Advent 2 ~ December 10, 2006 ~ Susan Russell
All Saints Church, Pasadena
Time flies when you’re having Advent. Hard to believe Christmas Eve is just two weeks from today but here we are -- the second candle on the wreath is lit, the Christmas preparations are well underway and the prayers and hymns and lessons on this Second Sunday in Advent once again focus our attention on those prophets who came before us to prepare the way of our God.
Here’s how Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori describes that “way” they’ve come to prepare: There's a wonderful Hebrew word [for it] – shalom. [Shalom] doesn't just mean the sort of peace that comes when we're no longer at war. Shalom means that all human beings live together as siblings, at peace with one another and with God, and in right relationship with all of the rest of creation. In short, shalom is Hebrew for “turning the human race into the human family” – it is the long-term strategic plan of God’s messengers, the prophets.
I love that today’s lessons call me to revisit what I learned about prophets in seminary-- that they have a two-fold job description: to comfort the afflicted – and to afflict the comfortable. John the Baptist was working the afflicting the comfortable angle – in order to prepare the way he had to preach repentance to those who were so busy being religious that they’d forgotten how to be faithful. His words were not new to his hearers – he was echoing the proclamation of the prophet Isaiah who had uttered them centuries before in a very different context. Isaiah spoke them not to a settled people but an exiled one; he did not preach to afflict those comfortable in their religious institutions but to those who mourned in lonely exile – to an Israel held captive in Babylon: without homeland or hope -- as they waited for God's promise to them to be realized.
Another thing I learned in seminary is that the Holy Scriptures we inherit as the Living Word of God came to us without punctuation. Commas, colons and semi-colons – later additions to humanity’s linguistic tool belt – were added by what we call “redactors”: translators and transcribers down through the ages. And for those of you tempted to file this factoid under “in one ear and out the other” this morning’s Gospel is a perfect illustration of why this information is more than just “Fun Bible Facts to Know and Tell.”
“A voice crying in the wilderness" is commonly understood as "a warning voice no one pays any attention to." What got lost in translation – or punctuation! – is that in the early translations of Isaiah the voice doesn't cry in the wilderness at all. In Hebrew, the voice instructs some unnamed prophet to go out into the wilderness to prepare a "highway" through it. The line was botched both in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, and the King James Version follows suit. [Brush Up Your Bible]
So is it: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of our God.”
Or is it: “The voice of one crying, “Out in the wilderness, make ready the way of our God.”
It can go either way. And I submit to you this morning that it should – that it is another one of those “both/ands.” There are voices crying in the wilderness: voices that echo in the wasteland of fear, war, disease, occupation and genocide. They are the warning voices no one pays any attention to and I believe our charge this Sunday in Advent is to both listen for and be responsive to them.
But there are also other voices – those crying out in cathedrals and convention centers, in Congress and on conference calls: those who have the power and influence – the privilege and position – to not just cry for justice, peace, wholeness and liberation but to make them happen – to prepare the way of shalom.
One of those voices was Bob Long, our own Senior Warden who, along with the rector, rose last week at Diocesan Convention in Riverside to “protest and voice disagreement with” the continued scapegoating of gay and lesbian people by the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church. Standing against the injustice perpetuated by B033 – the discriminatory General Convention resolution passed last June in Columbus – Bob and Ed (along with other prophetic voices) cried “Out in the wilderness of homophobia, make ready the way of shalom.”
Not always a popular thing, you know, being a wilderness voice. And in Riverside the evening after the resolution Bob and Ed supported was overwhelmingly adopted by the diocese I got an earful from a colleague who was tired of hearing how tired gay and lesbian people were of being treated like an “issue” when – in his words – we are the ones who have made ourselves the issue by insisting that the church hear our voices – listen to our witness. I’m thinking his would be the voice crying, “Hey … you in the wilderness … pipe down” – and that isn’t in either Isaiah or Luke … no matter what translation you use! (I checked!)
Then at the microphone the next morning another clergy colleague waved around the local Riverside paper with its grammatically incorrect headline “Episcopals Protest Church Stand on Homosexuals.” His compelling argument against the resolution the day before had been three-fold:  we “didn’t need it” and  if we keep talking about “it” we’ll keep ending up in the newspaper again and then  what would people think? And now here was “Exhibit A” – another one of those pesky headlines drawing attention to the fact that in spite of our two-steps forward, one-step back history, this Episcopal Church is striving to prepare the way of shalom for all people; is taking a stand for those in the wilderness.
Remember that “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” part? Father-Newspaper-at-the-microphone is one of the comfortable arguing that we’d be better off letting those voices keep crying in the wilderness so as not to “end up in the paper” and risk shaking up our status quo. That, my brothers and sisters, is not preparing the way of shalom – that’s preserving the way of the Institutional Church. Maybe my brother priest “didn’t need” the resolution we passed but listen for just a minute to this voice crying in the unsigned email from the wilderness of an un-named diocese:
Dear Susan, Thank you for what you all did in Los Angeles. I am from a diocese where I am a very frustrated and miserable Episcopalian. I'm scared to say too much – even in this email. I am in a relationship and we love being together. I am a member of a very conservative Episcopal (soon to be Anglican) church and my neighbors all like to gossip. One afternoon when there was a play at church, I invited her as my guest but didn’t dare sit with her. We don't want to hide but don’t have any other choice. Please keep this totally anonymous but thank your church for me for all you do to make a difference for people like me who aren’t safe to speak up for themselves. Hers is a voice crying in the wilderness: the voice of the afflicted seeking comfort. I am so very proud to be part of a diocese – and congregation – willing to step up to offer comfort to those who live in the wilderness of oppression and marginalization.
Another voice “stepping up” this week was +Marc Andrus, Bishop of California. "God is with all who have suffered in Iraq,'' the bishop said as he was arrested with demonstrators at the Federal Building in San Francisco. "This war needs to be opposed. Even though there is widespread sentiment against the war, we need to continue to push for peace.'' A bishop crying, “Out in the wilderness of the War in Iraq, make ready the way of shalom.” That’s what I call putting your miter where your mouth is!
And in the days and weeks to come, others will be doing likewise as they stand for and with those voices crying in arguably the most devastating wilderness of our day: the Genocide in Darfur. On this weekend of Prayer and Action for Darfur we recognize that without immediate action, 1 million men, women and children will die needlessly. Those voices are reminding us of the voices that cried in the wilderness while the world sat by and let a holocaust of 6 million Jews be slaughtered while we talked endlessly about resolutions, delays and hesitations. As I described the situation in Darfur to my son Brian this week he “got it” immediately: “that’s just like Hitler and the Jews,” he said. “Why isn’t America doing something about that instead of messing in Iraq?”
A good question – and one we should be asking those with the power to make a difference. The late Illinois Senator Paul Simon said: If every member of the House and Senate had received 100 letters from people back home saying we have to do something about Rwanda when the crisis was first developing then I think the response would have been different. We have the chance today to let our voices be the ones crying, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of shalom …” by participating in actions to influence the United States to advocate for a strong United Nations peacekeeping force. Some will have the chance to go to Washington DC to “Stand With Darfur” in demonstrations of solidarity. And all will have the opportunity to stand with religious communities across the political spectrum to raise our voices on behalf of those whose voices the world has not yet heard.
Voices like this one … a voice of hope in the midst of hopelessness … the voice of a Darfurian woman in the wilderness, crying in her prayer, “prepare the way of shalom:”
I want to join my prayers to many other voices. Every few months we are driven away from one refugee camp to the other, so far into the desert where nothing, nothing at all exists. This is no way for a human being to live. No way to live in such a shocking place – uncultivated, waterless, treeless and barren region! Everything is burning, Lord, around me, around us … in me, in us … Everything is barren, hell, hell …! Yet, Lord, we believe you are there, beside us. We pray for all Africans living now our same condition. Bring back peace and tranquility to our beloved country. Peace which is desired by everybody, the old and young, rich and poor, women and men. Amen … amen … Let it be so.
Prayer from a Darfurian woman, c. Gloria Silvano, Sudan/CAFOD