Today is December 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas, patron saint of, among many good causes, children. The Advent calendar many of us have urges us today to think, pray and care for children -- to do something to improve their welfare.
St. Nicholas performed many wondrous deeds, including the one illustrated at the right. He heard of a poor family, who would soon be forced to sell their daughters into slavery, and he would come by at night and throw sacks of gold coins into the house, enough so that the family debts were paid and the girls were free.
This story must raise alarms for all children, the fear of being sent into forced separation from one's family. We who are adults hear another horrifying dimension to this alarm. Would these girls be sent not only into servitude, but into sexual slavery? The steady drumbeat of reports of world-wide human trafficking -- a polite way to say that women and children are sold into sexual slavery -- makes us long for more brave Nicholases to intervene and prevent these daily horrors.
We in Syracuse read in today's newspaper that a local center that works with abused children noted that among the people they served last year, 143 were under age 6. A local basketball coach, a friend to many in the community, is accused of hurting boys. Head coach Jim Boeheim, after an initial, and understandable, response in defense of his friend, learned, painfully, that such abuse is all too common. Boeheim's candor in revealing not only his remorse, but a change in heart, is commendable.
As public opinion rushes to the side of the victims -- and it is a long overdue and frequently too late "rush" -- I remember that many of the perpetrators were themselves abused as children.
St. Nicholas, who rushed to the rescue of those girls who were to be sold into sexual slavery, pray for those to whom no one rushed, no one saved, no one heard. Pray for those who grew up to hurt and damage others, as they themselves were hurt. Help us, we pray, to hear their cries of anger and pain before they hurt others; and help us, we pray, to repent and ask God's forgiveness when we have not intervened but only salve the wounds of those who cry now.
Advent 2-B; December 4, 2011
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85
2 Peter 3: 8-15a,18; Mark 1:1-8
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85
2 Peter 3: 8-15a,18; Mark 1:1-8
We wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
I’m going to take a risk here, to talk about something we all may not share: parenthood. I’m hoping, though, that even if you are not a mother or a father, that you can resonate with the hopes I had – that I think many parents have – at the birth of their children.
The hopes I had were hopes that the world my child would grow up in would be a wonderful place. I hoped my child would not be terrified by war, famine or disaster. I hoped my child could run and play in green fields and breathe clean air. I hoped for a world where there was enough of everything to go around. On a more mundane level, I hoped for a world free from junk food and commercial television. Whatever I hoped for – and I imagine you have a list of your own hopes, as well – it was a version of the new heavens and the new earth. And in a way, the experience of life now, in the world as it is, is the experience of the exile. With my hopes for that new heavens and that new earth, living in this earth seems kind of like a displacement. There is a loss, when life does not turn out the way I thought it would.
The prophet Isaiah was speaking to people in exile – the people of Israel living in captivity in Babylon. How could they worship God in that foreign land? How could they know who they were as God’s people when the Babylonian powers defined them as slaves, as captives, as homeless, as poor, as non-citizens, as “less than”? So look at what the prophet Isaiah says to these displaced, grieving persons. The prophet Isaiah speaks God’s words of comfort to them in the middle of their deep dis-comfort. In their current experience of wilderness, God reminds them of their first highway in the wilderness, when God led them out of Egypt into the Promised Land, the journey of God’s chosen people. God agrees with them that the reality of life may not change – “the people are grass, the grass withers, the flower fades” – but God brings something more: a herald of hope. The exiles are defined not by the Babylonians who bad-mouth them, but by God who stands up for them, God who rules with a mighty arm – but who then embraces them like a tender shepherd.
What can we learn from these people in their long-ago exile? We who may feel a little displaced and out of step in the world we live in?
We can know that this ragged space of our lives is where God meets us. Here. Now. The world may not make sense at times, but that craziness does not define us; God does.
Because we know we are God’s, we can resist the things that make us mad, things that we know are out of whack, things that are unjust and cruel and crazy.
Because we know we are God’s and we know that God meets us here, in this place, we know that whatever we do to make this world a better place, the place we know God would want it to be, will not be in vain. Jeremiah, the other prophet of Israel’s exile, put it this way: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile … for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Here. Now. In this world that does not live up to our expectations. In this place where we feel out of place. This is where God speaks to us, and this is where God expects us to flourish.
When Mark the gospeller told this story of John the Baptist, he knew these themes would resonate with his audience. He knew that they would understand what it meant to be called by God out of the wilderness. He knew they would be familiar with the strange messages prophets would bring. He knew they were people who felt out of place in their own world, people who knew the world was out of whack and unjust, people longing for a new heavens and a new earth. John the Baptist came out of the wilderness to people who felt exiled in their own countryside and said, like Isaiah, Here is your God!
What do we make of John the Baptist? Does that wilderness from which he hails make any sense to us today? I think John’s message, which is unsettling and disconcerting, may not make sense to people who are satisfied with the status quo of this world. It may not be a message of hope to people who like the world the way it is. But to those of us who have higher hopes, who seek a new heavens and a new earth, this stranger with his rough clothes and his peculiar diet, brings very good news indeed.