“Awake to Hope”

On the day of the solar eclipse, I rushed over to the parking lot of Hope Lutheran so that I could borrow a pair of eclipse glasses from my friend Nick. On the way there, I noticed that the neighborhood felt different. The day was unusually quiet. The summer sky was shrouded in semi-darkness. People, rather than walking alone, looking down at their cell phones, were huddled together in groups, gazing up into the heavens. Even the brief, cloudy glimpse I got of the eclipse stirred feelings of awe. My sense of wonder grew as I heard the accounts of those who had traveled to be in the path of totality.

Meteorologist Bob Ryan described his first eclipse experience 37 years ago:

There were oohs and aahs . . . but not much cheering, no yelling, no telescopes, or furious clicking of big cameras. There was a wondrous, almost spiritual silence. In two minutes, that seemed like two seconds, it was over. The sun burst through the craters of the moon and was back. We all caught our breath for a couple of seconds and then burst into spontaneous applause. Wow, God, that was neat. Almost immediately, there was that voice in my brain that said, “Ryan that was more than neat, I want to see that again.”[1]

Today’s scripture, from Mark, frames the season of Advent with the promise of an eclipse-like event. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Advent is the time when our eyes are drawn to the heavens. It is a season that shifts our perspective, our view of the universe and our place within it. Many Native American cultures interpret a solar eclipse as the death and rebirth of the sun. Navaho people believe that people should not view a solar eclipse. They gather as families to sit quietly inside their homes, with the shades drawn, to share this sacred time. Some pray, or meditate; some recall the story of the creation of the sun and moon.[2] Advent, in our tradition, is like this. It shows us that the world as we know is coming to an end and another world is being born.

Advent is a time of awakening to the hope of a new earth community in which, as we pray together each week, God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” To view the eclipse, people flocked to remote locations. Similarly, Advent beckons us to travel to surprising places to catch a view of what God is really up to. Our reading from Mark is one such out-of-the-way spot. Scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was written several decades after the life of Jesus. In particular, Chapter 13 suggests that Mark’s Gospel is a response to a troubling historical event. A Jewish rebellion against Rome that had been simmering for generations finally broke out in 70 CE. Roman troops put down this uprising with bloody force, demolishing the temple and the hopes of a nation. This event represented a spiritual crisis. Where was God, now that the temple was gone?

Our passage from Mark seeks to offer hope amid the suffering of that particular moment. In the Gospel narrative, today’s vision of Christ’s return at the end of time comes right before the plot to kill Jesus begins. The counter intuitive placement of narrative suggests we can only witness the new world God is bringing into being from the cross. The hope of a new earth community cannot be observed from the temple; that is, from the center of religious, cultural and economic power. God is with us in a new location in Jesus, who shared in the powerlessness of his people and who was crucified outside the walls of the holy city. Christ is God’s solidarity with us and our solidarity with each other. Hope is what comes into being when we stand together in the desolate locations in which acts of crucifixion happen. In those places of hopeful solidarity, a new kind of relationship, a new kind of power, a new world can be born.

This week, I happened to be in the right place at the right time to view such a moment of hope. More than ten different organizations came together at a budget hearing of the Hennepin County Board to speak to the concerns of the immigrant community. This is the body that sets the budget for Sheriff Stanek. The sheriff has made a practice of cooperating with federal immigration officials. In our county jail, those detained are asked to declare their country of birth, though the collection of this information (which triggers the response of immigration authorities) is not mandatory. Prisoners generally do not understand, and officials at the jail do not tell them that they are not required to talk with immigration officials. And county officials notify immigration when they release immigrant detainees so that officers can come and re-arrest them if they wish. Meanwhile, only 14% of detained immigrants have an attorney to represent them in court.

This coalition of groups advocating for immigrants (and mostly led by immigrants) had worked together to develop a common agenda. They are asking the county board to take some resources away from sheriff’s budget in order to establish a $1 million bail fund for immigrant legal defense. A call went out from ISAIAH for a representative to speak at this hearing from one of the sanctuary or sanctuary supporting congregations. I responded that I could be there, knowing none of this background I just told you, really having no idea what I was saying “yes” to. As the hearing unfolded I learned an enormous amount. The testimony came at the very end. The commissioners listened intently as half a dozen speakers told their personal stories of families being torn apart by our immigration system. Leaders of immigrant-led organizations powerfully described the collective impact of this trauma on their communities. I spoke as a representative of the faith community—as a voice for First Church and the more than 50 congregations who are part of the sanctuary movement in Minnesota. This was a moment of practicing solidarity, standing with others in the place of crucifixion. We, as a faith community, were not there to speak for immigrants, but to accompany them, to follow their lead, and to use our power and privilege to amplify their agenda.

This morning’s scripture, and the season of Advent, counsels us to keep alert, to stay awake. Just as the leaves of the fig tree point to summer, the Gospel writer says, the signs of the times signal the nearness of the world’s transformation. We are to be like doorkeepers on the watch. The urgency of this text may seem strange given it has been 2000 years since these words were written. It’s helpful to me to remember that this vision was given to a community in crisis so that they could find hope again. I believe that this text is not so much a prediction of future events as it is a call to be vigilant, to avoid complacency. It is easy for us, especially for those of us with privilege, living in these times of moral crisis, to simply go to sleep, to give up resisting the lies that label some of us less than human, that tear our families apart, that destroy the very soul of our humanity, our earth community.

Many popular beliefs about the rapture, the final judgment, the return of Christ are scary. Frankly, predictions of the end of time are often designed to bully us into compliance with certain cultural agendas. What strikes me most about the accounts of those who were in the path of totality of the solar eclipse is that they have none of that threatening quality. The instinct of those who experienced the eclipse was not to run away from it, but to turn toward it, to savor it, and to seek it out again. Juan Trujillo (Truhiyo), of Arizona, blogged about viewing the eclipse: “It was surreal. Like we were seeing a piece of heaven, but just a glimpse. Somehow that two minutes filled us with hope and joy and peace.”[3]

This Advent, may such hope and joy and peace be ours. May we fix our wakeful eyes on the hope of a new world, a world of solidarity, a world in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2017/07/20/witnessing-the-indescribable-why-ive-chased-solar-eclipses-all-over-the-world/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.257c5674692f

[2] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/08/21/navajos-mark-solar-eclipse-sacred-phenomenon-not-watching-kids-run-into-each-other-inside-inflatable/585672001/

[3] http://www.beginningfromthismorning.com/solar-reflections/