Text: Mark 13:24-37
My grandmother, whose laughter I still miss, had a saying when she would find something that had gone missing in her home—which happened often. Upon discovering the lost treasure she would exclaim: “Lord child, if it had been a snake it would have bit me.” It was her way of acknowledging that the thing she had been looking for was actually right under her nose. I was reminded of my grandmother’s words as I thought about the theme, HOPE, for this first Sunday in advent. My instinct was to go looking for hope. I had planned on researching the biblical images and definitions of hope. I thought about looking in books and in the newspapers and on the Internet for stories of hope. I reflected on my own thoughts about what hope means. In a moment of fretting about my sermon, in between preparing for three funerals this holiday week, it hit me. Hope was in my inbox, in a folder called “emails from marriage amendment article.” If it had been a snake it would have bit me. Sometimes what we are looking for is right under our nose if only we open our eyes and look.
This past week, I have received numerous emails on your behalf. Some of them, simply put, are hateful and disturbing. But many of them are beautiful expressions of hope. For a number of writers, the courageous actions of this church offer a sense of hope that they felt was lost for the institutional church, if not for Christianity. Because these emails are to you, the congregation of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, and because they speak better than I could to this advent theme of hope, I want to share several with you.
Dear Reverend Petty,
Please pardon this intrusion, but I called your church this afternoon in order to obtain your email contact information. I feel compelled to write this letter of support for you and your church.
I have just read about the courageous stand that you and your congregation have taken with regards to the equal rights of same sex partners and marriage. Wow. This…message you are sending to the rest of this country—the world—is that truly equal rights for all the citizens of this country is one of the most worthwhile goals for which we can strive.
I am a straight, gray-haired atheist but my heart has been stolen by the attitude of your congregation which, as you know, stands in stark contrast to the hate-filled rhetoric that many of your fellow Christians display concerning this subject of equal rights and privileges for gays and lesbians. I have done a little research into the policies and practices of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church and I have been very impressed; but frankly, I have also been surprised. As a fellow North Carolinian, and having lived in the South my entire life—churches, churches and more churches—the prejudices and bigotry that often accompany Christianity have marginalized my ability to retain a live and let live attitude to such a degree that I have become or moved from simply an atheist’s position of non-belief to a more combative position…how could any of us support the kind of hate that is often manifested in the form of holier than thou Christianity?
Thank you Reverend Petty, and the members of your church, for reminding me that not all Christians are the bad guys and that there is hope. My hat is off to you.
FROM: James, University of Virginia School of Law, Class of 2013
Dear Ms. Petty,
I saw about your courageous stand for LGBT equality both in today’s News & Observer and the Huffington Post and I wanted to take just a moment to thank you, your staff, and your congregation for bearing witness to God’s love and demands for justice in this way. I know that you and your congregation have a history of standing up for inclusive love in the community, so I was so encouraged to see you taking this next step…Even as you receive responses from many people who disagree with you in good faith, I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your taking this step and how much it has strengthened my own faith in the reconciling work of the church. Please take care in the coming days, and know that I and many more like me are very thankful for the difficult work you are doing.
I just wanted to say thank you to you and your church for taking this stand against the discrimination many of our citizens face…One of the reasons I left church was because there was so much hatred toward different groups of people and it made me feel like the whole thing was based on hate and not love, as it should be…You have given me hope. Hope for my friends, hope for my state, and hope for my country.
Hello, I want to extend my congratulations to you and your congregation for your courageous public support of what the institution of marriage should represent. It is wonderful to see in the news a counterexample to the stereotype of the southern Christian church…
And last, FROM: Jazz
I just read where your Church has stopped signing marriage licenses until gays can marry…You have no idea how much this touches and will touch people from around the world! I live in Columbus, Ohio, and you made me feel like I matter and that there is hope…I gave up believing the day I sat in my Bible study at the church I was very active in and a friend that I looked up to said, “homosexuals are not even worthy to hear the gospel.”…I believe that the people of your Church have shown a true reflection of Christ and you will help many people heal. Please extend my thank you to your congregation.
One thing that is clear to me through these letters is that people are looking for hope—the kind of hope that is real, transforming, and lasting. They are looking for the kind of hope that is nurtured when we, the people of God, act from a place of goodness and compassion. They are looking for the kind of hope that makes our world a better place for all people. They are looking for the kind of hope that the darkness does not and cannot overcome. They are looking for a hope that reconciles, that is inclusive, that is about loving one another. They are looking for a hope that is put into action and not just mere words.
There was a sadness that I felt in reading the emails I received because I realized that for many, the church is the last place they look to for hope. It is, indeed, a sad commentary on what the institutional church has become today. But the other side of my sadness was this realization that hope realized is hope recognized. Or said another way, when someone or some group offers hope, people recognize it and they start believing in it again. It seems to me that what people need right now, what our world needs, is for us—the church—to show them again what hope looks like. They need to see hope in action.
Our scripture reading for this first Sunday in Advent is a common Advent text. It reminds us that in these days of anticipation and expectation we are to keep awake, stay alert, pay attention to what is happening—to what is being born. No matter that the sun be darkened and the moon does not give its light, this season reminds us that there is hope if we keep awake to it. From you, the good and faithful people of Pullen, I have learned that the way one waits on hope is to actually be hope in the world. Waiting in the biblical text is never passive. Biblical waiting is always active. While our hearts and souls wait, our feet and hands and voices are to actively be hope in the world. What does it mean to be hope in the world? It means acting in loving ways to all people. It means speaking kindly to all. It means not judging another for their differences. It means speaking out for justice. It means feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, and giving the thirsty a drink. This is not a time for people of faith—for the church—to passively wait on hope. The message this first Sunday in Advent is this: Keep awake, pay attention, and be the hope you want to see in the world. If you watch for it, you might realize what I did this week: hope is near.