Herbert O’Driscoll, beloved author, teacher and friend of this Cathedral tells this story. “As World War II was ending, my uncle was about to be discharged from the Royal Navy. He decided to enjoy an evening out and bought a ticket to see a play in London. It was the opening night of a new show. He was not quite sure what the show was about, but he heard that it was a musical, a musical from America.”
O’Driscoll’s uncle also didn’t really care what he was going to see. All he wanted to do was celebrate the fact that he had lived through the war and that he would soon be going home. The first thing he noticed when he entered the theatre was the brilliant light in the entryway. For six years, he and members of his generation had to get used to muted lighting and sometimes in the blackouts, no lighting whatsoever. Now at least in this warm and welcoming and crowded space, the world was suddenly bright again. Another thing he noticed was how alive and excited everyone was. And in surprise, he realized that their festive mood was affecting him and that he felt the same way. It seems that joy can be infectious. But nothing prepared him for what happened when the curtain went up. The stage blazed with light of a sunlit world stretching into infinite distances. The dancers and actors positively leapt onto the stage. The music was electrifying. The words of the opening song transformed every listener. “Oh what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day, I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way.” Well, we know what song that was and the musical, of course, is Oklahoma. It burst into the dark world of war torn Europe like a sudden blaze of sunshine and hope and possibility and joy.
Such joy is echoed in today’s first reading. Although the people are experiencing despair in a time of war, destruction, poverty, and dislocation, the prophet Zephaniah sounds a note of joyful encouragement. “Shout for joy, sing joyfully, be glad, and exult.” We ask, “How can this be?” The prophet proclaimed, “God is in your midst, rejoice.” In times of darkness it seems that God yearns to stir our hearts with a joyful song. We too are in a place of darkness and searching for light during these shortened days of winter. Darkness encroaches like a thief on our mornings and afternoons, on all our daily beginnings and endings. So we too need songs of joy and exultation as we so eagerly await the new light piercing through the dark. But it is not only the dark days that we fear. We are an anxious people. We labor in the shadow of economic disruption and teeter on the brink of ecological destruction. We suffer with the reality of multiple wars and struggle with the paradox that the increase of war is the just way to peace. We yearn to claim the promises of God sung by Zephaniah. “Do not fear, I will remove disaster from you. I am with you, I will bring you home, I will renew you in my love.” That is God’s promise, which is our prayer this day for our nation and for our world. It is a prayer of repentance.
John the Baptist calls us to repent. Now we often think of repentance as acts of sorrow, confession, and contrition, that interior soul searching often associated with Lent. But the repentance that John the Baptist speaks of is this and more. It’s a matter of looking squarely at an issue, rethinking it, and changing our intentions and thus, changing our actions. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” cries this harsh and edgy prophet. John’s repentance is about change. Advent tells us, as we hear from many, that God is serious about changing us from the inside out and turning our world right side up. Now such change does not necessarily come in one colossal life-changing event. Change can also be small, incremental, yet over time produce significant and life transforming results. Just as God came to us in the frail human flesh of a tiny baby and even now transfigures our world, seemingly small beginnings can have eternal implications when God is in our midst, because God has the power to stir us up and to change stones into people.
In South Africa it has been said that during the dark days of apartheid, people would light candles and place them in their windows as signs of faith that one day, over time, justice would prevail, light would break through the oppressive darkness. It was a small, but subversively, potent act that stirred results. The government banned the lighting of the candles. It became a crime, like carrying a weapon. The children would laugh, saying, “Our government is afraid of candles.” It was afraid and rightly so. Lit candles and the strength of faith more powerful than guns stirred the conscience of a nation. It stirred them to share hard truth and painful reconciliation. A seemingly small change over time ushered in life-altering transformation in our world. Even in the midst of the cruelest of struggles, there is joy in justice, and from repentance comes rejoicing.
It’s the essence of Advent, imagining a future we can’t yet see, waiting in expectancy. And on this third Sunday of Advent, we learn that it is also about a readiness for action. In Advent we learn that John’s message of repentance is about taking action. John’s advice to the many people who come to him in the desert to be baptized cry to him, “So what do we do?” John answers, “Whoever has two coats, must share. If you have food, share it. Collect no more than the amount proscribed to you. Do not extort money.” John gives us clear directions, actionable items, things that we can act right now and that have life-giving consequences. With John there is specific change. And by grace it can be accomplished through personal decision. What shall we do? This is not only the question that the crowds ask John; it is our question too. What must we do in our daily lives that would begin to turn our world right side up? And what change would that entail? The good news in John’s answer is that this fiery prophet surprisingly offers very simple advice, much like that that a parent offers a child. “Play nice, don’t fight, don’t hoard things but share your belongings, don’t take advantage of others, and don’t use your power or strength in a way that hurts others.” Simple lessons that our parents taught us and that parents have been teaching children for millennia, eternal lessons that also point to Jesus’ special love and concern for those who are poor and outcast and sometimes that concern is taught to us in unexpected ways.
Bread for the World, one of our partners in Global Food Justice has an advocate, Noel D’Amica, who tells this surprising story. “WINK News, in Southwest Florida, decided to do an undercover report on the conditions under which farm workers labor, the sub-poverty wages that they receive, and that the workers struggle to dialogue with their employers. A community-based workers group had publicly called for talks between the growers and the workers. A news reporter and a producer disguised themselves as workers and joined the crowd of farm workers waiting to negotiate a day’s labor and then to be taken in buses to the fields just before dawn. The reporters knew that the farm workers were earning well below the minimum wage: annually somewhere around $7,500, but the growers were reporting that the workers actually earned $16,000. The reporter’s plan was to go into the field, to pick tomatoes, look at what the average worker harvested, and then report on their earnings, while taping the experience. They did this, and their broadcast vindicated the farm workers’ claims, underscoring the need for the growers to negotiate with the workers. But at the close of the broadcast, the reporters explained that there was one more story to tell. The undercover reporters waited for the buses to take them to the fields that morning, when a farm worker approached them and asked them, “Do you have any money?” Fearing that the farm worker was panhandling, the newscaster said, “No, we don’t,” at which point the worker pulled out his wallet, which contained only three dollars. “Here,” he said, and with a brief nod, he handed three dollars to the newscasters and then he walked away.
Jesus cares about how we order our economy and how we care for those in need. This Cathedral participates in Street Church, here in downtown Washington, D.C., an effort that is headed by Epiphany Church. And at Street Church sandwiches are made for those who are hungry and in need and who live on the street. Fresh fruit is gathered, fragrant oranges, juicy apples, boxed juices, all kinds of provisions. And so we go to the park and we celebrate Eucharist and then we hand out food. This past Tuesday, as we were sharing the sermon, we talked about how we might recognize God in our midst. And one of the members of the street congregation shared this. She is a person who is hungry and struggling for provision. She said, “I give thanks to God this day for sacred food and sacred drink.” I thought she was going to talk about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What she told us was a reminder to us of God’s most extravagant gift of all, the gift of God’s self-giving in the love and life of his Son. And so there we stood with outstretched hands, waiting to receive that sacred food, waiting for our hands to be strengthened, to be God’s help in the world. A few minutes later after we had shared all kinds of food, I was struck by how much this church community cared for one another. One of its members reminded the group, saying, “This is the week of the annual coat donation, the coat drive. Be sure to come back this very weekend and you will have a nice warm coat to tide you over for the winter.” We were all renewed in God’s love.
We know from all the great spiritual leaders throughout our time and throughout history that any wholesome spirituality for a Christian must include a face-to-face encounter with those who are needy. It’s the same in all the great religious traditions in our world. St. Francis reminds us of the treasure of the poor and from whom we learn gratitude and generosity and trust in God’s goodness. Even as we strive with and for the poor on behalf of justice, it’s a relationship of reciprocal gifting. When we are rooted in the rich soil of Christ and in love of neighbors we become rooted in righteousness where silence grows into prayer, prayer into faith, faith into love, love into service, service into justice, and justice into peace, fruit worth bearing in every season.
John’s repentance is about the joy we receive in sharing and caring for our neighbor. There is joy in justice. It is a joy that stirs in us like an exuberant song. Advent teaches us to see light in darkness, water in drought, blossoms in the dry desert, and to become what we see as we enact God’s love in service of neighbor. When we see the good work that God is doing in our world and in others, we cannot help but rejoice. Our hearts are stirred and joy increases and so we sing, “Rejoice.” Where is God calling you to be a song of joy this Advent? Where is John the Baptist speaking in your life?