Monday, December 14, 2020

Despair / Hope / Patience


The Third Sunday of Advent / Year B

Psalm 126

If you are starting to feel good about life again, you might want to visit the website which specializes in what it calls “demotivational” products.  The site asserts “no industry has inflicted more suffering than the Motivational Industry” through the billions of dollars spent on books, speakers, and those annoying posters aimed at inspiring a workforce.  “At Despair, we offer the cure for hope and for surprising affordable prices.” 

If you look at page 5 of your bulletin you will see images of some of my favorite despair posters:

(a group of people putting their hands together as a sign of teamwork) Meetings – None of us is as dumb as all of us!

(a picture of a sinking oil freighter) Mistakes – It could be that your purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others.

(a salmon about to be eaten by a bear) Ambition – A journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very badly.

(a person standing at the foot a tall, steep mountainside) Challenge – I expected times like these but I never thought they’d be so bad, so long, and so frequent.

This from the website: “Motivational Products don’t work.  But our Demotivational Products don’t work even better.  The Motivational Industry has been crushing dreams for decades, selling the easy lie of success you can buy.  That’s why we decided to differentiate ourselves – by crushing dreams with hard truths!”

Can there be a better summery of the year 2020 than “I expected times like these, but I never thought they’d be so bad, so long, and so frequent.”  That pretty much says it all.  The word ‘despair’ comes from the Latin de, meaning ‘without’, and sperare, meaning ‘to hope’.  These feel like despairing times, days without hope.

If Christianity is about any one thing, no doubt it is about hope – the hope we receive from the Good News of God’s redeeming love made known through and possible by Jesus Christ.  The Catechism teaches “The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose in the world.”  There are moments in our lives when this is easier said than done.  2020 has been one of these times. 

Again this morning we read about John the Baptist.  He conducts his ministry during a very dark period in human history, but the heart of his message is about hope.  John the Gospel writer says of the Baptist “he was not the light, but came to testify to the light.”  Can there be a more hopeful message than “Make straight the way of the Lord” – a reference to an ancient prophet’s hope one day a savior will come.

This morning we are blessed by the reading of the 126th Psalm, with its message of hope.  Notice how the first four verses seem to indicate the moment of despair has passed:  When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream…”  However, the final three verses are cast in the future tense:  “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.  Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”  Yes, the times may be bad, long, and frequent, but they do not last.  There will come a harvest.  There will be singing.  There will be joy.

As inspirational as this psalm is, there is one disconnect between it and our times.  By using the imagery of planting and harvest it implies a person can have a rough idea of when God’s restoration will occur.  In my experience – and certainly in our current situation – often the end is not in sight.  Patience and hope must go hand in hand.

Last Monday the Presiding Bishop shared a poem by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin on a Zoom call with the House of Bishops.  On Tuesday our bishop shared it with the diocesan staff.  On a Wednesday Zoom with clergy, Canon Roy shared it with us.  I suspect I am not the only priest citing it in a sermon today.  The poem is titled “Patient Trust”, and you can find it on page 6 of your bulletin:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything

to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way

to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress

that it is made by passing through

some stages of instability—

and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;

your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,

let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,

as though you could be today what time

(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)

will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit

gradually forming within you will be.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing

that his hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.

I have a hope something new is happening in me through the changes of the last year.  I don’t know what it is, it will only reveal itself completely when we are able to reenter the world the way we used to, but discover it and we are different.  And I have a hope something new is happening at St. Paul’s as well.  Again, it will not be evident until we are able to regather as God’s people in this place.  This is a time when we pray, as the psalmist did so long ago, “Restore our fortunes” and this is a time when we open ourselves to the work John the Baptist calls us to do: “Make straight the way of the Lord.”