Sermon from December 1, 2019, First Sunday of Advent

The Advent Path of Active Hope
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
December 1, 2019
First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 60:2; Matthew 24:36-44

Early Christians envisioned a coming age on earth when Christ’s work would be fulfilled, when the realm of God would become the dominant culture of human civilization—the way of love, compassion, justice and peace that Jesus taught.  Jesus called it the coming of the Son of Man, which we can think of as the coming of a humanity fully evolved, finally as wise and virtuous as God created us to be—a human culture with the heart and mind of Christ.

Today we heard two prophecies about that time.  The prophet Isaiah said, “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”

Darkness here represents hard times on earth when people have become lost, creating suffering and despair.  We can count on there being darkness to pass through, and we can count on the light of God rising to guide and empower us to establish a beautiful and sacred way for humanity to live.

The second prophecy is much more difficult.  Jesus has been lamenting how lost the people have become, how astray their leaders have led them, and how much he longs to take them under his wings and comfort and teach them, but they will not listen.  He has spoken of a great suffering that will come as a result.

Many fundamentalist Christians read this and spin out predictions of how and when the end times will unfold.

Jesus speaks directly against such speculation.  No one knows when or how the upheaval on earth will play out; nor do those details matter.  All that matters to Jesus is that we keep working to establish God’s realm on earth here and now, whatever the conditions around us.  What matters is that we are awake, we are “woke,” and are fulfilling the mission of turning the world in the direction of Christ’s love, compassion, justice and peace.

The book Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone talks about two kinds of hope.  The first is hopefulness, a conditional optimism that fades away in the face of impossible odds.  The second kind of hope is a desire for an outcome we long to see happen, a desire so strong that we become “participants in bringing about what we hope for.”  This is exactly what Jesus is telling us to do.  He is calling us to take an Advent path of active hope through the darkness to help bring about the light.

Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone write, “Active Hope is a practice…we can apply to any situation [personal or global], and it involves three key steps.  First, we take a clear view of reality; second, we identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we’d like things to move in or the values we’d like to see expressed; and third, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction.  Since Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless.  The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express….

“Since we each…bring with us our own particular portfolio of interests, skills and experiences, we are touched by different concerns and called to respond in different ways.  The contribution each of us makes to the healing of our world is our gift of Active Hope.  The purpose of this book is to strengthen our ability to give the best gift we can: our finest response to the multifaceted crisis of sustainability.”

Jesus knew that it makes all the difference what story about reality we choose to live in and from and for, and he was very clear that the dominant story of the culture of his day was not God’s story and was causing terrible suffering.  The book Active Hope identifies three main stories that describe reality right now.

One is Business As Usual.  This story says human civilization is on the right path in its pursuit of economic growth and ever-increasing consumption, and if we keep going as we are, living as we are, everything will work out just fine.  Business As Usual is the story that Jesus says people were living before Noah and the flood.

Today the Business As Usual story is leading to the cataclysmic floods of the second story, called “The Great Unraveling.”  This is the story that science tells us is happening to our earth, combined with a host of social problems that are worsening as the environmental crisis deepens.  It’s a horror story that can lead to paralyzing despair.

Macy and Johnstone write, “The third story is held and embodied by those who know the first story is leading us to catastrophe and who refuse to let the second story have the last word.”  The third story involves “the emergence of new and creative human responses” that are bringing about a “transition from an industrial society committed to economic growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the healing and recovery of our world.  We call this story the Great Turning.  The central plot is finding and offering our gift of Active Hope.”

They compare The Great Turning to the Industrial Revolution, where every aspect of society changed very quickly in ways that were unimaginable before they happened.  Author Paul Hawken calls our current great turning “the largest social movement in history.”  In his book Blessed Unrest, he estimates there are between one and two million organizations working today for ecological sustainability and social justice.

The Great Turning is what Jesus would call the coming of the realm of God on earth.  It is the revolution that he lived and died for: humanity finally following the ethic promoted by every spiritual tradition—universal oneness, love of neighbor, the Golden Rule, compassion for the vulnerable and oppressed including all creatures and all creation.  It is the light Isaiah prophesied would rise through the darkness.

Most of us live in and from all three of these stories at different times, Business As Usual, The Great Unraveling and The Great Turning, maybe all three in a single day.

Jesus asks us to choose to live in, from and for the story of establishing the realm of God on earth and give it our all.  He said, “Blessed is the servant who is hard at work when the master arrives.”  The Advent path of Active Hope is designed to free us from whatever keeps us stuck in the denial of Business As Usual or the despair of The Great Unraveling so that we may choose to fulfill our calling and serve The Great Turning.

Jesus calls everyone to participate.  Paul says the Spirit gives us each our role in the body of Christ.  The book Active Hope offers very specific directions for how to find the way that is right for us to be the servant who is hard at work when the turning comes.  I will talk about those steps next week, but don’t wait for me.  I urge you to get the book and read it now.

Our hope rests in the Spirit working through every one of us to fulfill the hope our spiritual tradition holds out.  Hope in that hope, yearn for it, live for it, die still working for it.  Hope in the light rising in us and Christ being born in us, transforming us so that we may go forth to transform the world.  Let us pray for that in silence, with wordless yearning…

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