Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hope in a cynical age

Sermon: Advent 2 (Year C)
December 6, 2009

Last Friday, David Brooks in the New York Times wrote about the difference between how Democrats felt during the presidential campaign and how they feel now. He said "Many Democrats are nostalgic for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign - for the passion, the clarity, the bliss-to-be-alive fervor. They argue that these things are missing in a cautious and emotionless White House."

Well, I don't know what Democrats Mr. Brooks has been talking to, but his remark got me thinking about hope and disillusionment; and about John the Baptist.

Some of us have experienced the ups and downs of hope and disillusionment more than once in our lives. In the 1960’s, baby boomers like me experienced an almost eschatological hope – a hope so strong and so widely shared that it seemed to be driving history and leading us to a kind of ultimate fulfillment – and then we all experienced deep disappointment when the ideals of that time didn’t materialize.

It’s no secret that I was a child of the sixties – and I literally mean “child.” In February, 1964, I was 7 years old and my life was permanently changed when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. From then on, my siblings and I spent hours strumming tennis rackets and listening to Beatles records.

The summer before I turned into an official teenager I saw a news report about Woodstock on the CBS Evening News and I thought that this really was the dawning of a New Age - that the entire world was about to break out into a giant festival of peace and love. It seemed that this force for goodness was so massive, so irresistible, that soon we would all be singing our way back to the Garden.

Four years later I was somewhere north of here, hitchhiking along a country road looking for a commune I had heard about. A guy with long hair – a hippy, I thought, and therefore completely trustworthy - stopped to give me a ride. I'll never forget my confusion when it turned out the guy was a complete jerk –ill tempered, cynical, and inclined toward not very nice criminal behavior.

How can this be, I thought. He's a hippy ... But he's mean! How is this possible? It took me a while to make sense of this: that anyone could grow his hair long.

Disillusionment. Whether it came in the form of Martin Luther King’s assassination, or Altamont, or just some trash-talking creep with long hair, disillusionment is as much a part of the 1960s experience as was the Age of Aquarius. And yet, we don’t talk as much about it. By the time 1980 rolled around and the former yippee Jerry Rubin was found working on Wall Street, the heady days of Woodstock seemed like a hopelessly naïve, and sadly distant, dream.

In our readings for this morning you might have noticed the Canticle which took the place of the psalm. This is the famous Canticle 16, the Song of Zechariah – John the Baptist’s father. And it is as exquisite an expression of Woodstock idealism that we will ever hear in the Bible.

Remember the context of this event. It has been 500 years since there last was a prophet in the land of Israel – 500 years since the spirit of God raised up a leader who could convincingly speak for God with words of power and truth. The land of Israel has been occupied for far longer than that – a nearly unbroken chain of disasters as army after army occupied the land - Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and now the Romans – who are just about breaking the back of the people.

But now, stories of a coming divine intervention are being told again – subversive stories, whispered at the risk of being arrested for sedition. As in days of old, the people are beginning to hope again. This Canticle, sung with glee by John the Baptist’s father Zechariah at the time of his birth - is a song of hope – an outpouring of hope after 500 years of despair:

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; He has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David…. This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, to set us free from the hands of our enemies, Free to worship him without fear…”

And with hope comes resistance against the Romans – mostly rag-tag groups of guerilla warriors who wage hit and run operations against the foreigners.
Most of these guerillas were religious zealots, inspired by the prophecies of old and ready to believe again that God would bring a new covenant to his people along with a Messiah to restore the fortunes of Zion by chasing out the oppressors. The guerilla warriors got their ideas from groups like the Essenes, those spiritual athletes who famously preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The core of the Essene community was based in remote parts of the desert, far from where the Romans could find them; they were the original desert monastics, spending their days in study and prayer and fasting and rituals, including a ritual with water that may have been where John the Baptist got his idea. They may not have been warriors themselves, but their preaching throughout the land of Judea certainly inspired the warriors, who were desperate for something to hope for; eager to believe in a Messiah who would overthrow the Empire.

Scholars believe it is highly possible that John the Baptist came out of these one of these communities.

We have an extremely rare, independent historical record of John the Baptist, written by the historian Josephus, who himself led an uprising in Gallilee. As a prisoner of the Romans he was an eyewitness to the final destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

According to Josephus, John the Baptist was extremely popular and successful as a preacher; so popular, in fact, that Herod worried he would lead an uprising. So Herod had John the Baptist arrested and killed.

Little did Herod know – that once that hope was unleashed, it could not be crushed so easily.

Hope is a dangerous thing. It can make us wildly naïve; it can inspire us to do stupid things; it can set people up for profound disappointment. And it can inspire a people to do things they never before thought was possible; it can change the course of history.

These days, it feels to me that hope is the most important thing in the world. And something of a rare commodity. It is so important for us to believe that we can meet all the challenges that confront us. Hope is so instrumental in our ability to turn the corner on all of our challenges: the economy, the environment, health care, you name it. And there are so many voices of fear and doom trying so hard to drag us down to a place of disillusionment and cynicism.

And for those of us who have been deeply disappointed by big hopes in the past, it is easy for us to give a little too much credence to the voices of fear and cynicism. But positive change never comes about from cynicism.

If it is true that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, it is also true that hope is our only hope. It need not be a naïve hope; there is such a thing as a realistic hope. Once we get in the practice of hoping, and in the practice of being disappointed, we can actually learn from our hoping, and we achieve what Reinhold Niebuhr would have called a realistic hope.

We are a religion of hope. For all of these centuries, we have been telling stories of hope. And when our hope is fixated on a very particular end, often times we’ll be disappointed. But hope is not about the particular thing we think we’re moving toward; no, hope is far deeper than that; hope is the very life of our soul; hope is this engine within us that is fed by a living God; hope gives us the capacity to stand up, look to the future, and address the challenges that are coming our way with a positive and fearless energy. That’s what hope is.

I would say that hope is the presence of the Holy Spirit within us; it is that which has, over the centuries, given our particular religion its momentum and force; and in this season of Advent it is a particularly compelling thing for us to focus on.

So during this season of Advent, I invite us into a deeper exploration of the sources of our hope; so that as life’s ultimate disappointments come our way, we have the strength and the courage to meet them head on, with joy and with trust.

Somebody say, AMEN.

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