is to know and how much we need to know, and also a need to learn history so we don't repeat lessons learned. 

I think of those little children in the Dickens story often. The best part of it though is, I think, the depiction of sanctification, the depiction of the transformation that the Holy spirit does. That was the heart of John Wesley's theology. He saw that exposure to the Holy Spirit is what transformed us. I talked a lot in the last podcast, but if you want to see the fruit of it, the picture of it, you have Ebeneezer Scrooge, a despicable human being, miserable human being. He won't provide coal for his coworker so they freeze at work. And I don't know if you're like me, I hate to be cold worse than anything. I hate that scene because this poor man is miserable. But cold, miserly, despicable, ugly, scornful of charity, scornful of giving away money and anybody who does. Scornful of his family, scornful of so much, and assured of his own self-sufficience and assured that he has the moral high ground and knows more than everybody else.

Until Jacob Marley comes to his door, the first appearance, and then the three ghosts. I think Scrooge is taught the lessons of generosity. He is taught by the three spirits, the fruits of the spirit. You see it spelled out for him: love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and gentleness, and kindness, and faithfulness, and generosity, and self control. He's reminded of the people in his life who were generous and loving. He remembers his old boss who was a great, great boss and how he had a wonderful Christmas party with all the trimmings for all of his employees, and the dancing and the joy. He's reminded of the love of his sister. He's reminded of so many things in his life that he had overlooked. And he is reminded that he is mortal and the last ghost shows him the gravestone with his name on it. He realizes, I think in the words of Jesus, what good does it do to have everything but lose your life?

Scrooge is shaken to the core and he wakes up terrified. He runs to the window and he asked the boy down in the courtyard, "What day is it?" He's overjoyed to hear that it's Christmas Day. You see the transformed person, the person who represents Christ, the person who's awakened spiritually, the person who has blossomed like the desert blossoms, the dryness, the wilderness of his soul has been stirred up by the love of God and he is a new person. Every, every person who depicts Scrooge does a great job of the joy, the screaming with joy, the joy of having money to give away, the joy of being able to help a family that's struggling, the joy of being able to restore health to a child. I just beg of you in this Christmas season, how are you getting your joy?

Is it through acquiring or is it through giving? Really, how much joy do you get by hoarding stuff up? I love who Scrooge becomes. He goes out and just throws money away because he has it to give. He goes and begs his forgiveness of his nephew and his nephew's wife and he celebrates Christmas with them. He makes sure that the Cratchit family has a whole banquet and that their child is provided for. He makes sure that the charity receives money that he should have been giving every year. And he is a new person. I love how Dickens closes it. He said, "Scrooge every Christmas kept Christmas well."

I hope in this season of frantic activity that you make time for some spiritual activity, that in this season of acquisition, I mean, how horrible is it that the celebration of Jesus' birth is marked by acquisition? That is so opposite. Why not think about all the money you're spending for stuff for you, what about giving that? Action Ministries needs support. Wesley Woods needs support. There are so many great places where as families we could give, but you know, do you really need another chia pet? We're at the point as a family where it's like, "Give me one gift," but we're giving it away and we're learning how to celebrate Christmas well and doing it well.

I pray that you have a blessed Christmas. I pray that you will keep Christmas well. I pray that you will envision God's beloved community. Jesus is coming again, large and in charge, and our job is from his first coming when he gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit to transform us enforce us out to transform the world, that's what the Holy Spirit compels us to do. He transforms us to live into beloved community.

And so as long as there is any human being that's not cherished, as long as there is a child that's hungry, as long as there is a person that's hungry and stranded in the world with no love, as long as any of these things exist, we have work to do. We are incarnated by God and we had the Holy Spirit breathe into us to give us a new vision for how this world should be. Advent is a time where we prepare for that second coming. So, I encourage you to have a bigger vision of incarnation than just Christmas.

I'm an expert on Disney fireworks. I grew up 45 minutes away from Disney World. I know every nook and cranny of that place and have many great memories there. I took my nieces and my daughter a few years ago with our family for the Very Merry Christmas Party, which is great. They had these amazing fireworks. One of the fireworks was a baby Jesus in a manger. Imagine. You could tell exactly what it was. It was remarkable.

My nieces were oohing and awing and they said, "Aunt Sue, isn't that the best firework you ever saw?" I said, "You know, it was good, but I really want the firework of Jesus coming back large and in charge, because I'm ready for him to take charge of some things. I'm ready for him to bring some justice. I'm ready for him to speak out on behalf of those who have no voice, and I'm ready for him to model and to bring about a world that is so loving and so tightly knit where all are reconciled to each other and to God and we celebrate the joy of that."

To me, that's a vision worth dreaming of, a vision worth living into, a vision that sustains me and it has sustained folks through the centuries on the darkest of nights in the worst wilderness places. But that vision is compelling and it keeps us going and gives us hope, even when we don't see a way through. I invite you to live into that vision, to hold it up, and to never be discouraged. I pray that you will be richly blessed by the Spirit in these days of Advent, that your Christmas will truly be merry and be done well, and I pray that your heart will be transformed by this season through the entire year and the years to come.


At the Table is produced by Sybil Davidson and edited by Kim Drobes. Music is by Chuck Bell. Thank you, and I look forward to the next time we're together.