Comfort is Not the Christmas Call

The Christmas season is upon us. We waited and waited in the agony of Advent. We anticipated Christ’s immanent arrival on Christmas Eve, singing Silent Night at candlelit services. We woke on Sunday morning, opened gifts with friends and family, and (some of us) made our way to church, where we shouted Joy to the World with what zeal we could. We celebrated the birth of Hope, the arrival of the Wonderful Counselor, with food, and family, and movie marathons (it was Lord of the Rings at our house). And, now that Christmas day has passed, and the New Year is just around the corner, I’m wondering what the implications are for the birth of Hope. What does it mean for the world that Christ is born? What does it mean for those of us who try to follow Jesus in our daily lives? It seems to me that there must be more to the birth of Hope than impotent platitudes about Jesus as our personal savior, or the promises that Jesus will heal the ills of our existential angst.

For much of American Christianity, Jesus has become an idol of comfort and the preservation of the status quo. At best Jesus asks us to be nicer at work, at worst Jesus mirrors all the ugliness of our brokenness and personal biases. There is a common refrain that if we will only accept Jesus into our hearts than all our personal suffering will be absolved. In this telling of the “Good News” (if it can even be called that) your suffering is your own fault, and the suffering of the world is a reflection of the unwillingness of individuals to make room for Jesus in their lives. Peter Rollins, in his book The Idolatry of God, calls this deferment, saying, “This strategy emphasizes techniques to help you step into the wholeness that you supposedly already have. In terms of Christianity, one is invited to attend conferences, read the latest book, pray more, read the Bible more, worship more, ad infinitum” [1]. This is a message heard over and over by Christians from churches, pastors, televangelists, and bloggers, especially in the realm of American Evangelicalism. And for many Christians, Christmas marks the day we celebrate the birth of this God-object Jesus, whose very purpose is to make us not feel so bad all the time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work and it fails to accurately convey the powerful and radical implications of the Christmas story.

This is why I am so grateful for the Liturgy, and for those churches who follow it. The liturgical tradition simply refuses to let us become complacent. We are not allowed to pine after the Jesus who brings only wholeness and inner peace. We are confronted instead with a continuous story of disruption, whether we like it or not. This was made abundantly clear to me as I sat down for morning prayer, the day after Christmas, and was reminded of Saint Stephen. December 26th is the feast day of St. Stephen in the Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions, and celebrates the faith’s first martyr. It struck me as particularly profound and challenging to be honoring the death of a martyr the day after celebrating the birth of a savior. Somehow it seems out-of-place, and even inappropriate to move so quickly from joy to despair, but this is exactly what the liturgy asks of us.

The story of Stephen is found in the book of Acts. There were complaints among the followers of Jesus (post-Ascension) that certain widows were being neglected when food was given out, and the Apostles decided to appoint seven disciples to serve as the church’s social workers, Stephen chief among them. Some people began to argue with Stephen, and when he proved too strong a debater, they convinced the council that he was a blasphemer who spoke against the Law and the Temple. Before the council, Stephen gives a powerful speech, wherein he recounts the family history of Israel from Abraham to Moses, and then condemns those present for their consistent and persistent persecution of prophets saying:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” Acts 7:51-53

Burn. The council thought so too, and they forcibly drug Stephen out of the city to be stoned. As they stoned him, Stephen called to Jesus, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

I thought about Stephen and what the Christmas story meant to him; what implications the incarnational event had for his life. Did Stephen accept Jesus into his heart and find that comfort and peace were his reward? Clearly not. Stephen found that the call of Jesus is most often disruptive, and even dangerous. He discovered that a life devoted to service and empowerment of other people will always run up against power that is derived from oppression and exclusion. He discovered that the birth of Hope, and the following of its call, threatens our lives as we know them. This does not sound like the pliant and peaceable Jesus that we hear so much about in American Christianity, who is obsessed only with how much we say we love him, and with our adherence to strict and manipulative legalism. The Jesus that called Stephen came to mess stuff up.

This seems to run counter to the popular assumption that Jesus’ primary purpose was to bring wholeness to a broken world. “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” We have domesticated Jesus for our own purposes, so that we can avoid the true implications of the Christmas story; that Being itself put on flesh and participated in human suffering, and in so doing calls us to a radical and dangerous way of life that includes, rather than excludes; offers mercy, rather than violence; that gives up our very lives for the sake of the Kingdom vision. Jesus destroys our conception of wholeness and offers us a new wholeness that looks an awful lot like brokenness. This is what Rollins means when he says:

“…instead of God being that which fills the gap at the core of our being, we shall soon discover something much more amazing and liberating: namely that the God testified to in Christianity exposes the gap for what it is, obliterates it, and invites us to participate in an utterly different form of life, one that brings us beyond slavery to the Idol.”[2]

This invitation is the struggle of the Christian life and is absurdly difficult for us to embrace. Temptation and distraction are everywhere, and it is so easy to forget how it is that Christ calls us to live. For me, this is where the true power of the liturgy is made manifest. What the liturgy provides us is not wholeness, nor a practice that leads to wholeness; rather, it provides us with a rhythmic and persistent engagement with the stories of our Christ, the call to us as Christians, and the challenge to reject the falseness of our desire to be comforted. It is impossible to read the Psalms every day and find oneself truly comforted. Our prayers in the litany call us to consider the suffering of the world and our role in it. We receive the gifts of bread and wine in the Eucharist, and we are challenged daily by the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ. I have found that in this practice, the Christmas story takes on a more radical and challenging dimension than it has in the past. It reveals that the birth of Hope sets spark to the world and breaks everything wide open, and it seems to me that if the Christmas story does not inspire us to radically rethink our way of being in the world and make us truly uncomfortable, we may want to read it a few more times. Peace.

[1] & [2]Rollins, Peter. The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction. New York: Howard, 2013. Print.



The Call of Christmas

Christmas is just a few days away and for people like me, the race is on to find those last-minute gifts on Amazon and pray that they will arrive on time. I do this every year; I think, “Oh I have plenty of time”, and then the looming specter of Christmas appears and I’m thrown into a panic. I’ve never been particularly crazy about the Christmas season, especially as it is celebrated in American culture. It’s just too stressful. There is so much pressure to have good cheer and to be obnoxiously joyful despite whatever reality you may be dealing with, and to pick the perfect present so your family and friends know how much you love them. It feels fundamentally inauthentic to me and so I get grumpy and cynical. It’s tradition.

Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than the swirl of consumerism surrounding the entire season of Christmas. I know that everything that can ever be said about the destructive relationship between Christmas and money has already been said, but I’m going to say it anyway. I think it’s an important conversation for us to be having, particularly in light of a 2016 that has been, in a word or two, a nightmarish dumpster fire. Just this week we’ve seen atrocity and horror in the city of Aleppo, the assassination of a Russian diplomat, continued nonsense and dangerous rhetoric from the President-elect, and a string of violent attacks across Europe. And that’s just the stuff that’s made the news. So, as I anticipate the celebration of Christ’s coming into this broken world, I’m wondering, what is our response? Are we to ring in the arrival of salvation, personified in the vulnerability of a child, with debauched and wanton expenditure, and the monetization of our dearest relationships? Or is there another way?

My first semester at seminary came to a close last week, and I found myself, for the first time in months, able to read a book of my own choosing. I decided to reread Paul Tillich’s The Courage To Be, which might not be the kind of escape I was initially looking for, but which nevertheless brings me joy. In the early part of the book Tillich describes three primary types of anxiety and the corresponding periods in history when each type was dominant (to be clear Tillich’s view of history and the corresponding anxieties are reflections primarily through a Western lens): the anxiety of fate and death and its expression at the end of ancient civilization, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation predominant in the middle ages, and our modern expression of the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness. As I read Tillich’s description I wondered if this was still the true expression of anxiety for our time. Is it a fundamentally spiritual anxiety that we see infecting our politics, economics, and relationships? The pull towards nationalism and fundamentalism on a national scale seems to confirm this, and Tillich’s words seem to describe so much of our political landscape:

“The anxiety of emptiness is aroused by the threat of nonbeing to the special contents of the spiritual life. A belief breaks down through external events or inner processes: one is cut off from creative participation in a sphere of culture, one feels frustrated about something which one had passionately affirmed, one is driven from devotion to one object to devotion to another and again on to another, because the meaning of each of them vanishes and the creative eros is transformed into indifference…

…Then man [sic] tries another way out…he tries to break out of this situation, to identify with something transindividual, to surrender his separation and self-relatedness. He flees from his freedom of asking and answering for himself to a situation in which no further questions can be asked and the answers to previous questions are imposed on him authoritatively” 1.

Tillich’s assessment seems to me all too familiar as I consider the rise of the radical right, the proliferation of “fake news”, and the general defensiveness on all sides of political, religious, and cultural ideologies. The authoritative imposition of meaning on individuals seems to me to be a phenomenon encountered on both sides of our political and religious discussions, and I have myself felt the anxiety associated with this desire to have questions answered in a way that supports my particular community. This desire to combat the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness drives so much of our interactions as citizens, family members, and consumers. And, it is this final category where I believe our battle with emptiness comes into direct and powerful authoritarian conflict with our spiritual lives, and with our “celebration” of Christmas in particular.

In Tillich’s estimation, people who have had beliefs breakdown or worldviews blown apart are driven to devotion after devotion as the objects of their devotion inevitably prove to be lacking. However, it seems that the power of consumer culture and the idol of wealth is that where other objects of devotion seem to have limits or boundaries, our devotion to wealth and consumption simply draws us in deeper and deeper by offering more, ever more. We don’t seem to hit that wall wherein we experience the true emptiness of wealth and consumption because we have been convinced that there is no such wall. There is always more to be had, more to buy, more to accumulate. It’s a kind of fail-safe in the economic system; if you don’t feel fulfilled than just keep consuming more.

Not only that, but our economic system and the producers of goods actively facilitate the kind of anxiety we are discussing so that a solution can be sold to compensate. William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Being Consumed, says:

“This is more than just a continuing attempt to make a product better; it is what the General Motors people called ‘the organized creation of dissatisfaction.’ How can we be content with a mere two blades when the current standard is five? How can we be content with an iPod that downloads two hundred songs when someone else has one that downloads a thousand? The economy as it is currently structured would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, ‘It is enough, I am happy with what I have.’’ 2

The anxiety of emptiness has become a tool of marketers and producers and is used against us as a way of propping up a fundamentally empty idol. And yet, it is this idol that we lift especially high as we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. Let me be clear, I am in no way criticizing our desire to give good gifts to our friends and family. I am not suggesting that we all renounce wealth and material goods. I am simply asking that we examine the cognitive dissonance between commemorating the birth of Jesus (who spoke far more about the dangers of wealth and unjust economics than he did any other topic) with devotion to the principles of consumption. I think we may be missing the point. We consume at astronomical levels to honor the Christ who said, “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This is something I simply cannot reconcile, and yet I do this very thing every single year. I stress and agonize over what gifts to get for family and friends, making up arbitrary dollar amounts in my head that, somehow, are supposed to accurately convey my feelings of love and affection. I spend money that, frankly, I don’t have because I would be ashamed to say I can’t afford that. I day-dream about the gifts I might get from others, and feel disappointment if I do not receive what I expected. I contribute to an inequitable and immoral economic system that targets particular communities, and makes silent the voices of the oppressed. And yet, in the midst of this I sit in the pew and sing praises to the Christ who has been born in a manger, and who’s life and call will challenge me to a radical reexamination of my world and my place in it. For the love of God, there must be a better way.

I have been watching coverage of the siege of Aleppo and wondering what it means for me to be a Christian, at Christmas, in this particular time in history. Is there, perhaps, some greater responsibility calling out to us from the story of the Nativity, the flight to Egypt (this story should give us all shivers right about now), and the slaughter of the innocents? Can I celebrate Christmas in the way I always have if I am aware of the incomprehensible suffering of the Syrian people, or the suffering of those neighbors nearest to me? After all, what is it that I am celebrating? Christmas is not a birthday party. Christmas is the declaration that hope has entered a broken and frightening world in the person of Jesus. That “…a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Christmas invites us to participate in the saving work of God, as the hands and feet of the very Christ we celebrate. This invitation is to serve, and to serve those among us who need it most. This requires generosity, but unlike the false generosity of consumption and wealth, the generosity exemplified by Christ is sacrificial and self-emptying. This generosity seeks justice and is generally unconcerned with our own comfort. This generosity is hard, but it is what we are called to do.

This is what Martin Luther spoke of in his famous Christmas sermon on the Nativity:

“There are many who are enkindled with dreamy devotion, when they hear of such poverty of Christ, are almost angry with the citizens of Bethlehem…and think, if they had been there, they would have shown the Lord and his mother a more becoming service, and would not have permitted them to be treated so miserably. But they do not look by their side to see how many of their fellow men need their help, and which they let go on in their misery unaided…Why does he [sic] not exercise his love to those? Why does he not do to them as Christ has done to him? It is altogether false to think that you have done much for Christ, if you do nothing for those needy ones.”

Ouch. So, as we gather with our family and friends this Christmas, and as we sit in the pews on Christmas morning, consider the ways in which you might declare the hope of Christ in the world. How does our celebration of the birth of Christ inspire us to embody that hope in our own lives? Can we take a break from our culturally-crafted-consumer-Christmas and consider instead where it is that hope and light are needed? How can we engage a world as people emboldened by the compassion, mercy, simplicity, and justice of Christ? I think that if we begin to reframe the ways in which we celebrate and remember Christmas, we may find that the anxiety and fear that pushes us ever deeper into the idolatry of wealth and consumption begins to fade, and that we discover instead the true implications of the Christmas story; hope, generosity, love, and justice.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have presents to wrap…

Merry Christmas.


1.Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1952. Print.

2.Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008. Print.

3.Luther, Martin. Sermons Of Martin Luther The. Ada, MI: Baker Group, 2000. Print.

Aleppo and the Absence of God

I woke this morning to news that pro-Assad forces were leading an assault on the city of Aleppo in Syria, in the hope of wresting control away from rebel forces who have held part of the city for nearly four years. There were reports of civilians, including children, being murdered in the streets and widespread brutality and carnage. NPR reported that there may be as many as 100,000 people still in the devastated city. And across social media, citizens who remained in Aleppo filmed farewells, unsure if they would ever make it out of the city alive. The UN has been unable to act to evacuate survivors because of Russian dissent, and the unwillingness of Western governments to commit troops to the effort, though it seems that a few hours ago, (as of this writing) a tentative cease fire was reached, and a plan for the evacuation of civilians from the remaining rebel-held areas was called for. I am praying that those people remaining will be safely evacuated, and that most of those farewell videos won’t be necessary.

As I watched video from Aleppo, and listened to the reporting on the ground, I was struck suddenly with an image of Jericho, that story in Joshua of the Israelite’s “victory” and the subsequent slaughter of all the city’s inhabitants. It seems to me that the narrative in Joshua, and the description of the toppled city walls, must have looked something similar to present day Aleppo in the minds of the authors. From Joshua:

“On the seventh day they rose early, at dawn, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout! For the Lord has given you the city…” … As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.”

I heard this story told as one of triumph when I was a child. I was instructed to look at the miraculous victory God had provided for the Israelites. I don’t remember reflecting too much on the divinely sanctioned genocide that follows the tumbling of the walls, but such is the way these stories are told. But, this is the story that suddenly jumped into my mind as I watched the coverage from Aleppo this morning. I imagined the fear of the citizens of Jericho; that their families outside the walls might never see them again, that they may not make it through the day. I thought of the shock and terror a parent must feel at the sight of their murdered child. Suddenly, this story felt monumentally different, because I was now confronted with the real horror of the story in the images from Aleppo. But, there is no message about a benevolent God taking sides in Aleppo. There is no meaning to be plucked from the very real apocalypse being faced by the Syrian people. There is only abundant and continuous violence.

At a staff meeting this morning at the congregation where I work, we reflected on the Christmas story, and on the name Immanuel; God is with us. We were asked to consider what these words mean for us. God is with us. All I could think about was Aleppo, and the Syrian people. I thought, “I have no idea what meaning these words have for me in a world where that level of violence can take place”. I considered all the answers that I was supposed to give. God is with us when we care for our neighbor. Or, God is with us when we forgive someone. Or even, God is with us in the midst of tragedy. But, I couldn’t bring myself to say any of those. They felt wholly inadequate. They felt like lies. I’m not attempting to get into some kind of “problem of evil” conversation. For me the problem of evil belongs to humanity, not to God. What I was troubled by was the language of God is with us, when the world just simply doesn’t seem to allow for that.

I’ve mentioned before that in the season of Advent there is a tacit admission that the world is not right as it is. If it were, we wouldn’t await the arrival of a savior with such fervor and anticipation. A savior simply wouldn’t be necessary. Our world is hurting, and as such we await the coming of Christ, trusting in the hope of a future world of possibility. But that waiting isn’t necessarily going to be joyful. Not only that, but as we wait for Immanuel, for God is with us, we may actually feel instead the utter absence of God. The abandonment of God. The Bible is loaded with language for this feeling of lack. The Psalmist cries out, “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”. And in Habakkuk, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?”. Even Christ on the cross cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. There is a fear among Christians to admit that often in our lives we are feeling abandoned by God, and that we experience a world that routinely reflects the seeming absence of meaning of any kind.

This is the absence I felt as I watched the coverage from Aleppo this morning, the modern-day Jericho. I cannot imagine the absence the people of Syria are collectively feeling as the fighting continues, and more and more people are killed or displaced. Not only that, but so many refugees face rejection and persecution in those places that are meant to provide sanctuary. The U.S. has been locked in a political battle for years about whether or not to allow Syrian refugees into the country, based on some irrational fear that we will inadvertently smuggle in terrorists along with them. Are the Syrians supposed to express some kind of feeling that God is with them in the midst of all this suffering? Are we, from a distance, truly comfortable professing that God is present despite the reality on the ground? What might happen if we allowed ourselves during this season of Advent to experience that feeling of absence, of abandonment. What if we forgo our need to avoid the troubling theological implications of suffering, oppression, and injustice? What if, rather than quickly reminding everyone that things will be OK once Christ appears, we put on ash and sackcloth and cry out “Where are you God?!”.

We are living in a frightening world, and in some ways this season of Advent is perfectly timed. The world is broken, as it has always been, and we need saving. We await the coming of Christ, not as some magical repairman, but as a vision for the future world of possibility that we hope for. We remind ourselves that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30). This is our hope, but our hope must not suppress our true feelings of absence and abandonment, but must spring from them. This absence may also remind us that the world’s brokenness does not mend with our inaction and our silence. We can lament God’s distance while bringing ourselves ever nearer to our neighbor, and the victims of violence and oppression. We can cry out “How long, O Lord?”, while creating safe spaces and sanctuary for those who have been displaced here and now. Let us offer comfort and safety, to the best of our ability, if it seems that God is not, and in this way, we may get a glimpse of the hope we are waiting so desperately for.

Voices in the Wilderness

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
     ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
     “Prepare the way of the Lord,
      make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

 ‘I baptize you with* water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ Matthew 3:1-12 Gospel reading for 2nd Sunday in Advent

John the Baptist, clad in camel hair, points and gestures from atop a rock in the Judean wilderness. Repent, he cries. He shouts down the religious elite who have appeared amongst the people, and promises the coming of one more powerful than himself. One who John the Baptist is too unworthy to carry the sandals of. “I baptize with water for repentance but…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.

This image of John the Baptist is one we have encountered since Sunday school. A rugged and unkempt prophet, living in the wilderness on honey and locusts. In the movies, he is always shouting, perpetually angered and unafraid to name that which angers him. He is someone, I think, most of us would avoid if we saw him shouting in the street. And yet he is one of the most important characters in the Gospels. In fact, Jesus says, “…among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).

What is it that continues to draw us to this itinerant prophet? For myself, it is the seeming single mindedness of the man. His dedication to the future, and his consistent appeal to a better world. He withdraws from the life of world (many scholars think John may have belonged to the Essenes) and preaches repentance. And not repentance only to the weak, but also to the powerful. It is this dogged pursuit of righteousness and justice, even in the face of powerful violence, that is the defining characteristic of the Baptist. It is this pursuit that results in his imprisonment, and finally in his execution.

I hear the words of the Gospel on the 2nd Sunday of Advent and I am drawn to the dedication of a person so convinced of the truth and necessity of his words that he can do no other, but shout them for all to hear. In this shouting, there is more than simply judgement or admonition. There is an invitation. An invitation into baptism and the practice of repentance. An invitation to wake up and see the world as it is, to see ourselves as we are, and to ask if we can do better. Once we have asked that question we are invited to do just that.

John the Baptist is also a character that offers hope. In many of the most famous paintings of the Baptist he can be seen pointing. Always he points to the coming of Christ, to the incoming and indwelling Kingdom of God. The Baptist points toward a future of possibility, and peace and justice. In this gesture, he asks that we not focus too intently on him, but on what is to come. He asks that we repent so that we might hope, and that our hope might encourage us to repent.

Events of this week caused me to consider again this voice crying out in the wilderness. News broke on Sunday that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied an easement permit to Dakota Access, and would begin to seek out alternative routes for the 1,200-mile-long pipeline that would carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois *. The news was seen as a victory by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and the thousands of other water protectors at the Oceti Sakowin camp.  Images swirled around the news showing the camp and its supporters celebrating the decision.

For months, water protectors have been gathering at the camp and at various construction sites to demand that Native rights and sovereignty be upheld, and that the pipeline be rerouted or eliminated completely. They have faced violence and arrest from private security and law enforcement, while the rest of the world largely ignored the struggle. And now, after all that they have faced, after months of gathering at Oceti Sakowin, after water cannons and attack dogs, the water protectors can celebrate this decision by the Army Corps of Engineers as a victory, and can say that giving voice to justice and the side of right can bring about change. Those voices that cry out from the margins and demand that we look towards a better future, that call us to repent, are themselves pointing towards the coming hope and a future of possibility.

It must be said that there is still much work to be done, and there is danger that a Trump administration may overturn the decision. Energy Transfer Partners will most certainly challenge the decision, and will seek ways to continue building the pipeline across sacred Native lands. In fact, on Monday, Energy Transfer Partners said as much. But this victory by water protectors points towards a future and a world that we can hope for. Like the Baptist’s finger pointing towards the incoming hope of the world, we can also point in the direction of hope ourselves. We can hope that this decision sets a precedent for future government and Indigenous interactions. We can hope that as a nation we might follow the example of our Native brothers and sisters in pursuing energy policies that consider the protection and intentional stewardship of creation. We can hope that the wisdom of peaceful resistance may filter into the national consciousness, and that we may begin again to listen to those voices among us that cry out in the wildernesses of our own world. The cynic in me wants to smash all this hope with a hammer, but I am going to reject that line of thinking. There will be fights ahead but the strength and perseverance of the water protectors offers us a glimpse at something so much more hopeful.

This victory comes also with a renewed invitation, like that of the Baptist. It calls for us to repent. It asks that we reflect on the events at Standing Rock, and those that lead up to this decision, and ask if we can do better. Can we truly begin to hear the voices of Indigenous people, and repent of our history of violence and genocide? Can we seek ways of living in this world that do not harm and corrupt the incredible gift of creation? One thing is for certain, we cannot lose sight of the work ahead. We cannot rest on the good feelings of this victory for our Native brothers and sisters. Rest assured, vigilance and resistance will be called upon again. The pursuit of justice, and of the future world of possibility must be relentless. Victories must be celebrated, but we must also continue the work before us. We must continue having conversations with those around us who might think differently than we do. We must be ready to stand with those who face oppression. For some of us that means finding ways to participate in action and conversations that are already happening around us. There are organizations all over the country working to support and advocate for Native rights, and environmental justice. If this movement awakened something in you (as it did for me) then seek out ways to continue the work in your daily life. Small acts of justice and peace in the daily monotony of our lives contribute to the larger pursuit of a better a world, and your voice is needed.

Another thing we must consider, one that we can observe in the Gospel reading from Sunday, is the continued call to repentance John extends to the Pharisees and Sadducees. This “brood of vipers” shows up as John is baptizing, and bears the brunt of John’s righteous anger. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”. John really lets them have it. He speaks truth to power and reveals its own hypocrisy and sinfulness. But, John does not send them away. He does not say “This invitation to repentance is not for you, nor is the soon to arrive salvation unavailable to you”. He calls them also to repent, to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”. As nasty and as angry as John’s words sound, he is still inviting the Pharisees and the Sadducees into the incoming beloved community, the Kingdom of God. And this is what we must remember as we seek to engage those we might consider our enemies, those who hold seats of power, or those who pursue and inflict violence. We must call out what is evil, but we must do so while pursuing the hope that all the world will one day be reconciled to each other. If we are to have hope for the future it will require that everyone come along. This means that we must consider the ways we talk about issues of justice. We cannot continue to play into the division and politicized rhetoric that contributes to fear and anger. We need everyone. John cries out in the wilderness hoping that everyone will change, and it is our responsibility to cling to that hope, however unlikely it may seem.

In the season of Advent, we await the coming of the Christ; of the future world of possibility, hope, and peace. We hear John crying out in the wilderness, calling us to repent and we hope to respond. I hope also during this Advent season we might identify those other voices crying out in the wilderness, begging to be heard, and asking for us to respond in the hope of the incoming Kingdom. Our responses will vary, but let them all seek to live into a reality that grounds itself in hope. Find those small ways in your own life that you can be about the work of justice. Seek out organizations and communities that are focused on pursuing this work. Your voice and your hands are needed at all levels. Let it also be known that, as we saw at Standing Rock, when one voice crying out becomes many the world can be changed. Amen.

*NYTimes “Protesters Gain Victory…”