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Advent 2 December 10, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
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December 10, 2017 | Advent II
Mark 1:1-8
 
One Sunday this past Fall, I arrived at church around 7:00 in the morning and discovered a young couple with their child sleeping in the breezeway that leads to the back parking lot. I also found a man and woman snuggling in a sleeping bag, partially covered with a cardboard box, wedged between the rhododendra and glass wall by the church entry way. 
 
Many of you may know that Christ Church members will welcome and prepare meals for homeless families during Christmas week – families in need of shelter as they await affordable housing.
 
This past week, in meetings with PLU students in my courses, one student volunteered that she and her family were homeless for a good number of years: she and her husband could not pay the mortgage on their small home after the Great Recession began to sweep the nation in 2008. Though each of them was working two jobs and paying their taxes, the bank said, “Out: Too Much Debt,” and so out they went -- a hard-working mother with three young children out on the street, out on the street while banking executives in New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle gave themselves extraordinary Christmas bonuses -- bonuses after being bailed out by the government with tax dollars from you and me and a homeless mother, even though such executives supervised high risk and unethical practices that placed their customers deeper and deeper into debt. To quote the medieval saying: “Debt can make a master out of one person and a slave out of another.”
 
Such was the case in Roman Palestine during the first century when John the Baptizer was publicly active prior to his execution by an Israelite ruler who “loved luxury.” Here by the Jordan John stands in camel hair, eating locust and honey, and baptizing people, standing by the Jordan  -- which, for hundreds of years, was the place in which the Jewish people re-enacted, every year, their liberation from Egyptian oppression by damming the Jordan and walking through it barefoot, unshod, singing freedom songs. Mark would like you and me to know that the Jordan was not only a river filled with water but also the place in which the people of God celebrate their freedom from the dehumanizing and oppressive forces that operate in the “kingdoms of this world.”
 
Consequently, at the time of Jesus and John, the hope for freedom had been rekindled as the people of Israel suffered under Roman occupation and the economic exploitation of Roman colonizers, Roman business interests, and Roman treasury officials. At least 30% of the population lived with incredible debt and many had become homeless due to the cruel system of taxation imposed upon their land and produce: taxes they could not pay, taxes that would not be returned to them in the form of assistance, taxes that would line the pockets of the emperor and his buddies, thus leaving the people landless and forcing them into begging.
“John appeared in the wilderness,” writes Mark, “proclaiming the forgiveness of debt” – of debt says the original Greek. Indeed, the original form of the Lord’s Prayer invites those who pray to say this – “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” – a change in one word that shifts the prayer from personal and frequently spiritualized sin (“I was impatient with my co-workers”) to the real time, down to earth experience of indebtedness that can lead to despair, conflict, and homelessness.
 
Can you imagine, then, such incredibly good news: to know that living in the Kingdom of God means living without crushing debt because the goods of this earth – shelter and food – can be shared generously and equitably among all people – not too much for a few and not too little for the many. Can you imagine if God’s economy – all people sheltered and fed enough – were our economy? Would that not, would that not be incredibly Good News?
 
But, some might say, it’s Advent, Father: aren’t we preparing for the birth of the Christ Child? Shouldn’t we be thinking about preparing a room in our sweet little hearts for the baby Jesus? Ah, but here’s the problem: he was born but once and Christmas is no birthday party in which we gaze on a distant event from the past as if it has little to do with our world today.
 
Rather, John the Baptizer points you and me to our Jordan, this baptismal font and every font where we have been baptized, and thus transferred from the cruel kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of God’s extravagant compassion and justice. And in this kingdom, whose light may be as small yet steadfast as the burning candles on the great Advent wreath of God’s time, you and I are invited to extend our concern beyond spouse and family to those who will find no shelter, who have been told repeatedly that “there is no room at the inn.”
 
Indeed, some might say that forgiving debt has little to do with God and church and one’s sense of spiritual comfort. Let’s leave it to the economists and bankers and hedge fund brokers. Well that worked well, didn’t it? And, then I am mindful of the five homeless people who found shelter at this church; mindful of the mother with three children, thrown out of her home while wealthy bankers feasted in sunny Florida resorts; mindful of the mothers and children who will find refuge in Wells Hall this Christmas.
 
And so I wonder: are they nothing more than strangers who need a dollop of charity or do we see ourselves as their brothers and sisters and, if so, do they need our collective voice, our voice crying out in the wilderness of this earth’s kingdoms, speaking out in public and asking, asking persistently: Why do so many of God’s children need shelter in a city – our city – marked by increasing wealth and extravagant price tags on homes?
 
We will soon sing these words: “Wild and lone the prophet's voice | echoes through the desert still, | calling us to make a choice, | bidding us to do God's will.” Dear brothers and sisters: What is God’s will for you and for me today?
 
Fr. Samuel Torvend
Christ Church Episcopal in Tacoma, Washington