Occupy Advent

Sermon for Sunday, December 11, 2011 ||  Advent 3B || Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; I Thessalonians 5: 6-14; John 1: 6-8, 19-28

The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

The prophet Isaiah, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.  It’s a remarkably star-studded cast of characters we hear from this morning, each of whom plays a pivotal part in preparing the way for Christ’s coming…and each of whom, believe it or not, would be perfectly at home in what we’ve come to know as the “Occupy Movement.”

The tents of Occupy Boston and the other encampments may be gone now—for better or for worse depending on your perspective—but the problems to which they drew attention are most certainly still with us.  And the Movement has one thing absolutely right: “You can’t evict an idea.”

This morning, in the kind of “holy coincidence” that surely makes the angels laugh, we hear the words of Isaiah, Mary, and John— and the One for whom they prepared the way.  Their words are echoing in churches all over the world right now… words of sacred scripture that indisputably and undeniably cry out against political systems favoring the few at the expense of the many, the haves at the expense of the have-nots.

Whatever happens to the Occupy Movement and its calls for economic and political reform, the Biblical witness, at least, will not be silenced.  Because the Biblical witness will never be silenced. So with Christians all over the world this morning, we too are invited to listen to these words of Isaiah, Mary and John.

We hear first from the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming the very same words with which Christ himself will choose to inaugurate his ministry of justice and reconciliation six hundred years later.  Remember in Luke’s gospel, after doing spiritual battle in the wilderness for 40 days and nights, Jesus goes into the synagogue in Nazareth.  He stands up to read and he’s handed a scroll.  These are the words Jesus reads, these words of Isaiah, leaving the crowd dumbfounded when he sits down:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.”

Today, while you and I are hearing those words nearly 50 million of our brothers and sisters in this country are held captive by poverty–more than 15% of them elderly.  Fourteen million of our brothers and sisters are imprisoned by unemployment, and most of them for so long now that they are no longer eligible for benefits.

 “For I, the Lord, love justice,” proclaims the prophet, “I hate robbery and wrongdoing.”

Then we listen to the words of Mary in the Magnificat—that extraordinary song of praise made even more remarkable by the radically prophetic voice of one typecast in times past as meek and mild…the strong voice of a courageous mother who will walk all the way to the cross with her son and stay with him there in his anguish.  The strong voice of a poor and powerless girl speaking truth to power:

He will show the strength of his arm, he will scatter the proud in their conceit. He will cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lift up the lowly. He will fill the hungry with good things, and the rich he will send away empty.

The Catholic weekly America calls the Magnifcat “a message of political renewal.”  The late-theologian John Yoder called it, “a revolutionary battle cry.”  No matter how you slice it, Mary’s are challenging words.

And today the Holy Spirit invites us to ponder these challenging words in our hearts, while knowing that more than 40 percent of the children living in Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan live in poverty.  Squalid poverty. Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “… for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

Finally, this morning, we hear the words of John– the John the other Gospels call “the Baptizer.”  John– who “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe…” John, who warned us just last week to repent—literally, to have a radical change of heart—because God’s Kingdom will come (and perhaps when we least expect it).  And John proclaims boldly:

 “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord!”

How do we hear these words from one testifying to the Light, when polls report that people are “deeply pessimistic about the future” and have “lost hope” in our economy and our political system?

In the 19th century, German pastor Christoph Blumhardt wrote about Advent that, “Either Christ’s coming has meaning for us now, or else it means nothing at all.”

If Advent or Christmas—indeed if our Christian faith itself—is to have any meaning for us at all, we must—like John, witness to the Light.  We must, like Isaiah and Mary, witness against systemic inequality and injustice and for the poor and the oppressed…against obscenely high corporate bonuses and for a decent wage; against special interests and super-PAC’s and for the American electorate, against illegal foreclosures and for beleaguered home-owners; against cuts in social programs and for increased taxes on the mega-wealthy. You and I must be beacons of light for those who are hungry, or homeless, or unemployed.  We must be witnesses of Christ’s love for the have-nots….and preparers of the way for Christ’s coming.

Anxiety haunts the land,” write the editors of America, “We sorely need the Light of the Nations to shine into our lives…  In an environment so hostile to the poor and working people, what can be done to lift up the lowly?” they ask. “How can we participate in Christ’s liberation of the oppressed?”

We are blessed at St Stephen’s that there are so many ways in which we can witness to Christ’s light and love and work to “lift up the lowly.”  From feeding the homeless at the Long Island Shelter and cooking for the hungry at the Quincy Crisis Center…to buying gift cards and food so 80 families right here in Cohasset can celebrate Christmas…presents for the families of prisoners…coats and clothes and school supplies for poor children in Boston…visiting Anthony and Robert in prison…helping those in need of utility or rental assistance…we do a lot.

But we can do more. We can advocate for systemic change–the kind of change that will make homeless shelters and food pantries obsolete.   We can join the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization in its work for social justice.  We can work with the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance to develop permanent solutions to homelessness. We can get involved with the folks at Public Campaign and their work for fair elections and campaign finance reform. We can be informed and engaged citizens who write, call or email our elected leaders and hold them accountable for policies and decisions that, in the words of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, “Do not quench the Spirit…do not despise the words of the prophets…but hold fast to what is good and abstain from every form of evil.”

Something is terribly wrong when the income of the top 20 percent of our population is more than the after tax income of the remaining 80 percent.

Something is terribly wrong when this country ranks alongside countries like Uganda, Cameroon, Equador and Rwanda in terms of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Something is terribly wrong when the top 1 percent of income earners in this country watched their income spike by 275 percent, while for the 60 percent in the middle it rose less than 40 percent (in the last 26 years).

You and I are the Isaiahs, Marys, and Johns of our day.  It’s up to us now to speak truth to power courageously; it’s up to us now to proclaim good news to the poor; it’s up to us now to testify to the Light and make straight the way of the Lord.   And by the grace of God, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word will be born in us with which to do it.

You know, the first generation of disciples died waiting expectantly for Christ’s return.  We don’t talk much in the mainstream church about the Second Advent– mostly, I suspect, for fear of sounding like dispensationalists awaiting the so-called “rapture.” Two thousand years may have made us complacent, but essentially nothing has changed: Christ has died, Christ has risen, and our promise and our proclamation is that Christ will come again.  We too, may die waiting, but you and I are Christ’s current generation of disciples.  We’re it.  And like Blumhardt said in the 19th century, “Either Christ’s coming has meaning for us now, or else it means nothing at all.”

My prayer for us at St. Stephen’s this Advent is that Christ’s coming has enough meaning for us now and always to Light the way for us, as we Light the way for others.  Because the words of Occupy Boston librarian John Ford might just as well have been said by Isaiah, or Mary, or John: “We are unstoppable.  Another world is possible!”  Amen.


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