Making Room for Hope – 11/28/21

Our theme for Advent this year is “Making Room.”  This theme emerged from the Las Posadas tradition.  The roots of Las Posadas stretch deeply into Latin culture. It originated in Spain, but it’s been a yearly celebration throughout Mexico for over 400 years. The tradition commemorates Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a shelter, a place to stay the night. Posadas is Spanish for “lodgings” or “accommodations.”  Beginning on December 16 and ending nine days later, on December 24, Las Posadas commemorates the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy.  Each evening during the festival, a small child dressed as an angel leads a procession through the streets of the town. The procession is primarily made up of children dressed in silver and gold robes carrying lit candles and images of Mary and Joseph riding a donkey. Adults, including musicians, follow the procession, which visits selected homes and asks for lodging for Joseph and Mary.  Each night, one family agrees to house the pilgrims.  Las Posadas serves as a reminder of the need to make room in our lives for the stranger, for in doing so we encounter the Divine.

This theme seemed particularly relevant because of where we find ourselves as a society and as a community.  In the wake of the pandemic, millions have lost their jobs.  They are unsure whether or not landlords will evict them from their homes for failure to pay rent.  Many families are food insecure for the first time in their lives. Those who were already on the brink are even less sure how to survive. And we are all exhausted in some way.  The pandemic has laid bare, and widened, economic disparity locally and globally.

This reminded me of the situation we read of in Luke faced by Joseph and Mary.  An oppressive regime had demanded everyone upend their lives and go to their home towns to register for the census, likely for tax purposes. Mary was on the verge of giving birth. Whether they got to town late or for some other reason, they had a housing problem that night.

The Innkeeper they seek shelter from is not referenced in the sacred texts.  We assume that since Luke said there was an “inn,” then there must have been an “innkeeper.” Often our stories cast him in a negative light, someone who banished a pregnant woman to where the animals were kept. But what if he was someone who saw a problem and thought outside the box to solve the problem of where Mary could have her child? Instead of thinking “there’s nowhere,” he said to himself, “there has to be somewhere.” And in that moment he makes room, provides refuge.

Many spiritual communities are finding themselves in the role of the innkeeper in the wake of shifts from the pandemic.  As they seek to make room, some are offering affordable office space to non-profits that work to alleviate society’s problems, some are creating affordable housing, some after-school help, some food distribution.  Like the innkeeper, each is seeking to house the work of the Divine love in a new way.  As we enter the Advent season, our own community is discerning how it can become a house which makes room for those seeking shelter from the onslaught of life, offering respite, sustenance and care.

We begin this week with making room for hope.  As we discussed last week, if we are going to make room for hope, there are many things we need to let go.  There are things in our story we need to let go. There are aspects of our outlook which we need to let go.  There are elements of our expectations we need to let go.  During the holiday season, many of us are reminded of troubling relationships with family or losses we have suffered.   And letting go of those things can feel like an ending.

The image from our first reading for this morning has always been one of the most powerful for me in scripture.  The endings we experience in our lives leave us seeing ourselves like that stump. It speaks to what happens when we cannot find hope, when we feel like that tree which has been cut off at the stump with no possibility for life.  We feel cut off from what gave us life.  In those times, we need to be reminded that from the stump a shoot and branch can spring forth.  We need to begin to see not just the injury, not just the lack which exists, but the potential for life which exists within the stump.

The branch represents what we do which is life giving, what we do to provide room for the Divine to enter.  This necessarily involves giving something up.  There may be the giving up of privilege, the giving up of a sense of comfort.  But this is when new growth happens, when the shoot emerges from the stump.  We nurture this emerging growth to create a shelter for those who have no shelter.  This is when we feel ourselves coming alive again.

Dante wrote “there is no life without hope.”  All of us have experienced times in when hope seemed absent, times when we see only a stump and are unable to see any sprout which could emerge, any new life which could emerge from where there seemed to be only death.  In those times, it is difficult to sit in that.  We are quick to want to move from despair to optimism.  We can become down on ourselves, thinking that we have a spiritual deficit or that the Divine has left us, is absent.

What I love about the image of the sprout emerging from the stump is the relative smallness of this shoot compared to this large stump of a once tall and strong tree.  That new life can emerge from something small, even if it takes decades to grow into its full potential.  We see this lived out in the life of Jesus.  Jesus did not possess political power.  He was not one of the religious elite.  But he taught, prayed, brought healing, listened, reached out to those on the margins.  He served as a steward of hope for those who saw only a stump.

We as a spiritual community serve as stewards of Hope.  There is so much wrong with our world.  So much pain and fear, and so much has already been lost.  But as stewards of Hope, we remember that there can be good even if it is one small act at a time.  One act of love.  One act of forgiveness.  One act of defiance.  One act for healing.  One act for change.  One of the strongest acts we can do as stewards of hope is to hold it forth for someone when they cannot hold it for themselves.  The hope that in any situation there can be healing, even if it is not the healing that we expect.  The hope that in any situation the power of love can create a shift, even if that shift takes much longer to come than we desire.  To recognize that the power of presence can give rise to this hope, can cause that small shoot to begin to emerge from a stump that appears lifeless.

There is an image by the street artist Banksy that has always been meaningful to me.  It is a picture of a little girl, wind blowing her hair, hand extended.  And in the air above her is a heart shaped balloon which has left her hand and is drifting into the air.  Written next to this image are the words, “There Is Always Hope.”  When I first saw this image, it seemed ironic.  To portray an image as hopeful when the balloon the girl was holding has been lost.  But the more I see this image, the more I see the release of the balloon as an intentional act.  That the girl allowed her balloon to drift into the air so others could see it and feel a sense of the hope that she has.

Hope is difficult to hold onto.  It is difficult to cling to when the winds of life come.    And those are the times that we need someone to be that hope for us.  For a steward of hope to remind us of the persistence of hope.

I think hope is something that has been difficult for many of us to hold onto recently.  In light of the political climate and staring down the barrel of another election fearful the past may repeat itself, hope is elusive.  I have seen the sprout begin to emerge from the stump.  Recently, may son shared with me about his new friend a school, a transgender boy.  And Pax felt I needed to be told how important it is to use the correct pronouns.  Hearing my nine year old talk to me about how he has made room for his friend gave me a sense of hope, that things do shift even if they take a long time to grow, even if we only see glimpses of new growth from places that seem stagnant.

As we heard in our reading by Naomi Shihab Nye, that hope can reemerge when we least expect it.  It can come when we think that hope is lost, that it is not something that we can feel again.  Like that lost yellow glove, hope can reemerge in a place we did not anticipate if we keep our eyes open for it, if we make room for the possibility.

This year we will be lighting the advent candles in a new way.  To symbolize each of our responsibility to make room for the ideas of hope, peace, joy and love that we mark during the advent season, each of us will be lighting an advent candle.  As you probably saw, I have the word “hope” spelled out in tea lights on the table in the back of the sanctuary.  During our song of response, you are invited to go to the back of the sanctuary and light one of these candles –  a reminder that we are all stewards of hope.

As we light our candles for Hope, we are reminded that the Divine is with us in the darkness as well as in the light.  We are reminded of that presence through the stewards of hope which surround us here in this room, present in the seeds which are planted in the dark ground waiting to emerge into the light, in the darkness of the stump as the new sprout begins to emerge.