Advent 1 - Bud of Hope
Do you have a marker in your life from which everything changed? A Before and an After? One of the most common ones is ‘BC’ and ‘AD’—Before Children and After Delivery. Anyone who has witnessed someone go through the process of becoming a parent Knows that life before that event is nothing like life afterward.
Some changes are not as joyful, however,— Illness, divorce, death of a loved one; Tragedy and job loss. These too split life into a Before and an After leave their mark on us, change our lives in unforeseen ways. They represent the ending of our known world, and launch us into an uncharted course.
This place, the teetering edge of an uncertain future, is where we meet Mark, the writer of the earliest Gospel. In Mark’s day, Christians met in the only safe place they could find: The winding catacombs underground where they buried their dead. The world they knew was disintegrating: The Temple, God’s dwelling place, lay in ruins; their families had disowned them for joining the cult of Jesus Emperor Caligula was singling them out for imprisonment and punishment. The ‘Before’ of their expected life was gone, and the ‘After’ was looking pretty grim.
The Gospel reading for today picks up on the idea that it was the end of world for Mark’s community. It’s from a section called ‘the little apocalypse,’ and we get the tail end of it. Jesus speaks of the suffering of his followers, from betrayal to beatings and persecution. The end of the world didn’t stop with the hardships that Jesus’ followers faced. The chaos on earth is reflected in the heavens as the stars fall and the sun and moon no longer shine. Mark paints a picture of creation slowly coming undone and God’s people suffering great calamity. That is exactly what Mark’s own listeners were experiencing in their daily living As they navigated a world estranged from family and endangered by persecution.
I don’t know about you, but Mark’s stark words seem like they could apply to today. We too are living in a time when divisions are magnified and we wonder if the center will hold; Some feel democratic institutions are under attack; others believe identity politics, moral relativism, or weakness on the global stage are leading our nation into decline. Meanwhile the entire world lives in the shadow of both nuclear and ecological threat, Where the sun’s light could literally be blotted out. It makes you question, is the apocalypse now?
Into the midst of these dire descriptions, Mark injects these words of Jesus: “From the fig tree, learn its lesson: As soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” The ‘He’ that Mark was talking about was Jesus second coming, when he will return to usher in the final reign of justice and peace. In his Gospel, Mark wanted his people to hear Jesus’ message That their personal and communal catastrophes were not the end of the world But the beginning of a new one. Like the buds on a tree in spring, new life was right around the corner for Mark’s people. Their job was to keep watch, and nurture those buds when they saw them.
I want to be clear about something in this passage from Mark— It appears that Jesus is making predictions about something bad that will happen in the future. Mark is, however, writing this story of Jesus 50 years after Jesus’ death, And the things Jesus predicts have already come to pass. This apocalypse is not meant to be a scary prediction, for Mark’s community, or for us; It is rather to point out signs of hope and redirect our vision to the buds of new life already around us.
I had the opportunity to see a few buds of hope this past week. I went to meeting with Pastor Bill and two of our parishioners to explore The possibility of faith based community organizing in Greater Hartford. As we introduced ourselves and shared why we were present that evening, I realized that this was a roomful of hope. We talked of major issues like education, housing, and employment. , After this discussion of the world as it is, the organizers painted a picture of the world as it could be: A world when people of faith join together around common values rather than a common enemy. A world where suburban and city people build relationships across the divides of our society. A world where people of faith find solutions through careful listening and research, And launch into collective action.
The civil rights movement of the 1960’s was a national example of people of faith organizing to make a better, more just world. Now faith based community organizing takes on all kinds of local issues In my parent’s town, Columbus, OH, they worked to reduce the large number of suspensions in the public schools and to encourage employers to hire people getting out of prison. In Hartford, the North End community has been organizing to hold a negligent landlord accountable For the clean up of vermin and mold in the hundreds of properties he owns. In MA, people of faith have secured better training and working conditions for CNAs employed in nursing homes, which has improved the lives of the CNAs, as well as the care they give to older adults.
Listening to the news, it can be give up or get cynical but Jesus’ words today encourage me to look for the bud of hope amid the challenges. Mark’s community gathered in the catacombs to remember That in the face of adversity, they were not just one person yelling into the storm; They were a community of God, inheritors of Jesus’ power and glory. Together they could use that power of the community to make a better world.
We at St. Matthew have opportunities to use the power God has given us as a community To make a better world: serving others through our collections, cooking meals for Grace in Hartford, surrounding people with healing and love with prayer shawls— And perhaps someday also with community organizing and other ministries we haven’t thought of yet.
“From the fig tree, learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth leaves, You know that summer is near.” Embedded in the barrenness of a winter branch is the sap of new life. Where do you see signs of hope? Where do you feel the tingle of new life? Train your sight on that place; stay awake to God’s work in the world. Together we can find a way to be part of it.