“A” IS FOR ADVOCACY
Rev. Gary Paterson
December 5, 2010
Well, lucky us, to be here for worship on the second Sunday of Advent… which just happens to be the Sunday that John the Baptist appears on stage. I know, it doesn’t immediately make sense, but so convinced was the Church of our need to hear John, that they decided that not only would the Gospel reading for today be his opportunity to speak, but that he should be centre stage again, next Sunday. That’s when we ignore them. But not today… because there are some good reasons why we need to pay attention to John the Baptist. He reminds us that as we approach Bethlehem and the birth of a baby, we need to be simultaneously thinking of the adult man, who would begin his ministry some thirty years later. Christmas is a Jesus story; yes, it’s talking about the beginning, but it carries the entire story. It’s easy to get sentimental, with stars, angels, bath-robed shepherds, and friendly donkeys, but John demands that we remember where this story leads…. to the Kingdom of God, to the promise and demand of justice and peace, where all are welcome; and a dream which leads to crucifixion and then, resurrection. Christmas is a cross and transformation story; that’s what John is reminding us of.
Mind you, he does so in a somewhat abrasive manner. You bet “there’s a voice in the wilderness calling….” – and it’s not always comfortable, polite, or careful. John is a prophet, which means he can be a whistle-blower, a truth-teller, sometimes a doom-sayer. He talks about fire and axes; he’s into repentance, big-time, challenging people to change their ways. Which means that Advent preaching on John can often slide into a guilt sermon; it’s not hard to do in this Christmas season we’re whirling into – consumerism is an easy target. A necessary target. But we all know that; and over the years, we’ve built up adequate defenses that deflect guilt sermons; I know – I do it myself. Now, sometimes the zingers get through, but it usually only leads to a decision to add on one more good intention, which gets added to the bottom of the Christmas “to do” list… which is a guarantee of ongoing guilt, because there’s never really going to be time available to get it done.
So this is not a guilt sermon – I hope; I’m going to try; honest. Which is why I’m drawn to the second half of John the Baptist’s story, where people gather around John and say, “Okay, so what would it look like, this changed world? What are we supposed to do, instead of feeling badly? Tell us; give us some practical advice!” And John understands what they are asking for, and responds with what I would call ethical balance, or a basic sharing and caring position, trite as that sounds. “If you have two coats,” says John, “and your neighbour doesn’t have a coat… then give her one. Oh, yes – and do the same with food. If you have lots, and your neighbour is hungry – make sure you share. And all of you who have tough jobs, jobs that tempt you to take advantage of others, well, don’t!. Do your work with integrity.” Now that’s pretty clear; mind you, how you go about it, that can get complicated. But at least you know what you’re trying to do. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s understandable, and even reasonable.
This Christmas you’re going to be asked to give to various causes, projects, charities – lots right here in St. Andrew’s-Wesley… like the Empty Suitcase, for abused women who run to a shelter; or Food for First United, for neighbours in the Downtown Eastside… that’s on the 19th; or supplies for WISH, for the women who work on the streets; or for Boys-R-Us, for young men who do the same thing. You might think about Safe Passage School in Guatemala, or Free the Children.. And beyond… the Suzuki Foundation; the Stephen Lewis Foundation; HIV/AIDS…. I know that sometimes writing a cheque can feel easy, some say too easy. I don’t know… what if I were to write a big enough cheque… for the same amount as I spend on gifts, food, parties… Stop… that’s sliding towards guilt. Except I think John the Baptist would step up and say “If you have lots of stuff, and your neighbour doesn’t have much at all – then do something about it.” And writing a cheque can be a first step; practical; helpful and do-able. Not to be sniffed at.
An aside, with a quick jump back to the first book of the Bible, into the opeing chapters of Genesis. After the mess in the garden, Adam, Eve, the serpent, the apple… when everything fell apart, do you remember the first thing God said to us humans, in response? “Where are you?” And you know how we answered? -- “I was afraid… and I hid from you.” Now, jump with me to the next chapter, to the next big story, where Cain murders his brother Abel; and hear the next question God asks us humans on this occasion – “Where is your brother?” But by now we’ve got our defenses in place, so Cain answers a question with a question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s “Yes!” is so loud it doesn’t need to be said. “Where are you?” and “Where is your sister, your brother?” -- those are John the Baptist questions.
Because John is an Advocate… you wondered when I would get to the sermon title, didn’t you… first Sunday, “A”A is for Adventure; today, “A” is for Advocate, and next week, A”A is for Astronomer”… Advocate… “ad” meaning “to”, and “vo-ca-te” meaning “call” – and its deeper roots, it’s talking about “voice”, giving voice to; it’s all about John’s voice, calling in the wilderness, speaking for, on behalf of God, clearing a way so that the voice of holiness can be heard; calling attention to Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate in this season. Advocate… to speak for, to speak on behalf, in support of – yes; but also, the advocate is the one who clears the way so that the voice of the silenced get heard… the hungry, the naked; the ones on the edge, usually with very little money or power; marginal, excluded for whatever reason… unheard. Maybe John invites us to hear a new voice this Christmas; to do what it takes so that someone else’s voice gets heard; you clear the way, then shush up, and do some listening yourself.
I wonder if John is asking us to think about who we’re taking this Bethlehem journey with. I wonder if that’s another one of those holy questions… who are you travelling you? Who get’s ignored? Who are the people you see beside you, and who’s walking in the gutter? And who’s not even able to walk? Who get’s left behind, out of sight… unheard?
This past week, I visited with a couple of people in our congregation who are advocates. One has spent much of her life’s energy working on behalf of brothers and sisters who are living with mental illness, and those who are homeless; and with those who are both. And the other person I visited, well he continues to work on behalf of brothers and sisters who are caught by addiction, and those who are living with HIV/AIDS, and with those who are struggling with both. The reason I was visiting was because these two advocates are living with cancer and with chemotherapy.
Now, I’m not sharing these stories to make you feel guilty, for you to compare yourself against them, but rather to let us all know, once again, that much is possible…for any one of us. Both of these advocates are still hard at it… speaking at meetings and conferences; taking phone calls from 12-step sponsees; still volunteering at PWA. I was tempted to say, when visiting, it’s okay to take a break; however, both of them were really clear that being able, stil,l to do this work, was partly what kept them going; they were engaged; had more to contribute; cared so deeply about life, about their neighbours, that they couldn’t stop. They were still busy answering questions, “Where are you?” and “Where is your brother, your sister?” Much is possible, says John; says Jesus.
There are a couple of opportunities to do some question-wrestling this coming week, if you’re interested. We’ve invited Ric Matthew, the minister of First United Mission to spend some time with us on Tuesday evening, to be the voice speaking on behalf of our brothers and sisters who spend time at First United, who call it home. Not guilt… but opportunity to listen, to discover some hints about clearing the way; to talk about why it seems so difficult to share our coats and food with those who have none.
And next Sunday, right after morning worship, you are invited, if you wish, to gather in conversation about our First Nations Neighbours, to be part of a circle to talk about Indian Residential Schools, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A video; a guest – Angela White, staff person for the Indian School Survivor’s Society; a facilitator, Tim Scorer. There are voices that need to be heard, stories that need to be told. “A” is for Advent; and “A” is for advocacy
There’s no easy way to listen to John; but it seems that you can’t get to Bethlehem with passing by the Jordan River where John is busy preaching and baptizing. Christmas includes some repentance, some change, some action. So I’m going to leave you with another question, raised by another advocate, Carolyn McDade, poet and songwriter. Listen to her song, “With Whom Do We Stand?” Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing; just hear these words:
With whom do we stand, across the wide land,my friends, with whom do we stand?With those of need, or those of greed,Sister, Brother, with whom do we stand?With those whose word has never been heard,the underside of each land;or the conquerors who say history happened their way --My friends, with whom do we stand?With those who’re despised, the focus of lies,who know what it’s like to be banned;or those who decide who’s on the right side --My friends, with whom do we stand?With those who demand all have rights to the landand all must have their own say;or those who would hold hoards of power and gold --My friends, with whom do we stand?Oh, friend, help me see the oppressor in me,I will drop what is yours from my hand;O God, help us care, until all have their share --And then, all together, we’ll stand.With whom do we stand, across the wide land,my friends, with whom do we stand?With those of need, or those of greed,Sister, Brother, with whom do we stand?