When Opportunity Knocks

Prof. Jonathan L. WaltonSermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly...” -- Luke 21:34

I picked up an interesting book last week. It’s by British journalist Ruth Whippman. It’s entitled America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation or Nervous Wrecks. As a recent immigrant to the West Coast, Whippman sought to understand America’s seeming love affair with happiness and positivity — a multi-billion-dollar empire of self-help. From unleashing your hidden Tony Robbins conferences to the power of positive thinking seminars to the mindfulness, meditation craze, Whippman noticed a trend. The more Americans spend their time trying to overcome dark realities with feel-good, cliché phrases; the more you and I try to deflect negativity with feel-good mantras; and the more we attempt to project “I’m living my best life” on Facebook and Instagram; the higher the reported levels of depression, despondency, and despair. Is it causation? Correlation? She doesn’t say. But she does pull the curtain back on some troubling practices.

For instance, she recounts a scene at one high-priced feel-good conference. The moderator would call one participant after another up to the stage. Participants would then divulge details about their personal life. Every time a person would offer up an account of heartbreak, abuse, fear, or neglect, the moderator would coach them to say, “It didn’t happen.” The goal of the practice was to help people overcome the pain of their past, by not acknowledging the pain of their past. They cited this as the ability to distinguish between the facts and the negative interpretation of the facts. Negative interpretations must go.

This sort of activity reveals two enduring truths about humanity. This first comes in the form of the famous quote by Mark Twain. “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” And the second is similar to it. We protect ourselves by refusing to know ourselves. We would instead project positive illusions than confront harsh realities; embrace simplistic lies than interrogate difficult truths. Indeed, not everything that we confront can be changed. But nothing can be changed unless it is confronted.

This is what today’s gospel lesson is about. How do we confront harsh realities? How do we interrogate difficult truths? Jesus is here teaching religious leaders and Judean elites about the coming travails. He is showing those who have their heads stuck in the proverbial sand. Don’t be caught by surprise by stress and strife. Don’t try to ignore calamity and catastrophe. Don’t be surprised by adversity and affliction. Your privilege can’t preserve you. Your performances of piety cannot protect you. For when the pains, problems, and perils of evil come like a thief in the night, you’ve got to be ready.

You’ve got to remember the teachings of the Law and the prophets. Get ready!
You’ve got to remember: be kind to the stranger for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
You’ve got to remember: Jeremiah told us that God desires the execution of justice and righteousness in the land. Get ready.
You’ve got to remember: Micah has already told us what is good. Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God. Get ready!

Now is not the time to slumber. Now is not the time to doze off to the lullabies of our own perceived privilege. Nor is now the time to feel overwhelmed by what seems to be the ubiquity of evil and corruption. We’ve got to be ready.

In the words of James Weldon Johnson:

“Lest our feet, stray from the places our God where we met thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee.”

Get ready!

These are the themes of Advent. Advent is about anticipation. It’s about preparation. We are anticipating the birth of the Christ child. We are preparing ourselves for the coming of the Prince of Peace.

Anticipation and preparation are not passive endeavors. Both involve us taking responsibility for the world we live in now. This includes a personal prayer life. Yes. This entails personal growth and spiritual cultivation. Indeed. But our anticipation and preparation can never be individual acts. Like the happiness industry in this nation, too often we make joy and satisfaction all about the self. Joy, happiness, and fulfillment do not emerge from self-mastery and so-called personal growth. We lift up the drawbridges of human relation and dig moats around our capacity for compassion. We succumb to the imperialism of the self. We forget that another’s material needs are our spiritual needs. In the words of Mother Theresa, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Fulfillment depends on other people. Maybe this is why most studies show that religious people tend to be happier and feel more fulfilled than nonreligious people. It’s not about whether one is Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Hindu. Particular theologies aside, religious people tend to have higher levels of engagement with their communities. They are more likely to volunteer time helping others, visiting with friends, supporting communities, and providing for those in need. 

These are the features of a happy and healthy life. And these are the ways that we can prepare ourselves by creating the world we want to see. Not in spite of suffering. But in the midst of suffering. 

Disappointment and distress are all around. Chaos and corruption are commonplace. Evil and injustice are everywhere. Yet we should not be surprised. Nor should we be afraid. Stand up and stand firm. For this is our opportunity.

When we see anti-Semitism on the rise throughout North America and Europe.
When we witness the murders of journalists and the erosion of human rights across the globe.
When Palestinian and Syrian children are unable to quench their thirst at the wells of freedom and equality.
When babies at the border choke on teargas and mothers are separated from their children.

Don’t just despair. For amidst the clamor of suffering, hear the knock of opportunity. An opportunity to raise one’s voice. An opportunity to contribute to a cause. An opportunity to serve with hearts of grace and hands of compassion. For when we stand strong against evil and abuse in this world, we are preparing to stand with the Son of God.

During this Advent season, remember that we are preparing the way with our actions. Opportunity knocks. Many of us donate food, money, and toys for those in need during this season. This is appropriate. Please do. But I also want to remind you that this is a season of sadness and loneliness for many. There are plenty with money in the bank, food in the refrigerator, but they need something that Amazon cannot deliver — company, conversation, the present of human presence.

A few years ago, a German grocery store aired a heart-wrenching yet instructive commercial. The commercial showed an old man coming home with a handful of groceries. When he entered his home, he heard the voice of his daughter on the answering machine. She was letting her father know that her family could not make it for Christmas this year. The commercial proceeds to show the elderly man sitting alone eating dinner. He is shown in several different outfits. One suspects it’s been years since the children have returned home.  

The next Christmas the children receive a telegram stating that the father has passed away. We see them shutting down their busy, big-city lives to return to the small country town for the funeral. They enter the house to find a decorated Christmas tree and a feast spread across the table. The father enters the room and asks, “How else could I have brought you all together?” The commercial ends with the family enjoying a holiday family dinner full of joy and laughter. 

My point is not to plant any ideas in anyone’s head on how to better emotionally blackmail your family members. But it is to say this: In the words of Emily Dickinson. “Behavior is what a man does. Not what he thinks, feels, or believes.” So if you and I believe in the coming justice and righteousness of Christ, then let’s behave accordingly. There’s no need to wait. Opportunity knocks. We can answer today.