This sermon is inspired by Dr. Ted Jennings, Professor Emiritus at Chicago Theological Seminary, Michel Beth Dinkler, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School, and my friend, Bill Ayers, former Professor at the University of Illinois Chicago and co-founder of the Weather Underground.
If you were granted the power to make one major change in American public life, what big change would you make? What is the Advent gift that you would give to this country? You don’t have to shout out your answer but I do want to give you a few moments to think about it. To be sure, the list of things that need to be changed is endless, and we could spend this entire service naming what those changes are. For our purposes today, power is the ability to make change, and this theme plays out in the midst of both of our texts. The power to make change is related to possibility. And the truth is we do not all have equal access to possibility. The possibility of becoming a lawyer, a professional athlete, a musician, or a minister.
Possibility is a question of power. “Is that possible for someone like me? “What power do I have to achieve my interests ?” Calculating how much power we have to achieve our interests moves us to quantify what allies we need to grow our power. The temptation then is to increase our possibilities by borrowing the power of others. Not shared power but borrowed power. Borrowed power is better than no power at all. The problem of course, is that our borrowed earthly power never buys us true freedom. It only attaches us to someone else’s interests. Especially for those who live on the margins; power is never shared with them. Someone who gives their access, their wealth, their decision making authority—their ability to make change—to someone who has no power, is virtually unheard of.
Continuing the themes of Advent, Micah’s prophecy of salvation comes with a healthy dose of lament. The deliverance of the people is preceded by their distress. Chapter 5 is about the siege on Jerusalem and the Jewish people being in danger of defeat by the marauding Babylonian army. The leader of Jerusalem has been humiliated, or at least incapacitated. While the Babylonian armies spread, among the Israelites hope begins to crack. The Jewish people lack the power to make change in their circumstances and soon the sieged can conceive of only two options: death or surrender. But hope is the partner of possibility, and for Micah, the one who is coming is not borrowing earthly power, but is one who manifests God’s power on earth. Micah refuses to be held captive by only two choices.
Prophetic imagination has so much more to offer than just two options. One of the marks of the prophetic imagination is its resilience; it refuses to be trampled. To be awakened is to take the external realities and resist their internalization. To never allow what is going on around us to get in the way of imagining what is possible. Hope is easy to wound but is hard to kill and the thought that “nothing can be done” is its own grave-digger. Something must be done. But what should we do?
In the Gospel text, Luke depicts John the Baptist’s message—how to prepare for the coming of his successor, Jesus—as a call to repent. The crowd of people, Roman soldiers and the tax collectors all ask the same question: “What should we do?” He pulls no punches, calling them a “brood of vipers,” making sure they know that as followers of the new promise, their baptism alone will not exempt them from the coming judgment. In other words, they must act, they must change their way of life.
The Book of Acts says that the first followers of Jesus in Jerusalem lived communally and distributed their wealth equitably—to each according to their needs.
The multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: None claimed what they possessed was their own; but they had all things common, and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses, they were sold, and they brought the price of what was sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto everyone according to their need. (Acts 4:32-35)
They took Jesus’ words literally: “Each of you who does not give up all he possesses is incapable of being my disciple,” (Luke 14); “Do not store up treasures for yourself on earth.” (Matthew 6); and “Come now, you who are rich, weep, howling out at the miseries that are coming for you.” (James 5). The through-line in all of it is this: There is but one humanity and one human estate, and it belongs to all; take only what you need to live, share everything, care for one another.
This is what they are to do. This is what is in their power. Paraphrasing the great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the Christian ethic is that “We are each other’s business/We are each other’s harvest/We are each other’s magnitude and bond.” This is the opposite of shutting down the government for the sinful, wretched purpose of building a wall that separates children from their parents, spreading more fear in our cities, and jailing and deporting our immigrant sisters and brothers. Values of grace, care, sensitivity and compassion seem to be in short supply. But in the book of Matthew, Christ assures his followers, “with God all things are possible.” In Advent, a passage like this is a call back to the type of imagination that refuses to be bound by history or by the present circumstances. Advent is a time for us to assure the church—and to assure the world—that God’s promise will come true even when we don’t have the foggiest idea how or when. In verse 4 and 5 from today’s Micah passage: “Jesus will stand and shepherd his flock, with God’s strength, in the majesty of the name of God. And the people will live securely, for then greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And God will be our peace.”
Advent’s joyful anticipation is a time of preparation. Get ready! In the face of the powerlessness we often feel, with compassion and justice harder to find. What should we do? This is what the text says:
Hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart.
Baptism has communal implications.
Provide generously for those in need.
Do not push beyond the limits of your authority.
Pursue economic justice for all.
Do not use fear or threats to coerce others .
Do not store up treasures on earth.
Share your wealth.
Give according to your ability.
In other words, change first yourself. This is in your power. It is not magical thinking. Let’s do this together, shall we?
At a recent Faith Formation Team meeting, we asked the members of the team what Faith Formation meant to them. To me, what they said is goes together with the guidance we just received from the biblical text: the ways we organize, build and support our faith; building on what is sparked in people; discipleship in the example Jesus set for us; speaking and acting our faith; Benedictine vows; turning daily toward God; discipleship. This Advent, may it be so! Amen.