In the name of the living and true God, the God of judgment. Amen.
Advent is the annual wake-up call of judgment and hope. And if we pay attention, introduces into our hearts and minds issues of crisis and possibility. “Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the stranger. Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions,” said the poet T.S. Eliot. Be prepared to be probed. Be prepared to be questioned.
And about what? Well, about yourself. About yourself and the story you’ve been telling yourself about yourself. How far is the story you’ve been telling yourself about yourself a lie? How far does it enslave and imprison you, because the good news of advent is that it is about liberation, and liberation for everyone, liberation for the weakest and most vulnerable.
And the strangeness is that our interpretation, our understanding of liberty, is centered on the arresting imagine of a mother with a baby. It is embarrassing, and it is shocking. And how you respond to that image and that story will tell you something about yourself and the story you believe to be truth about the world and your place in it.
So, your own freedom will depend on the story you’ve been telling yourself about yourself. And what happens when the story stops or becomes too painful? What happens? Well, we become depressed and violent. And so the story is up for grabs. The story of what it means to be human, to be an American, to be you, all these stories are capable of revision, editing and even rejection.
So Advent asks the disturbing question, what is the truth about you? And what would it be like if someone else told your story about you? For what you think is the truth depends in some measure on what you believe. For what we believe about what it is to be human makes a difference with regards to the way we arrange the facts of life and turn these facts into a story. Therefore, what kind of picture does justice to human experience, and what do you make of the woman with the baby? And if you look at the picture of the woman with a baby, how then should you be in the world? How should you behave?
In the story of Jesse that we heard in Isaiah, we learned that God works through particulars: David to Jesus, to bring into being a peaceable kingdom. And we read a little child shall lead them. We learn then that God acts through particular people, a whole line from Jesse, who was the father of King David to Jesus. And then today, we are given this important clue: Whatever our shared future we are told that a little child shall lead us.
And the secret lies in our attitude to the child, and embracing true hope requires a change of heart, and it’s called repentance.
Which brings me, sadly, to the story this country is telling itself about itself. Now, I’m going to promise you this is not going to be an outsider doing another sermon on Washington. I’m sure you are as sick as we are on the West Coast. There is nothing that ever goes on like that in San Francisco! What kind of story is faithful to the facts about the president and the rest of the sorry cast here in Washington?
But, to relieve your mind, let me take another example. A. N. Wilson, the English writer and novelist, in a very bad mood writing about two books on the life on Diana, Princess of Wales, got very irritated and said this, “Is the following true about Diane, Princess of Wales? She was a young woman who did very little except go shopping, fornicate and vomit.” Are these mere facts? She did all three. But does that sum up the mystery of that human being? Without making a cult of her life and death, can Diana’s story be so reduced? Into which story might her shopping, fornicating and vomit fit?
And what about you and me? What three words would best sum you up? Your own freedom will depend on the story you’ve been telling yourself about yourself. And then what happens when the story stops or becomes too painful? Or when someone else gets hold of the facts, selects a few facts, and presumes to take possession of your story?
And with regard to our national politics, and the life and death of the princess, and we might add, the arrest of an aging dictator from Chile, the story of the Fall comes to mind. And frankly, if you’re a Christian, you don’t go around saying “Oh, human beings are sinners. Oh, my God I didn’t know that. What a surprise!”
The task of Advent is retelling the story into which the facts fit. Make no mistake. We are committed to truth-telling. But truth telling involves locating the story in which the facts fit. Judas betrayed Christ. That’s a fact. But into which story does it fit?
Perhaps you, in 1953 or in 1978 or 1996 did something you regret. Something despicable, and that’s a fact. But where and how does it fit into the story of your life? Because facts only make sense in the context of a story, and we only make sense in the context of a covenant. So getting the facts straight is not enough to find the story into which they belong. In fact, getting the facts straight is a very different activity from that of finding a story that can be faithful to the facts. And that’s why we tell stories. That’s why we break bread. The gospel is the story into which the facts of your life, no matter how despicable, no matter how sad, no matter how regretted, are put in the context of hope.
In David Edgar’s play, “Pentecost,” refugees and hostages tell each other stories in the depths of the night. And the refugees have captured these poor hostages, and one of the refugees protests that it will be much harder now to kill the hostages if it becomes necessary. Story-telling binds people together. And this is it’s magic. It not only crosses barriers. It brakes them down, and with their stories and myths, these refugees and hostages discover that they have more in common than they thought. In spite of the fact that they all speak different languages, in spite that they live in a world driven by war and fragmented by fiercely guarded borders. It’s hope is there is but one human heart. And to know that in Africa, to know that in Ireland, to know it here, is to begin to bind up the wounds of the human family. There is but one human story, one human heart. And we need, from time to time, to allow the web we have spun holding our life together, to lose its charm, so that it can become open to revision. And it means beginning again with the mother and the baby. Something so basic, not in a sentimental way, but in the form of a disturbing encounter.
To get things in perspective, let me tell you about a little girl, Anna. Anna is the daughter of Chris and Jackie Aarons, in Cape Town. Anna has Downs Syndrome. And they live together in Cape Town where Chris is a priest. And he was asked in a TV interview, “Do you think Anna knows God?” And he said, “If you mean the concept of God in a cerebral way, I’m sure the answer is no. She doesn’t know God like that. But Anna has an enormous capacity for loving, affection, fun. And in all that, she is knowing God, because that is what God is. A source of joy manifested in mutual giving and receiving, in love, in personal relationships that bubble into happiness. In this way Anna knows a lot about God, far more than many theologians.”
God is at the heart of all our joy. Whether we recognize him or not, God’s hidden footprints are everywhere. And we say, “and a little child shall lead us.”
Look at the saving images of our story, and in those savings images begin to question and probe and revise the story you’ve been telling yourself about yourself. Particularly the image about the mother with the baby. Forget for a moment that it’s Mary and the Christ child. Just a woman with a baby. And in the light of that image, how should we behave? How are we to be with each other? How are we to tell the story of the human family?
And then place that against the lying myths of our times. The seductive fairy tales of modern culture, might is right, the battle of naked power, the fairy story of affluence and influence, and the two spiritual results of our times, despair and violence. And the biggest seduction, the biggest lie of all, the fantasy that nothing matters. Advent challenges our nihilism with new vision. Nihilism says there is no story, nothing really matters. There is nothing and therefore everything is permitted, a pernicious nonsense that permits every cruelty and abomination because nothing matters literally, a damn.
It’s what the poet Czeslaw Milosz calls the discrete charm of nihilism. He said, “Religion used to be the opium of the people. To those suffering humiliation, pain, illness, and serfdom, religion promised the reward of an after life. But now, we are witnessing a transformation, a true opium of the people is the belief in nothingness after death, the huge solace, the huge comfort of thinking that for our betrayals, our greed, our cowardice, our murders, we are not going to be judged.
Well, the explosive truth of Advent is that you and I will be judged. Our deeds are imperishable, and we are in the hands of God. What then is the story that will do justice to all the facts so that we may live in true hope? Hope is impossible unless we sincerely acknowledge what we are, what we ought to be, and what we are called to make of ourselves. We have the opportunity, if you will, to come clean. To have the courage to face up to our real condition. We are sinners. That is, we pursue nothing. We embrace nothing. We don’t see the person next to us as our neighbor on the same journey, and the story stops, and becomes painful, and we turn nasty. We become violent. We become mean. And here is the opportunity again to retell the story, to bind up these wounds when we look at the mother and the baby, when we break the bread together. And a little child shall lead us. Look at the mother and her child.
The two Advent cures to our nihilism and our recovering the love story at the heart of things, repentance and truth telling. John the Baptist proclaims, wake up, come to your senses. The story you’ve been telling yourselves is a lie. Repent. Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Be free.
And it’s hard. It’s hard because of God’s generosity. That’s what really irritates us. It is very irritating that God loves everybody. It is, what I used to tell my students, coming face to face with God’s lack of taste. Including everybody. God made of one blood all the peoples of the earth. That’s the story. As Cornell West puts it, the quest for truth, the quest for the good, the quest for the beautiful presupposes allowing suffering to speak, allowing victims to be visible, and allowing social misery to be put on the agenda of those with power. Why are we more outraged by sex than by poverty? Why are we more outraged by sex than by torture? What kind of story about the human condition does that presuppose? And I pray this year we might listen to the Christmas stories with their mixture of myth and history with new ears. As one of the greatest story tellers of this century tells us, J.R. Tolken, the author of The Hobbit, the realm of fairy story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things, all manner of beasts and birds are found there, shoreless seas and stars uncounted, beauty that is an enchantment and an ever present peril, both joy and sorrow are sharp as swords. In that realm we may count ourselves fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tied the tongue of the traveler who would report them. And while it is dangerous for us to ask too many questions lest the gates be shut and the keys lost, yet we go on.
I ask you, when you think of the story you’ve been telling yourself about yourself. When was your life last filled with strangeness and wonder, including enchantment and peril, adventure and possibility, with joy and sorrow as sharp as swords? We like to play it safe. And when we play it safe, we tend to play a deadly game. That’s why so many of us are only half alive, running on 2 percent of what we’re called to be and calling it maturity. Yet, there’s a richness and strangeness available to us if we would dare to enter into the fullness of life’s gift and mystery. That’s the story we tell here in this great cathedral church.
Look, look at the saving images of our story, particularly the image of the story of the mother and the baby. And in the light of that image, how should you behave? How should you be tender toward yourself? When did you last practice some self compassion? For without some self-compassion, you go around doing harm because the violence has to go somewhere, either inward or outward. How are we to be with one another? What does it tell you about yourself and the story you’ve been telling yourself about yourself?
This story about the mother and the baby begins and ends in joy. I believe it has the preeminently the inner consistency of reality, for the art of it, the supremely convincing tone of it is primary art, that is, creation itself. Something so basic. And to reject it, leads either to sadness or to anger, to despair or to violence. And we see the consequences. We see it in our children, the children of the world, we see the consequences of rejecting the mother and the child.
So, for God’s sake, let’s come back to the story that tells you who you really are. It will bring you home. It will bring you home. It will heal the world. And that’s the truth.