The theme we have selected for Advent this year is a prayer, a plea, an appeal, for God to come and be with us. Emmanuel (no matter how you spell it) means, “God with us.” So, this most recognizable of Advent entreaties is a simple call for God’s presence. It is a cry of hope, with more than a hint of desperation included.
For the dismissal at the end of our worship services, we hear the words, “Go in peace. Share God’s love.” And the congregation’s response is, “Thanks be to God.”
Being thankful seems such an important thing that we have a national holiday dedicated to gratitude! For many, it involves gastronomic excess, time off from work, and football. This holiday is our expression of something humans have been doing since the pre-winter harvest and hunt took place for the very first time, I imagine. We have our American version of the feast, but it is a universal impulse to give thanks for the bounty we humans receive regardless of clan, nationality, time, or place. “It is right to give our thanks and praise,” as our worship proclaims.
On Paul’s missionary trip through Macedonia, he encountered people who were suffering a “severe ordeal of affliction,” and living in “extreme poverty.” (II Corinthians 8:2) If anyone needed help, it was these folks. Yet, Paul tells us, that when they found out about the suffering and famine in Jerusalem and the offering Paul was taking to meet those needs, listen to what they did: “… they voluntarily gave according to their means and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the favor of partnering in this ministry to the saints…” (2 Corinthians 8:3-4).
In this world where it can be hard to muster any hope; where the sorrows and suffering of the world pile up, walling us off from any possibility of a joyous future, I cling to a simple meal of bread and wine. It is at the Lord’s Table that I find the grace to carry on.
In the Western world we have a dominant worldview. An integral part of our dominant world view is capitalism, which is based on quid pro quo, reward and punishment, and justice as retribution. If I want X number of widgets, I will need to provide Y amount of payment. We are unaware of how this fundamental worldview affects our relationships, our basic self-image, and actions. Phrases like “I deserve”; “You owe me”; “I will be generous if it helps me, too” seem to dominate our conversations. It also gets built into faulty foundation for our relationship with God.
In the fourth chapter of Genesis, Cain kills his brother, Abel. Murder and violence enter the human story. God finds Cain. “Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) Am I my brother’s, my sister’s, my neighbor’s keeper? It is a rhetorical question, not an invitation to debate from scripture’s perspective. The answer is a resounding, “YES!”
Prayer has fallen on hard times, I think. In the wake of school shootings and the sufferings of the world, those who say, “I’m praying for you” are mocked for not doing anything “real” to address the problem. I even hear my pastoral colleagues rail at the “uselessness” of prayer. I suppose there can be some truth in that criticism. Prayer is often an act of desperation in the face of hopelessness. It is even the insipid response to a situation we wish would just go away. We “pray” when we lack the courage, ability, or desire to act.
Lots of people have lots of questions about matters of faith. I know this. I also know that many folks are reluctant to ask those questions. Sometimes it is because the question might reveal too much about their struggles. Sometimes it’s because they asked a question once and it led to judgment or dismissal. Sometimes folks fear that the question is silly.
I was thankful this morning as I saw small puddles of water on the deck. It had rained in the night. Though we are not, by definition, suffering a drought, you could not convince my pollinator garden of that fact. I’ve been watering, especially the plants new this season, but it’s not the same. The old saying goes, “Watering keeps the plants alive. Rain makes them grow.”