Scripture: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
This word from John can feel like another assignment. Do this! John the Baptist chastises the crowd, calling them a "brood of vipers" and comparing them to chaff - the waste from processing wheat - that would be left on the threshing floor. When they ask what they ought to do, John's response is intriguing. He doesn't advise them to pray harder or attend synagogue more frequently. Rather, he urges them to restore their relationships with one another. In short: share and be fair. John gives specific advice to different audiences - advising tax collectors and soldiers how to act in their own spheres of influence.
Share with one another (Luke 3:11) and be fair in your business dealings (Luke 3:13-14). John's response is to recognize and respect our dependence on one another. When we are in need, we depend on the generosity of others. And in daily life, our wellbeing depends on trusting others to act justly.
The early church took this call to interdependence to heart. In the book of Acts, we learn that the first Christian communities "had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:44-45). This kind of sharing distinguished Christian communities for centuries afterward. For early Christians, dependence on one another went beyond just being nice. It was deeply rooted in the common understanding of property, human nature and God. We are created for community. No one can live, let alone thrive, without help from others.
Advent is the story of a dependent people being saved by God for the very reason that we could not save ourselves. We were and have always been dependent, not self-sufficient. From the first humans in Eden, relying on the gifts of the Creator, to our ancestors, wandering in the wilderness totally dependent on the protection and provision of God, Scripture is the story of God with us - because we can't do it alone. We hear that praise to God with us in our first two readings today. And we join John in pointing to the one coming, greater than he - Jesus, the Savior. When we know the full story - of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we know that he has saved us out of pure gift - grace. And any good we do is in response to that. God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.
The story in our Advent devotion booklet is about someone seeing a need in her community and stepping up. As the COVID-19 pandemic wore on, Ellie Puente in Fuquay Varina, NC saw hungry families in her community. She organized with other parents and identified 20 families in need. They rounded up donations and started making daily deliveries of lunches and other food supplies to their neighbors. Every time they thought they would run out of money to pay for food, local supporters stepped in. Abiding Presence Lutheran Church became a partner in the school's program and provided food for the families with the help of a Daily Bread Matching Grant from ELCA World Hunger.
Ellie shares that "Our food delivery program has been instrumental in meeting a physical need by providing food to our families," says Ellie. "More importantly, our food delivery program has helped us create a deeper connection with families. [The] families know we love them, and they know they belong."
I heard another story this week from my friend Catrina, about choosing radical kindness, love, and dignity and unflinching hope in the face of challenge and uncertainty. The story is about Our Lady of Peace hospice house in St. Paul, MN. Its story originates with Rose Hawthorne, daughter of famous American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. She lost her son to diphtheria at age 4, and in the waves of grief that followed, converted to Catholicism and became very attentive to her spiritual journey. Eventually she and her husband separated, and she lost two friends to cancer.
We’re now in the late 1890s. Cancer in those days was thought to be contagious, like scarlet fever. It was not uncommon for people to be abandoned by their families after diagnosis. Rose’s wealthy friend received the best care available at the time, but the poor friend was left to die alone on Blackwell's (now Roosevelt) Island in New York. Rose dedicated the rest of her life to caring for "the cancerous poor." She went to those who cared for her wealthy friend and asked them to teach her how to do the same for others. She knew how to write for newspapers and had access to wealthy people, to whom she appealed to help fund her work. She moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and basically began offering free hospice care to poor folks dying of cancer, decades before hospice officially became a thing in the world.
Eventually Rose found a kindred spirit in a woman named Alice and together they became Third Order Dominicans and founded the Congregation of St. Rose of Lima. Though Rose died in the late 20s, Alice and the other nuns would carry on the work. Over time the order would establish more hospice houses in other parts of the country. The sixth house was set to open in St. Paul, Minnesota. They were planning, preparing, and raising funds for it as Europe was already embroiled in war, and the US entry into WWII seemed somewhat inevitable. An East Coast Bishop questioned Alice as to whether this new house in St. Paul was a wise venture, given the times. She made a compelling case to him, but privately she worried: "As I write, the world is in great distress, and there seems to be no chance for improvement...Hitler and Mussolini have caused so much destruction that if we are not near the end of the world, there seems little chance to rebuild...As far as our work continues, there will always be the poor incurable cancer patients to care for, and our Homes will be kept well filled. Death is sometimes a daily visitor. We hope in a few months to open a Home in Saint Paul, Minnesota."
Wow. Here was a woman living in what felt to her like the end of the world, whose day to day reality bore the certainty of death for those in her care. If anyone had reason to despair and lose hope, it was Alice (known as Mother Rose by this point). And yet. In the midst of all of this suffering, she continued to choose radical kindness. She continued to choose love and care and dignity for the most vulnerable. She continued to choose hope. And to work for the opening of a sixth cancer hospice house, this one in St. Paul.1 And that Home in St. Paul did indeed open, 80 years ago this month. The nuns were giving people tours of the new home when the radio started buzzing with news from Pearl Harbor.
This is a story I needed to hear in the midst of our own long advent with COVID. It may be one you need too. This story reminds me of a quote used by folks in the German Confessing Church to inspire hope and perseverance during its opposition to the Nazi dictatorship in WWII. “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
The sharing that John the Baptist called his early followers to practice, and that Ellie, Abiding Presence and the
school practiced along with the unflinching hope of Rose and Alice is about more than the things we distribute or the people we accompany. It's about who we are created and called to be. As this Advent season reminds us, God promises not that we will be fine on our own but that we will be made whole in reconciled and transformed relationships with God and one another, through Jesus Christ. From the joy of Zechariah in the second week of Advent to the proclamations of John the Baptist this week, the message of Christ's coming is that we can't do it on our own - nor do we have to.
Rev. Elizabeth Bier is the pastor of ONE in Christ Parish, a three-point parish in Greenwood, Longwood, and Withee. She is ordained with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and has served the ONE in Christ Parish since February of 2019.Profile
The Sentinel & Rural News covers the news and events of Clark County and southern Taylor County, as well as regional news that affects those areas.