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Friday, December 21, 2012

Advent Sermon

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 19:1-7
John 1:1-9

I recline on the damp gray carpet next to Hei Nay Htoo, the traffic of North Indian Creek Drive rushing like a gasoline brook outside of the open French doors. Thick summer air pours in from the balcony. Baw Baw lies sprawled on the dilapidated couch, provided by some church or resettlement agency, and now the primary home of several colonies of roaches.

“Can I make a doctor’s appointment for you?” I ask. She has been quite sick and not her usual self for the past few weeks.

“No. I will not go yet. I sick like this with Wonderful, Blay Blay, Hae Tha Blay, Ga Pu… ta blaw nya ee dee tho tho.

“You’re pregnant?”

Uh. Ya duh lee.”

Floored, I run to my room to find my English-Karen dictionary, thinking of all of the chaos of the past months while both parents were working, the many challenges of managing four kids, let alone another, and their intention to move back to Comer in just a few months. I flip the dictionary open to the C’s, and finding the page, I turn the book to face Baw Baw, pointing to the Karen word.

Na thay nyaahh? Do you know?”

Slightly insulted, she nods her head, “Ya thay nyaehh. Yes, I know. But we will have one more here. An American.”

This is the second Sunday in the season of advent, a time of anticipation for the arrival of our anointed one, our liberator. In Isaiah we hear a coronation liturgy for a new king who will restore Israel to glory. The text from Isaiah reveals a culture of expectation for an ideal worldly king, and God meets this expectation with the surprise of a helpless baby born in a feeding trough. The people who have walked in darkness, the darkness of domination, subjugation, and exile, have seen a great light, but perhaps not the light they had in mind. Though this baby is a king, his kingdom is not of this world and so we are not to prepare ourselves as such. The poet Rilke admonishes us:

We must not portray you in king’s robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.

Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.

We hear in the Psalm the way that all of creation proclaims the glory of God. Like the radiant heavens, an infant captures the attention of a people in the way that no politician ever will. As we prepare for Christmas we should be as expectant parents: eager, joyful, and terrified. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us. Before we know it the creator of the universe will be helpless in our arms, crying to be nursed, waiting to be nurtured into being. The birth that we anticipate is inseparable from its inconvenience. The news from the Angel Gabriel announcing Mary’s pregnancy, no doubt surprised her. She knew that this pregnancy would cause her great embarrassment as a young betrothed woman. But she received this news joyfully, as though pregnant with hope itself. She had faith that this unlikely humiliation would become her salvation.

Our scriptures this evening invite us to contemplate Christ coming into the world as a rising sun. The prologue to the gospel of John is reminiscent of God’s speaking the world into being in Genesis. This new light coming into the world illumines everything, enlightens everyone. “Nothing is hid from its heat,” the Psalmist sings. We can rejoice for this new warmth and clarity of vision, but this sun also exposes us as we are.

Thomas Merton writes, “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” It is a time of preparation for our journey with the infant king into Lent. The birth of this child will completely reorient our lives, much as it did for his parents. We will grow together with this child. He will become a mirror for our condition and perhaps as he learns to crawl, walk, and speak, so will we also rediscover these simple pleasures and forget the complexities of the world with which we tire our spirits. A new parent can anticipate a kind of death in the arrival of a new child, but how much greater is that new life. Through this imminent birth, we realize a new reciprocity in our relationship with God. We are with God as day pouring into day, night pouring into night.

To love the one who comes in this season we must love the way in which he comes: poverty. The message coming to us this advent is one of a simple hope, an affirmation that life is sacred because it opens up infinite possibilities for human love and creativity. The holy interruption of a newborn reminds us of that even in the most impractical of circumstances. How much more so should our God who becomes our very own child, our Isaac, our lamb, our liberator, who in his vulnerability invites us to union with him. We who have become disenchanted with humanity must embrace the spiritual poverty of an infant and search for Christ crying out for us in the stable, the street, the dingy apartment. As we hold him in our arms we are invited into a new reality that Mary knew well. The creator of the stars at night dwells in us.

On Saturday April 14, 2012 I wake up late in the morning still caught in the slump of humiliation from being fired from the chicken plant the day before. Leaving my phone behind, I wander over to the Farmer’s Market. I arrive at Corey and Lauren’s market table and pick out a bundle of asparagus.

“Baw Baw is trying to call you. She said something about her stomach hurting,” Corey says.

I walk over to their little white house behind the gas station and open the door. Baw Baw comes into the kitchen, just barely able to walk, four excited children in tow.

Ya gaw na ta blu law lee. Na ta paw fone bah duh—I called you many times already, but you did not pick up your phone.

“Sorry. I left it at home. Did you call Sue?”

“Yes, but she come 10:30.”

“Ok. I will call her again.”

Sue pulls up in a van and helps Baw Baw in. We gather towels and clothes for them to take to the hospital, and the four kids and I watch as the car drives away. Russ and Christina agree to watch the kids while I call the chicken plant, and teave a message with Human Resources to deliver to Hei Nay Htoo, who is working overtime, that his son is being born and to wait outside for me to take him to the hospital.

Leaving the kids at Jubilee, I take off towards Athens. Upon arriving in the parking lot at the plant on Barber Street, my phone rings. Pa Saw Paw says Hei Nay Htoo is at her house in Comer looking for me. After uttering some frustrated words, I tell her to tell him to come back and meet me at the chicken plant, since the hospital is only a few blocks away. Twenty odd minutes later, we caravan to Athens Regional and find our way to the third floor. There, tightly packaged in a warm blanket in his mother’s arms, is Wisdom.


President Obama made a historic visit to Burma in November as the first U.S. president ever to visit the country. The streets filled with people to welcome him and sing his praises for spending six-hours in their long-closed country. Somehow he managed to make a speech at Rangoon University, meet with Aung San Suu Kyi in her compound, and make an offering in the famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda within these six hours. His speech included an emphasis on the work ahead of deescalating ethnic conflicts and embracing ethnic diversity within the country, comparing the situation in Burma to the United States.

I recently read To the Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson, a biography of Adoniram Judson. Judson was the first American foreign missionary and spent his life translating the Bible into Burmese and preaching the gospel in Burma. He departed with a fairly imperial attitude, bent on “converting the heathens,” but even from the beginning there is something quite profound about what he takes on. When he departed in 1812, he offered his entire life to Burma, expecting, quite reasonably never to return to the United States of America.
As a young man before the emergence of his Burma fixation, he was raised in a conservative Congregationalist culture in Massachusetts. In his studies however he came to consider himself a Deist and for a while had little interest in the church, until finally driven from doubt he returned to study theology. He later converted and became a Baptist.
Every page of To the Golden Shore details seemingly yet another hardship. Judson endured the deaths of his loved ones and closest companions time and time again, yet remained steadfast in his mission. His imperial impulse to “convert the heathens” certainly dismissed the spiritual grandeur of Buddhism, but Judson’s life work cannot be dismissed as such. While his language is offensive in our modern pluralist society, his mission was certainly a conversion experience for himself also. His spirituality took on a markedly mystical tone after the death of his first wife, Nancy. He often read the works of the French Catholic mystic Madame Guyon, and perhaps under this influence, withdrew into a dark and ascetic period of his life aimed at self-annihilation. At his most extreme he dug a grave and spent hours sitting in it contemplating his own death.

In the center of the monks’ quarters at Pathom Asoke, a Buddhist lay-monastic community in Thailand where I spent a month during college, there is a glass casket with a decomposing corpse and various gruesome photographs of bodies in the throws of death. This horrific shrine functions as an emblem of the three marks of reality: dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (no-self).

Before the death of his first wife Nancy, Judson also spent a couple of years in the horrid conditions of a Burmese death prison during the war with the British because the Burmese became suspicious of all foreigners. While imprisoned, he concealed his Burmese translation of the Bible in his pillowcase.
What motivated his steadfast commitment to such a hostile land? It seems the same faith that smacked of intolerance grew within him a great love and intimate knowledge of the Burmese language and people, so much so that he was willing to suffer immeasurably for his mission. This is perhaps closer to the original meaning of the word “tolerance” from the Latin tolerantia, or “endurance.” The casting of one’s entire life away for the cause of a people not one’s own has a great deal to speak to us today of tolerance.
Our pluralist society offers the easy temptation of relativism, which propagates the myth that we can live together without really knowing each other: a dangerous path of intolerance. Christian and Buddhist tradition alike are meant to cultivate the practice of endurance: endurance for the suffering and dissatisfaction that we necessarily incur by living in community, by existing in relationship with other human beings.

Two centuries later, Adoniram Judson’s Christianity is returning to the United States with the Karen and other ethnic groups from Burma resettling as refugees. I sit on a frigid metal folding chair in a clearing in the pine forest gazing forward towards the stage built of from pine logs for the occasion and elaborately decorated with colorful garlands and streamers. Reverend Tha Hgay stands reading scriptures in Karen and English, his voice blaring over the poorly adjusted PA system. There are over two hundred people in attendance today for this year’s Christmas celebration.
The Karen own almost forty acres of pine forest off of a dirt road in the Vesta Community of rural Oglethorpe County. On this poor land, Reverend Tha Hgay, the chair of the Karen Baptist Church in the United States, dreams of establishing a mission school to raise up young Karen leaders to engage in ministry to their people here in the U.S. and abroad. Currently the land has four family homes and countless small shacks and cabins erected from felled pines. It is quickly developing into a village of sorts, with doublewides and singlewides rather than bamboo houses. In July of 2013, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Judson’s arrival in Rangoon, Reverend Tha Hgay intends to enact his dream with the support of Karen communities nationwide and a faculty from as far away as Burma. He is personally inviting me to be a student.

While excited about the Karen self-empowerment of this project. I also fear it regressing into some kind of backwoods fundamentalism. With the bloody and exploitative history of Christendom, what space is there for missions? Yet we who would practice Christianity in the West and travel the road of tolerance will be sent, perhaps not to a foreign land but instead to our own neglected backyard. There is in post-Christendom perhaps a space for a negative missiology: a sending that positions us to receive.