One of the things I like about Twitter is that it can connect you with stories around the world in a different way from the regular media. The first thing I remember knowing about the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was photos of clergy in their robes kneeling in the streets at prayer vigils and then kneeling in the streets between police and protesters. That was back in August and the photos on the Episcopal Church newsfeed have continued to come, along with descriptions of the actions of many clergy and lay people in Ferguson and now across the US as the issues of race and rights before the law are debated.
As violence has erupted these last few days in anger at the court decision not to charge the police officer I have been wondering how the churches of Ferguson would respond to this reading we hear today. “In those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” The apocalyptic words Jesus uses to describe what might happen to the disciples must feel every real for those affected by the riots and those overcome with rage and grief. Dean Gary Hall of Washington National Cathedral quoted MLK “a riot is the language of the unheard”. And many leaders are trying to offer words of peace and calm and find a way forward out of what must feel quite apocalyptic. People though need to be know hope and believe there are just solutions ahead or they will continue to despair and despair leads to violence.
Other parts of the world hearing the words of the gospel of Mark this Advent know even less hope than the people of Fergusson. There are no church communities left in Northern Iraq for the gospel to be proclaimed this Sunday. I wonder how the lucky few who have escaped to refugee camps will hear this gospel. They will relate well enough to the sun and moon being darkened but can they hear the next part about the fig tree growing leaves as a sign that summer and the kingdom of God is near. They will struggle I would think to find hope.
Our Christian World Service appeal today highlights a project in Gaza training young people in trades. CWS notes that at least these young people will have work as there is so much rebuilding to be done in Gaza. They say
A year ago Mohamad Essa thought he had finally made it. Third time lucky he was accepted into the two year electrical training programme run by the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees (DSPR) at Qararah. Mohumad Basher aged 24 joined him on the course. Mohumad had completed media and communications studies at the Palestine University but could not find work in the field. He knows that he is much more likely to get a job as an electrician. Like the others in their class, they are eager to learn and hopeful of a normal life.
However, on July 8 the game changed. Extensive bombing left Gaza shattered and its citizens struggling to cope. During the 51 day war, people stayed in their homes or fled to overcrowded shelters and over 2,000 people lost their lives. Food and water were short and the bombing unrelenting. Fear was in the air. The war left no family untouched by trauma and the loss of homes and livelihood.
Helping Gaza’s young people hold on to their dreams of a normal life is very important to staff at DSPR. Without the opportunities of education or a job, they worry that more young people will be captured in the cycle of unrelenting violence that feeds the terrorist cause. They follow their students closely, helping them find work and supporting them make the best of a life where the physical reality is constrained but where they can contribute to the common good. With a good qualification, they know their students will contribute to a stronger community that is able to look after itself.
Sadly after natural disaster or war, there is work for trained tradespeople. Mohamad and Mohumad have their eye on the future. Life is very difficult for now but their dreams are much bigger. They want to reconnect their communities to a reliable electricity supply – there is much work to be done.
Jesus spoke the words we hear today to the disciples, sitting on the Mount of Olives, looking over at the Temple which seemed so solid and indestructible. But the gospel writer Mark knows what came next – the destruction of the Temple in 70AD – or the potential for it (scholars debate whether he is writing just before or just after that date). Mark knows his community need to hear that Jesus “knew” hard times would come and that they should still live with hope.
And the living with hope involves watching for signs of the fig tree budding with leaves – signs of spring and summer; like we watch for the first pohutakawa to flower and the first strawberries to be for sale to tell us Christmas is approaching. Signs of life and hope can come in the smallest of ways yet in the darkest of times they can seem huge and significant. Like people kneeling in prayer between protesters and police; like an Iraqi Christian living for one more day; like electricians learning their trade in bombed out buildings.
What about us. What darkens our moon and our sun? and what brings us hope? We don’t have to be embroiled in world events to be feeling worn down by despair – caring for a family member who is seriously ill; worrying about teenagers and their safety; facing illness ourselves; seeking meaningful work or just any work at all; our colleagues at the City Mission bracing themselves for a flood of need at Christmas.
All of these things and more can feel pretty apocalyptic; and so we come into Advent to be reminded about hope – to watch for signs of hope and to be awake and alert. Not like the bumper sticker that says “look busy, Jesus is coming” but to open ourselves to Jesus who is coming. Jesus who would be very uninterested in the hype and flurry of Christmas – but very interested in what we see and hear around us that are signs of his presence.
There is a twitter and facebook campaign called #OccupyAdvent and another one called @AdvntConspiracy encouraging us to rebel against the shopping mentality – the slogan of the Advent Conspiracy is “Christmas can still change the world – worship fully, spend less, give more, love all.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be the Christmas Grinch – I like the excitement and fun of Christmas as much as anyone. But we can enjoy our gift giving and special food while still being alert to the needs of others and not letting it take over our lives in a commercial frenzy.