faith

Why advent…and why maybe not. (maybe part of a series on liturgical seasons of resistance…or also maybe not)

I think it was the day after my father died, so almost exactly a year ago. With a lump in her throat, my mother said, “I might put out a few Christmas things this year, but I can’t put out anything that’s from the Advent box. I just think about your father making sure every year he didn’t get cheated out of an Advent tea if Christmas eve fell on a Sunday.”

Most liturgical traditions weren’t to be trusted in my mother’s Scottish Presbyterian upbringing: anything too liturgical was definitely Catholic, which was NOT Presbyterian. (For a very small country that loves their resistance stories so much, they seem to forget how much of their resistance was wrapped up in resisting the Church of England back when they were mostly Catholic.) 

So it was interesting that when my mother lost many of her family’s traditions upon being cut off by her parents for marrying my (brown) Hindu father, one of the family traditions that the three of us clung to even though it had no part in either of their histories was Advent. Not the historical Advent of fasting and penitence (don’t worry, I’m getting there) but the Advent of lighting candles, listening to Christmas music, and having finger sandwiches thick with margarine and filled with the special treat of tinned salmon, or homemade sausage rolls–greasy hot water pastry filled with tubed sausage meat and sliced into bite sized pieces, and tiny individual mince pies. (My mother grew up in post-war Britain. That’s pretty high end.)

It was a much beloved ritual my mother was stunned I didn’t keep rigorously myself when I moved out. (And when I had a partner, I did. And to this day, I try to host ONE advent tea a year if I can pull it off, to share the tradition as best I can as a childless single person whose family traditions will die with me.)


I’m an everything nerd, so it’s not surprising I turned out to be a liturgy nerd. I’m also a generalist–I’m too lazy to delve deep into any one subject, no matter how interesting. So over the years people who have learned this about me have performed the party trick of sharing little nuggets of history about Advent in particular, which I treat as valuable oral tradition and do not seek to debunk, because they are such good sermon fodder.

Over the years I’ve learned these things about Advent that may or may not be true; don’t take them away from me:

  • Advent was created as a season of penitence and fasting to provide dignity to people without resources. That was a lean season for serfs, and it sanctified–made holy– their struggle and demanded that those with more resources join their struggle if they wanted to see themselves as holy.
  • Advent was a six week season like Lent, offering mirrors of our journey and challenge as we approach the miraculous birth (and the hope of overcoming a tyrannical state) and our journey and challenge as we approach the devastation of death and then the miracle of new life (after the conquering of hell).
  • Gaudete Sunday/Rose Sunday/Joy Sunday (the pink candle, currently the third week of four Sundays, the other three being purple candles of royalty but also of deep reflection) was added because medieval folks would get so into the penitential aspect of Advent that by the Sunday before the Sunday before Christmas, people would be fainting from hunger in worship. (I know my Anglican friends will remind me every Sunday is meant to be a mini-Easter, but y’all know a Scottish Presbyterian by blood, no matter how liturgical, sees that as just cheating on the self-discipline.)

How is that not a SUPER COOL SEASON that we should all be totally digging? (OK, I get swept up in the hardcore bada**ery of folks in the medieval church, I admit.)


So here’s the thing. Every year in the US we get into lots of weird conversations and debates about whether the church is getting sucked into materialist culture by participating in Christmas before December 25. (It is.) We debate whether we should only sing Advent hymns (of which there are really only two that anyone knows–fight me) until Christmas Day, and then sing Christmas hymns until January 6, Epiphany, when everyone is sick to death of Christmas. (We should. And you don’t have to fight me cuz my mum will, every year. You’re good.)

I have friends who grew up in churches that don’t really have advent, who see it as very much a white thing or a mainline church thing or a Catholic thing. (They’re not necessarily wrong.) And yet as I’ve tried to practice Advent as faithfully as I practice Lent (which does end up getting a little too Catholic for my mother, no matter how hard she tries to overcome the sectarianism that damaged her homeland for hundreds of years), my relationship to Jesus and my political identity as a Christ-follower deepen. So I’m still fighting for it. Usually. Until this year.


My friends and I are what you might call “crispy.” We’ve called and mailed and protested and risked arrest and preached and marched and cried and vigiled and pilgrimaged til we have almost nothing left. We live in a nation that is caging babies and murdering sacred land. We live in a nation where hate crimes are on the rise and fascism is maybe creeping or maybe sauntering at this point. We live in a nation where everything tells us Black lives don’t matter but that saying Black lives DO matter makes us a threat to our government. We live in a nation where refugees are turned back to places we made dangerous and immigrants are deported but we continue to try to wipe out indigenous lives at the same time, reminding us that whiteness is the only real god we are meant to worship.

And so this year, I’ve been letting Christmas trickle in anywhere it needs to in communities that are impacted physically or psychically by this evil. I’ve been letting the already part of the Christmas miracle (God is always, already and not yet) show up as strongly as the not yet among my activist and organizer and care taker friends. I’ve started seeing this season as one long and well deserved Gaudete Sunday of joy after so many purple Sundays of hope, peace and love in the face of hopelessness, violence and hate.

I used to serve in a church where most of us didn’t have much, and I preached the importance of a season of Advent anticipation and even spiritual discipline and temperance in the face of American capitalist exploitation of our holiday for the sake of making a buck. I’m not sorry for that, and I’d also give anyone struggling a pass to let a little Christmas leak into Advent.

So maybe it doesn’t need to be a line in the sand, a bright line, a line of purple and pink candles against a line of green and red ones.

 

But here’s the thing, though.

How do we assess if we’re self-medicating, erasing, avoiding the realities of the biblical moment leading up to Christmas by skipping the critical part of the story?

What if the part about Mary exclaiming that her Son would tear down injustice and literally withhold food from those who had grown fat while others starved…what if that part is in the bible for the people who are comfortable to be awakened to their role in addressing their fellow human’s suffering, not just as an act of charity but as an act of systemic restructuring?

What if the season of Advent is about people with stuff having to do without, to literally feel what longing and absence and need are, to cultivate empathy, the way our Muslim siblings are supposed to feel deeper empathy for the poor during their fasting season of Ramadan?

What if Advent’s point right now is to wake us up and shake us loose from the illusion that democracy actually addresses the needs of the poorest, the darkest skinned, the longest on this land when it was designed for the wealthiest, the lightest skinned and the newest arrivals of a certain type?


I have some deeply liturgical friends who get mad at the Good Friday sermon that says “It may be Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” I remember getting mad at my congregation for not catching fire about the miracle of Moses and the liberation of Israel, and when I complained to a pastor who worshiped at the church when he wasn’t at his own, he said, “that’s because we know God liberated US right here just two hundred years ago so we don’t need to get excited about that,” and I got mad at HIM.

As I get older I am better at recognizing that for my siblings who are in an eternal advent, in the occupied Jerusalem before that liberator baby had been born, a little sneak peak of Christmas isn’t a sin.

I just don’t want Christmas to be an anesthetic to the fact that we are all living in occupied Jerusalem before that liberator baby has been born, and some of us who are wounded spiritually by the occupation (and ALL of us are wounded spiritually by it) still have some work to do to show up alongside the folks who are being wounded physically and psychically by that same occupation.

It’s why my friends created the now notorious “F*** this S***” advent devotional several years ago at the height of the Movement for Black Lives, to remind us that the prophets waiting for a better day used REALLY strong language to convey the urgency of the moment, the desperate need for a savior, the desperate need for us to do the WORK of preparation, to put aside politeness and civility and “decency” when those things are perpetuating violence.

So I guess, to use my long-forgotten theological ethics terminology, I’m trying to make the argument that the right to Christmas before December 25 feels to me to be situational.

I get that I’m fighting a losing battle. I’m not 100% sure it’s a battle that matters anywhere near as much as the work I get to do with congregations and nonprofits seeking to institutionalize anti-oppression practices into the lives of their organizations. That said, as a deeper and deeper proponent of nonviolence, I also find myself moving more and more towards spiritual discipline as the way to remain grounded in my work, my accountability and my relationship to the divine in hard times.


I haven’t asked but I think my mother’s putting out the advent wreath this year. I’m not sure she’ll make sausage rolls for one, but she’ll watch all of the Christmas choral concerts on PBS. It might still be too sad one year later for either of us to do the joy-filled advent rituals that made my father act delightfully like a child even in the years when he was working so hard and often ran a little short tempered.

And when she’s with me on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we’ll go to church and then to the Dickens Christmas Faire at the Cow Palace because I’m not an absolute purist either.

A friend made a beautiful argument for why we as progressive Christians should embrace Christmas the way it’s being practiced in the secular world. If we don’t reclaim Christmas as a season of all the beautiful values we believe Christmas to be, my friend argued, we’ve ceded ground and are letting the corporations and capitalist interests define it.

That’s cool. I’m just going to wait to reclaim it til December 25th. And in the mean time I’m pushing Advent HARD, just like Sysyphus with the boulder, December after December, a rock made out of hope and peace and joy and love and two other substances I don’t know because we’ve reduced it by two weeks.

If it’s any consolation, my mother’s rolling her eyes right along with you, as she hangs up her Christmas decorations, and as I do, too.

Sermon on how to make life easier for folks on the margins

It was a real gift to preach in Redding, CA in July. What a great community, with a history of LGBTQ+ inclusion. After preaching this sermon, I was told by a couple in the church that they were ready for my sermon because they had watched the Netflix stand up special Nanette by Hannah Gadsby the night before. “She talked about the same thing as you: self-effacing comedy when done by oppressed people is not humility; it’s humiliation.” What a cool connection to have made. Go watch Nanette. Seriously.

“The Back-to-Egypt Committee,” a sermon at First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, 24 September 2017

This sermon was based on the lectionary passage Exodus 16:2-15, where the Israelites who have just been led out of enslavement in Egypt complain that Moses has brought them there to die and how good they had it back in Egypt where there was really good stew and housing. My pastor used to call these folks the Back-to-Egypt Committee, and the narrative still seems true today.

“Mothers of Islam” — a sermon preached at First Christian Church of Concord, CA

Sermon can be found HERE.

A description from the church’s website: “One of our favorite guest preachers, Rev. Sandhya Jha, preaches on the story of Hagar and weaves it in with the story of Khadijah, the prophet Muhammad’s first wife.  She invites us to stand with our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, living in true community.”

“I thirst.” The fifth word in the Seven Last Words Good Friday Service at Allen Temple Baptist Church

preached by Sandhya Jha on April 14, 2017:

 

Last summer, I spent a week in Flint, Michigan.

On Sunday, a local pastor invited me to preach.

I don’t know why, with all they are dealing with in Flint, Michigan, that God told me to talk to them about refugees. But that’s who God told me to talk about.

I stood there in a church full of people who had been living six months with the knowledge that their government had put lead into their drinking water and then done virtually nothing about that fact when it came to light, and I talked to them about a man named Willie whom I had just met.

Willie has lived in northern CA for 20 years. A few years ago his sister’s husband was kidnapped in El Salvador; they called him and demanded $5,000 in four days for his release. Willie, who earns very little, could only come up with $500. They killed his brother-in-law. And then Willie’s nephew. Terrified that 3-year-old Stephanie might be next, 13 members of the family escaped, traveling on tops of trains and buses. At the US border they were detained and held in refrigerator containers for 13 days without blankets, where sleeping on the floor would have caused frostbite. Willie found out they were here and gathered money for 13 greyhound tickets so all 14 of them could live in his tiny apartment. Thanks to a faith organization, they have been granted asylum status.

I also told the people at Woodside church in Flint, Michigan about One of the organizations at the Oakland Peace Center, called the Mustard Seed Project. It provides legal assistance to youth seeking refugee status in this country because if they are sent home and refuse to join the gangs and drug cartels there, they will be murdered…or worse. The attorney who runs the Mustard Seed Project came into my office straight from the courtroom one day and said, “Babies. I am literally defending babies in the courtroom. Babies who cannot even speak their own names yet are supposed to defend themselves in our court system.” She had been in court with a toddler that morning, a toddler that the US government needed to defend himself in a court of law to make the case that if he was sent back to Honduras he would be killed.

I told them that the longer I worked at the Oakland Peace Center, the more my understanding of prayer merged with what I had heard Pope Francis say not long ago: You pray for the poor, and then you feed them; that is how prayer works.

I talked about our nation’s need to repent deeply for our policies in central and south America as well as our policies in the Caribbean and throughout Africa, and that part of our prayer of repentance was to act as God would have us act to our refugee brothers and sisters who are fleeing nations whose violence we created for the profit of a handful of people who today profit far more from war than from peace.

And after we had said our amens and given our offerings and sang songs of praise, we went to the fellowship hall. And the adults talked to me about more faithful immigration policies that we could work on together, and the little children played at our feet. And we had cookies arranged carefully on trays by the church mothers, and we drank coffee and lemonade…made from bottled water.

But everything about worship and fellowship time afterwards felt so normal that it was Wednesday before I realized, every person I was talking to, every little child playing at my feet after worship, had likely absorbed so much lead into their systems that they would suffer permanent harm, from irregular brain development to memory loss to uncontrollable tremors that would emerge over time, rendering them ineligible for the work that was already so scarce in that community that had nurtured them and destroyed them in equal measures. All because their government decided to take away their clean water and replace it with dirty water and then decided not to treat it, so that the pipes corroded.

I do not know thirst like my savior knew on the cross that day. I have always had access to water to drink.

I do not know thirst like my savior knew on the cross that day. But Willie’s family did, when they were held in refrigerator containers for 13 days by our government, including that three year old girl, Stephanie. Stephanie knew what it was to thirst and suffer at the hands of a government that did not consider her human but considered her a threat. Just like Jesus her savior knew what it was to thirst and suffer at the hands of a government that did not consider him human but considered him a threat.

Our brothers and sisters in Flint did not know what it was to be thirsty. They had access to jobs, and then they didn’t. They had access to opportunity, and then they didn’t. They had access to a safe and vibrant and thriving community, and then they didn’t. Some of them knew hunger. Many of them knew humiliation. Some of them knew redlining…intimately.

But they always had water.

For three years they did not know that the water they had was poisoning them.

They did not know at first where the rashes came from as they showered. They did not know why their memory was getting worse. They did not know why they experienced tremors that stopped them from being able to work.

They sought water and were given hyssop.

 

It boggles my mind that in his last moments, suffering so, Jesus was still teaching us. The scripture says that he said “I am thirsty” in order to fulfil scripture. The scripture was Psalm 69, in which the psalmist famously states, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

 

But that psalm was not only about being thirsty. It was about being overwhelmed and hated.

1Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.

2I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.

3I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.

4More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore?

Willie’s family had enemies. They had to flee people who extort money from the poor. Their government would not help them. They came to a country that treats foreigners as less than human.

The people of Flint had enemies. Their own government poisoned them slowly for the sake of a few dollars and did as little as possible for them. Many of Flint’s residents were both poor and Black. Their government had treated them as enemies since before they were born.

And Jesus, on the cross, with one phrase passing his cracked, dry lips, “I am thirsty,” spoke a word of solidarity with Willie’s family and the families in Flint, and a word of solidarity for us in a city where police pass around young girls instead of participating in their liberation, where city officials spend more time talking about potholes than about the growing number of homeless people and the diminishing number of Black people.

When Jesus tells the crowd, “I am thirsty,” he hearkens back to the ancestors who had borne so much suffering that they wanted to give up. He let them know that he understood that feeling, that he felt it too. That our Lord and Savior does not condemn our fatigue but feels it with us might be scary to some, but to me it is immensely comforting, as my own South Asian community along with our Arab American brothers and sisters fear attacks in the streets because of our government’s barely veiled threats on Muslim lives in a nation that cannot tell Christian from Muslim from Sikh from Hindu when all they see is Brown. I do not know how to reconcile myself to living in a country where at any point someone could beat up by Indian father or kill him because they hate brown people and pretend it is about religion. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by how many enemies we have. And I know Jesus knows that feeling.

With that simple phrase, “I am thirsty,” Jesus hearkens to the plea of the Psalmist:

Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.

18Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies.

19You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you.

20Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.

21They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

In that barely whispered phrase, “I am thirsty,” Jesus stands with Willie’s family who knew literal thirst but also knew what it meant to thirst for basic human dignity, to thirst for freedom from fear, to thirst for a place where children can grow up. In that plea, “I am thirsty,” Jesus stands with the people of Flint who did not even know they were thirsting for clean water and also for a time when their best and brightest did not have to dedicate all of their energy to campaigns of resistance and fights for basic rights.

When all he can utter, hanging from the cross and suffering, is “I am thirsty,” Jesus stands with the indigenous peoples, the Water Protectors in North Dakota who proclaim “Mni wiconi,” “Water is life” even when their homes are taken from them and their people are arrested for protecting the water for all of us. Jesus, like the psalmist he quotes, thirsts for a time when the world will be made right.

He thirsts for a time when this country is liberated from its founding sins of conquest of land, attempted genocide of indigenous people and the dehumanizing and destructive enslavement of Black people for profit, sins that have not disappeared but have evolved and adapted as only evil can.

Jesus feels the despair creeping in, the seemingly unwinnable fight and lets us know that our despair is reasonable, that our enemies are real.

But he also quotes the psalm because he knows that despair is not the end of the story.

30I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.

32Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive.

33For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.

35For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah; and his servants shall live there and possess it;

36the children of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall live in it.

My brothers and sisters, Jesus still thirsts for the prisoners to be freed, for strangers to be welcomed because we were all strangers in Egypt once. Jesus still thirsts for a world where love is love and Black lives matter. Jesus still thirsts for a world where our governments partner with us in building a Beloved Community here on earth, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.

Do you thirst with Jesus?

Do you seek to rid the world of hyssop and replace it with pure, thirst quenching water?

Do you want to build a Beloved Community where all of God’s children are welcome and equal and thriving?

Then in the name of our thirsting Lord and Savior, let us be about God’s work until all of God’s children’s thirst is quenched.