This year, our Advent season is focused around lament as a necessary precondition for hope. A “Saturday Night Live” skit may seem like an odd place to begin probing the subject of lament. But bear with me. [Plays “A Thanksgiving Miracle” to 1:26] This skit (like much humor) is rooted in real pain. For me, it touches a nerve of deep sadness that we are so often unable to sit down together and truly share a common table—whether as intimate families, or as the larger human family. Of course, the “Thanksgiving Miracle” of family peace made possible by Adele’s song, “Hello” is satire, which grows more and more hilarious as the skit unfolds. At the same time, it seems to me there’s some kind of truth being told by this song being used in this way. The chorus of “Hello” goes like this: “Hello from the other side/ I must have called a thousand times/ To tell you I’m sorry for everything that I’ve done/ But when I call you never seem to be home/ Hello from the outside.” “Hello” is the lament of an estranged lover. But it could also be humankind’s lament over a disconnection between people, political positions, and whole nations so profound that, despite all our communication technology, we can no longer talk. We cannot find relational space in which to stand together, even to apologize and make amends. We cope by “othering” each other, dividing the world between insiders and outsiders. And the outcome of our alienation is truly tragic.
I grieved as I read the analysis of the Paris climate talks in yesterday’s New York Times. Over 200 nations are expected to sign on to a deal. This is a political victory after two decades of no progress at all. Yet, the commitments are not responsive to the goal the world set in 2010 to limit warming to 2 degrees centigrade. The article’s author explains:
[The nations] have pointedly declined to take up a recommendation from scientists, made several years ago, that they set a cap on total greenhouse gases as a way to achieve that goal, and then figure out how to allocate the emissions fairly…. Wrestling with a [carbon] budget would…throw into stark relief the global inequities at the heart of the climate crisis. And it would underscore just how big the problem really is, how costly the delay in tackling it has been and how inadequate the plans being discussed in Paris are for limiting the risks.
Our Gospel text today, fittingly, portrays a world that is falling apart: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” The Greek word for world is oikoumene. Oikoumene does not refer to the whole world, human, and non-human, but instead describes human society. In New Testament days, oikoumene was a synonymous with the Roman empire. The root of this word, oikos, means family or household. So the Gospel writer is speaking, particularly, about the disintegration of the economic and political systems that knit humanity together.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve joined with colleagues to offer a clergy presence to the Black Lives Matter occupation at the 4th Precinct. Warming our hands over the campfires ablaze in the middle of Plymouth Avenue, we’ve been vigorously debating the strategies of our churches and our city leaders, the tactics of the police and the protestors. In general, I’ve heard many people say they support the goals of Black Lives Matter, but they think the movement’s methods are counterproductive. On this topic, I can’t get out of my head and heart an editorial by Simone Sebastian of the Washington Post on October 10. It was titled: “Tactics of Black Lives Matter are actually a lot like MLK’s.” Sebastian writes:
Mike Huckabee said the civil rights leader would be “appalled” by BLM’s strategy: To address racial injustice, “you don’t do it by magnifying the problems,” [Huckabee] said. But magnifying the problems was King’s key strategy and he received the same admonishments. Protesters who marched in the streets of America’s most staunchly racist cities and towns were attacked by police dogs, their clothing was tattered by high-pressure fire hoses and their lives were taken by police officers’ bullets. In his well-known “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written to liberal white clergy who questioned his methods, [King] wrote that, in fighting racial injustice, the goal of his demonstrations was “so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” In other words, violence was not something that simply happened to activists; they invited it.
Advent is a season of truth, a time that dramatizes what we know, in our bones, to be true: the world, the way in which we are human together, lays in ashes. And a new world has yet to be given flesh in us. Luke advises us about how to live in this in-between time. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. Be alert at all times.” Rather than medicating our pain, losing ourselves in entertainment, or becoming overwhelmed with anxiety, we should cultivate hearts that are awake, alert, aware. I believe lament is an important tool to help us in this spiritual task. Let us model our lament after that of the psalmists, who lay before God their honest, un-bandaged grief, their raw anger and their unanswerable questions. Our worship planning team noted that lament is different than whining and complaining, because it is part of a process that leads us somewhere else, that sets the stage for change, that moves us toward hope.
I want to leave you with a beautiful image of this hope. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes:
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing…. I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly…. The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”
They called the Palestinian woman’s son, then her other son, then the poet’s dad, then finally some Palestinian poets, just for fun. This all took up two hours. Nye remembers,
[The woman] was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—from her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single traveler declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie. Then the airline broke out free apple juice and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, “This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.”
The upheaval in our world is frightening and disorienting. However, it is in this very chaos that Luke sees signs of redemption. Watching the world come undone, people faint with fear and foreboding. But disciples of Jesus, he argues, “stand up and raise our heads.” Where many only notice disaster, we will be able to perceive something else: the nearness of God and God’s new creation. Like the trees whose leaves signal summer, we can know that when the old ways of ordering our human household lie in ruins, then the time is right for God to give birth to a different sort of human family. The day is coming when we will all be able to feast together at a common table of thanksgiving, peace and justice. The day is near when a shared world will become a reality among us. Amen.