The Rev. Peg Chemberlin: “The Advent Antidote: When Good Work becomes Toxic”
I bring you greetings on behalf of the more than 800,000 Christians represented by the Minnesota Council of Churches. Bishop Chane and Dean Baxter, may I take this opportunity to thank you and the entire community of the Washington National Cathedral for the witness and service you offer to our nation. Bishop Jelinek and Rev. Wilson, I am so very grateful to call you my colleagues and my friends. To the entire diocese of Minnesota I offer thanksgiving for the faithful witness you provide in your ministry and in your partnership with the Minnesota Council of Churches. And to all Minnesotans: greetings from the homeland. As a Moravian I greet you on behalf of the presidents of the Moravian Church in America. I know Dr. Wickmann and Dr. Sawyer join me in the hope of deepening the relationship between our denominations.
Do you have one of those manger scenes under your tree; with the little figures? Today’s Gospel reading features one of the cast of the Christmas story who doesn’t usually show up in the nativity scene. In fact, John the Baptist will not show up for thirty some years. His story starts early in the Gospel of Luke, when the angel, Gabriel visits his father. And his first action is to jump for joy in his mother’s womb as Mary greets her. But his ministry is years in the making. So why do three out of the four gospels start with these words about John?
John is a link between the old and the new. He shows that the prophecies of Isaiah are coming into fulfillment. Luke uses Mary to play that role. She, like John, portrays hope for the fulfillment of what has been promised. Sandwiched between the Annunciation and the Magnificat is a little story of Mary visiting Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. And in that story is this phrase, which captures the full meaning of Advent: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary has been a very hard image to get behind. Now, I’m not saying the image of John the Baptist is an easy one but we seem to more readily identify with somebody crying in the wilderness than we do with a ‘Virgin Mother’. Well, it’s a tough model to emulate. Certainly part of the problem lies in the Church having identified Mary so much with her biology and not enough with her theology. Elizabeth helps us to see Mary, not as biological tool, but as theological agent. When she proclaims, “ Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” This statement, is a primary declaration of the source of Mary’s blessedness.
This affirmation, of blessedness in theology rather than biology, is echoed later from Jesus’ own lips. “A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ But [Jesus] said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’” (Luke 11:27-28). Again in Luke (Luke 8:19-21) when Jesus is told that his mother and brothers want to speak with him, Jesus says, that his family is constituted by those who hear the word of God and do it. It is this hearing and believing and doing the word of God that constitutes blessedness. An ecumenical panel of scholars agrees that: “For Mary, hearing the word of God and accepting it means that she meets the criterion of the eschatological family…. she is the first Christian disciple. Blessed, happy… is the one… who believes that there will be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her or him by the Lord.
Some years back I said that I was going to write a book called “When Good Work becomes Toxic.” I haven’t written it yet I’ve been too busy… doing good work. It’s the time of year for many in the church when good work can become toxic. It’s good work, but sometimes it just runs us ragged. “But it’s such good work.” This time of year we tend to feel, if not overwhelmed, at least whelmed. “But it’s such good work.” I’m guessing that this tendency is not isolated to church workers alone. Moms, dads, teachers, students, principles, health workers, legal advocates, elected officials, writers, publishers, counselors, builders, trades persons, civic leaders, public servants — all sometimes suffer from the phenomenon of good work which has become toxic.
Into such a moment come Mary and John and Advent, inviting us, in the midst of all that good work, to learn to wait for its fulfillment. We wait and wonder as Mary did. Not a bad antidote to toxicity, waiting. Waiting and asking ourselves, “Do we really believe, as Mary does, that God’s hand is in our good work and that our work is in God’s hand?” Two questions really, first: Do we believe that it is God’s work that we are doing? Mary’s hymn, the Magnificat gives us a glimpse of the work of God’s preferred future. Mary says, “The mighty one has done great things…he has shown strength in his arm…he has scattered the proud… he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly…he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” How does our work measure up?
Last week I was at a wedding of a good friend who is about to retire. It’s not often that those two life changes come in the same year. One of the speakers said, “Your marriage is a witness that in God’s time it is never too late. It’s never too late to chose love. It’s never too late to forgive oneself of past failures. It’s never too late to offer that forgiveness to others. It’s never too late to share your love with your family and community. It’s never too late to love mercy and show kindness. It’s never too late to seek justice. It’s never too late to work for peace. It’s never too late to oppose war.
The last time I was in DC I was with Bishop Jelinek. We were part of a delegation to Capitol Hill to raise concerns about the immorality of the war plans against Iraq. We arrived late the evening of Oct. 10th. At 2 AM on October 11th the Senate passed the resolution giving the president authority to wage a unilateral, first strike against Iraq. I awoke disheartened and wondered what the bishops would say when we all met in the lobby. Each of them was ready to continue the work. “This struggle isn’t over, we’re in it for the long haul.” It’s never too late, when one is pursuing God’s peace. It’s never too late to feed the hungry. It’s never too late to see that all families have a place for the night. It’s never too late to teach the children well. And, I would add, it’s never too early.
It’s never too late or too early to join God as co-creator of a world of justice and peace. This Advent season gives us each an opportunity to evaluate our work in light of the measuring stick of the Magnificat and to make some mid-course corrections if needed, because it’s never too late or too early.
Later at the wedding reception a group of strangers gathered. We introduced ourselves – we were from Minneapolis, St. Paul, Seattle and Atlanta and we are all involved with the good work of combating homelessness. As we talked it began to feel like it was too late. In Minneapolis and St. Paul homelessness has climbed to 7,000 men, women and children on any given night, in Seattle they expect to top 8,000 this year, in Atlanta 12,000.
Hubert Humphrey as said that a society will be judged by the way it treats those in the dawn of life, the dusk of life and the shadows of life. How are we doing? I think we’re in deep need of a mid-course correction. As a country we will continue to be racked with fear and suspicion, needing to be defensive, until we align ourselves with the work of peace and justice. As long as we are an island of affluence in a sea of poverty, as long as we try to bully the world with our military might; there will be little room for confidence, joy, patience, and hope. In this season we will hear the word of God calling to us to join the work of His preferred future. “Happy are those who hear God’s word and do it.”
In our little gathering, in the midst of the dark news of increasing homelessness, Seattle asked, “Where is your hope?” Atlanta responded joyfully: “ I have no alternative. Quitting is not an option.” When one has caught sight of God’s preferred future of justice and peace there is no greater joy than to join that work.
We in Minnesota, and indeed the nation, lost a hero this fall. And the despair and loss was only heightened by the turmoil around the Wellstone Memorial event. We asked the wrong question. We asked, “Can this election still be won?” But this question was too small for such a life. The question we needed to ask is, “Can we find hope in such a life, cut short, yet lived committed to a future of justice and peace?” Paul could see that future and was so committed to it, he was continually happy in that work, and for him it was never, ever too late.
But I fear that many of us have decided that it is too late. Minnesota poet Robert By has asked: Tell me why it is we don’t lift our voices these days And cry over what is happening. Have you noticed? The plans are made for Iraq and the ice cap is melting?
We will have to call especially loud to reach Our angels, who are hard of hearing; they are hiding In the jugs of silence filled during our wars.
Some masters say our life lasts only seven days. Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet? Hurry, cry now! Soon Sunday night will come.
One of the reasons we don’t cry out is that we’re convinced no one will answer. Mary knew differently, John knew differently, Paul knew differently. And that leads us to our second Advent question. After we have asked, “Do we really believe that it is God’s work that we am doing?” After we have made our mid-course corrections. Then we must ask, “And do we believe that we are not God?”
Advent requires that we face our own limited capacity to do all this good work and choose through that limit into the life of God’s activity in us. It does not mean doing the whole thing—now listen carefully —it does mean doing the whole thing by yourself. In fact, compulsive, rigid, fanatical do-gooding leads us finally away from Advent, away from hopeful waiting and into despair.
Such actions are based on assumptions that if I just work long enough and hard enough, I can make it all happen. If one persists in living into such assumptions that I have to do everything around here because nobody else can do it as well as I can, or nobody else cares enough. If I bully myself and others to do what I think is right, I will eventually become disillusioned because such assumptions are illusions.
True trust in the fulfillment of God’s promises requires a certain relinquishment of our work, a relinquishment that opens us to continued relationship with the Holy Spirit. And without that relationship we become narcissistic, arrogant, and eventually despondent. We are not God, our piece is a small piece by eternal standards but significant by those same standards. We must learn to trust that God is working in other people and other places, indeed, in the whole universe and in a sense of time we cannot understand.
A national leader in my denomination spoke quite candidly with me a number of years ago, on the eve of his retirement. He talked about the urgent sense of call he had experienced early in his ministry. He had been challenged and encouraged by what God had asked him to do, not unlike Mary. As we talked he also spoke about the disappointments that followed. And there, contemplating his life’s work he told me one of his favorite Christmas memories. “When my kids were really little, one Christmas, after all the presents had been opened and the wrapping paper was strewn across the floor, my little two year old finally figured out what was going on, he went over and picked up a piece of wrapping paper, walked over to his mother and with great affection handed it to her. She said it was the best Christmas present she had ever gotten.”
That’s what Advent means, trusting that our efforts, as insignificant as they may feel sometimes, when brought with hope will be received with tenderness by the God of the universe and used to fulfill God’s purposes. We all know, at some deep level, that our lives and our work are, at times, little more than crumpled pieces of torn paper alongside the enormity of our tasks and the needs of the world. But, Advent calls us to see with the trusting eyes of this child.
Mary saw with those eyes. She knew what this child knew, that her gift, her efforts, her willingness surrendered in her vulnerability, would be received with grace, redeemed by God for the fulfillment of God’s purposes. Because of her surrender and trust in God’s redeeming grace she could live in the waiting time with joy and hope and courage, believing that the fullness of God’s promise would come to pass. That same option is offered to us. Our vulnerability and longing lead us to confront the possibility of trusting in God’s promise. In our surrender and trust in God’s redeeming grace we can live now in joy and hope and courage believing that the fullness of God’s preferred future will come to pass. </P