2020, the most apocalyptic of years, is finally winding down. This means that we are starting a new liturgical year, which always begins with – wait for it – apocalyptic biblical texts. In the beginning of the liturgical year, we are invited to start all over again, waiting for God, watching for the presence of God – even in the apocalypse, especially in an Advent apocalypse.
anticipating | incarnating. As Michelle wrote to families this week, advent gives us a chance to explore what it means to wait for God’s presence and love – while at the same time embodying God’s presence and love in our living and actions, here and now. Anticipating | Incarnating.
But are we anticipating and incarnating – apocalypse? Apocalyptic situations are usually happening somewhere in the world but this year the pandemic makes it feel like apocalypse is everywhere in the world. Do the texts from Isaiah and Mark help? Isaiah and Mark describe the difficult and terrifying times when we are so desperate for God to show up that we are not even all that worried how it happens. We just hope and pray that somehow God will be there. Anticipating. We want to see and feel God’s presence. We want to know we are not alone. Go ahead God, tear open the skies, come with fire, make the mountains shake. It can’t be any worse than what is already happening. Just show up God, please show up.
Hollywood uses the word apocalypse to mean “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days.” The biblical meaning goes further, is more expansive. Apocalypse is about revealing. When we see the difficult, scary, horrifying things happening, we are invited to pull back the initial layer and see what else might be revealed. Next-level Jesus followers attempt to see what might be revealed in the scary and horrifying – even when it is happening to them.
So let’s try it. What is being revealed? The apocalypse of illness and death from the Covid-19 pandemic overwhelms communities around the globe. The viral pandemic reveals anew the centuries long pandemic of racism in this country. The response to the viral pandemic reveals the racist practices and policies of the president and this administration. In the last few weeks it has also been revealed that millions and millions of people in this country heartily support these racist practices and policies. The dual pandemics of covid and racism further reveal the engrained systemic injustices of the healthcare system, policing, and education in this country. The sky has been rent, the mountains are shaking. Our eyes are opened even as we weep in grief and terror.
Of course, not everyone understands this apocalyptic revelation in the same way. Some may not even see this as an apocalyptic moment. The writer of Mark’s gospel describes those who are led astray, who follow blindly after the person who says, “I am the One.” To realize that almost half the population of this country isn’t interested in truth or science or public health, this is a whole other kind of quaking, a very deep rending. How do we, who are looking for the ways that Holy Hope can break into tragedy, how do we respond to this kind of “reveal?”
Many of us who are white live comfortable lives; we are probably not as affected by the dual pandemics as those of us who are Black and Brown. If we find ourselves uncomfortably comfortable these days, and we want to truly live into anticipating | incarnating, we will probably need to take our cues from those who know what it means to struggle. We will need to look for and learn from those who extend themselves emotionally, spiritually, financially, physically even in terrifying times. Taking the risk to go beyond what is comfortable, or even seems possible, is when Holy Hope can be found.
And Holy Hope can show up in unlikely places, at unlikely times, if we are alert. It might not show up in places where people are on their best behavior. Holy Hope might not be in church though church is a good place to practice for “real life,” to practice for where Holy Hope is really needed. We can practice in church, with people we love, so we might be better prepared to try incarnating Holy Hope with people we don’t even know.
It takes more courage than I have most days but we who follow in the Jesus way keep looking; we keep watching for those places, as it is says in Mark, where preparations are being made. We look for the places where people care enough about each other and the community to keep moving forward with Holy Hope even in uncertainty. This is why I am so grateful we are supporting Life After Release this advent and Christmas season. LAR shows love and care in the midst of very difficult situations. LAR cares for families who have been torn apart – and creatively challenges the broken criminal legal system that causes the disruption in the first place. Holy Hope indeed.
It is paradoxical that in a time when we are not able to gather in person we are being called to the practice of incarnating, of being in the flesh. Perhaps this is part of the apocalyptic reveal. What looks like calamity is actually opportunity. In our own homes and neighborhoods, we can look for new ways of anticipating | incarnating.
If anticipating and incarnating is too abstract, let’s get back to basics, let’s ground ourselves in what we know.
Love God with all our heart (beat, beat) and soul (deep breath) and strength (muscle – huh.)
Love your neighbor as yourself. Michelle gave us a way to remember that commandment.
The song Michelle sang for children’s time today is a great way to start loving our neighbor. It is not always easy to “see the love of God in you.” (sing) It doesn’t always “come shining through.” But the more we practice, the more we can sing this with some actual belief that it is true: the person in front of us is made in the image of God, the love of God is in them. That is what happened to me when one of my children taught me the song. I was not feeling very loving but I was transformed, the relationship was transformed, when I remembered to see the love of God in my rambunctious child. After that revelation, I even tried singing this song with some grown ups, who, let’s face it, are much harder to love. One of them later told me he was teaching the song to other grown-ups, across the country.
But what about those of you who are alone in your homes, with only Zoom friends to sing to. That might mean looking at incarnation from the other end of that commandment – love your neighbor as yourself. Loving ourselves, finding God in ourselves. The African American poet and playwright, Ntozake Shange, knew what it was to feel utterly alone, to experience intense racism, when as a child she walked into her all-white school in St Louis. She later wrote these words and someone set them to music – “I found God in myself, and I loved her fiercely, I loved her fiercely. I found God in myself.” (sing)
If, when, we find God in ourselves, it becomes easier to see God in other people, even in those who have a lot of layers covering over that Holiness.
And – In an apocalyptic year, we might be expected to ask is it really as the Quakers say, “there is that of God in everyone?” Even in the people who seem to delight in creating havoc and violence? even in my neighbor Paraclete, who lives in a perpetually confused mental state? It is one thing to be mad at my kid and have a hard time seeing God but how can I find Holy Hope in someone who comes onto my porch all hours of the day – and night?
Isn’t this how God shows up though? Unanticipated, incarnating in bodies we don’t expect or recognize or appreciate? By now, a baby born in a barn seems an easy place for God to appear, compared to some other places, some other bodies. This incarnation theology is very difficult. But it is at the heart of what it means to be a Jesus follower. We believe, or at least try to practice, that God is present in the world, even in humanity.
It doesn’t look like apocalyptic times are going anywhere soon. So we get to keep peeling away the layers of apocalyptic difficulty to find the obscured Holy Hope. Let’s keep practicing anticipating| incarnating, where we are.
heart beat, breath, muscle
I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely – (sing)
I see the love of God in you
the light of Christ come shining through
and I am blessed to be with you
O Holy Child of God – (sing with motions)
Anticipating | Incarnating – Together