December 11th, 2022
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota
Advent is a season where we practice waiting. When I think of waiting, I think of refugees. The refugees that are resettled by Minnesota Council of Churches, where I work, have often spent years living in refugee camps after the traumatic experience that forced them to flee their home–experiences like war, political violence, persecution based on their social group or political opinion, or as a result of drought or famine or other disasters that are increasing due to climate change. Once they are finally resettled to a third country, they have often been waiting for years or even decades.
For many refugees, the waiting continues after they arrive in Minnesota. People resettled to the US with a refugee or asylee immigration status have the right to request that their family members join them, specifically spouses and children under 21. Once they have gone through that whole journey and filed all those forms and their relatives have undergone medical exams and extensive background checks, then maybe 10-15 years later, their family will arrive. At some point in that process, they will be assigned to a resettlement agency like Minnesota Council of Churches.
Refugees used to be theoretical to me, but now they call me. Literally. Once refugees are assigned to MCC for resettlement, we call their family or friend in the US and let them know. But unfortunately when things like the Trump administration’s travel ban from Muslim countries and a global pandemic happen, that means that people whose family members were assigned to us in 2016 are still waiting for their arrival. People who now live in Minnesota but are originally from Somalia or Ethiopia or Moldova or Myanmar or Venezuela, call me and ask when their family will arrive. And 95% of the time, I have no idea. The databases I have access to have no idea. The wheels that are turning overseas to make it happen are inscrutable to me and, from what I hear, they are to the refugees who are processing through them as well.
Family members call me and ask what’s happening and there’s nothing I can say. We’re all in a waiting game. But they call me because I’m a person they can reach rather than a faceless bureaucracy. I’m a person who will listen when they say that they can’t sleep because of how much they want to be reunited with their children. When they say how excruciating it is to be on the other side of the world from the ones they love in order to simply be safe. Because I might be able to access a tiny scrap of information that will give them the hope they need to get through another day apart.
In our scripture today, we encounter a lot of waiting. Isaiah waiting for “waters to break forth in the wilderness.” Mary singing her Magnificat as she anticipates her pregnancy and thanking God for filling the hungry with good things. And in our Gospel text, John the Baptist waiting for the Messiah, asking Jesus, “are you the one, or are we to wait for another?”
To me, the waiting that refugees are required to do is cruel. It’s a system in need of reform. But there’s some waiting that’s productive, that is necessary for growth. Like in the epistle from James, the crops are growing under the surface before we can see the fruit above the soil. There’s movement happening underground. As a deacon who was trained in community organizing, I know that there’s a slow, intentional building of people power required to grow a movement before it bursts onto the scene.
In our Gospel text today, John the Baptist has been organizing; he is preparing the way for the Jesus movement to burst onto the scene. And we are the fruit. But there’s more work to be done to change our world, like Presiding Bishop Curry has said, from the nightmare that it is for so many people into Godde’s dream.
As a deacon, one of my roles is to ask challenging questions of the church and of myself about how we live into our baptismal covenant promises to respect the dignity of every human being and seek justice and peace in the world. In that spirit, I ask all of us what John asked Jesus, “are you the one or are we to wait for another?” Will you be one of the people who patiently tills the soil and plants the seeds for the healing of the world?
In response to John’s question, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
In Jesus’s culture, the references to disability and disease are noted as conditions that need spiritual healing as much as physical, because they separated people from the community. Restoring the sight of people who are blind would not be primarily about curing the medical condition that caused their blindness but as a miracle that brought them back to their family and their community. The relationships that were restored would be just as important as the ability to see with their eyes. And on top of all that healing, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them!
We know that Jesus wants us to follow in his example. We may not be able to miraculously restore sight to the blind, but we can restore communities! We can bring good news of liberation to people who are poor in money and those who are poor in love and acceptance. We can recognize the places we are poor in compassion and generosity and learn from those who would teach us a better way.
So, the Spirit asks, are you the one who will follow Jesus’s call to restore communities, to bring good news to the poor? Will you join in the legacy of our sister Mary in lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things? Will you be like John and persistently prepare the way for justice and truth to bloom in our midst? Or are we to wait for another?
Godde will not let the work go undone, and we are invited to join the movement. We can make miracles happen together, as they grow above the soil due to the patient hard work that has been going on underground.
But waiting, even when we’re working for change, can be painful. When, like refugees waiting on their family members to arrive, we can feel like all the work that we’ve done is futile. That we’re trapped in a system that doesn’t care about us and doesn’t listen to our pleas for change. When we’re doing the persistent, careful work with our best efforts and another tragedy happens–like a person of color dying at the hands of the police or another mass shooting. How do we live through this? That’s why we practice waiting during Advent. So that we can build the spiritual muscle and resilience to keep working for justice over the long haul.
We must be strong and patient, trusting that tilling the soil, planting, and watering will grow fruit that changes the world. We must resist those voices who say to give up when we don’t see results right away. We are waiting for the bulbs planted in the fall to rise in the spring.
Even in the cruelest of circumstances, sometimes we can see the fruit appear. A few months ago, I got to call one of those refugees back and tell them that their children were coming to the US–finally. And they arrived! A 21-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son from Somalia joined their parents in Minnesota after fourteen years of waiting. It felt like a miracle.
So be strong, be patient, and get to work. With Godde’s help, we can make miracles too.