Advent 3   Leave a comment

The following is a homily I gave at St Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on Sunday 16 December 2018:
The Lectionary texts may be found here.

Audio file: homily16dec2018.m4a

In the early 1940’s, Walt Disney decided to make a movie about the African-American Experience in the post-Civil War South.

What could go wrong?

To his credit, he met with members of the NAACP to get their ideas on how to appropriately tell the story. And then, he decided to ignore all of their advice and tell the story as he had envisioned it, with all the offensive and hurtful stereotypes he had heard romanticized growing up.

You probably know the end of the story: “Song Of The South” is excoriated for its racial insensitivity, and for the most part considered an embarrassment by the Disney Corporation, which has never released it on any home video format and probably never will.

A few years ago, Pixar, which of course is part of Disney, announced that it was preparing to make a movie about Día De Muertos, The Day of the Dead, the Mexican feast related to All Saints’ Day. There was outrage from the Latinx Community, who saw this plan as an appropriation and exploitation of its culture. Several Mexican and Mexican-American artists and activists took Pixar publicly to task. “What do you really know about our culture and its traditions?” they asked. “Do you even have any Latinx filmmakers working on the project?”

And then a remarkable thing happened: instead of ignoring the activists like Walt Disney had done, Pixar said: “You’re right. We’ve taken the wrong approach. We’re sorry, and we’re going to do better.” They promoted one of their Mexican-American animators to the position of Co-director, making him one of the leaders of the project. They invited several of the very artists and activists who had challenged them to come to work on the movie, to help them understand the culture and get it right, to help shape the story and look of the film. They went back to the drawing board and restarted the project from a fresh, collaborative perspective.

You probably know the end of this story, too: “Coco” was a huge critical and popular success, enthusiastically embraced by the Latinx Community as representing and honoring its culture, and welcomed with joy by filmgoers of all ethnicities and ages.

I often see in my Facebook feed two competing ideals: one, that there is too much political and/or religious discussion in that space, and people should lighten up and post happy things like fun memes and cat videos; the other, that there is far too much banality on social media and more people should be conversing there about things that matter, like politics and religion.

As I look at the scripture readings selected for today, the Third Sunday of Advent in Year C, I imagine a similar debate happening within the multi-denominational Consultation that selected the Revised Common Lectionary. “It’s Advent: let us rejoice!” “No, it’s Advent: we must repent!” And so we have two passages and a canticle that tell us to rejoice, followed by John the Baptist admonishing us, “Repent, you poisonous snakes!”

The contrast does reflect a real longtime debate in The Church about the nature of Advent as a penitential season or not, and there has also been in my Facebook feed this week a vigorous and meticulously-researched debate about that question, and how it informs the debate on blue vestments versus purple.

Today we put aside the blue (or purple) for rose vestments, to note that this is a day to rejoice—gaudete in the Latin. Jesus is coming. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

I’ve commended to you before from this pulpit living the Liturgical Year, focusing our lives on the annual cycle of retelling the life of Jesus, and the life of God’s people in relation to Christ. And if you regularly attend an Episcopal Church, you are living the Liturgical Year at least to some extent whether or not you think about it. We are always hearing this story of redemption-and-reconciliation-with-God-and-each-other for which our spiritual ancestors have hoped in the past and for which our children and grandchildren will continue to hope and seek until that promised time comes.

We live in that hope even as wars and gun violence continue to claim our siblings, even as our government tries to erase those among us who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, even as it criminalizes poverty and ethnicity, even as it continues to separate the families of asylum seekers and allows their children to die in its custody. We rejoice in God’s saving deeds in the past, present, and future even as we mourn present tragedy.

Beyond the shock of the Baptist’s harsh words—words to get our attention and call us to do better—is what we could perhaps consider instructions on how to reach the time of rejoicing that the first three passages describe: share your abundance with those in a state of scarcity. Be just. Repent: turn away from your present position and consider another point of view.

The voice of Walt Disney in the context of making “Song of the South” is a voice we hear everyday: it is the voice saying “make America great again” without considering those for whom it has never been great. It is the mostly straight white cisgender Christian-identifying male voice that says, “On some level I understand that you feel hurt and offended by my worldview and its language, but I am too devoted to that worldview and language to consider changing it.”

Pixar, meanwhile, bore fruits worthy of repentance. They heard the voice that says, “listen to those who say that you have hurt them. Invite them into conversation and learn from them, and you will all be better together. It takes hard work, but it it is worth it. Do not let your hands grow weak.”

The world is about to change. It changes every December as we follow the Liturgical Year’s cycle of remembering our ancestors’s longing for a messiah and the fulfillment of that longing in the birth of a poor child in a manger. And it is changing in our painful reality as those on the margins step forth to lead us out of darkness. It is changing as God slowly, quietly softens hearts and awakens the powerful to unheard perspectives. We can do better. We will do better. Bear fruits worthy of repentance. And rejoice.

On that day it shall be said:

Do not fear;
do not let your hands grow weak.

The Lord, your God, is in your midst;

They will rejoice over you with gladness,
They will renew you in their love;

They will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.

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