I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:3-11Sounds upbeat from a man in prison, doesn’t it? Conditions in ancient prisons were harsh. Prisoners were often chained to a post or perhaps to a guard. Poor ventilation and cramped, rat-infested quarters only added to the misery. And then there was the waiting – waiting for one’s case to come to trial, waiting for possible release, maybe waiting for death. In one Roman cell waits a messenger and theologian named Paul. His crime, preaching the destabilizing Gospel of Christ. While he waits, he writes a letter to his friends at the church in the city of Philippi. The letter gushes with love and gratitude. Paul says, “In all circumstances, in good or in bad, we learn to give thanks and live in peace. This prison is a gift. Since I have been in chains, Christ has given not only the gift of faith but also the gift of learning about suffering.” Paul knows that everyone is going to suffer, even God. If God can’t escape suffering in Christ, then no one is exempt. And so, we connect in our pain, just as we stay united in our joy. Instead of being self-absorbed or self-seeking, Paul encourages the church to be joyful, to be humble and to serve the needs of others.
Kind of reminds me of another prisoner of the Gospel. Just two days after Adolf Hitler had seized control of Germany in early 1933, a German minister named Dietrich Bonhoeffer delivered a radio sermon in which he warned Germans that “the Führer concept” was dangerous and wrong. Thus began a twelve-year struggle against Nazism, with Bonhoeffer ultimately getting arrested in 1943. For Bonhoeffer, waiting was a fact of life during the war: waiting to be released from prison; waiting to be able to spend more than an hour a month in the company of his young fiancée; waiting for the end of the war. There was little he could do except pray and wield a powerful pen. All of this waiting left Bonhoeffer with a sense of helplessness. In December, 1943, Bonhoeffer wrote these words from his cell: “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent. One waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other – things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.” But the prison door never opened for Bonhoeffer. As the Third Reich crumbled in April 1945, papers were discovered confirming Bonhoeffer’s involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 8, 1945, just ten days before German forces began to surrender and less than three weeks before Hitler’s own death. Bonhoeffer was thirty-nine years old. Was Bonhoeffer’s waiting in vain?
Waiting is built into the natural order. We wait for seeds sown to grow and bear fruit. We wait nine months for the baby to be born. We wait for children to grow up and take responsibility for their own lives. We wait for promotions and new opportunities. We wait for investments to mature. We wait for healing after surgery. We wait for transitions to retirement communities, assisted living and nursing care. Waiting can be full of anticipation or it can be full of dread. If we believe, like Bonhoeffer, that God is in charge of history and comes to earth to fix up our lives, then we might wait with hopefulness and helplessness. If we are waiting on God to free us from life’s confinements, then what can WE do except hope, pray, and wait. Because in this scenario, deliverance – salvation – must come from an outside rescuing force. And something about this troubles me.
Here’s what bothers me -- most all of us, at one time or another, turn to God as a sort of divine, benevolent superhero in flowing white robes. The Brave-Redeemer breaks down prison doors and bends human will like an iron bar in the hands of Superman. In the words of John Donne’s 14th Sonnet:
Batter my heart, three-personed God; for YouPeople pray and plead that SuperGod will make up for our human weakness by using heavenly super-strength to make us better. Like prisoners waiting for release, we were taught to put our hope in the One who will intervene in our human experience and save us. I think this theology is a serious misunderstanding of how we are to live with our God. God is not a caped superhero who flies to our rescue. The God whom we see demonstrated in Christ came not as a triumphant dictator or a magical hero, but a humble servant. God in Christ reaches out to us, patiently and gently calls us to produce a harvest of righteousness. Do you remember that line from the end of the passage we read in Philippians? The phrase can literally mean the fruit of justice. It comes from a legal term referring to a judicial verdict of approval. Paul thinks that God, as judge, gives approval to certain behaviors we see in Jesus – actions like honesty, truth, generosity, kindness, meekness, goodness.
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow burn, and make me new . . .
In my view, Christians have a mixed history in producing the fruit of justice. Let me give you an example of what I mean. World AIDS day was yesterday. World AIDS Day began in 1988. In the 20 or so years that have followed, more than 25 million people have died from AIDS. 33.4 million currently live with HIV/AIDS – nearly 95% of whom live in the developing world. Grim statistics. They cause me to ask, “Where do we see God in this?” HIV is a preventable and so, theoretically, there should be fewer new infections. With over 23 drugs to treat HIV, the number of deaths should be decreasing dramatically. Although the number of new infections has decreased and people with HIV infection live longer, more productive lives, there has not been a sea change in the epidemic. One reason is that getting drugs to HIV infected people in resource-poor countries is not easy. Many governments, where needs are greater and more urgent, are slow to respond to the needs of their people. I would argue that another reason why there has not been a huge change is that the Church has not gotten involved. As the HIV epidemic took off in the US and in resource-poor communities, the Christian church in The United States, with few exceptions, chose to stand on the sidelines. Issues of sexuality and blame took precedence over compassion and mission. The teachings of Jesus were largely ignored. Jesus, and his forerunner John the Baptist, whom we heard about in our first reading, preached Good News to the poor and announced freedom to those who were wounded by human indignity and oppression. Christians have a special responsibility to produce a harvest of righteousness – the fruit of justice – to act with integrity and virtue and to speak prophetically in the name of a just, righteous and compassionate God. So, where was the Church in the face of AIDS? Silent. Instead of taking the opportunity to reflect on our identity and mission, the overwhelming religious response to AIDS was fear and callousness. What were we waiting for? What ARE we waiting for? SuperGod to fly in and fix it? To judge? To restore? To mend? To bust open the prison doors? Are we waiting in hopefulness and helplessness?
It’s not just about AIDS. The world is filled with so many problems, both global and personal. There will always be something that challenges our faith. There will always be moments where life feels like a prison cell and we are just waiting for help. But in all the waiting, I don’t want us to miss a chance to know God. I don’t want us to miss seeing what God is doing. I don’t want us to miss out on participating in what God is doing. I don’t want us to be so distracted with hoping and waiting and doing this, that, and the other, that we fail to recognize the presence of Christ.
Church, what are we waiting for? Are we waiting for God to do something new without calling ourselves to fully immerse ourselves in the pain around us? Are we waiting for God to keep an Advent promise without keeping ours?
Faith, hope, love, peace, conﬁdence, friendship, memories, courage; everything depends on sustaining these graces, in our own lives and especially in the lives of our brothers and sisters who suffer. So, no, I’m not waiting on God. If anything, maybe God is waiting for us. Maybe God is waiting for us to intervene. Maybe God is waiting for us to open doors. Maybe God is waiting for us to offer a healing touch with words of tenderness, love, and forgiveness. Maybe God is waiting for us to declare the way of God in the desserts of life. Maybe God calls us to produce the fruit of justice -- the tender empathy that motivates us to action.
I leave us with some words that were written on a square on the emotionally gripping AIDS quilt – perhaps a reminder of the fruit of justice we can produce . . .
[AIDS] cannot cripple loveOur confinements cannot suppress love – not just the love we receive but the love we share. Let’s not miss out on being part of God’s bigger plan – that your love may overflow with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
It cannot shatter hope
It cannot corrode faith
It cannot eat away peace
It cannot destroy conﬁdence
It cannot kill friendship
It cannot shout out memories
It cannot silence courage
It cannot reduce eternal life
It cannot quench the spirit
It cannot invade the soul or the love we have for you