a welcoming, affirming, justice-seeking congregation

December 11, 2011—Advent Three

Promise

At the lighting of the White House Christmas tree in December, 2005, the great writer Maya Angelou delivered a poem that began like this:

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes

And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.

Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow,

falls upon snow to avalanche

Over unprotected villages.

The sky slips low and grey and threatening.[1]

We question ourselves.

What have we done to so affront nature?

We worry God. Are you there? Are you there really?

Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

“Does the covenant you made with us still hold?” the poet asks, and we ask it with her. God, does the covenant you made with us still hold? Are your promises still good? Will you ever make good on those promises? In language lovely and loving, Impassioned and compassionate, Your prophets spoke that promise to us: a garland instead of ashes; the oil of gladness instead of mourning; the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. You promised us these things. But time passed, and still we wait, and thunder rumbles in the mountain passes.

We ponder promises. As Pat so poetically phrased it for us this morning, we think of promises made, promises kept and promises broken. We wonder what it is that makes a divine promise trustworthy—worthy of our trust—deserving of our faith—especially when the fulfillment of those promises seems to be taking so long. Divine promises that are kept, we tend to believe, are kept all at once, in one fell swoop of wonder and glory, and they’re kept in a way that’s unmistakable, with trumpets sounding and angels singing. It doesn’t occur to us that they might be kept incrementally, in a one-step-forward-two-steps-back, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, one-war-started-two-wars-ended kind of a way, or quietly, with the sound of falling snow, the sound of a candle flame, of the breath of a sleeping child,of a hand, gently reaching out to hold a hand, in a hospital room.

Promises, we tend to believe—and especially divine promises—are one-sided things, kept only by the Onewho speaks them, if that One intends to keep them. It doesn’t occur to us that promises might need us in order to be fulfilled. We’re only recipients of those promises, we think. Passive recipients. We don’t think of ourselves as active participants in their unfolding, in their being made manifest in the world, in their coming true.

Promises, we tend to believe, evade us, remain distanced from us, out of sight if not out of mind, unless and until they’re realized among us. We don’t think of them as present with us, carrying us, comforting us, healing us, long before they might be said to have been fulfilled.

And so, we worry God. Are you there? Are you there really? Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Are your promises still good?

Standing beneath the Christmas tree in a place of great power, among people of great power, the aging poet continues:

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,

Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope

And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.

The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,

Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.

Thunder ebbs to silence

and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.

Flood waters recede into memory.

Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us

As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children

It rides on the shoulders of our aged

as they walk into their sunsets.

Hope spreads around the earth.

Brightening all things,

Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corners.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.

At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.

We listen carefully as it gathers strength.

We hear a sweetness. The word is Peace.

It is louder now. It is louder.

Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.

It is what we have hungered for.

Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.

A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.

Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.

A garland instead of ashes; the oil of gladness instead of mourning; the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit: the promise still is spoken, still is trustworthy, still is deserving of our faith, still struggles toward its fulfillment. Quietly, it falls like snow into our midst, making only the difference we’re open to noticing. The promise needs us to welcome it, make a straight path for it, run out to greet it, take its hand and show it where first it must come true, softly, silently, incrementally, like the falling snow. And, as we lead it, the promise carries us, comforts us, heals us. Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner. Flood waters recede to memory. Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us as we make our way to higher ground.

Does the covenant God made with us still hold? Are God’s promises still good? “Yes,” whisper the candles that we’ve lit this day. “Yes,” whisper our hearts, knowing what it is to be healed. “Yes,” whispers our weary world, knowing what it is to be carried from one difficult day to the next. Yes, the covenant still holds. Yes, God’s promises are good, and strong, and true. Yes, peace is making its way into our midst. Yes, Christ will be born. And yes, heaven and nature will sing.

Yes.

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