Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

 “Until Christ Comes…Want”

Sunday, December 23, 2007

 

 

Luke 2: 25-32


Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

I want to talk this morning about what I think is a difficult topic for a congregation like ours, but one that our Advent theme unavoidably brings me to.

 

The theme of Advent is waiting. Waiting is really a manifestation and a symbol of the limitations of our power and control. We need to wait because we are not in charge of the universe. The universe does not revolve around us. Every time we have to wait, it is an experience of our finitude.

 

Some of us are not good at waiting. For those of you who, like me, do not find waiting to be a pleasant experience, I want to suggest it may be because waiting confronts us with the reality of our limited power, our limited ability, our limited competence, our limited control.

 

So the topic Advent brings me to this morning that I think is a particularly difficult one for a congregation like ours is the topic of oppression.

 

Oppression. Not someone else’s oppression. That’s easy. Other people’s oppression we can talk about very easily and almost ad nauseum.

 

But the hard topic is our own oppressions…yours and mine. This is a hard topic for us to talk about, because most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as oppressed.

 

One of the reasons people need to wait is because we are human and thus finite and thus we have limited power to make happen what we want them to happen. But another reason people need to wait is because we are oppressed by others or by systems of which we are a part or by the past or by our own selves and thus do not have the power to make happen what we want to have happen.

 

One of the reasons we need to wait…some of us…is because we are oppressed. And people like us…many of us here in Washington DC attending a church like Foundry…we do not like to think of ourselves as oppressed.

 

We are the ones who help oppressed people. We are the helpers, not the victims.

 

There are good and fine reasons we don’t like to think of ourselves as oppressed. One is that most of us are so phenomenally better off than others. We are so remarkably fortunate. Who are we to sound like we are complaining about anything? It seems tacky for us to pay attention to our own pain, like a society matron complaining about her mascara running while volunteering in a homeless shelter.

 

And then a lot of us, I think, are afraid of anything that smacks of self-pity. I think some of us actually have an almost visceral fear of self-pity because we are afraid if we indulged in it, it would destroy us.

 

Here’s a quote: “Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world.” Do you know who said that? Helen Keller. Think of how easy self-pity could have been for her. How appealing it would have been. No wonder she had to steel herself against it. And so do many of us who fear that if we gave in to anything like self-pity that we would become emotional and spiritual invalids.

 

So we can’t and won’t think of ourselves as oppressed because we are afraid it would kill our drive and determination and undermine our wills. We are so determined to be in control of ourselves and our fate that we hate the very idea of self-pity.

 

 But – this is really the key to what I have to say this morning – each of us has an obligation to our own pain. We have an obligation to the pain of others, surely, (all of us here know this) but we also have an obligation to our own pain (and I am not sure all of us here know this).

 

I was tempted to say that each of us has a right to our own pain, but actually I think that would be a misstatement. It is not so much that we have a right to our own pain as that we have an obligation to pay attention to our own pain. We have an obligation to pay attention to our own oppression.

 

We may feel like our oppression is minor compared to the oppression of others. And it may be. But it is still our oppression and unless we attend to it, it will fester and infect us.

 

Having to wait can be a sacrament of oppression. It can be a reminder of the reality of injustice and prejudice and powerlessness in the real world as it is.

 

One of the things that we are called to do while we wait is to want. I’ve had a hard time coming up with the right word for what I want to say. Other words that occurred to me were “yearn,” “desire,” “long,” “feel,” “ache.”

 

It is out of our own pain and our own experience of oppression that we develop a wanting, a desire, a yearning, an ache for a better world where people do not have to experience the pain we’ve known, the oppression we’ve felt.

 

It is our own experiences of oppression that create an affinity between us and others who are oppressed, so that our work for a better world is not merely charity but solidarity.

 

We all, each one of us, have an obligation to our own oppression. It is out of our allowing ourselves to feel the pain of our oppression without drifting into self-pity that a wanting, a longing, a yearning, an ache, a passion for justice and inclusion and peace grows.

 

One of the things that we do as we wait is to keep wanting the world to be a better place…to keep alive in our souls and spirits a longing for heaven…for the kingdom of God…the peaceable kingdom…the beloved community…a better world.

 

The oppression doesn’t have to be earth-shattering to be powerful. I am convinced that some of the most powerful childhood experiences that fueled the passion of Dr. King were things that many might not consider all that important in the scale of the world’s injustices. After all Dr. King grew up the son of Martin Luther King Sr., one of the most prominent African-American pastors of his time. He had pretty much all the advantages an African-American boy could have in the America of his youth.

 

The experiences of oppression that really touched him as a boy, I believe, were things like not being able to swim in the public swimming pool or go to the amusement park, which was for whites only.

 

Read his speeches and he will talk about this pain, which some might consider relatively minor compared to the grave injustices of inequality in education and voting rights. Yet I am convinced that it is these experiences that most fueled Dr. King’s wanting and passion.

 

One of the things we do while we are waiting is to want.

 

Our biblical hero this morning is an old man named Simeon. Luke says he has spent his life “looking forward” to the consolation of Israel. The Greek word translated “looking forward” is prosdevcomai  (pros-dekh'-om-ahee). It is a funny word. It means to expect, but another meaning is “to give access to oneself.”  It is even used romantically to mean to open oneself to the possibility of love.

 

This is what I mean by wanting. He lived a long life as a citizen of an oppressed nation and a part of an oppressed people. He was the child of parents who had live long lives as oppressed people. His grandparents had lived in oppression.

 

But he had never stopped wanting justice and inclusion and peace. And he believed he would see a sign of it in his lifetime. And when Joseph and Mary brought their baby Jesus into the temple to be present to God, he knew it was the sign he’d been promised. And he felt he could die in peace for his eyes had beheld God’s salvation.

 

The stubborn oppressions of the world had not killed the longing and ache and passion for justice inside his spirit. Old man Simeon still had fire in his belly. He had not become either cynical or depleted. He still had the capacity to be in love with the dream of a better world.

 

None of us can see in each other’s souls. None of us knows really what another has experienced. None of us can automatically know each other’s pain.

 

The Cuban-American theologian Miguel de la Torres says that oppression is not an easy thing to define. He says that when he is in New Jersey he is in the position of being discriminated against as a Hispanic. When he is in Miami, he says, he is part of a privileged class.[i]

 

I’ve known people whom the world would consider the most privileged of privileged who carried within their chests the wounds of child abuse and deprivation. You would never guess. You just can’t know someone else’s oppression unless you are willing to listen.

 

We all have an obligation to our own oppression. Yes, we have an obligation to the oppression of others. But we have an obligation to our own oppression as well. Not to deny it. Not to bury it in the busy-ness of life. Not to numb it with food and drink and activity.

 

But to feel it and to let it keep a wanting a live in us … a desire and an ache and a passion for a better world.

 

It is no accident that Jesus was born to an oppressed people…that he was born to a peasant girl and a carpenter…that the angels announced his birth to shepherds, Israel’s underclass…that a star shone in the sky for gentiles, the Others. It is no accident that kings and rulers became anxious and worried and afraid.

 

Jesus always comes to the oppressed places. He comes to the oppressed places of our communities and our world…and our own lives and souls.

 

What do we do while we wait? We feel the particular oppression we’ve been given…we share in the pain of the oppression of one another and the oppression of our world…we stay alive and tender and dreamy and open.  We want and long and yearn and ache for a better world. We keep alive in us the want.

 

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[i]  Miguel de la Torres, Reading the Bible from the Margins (Orbis), 27-30.