Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Protecting the House

Scripture for the 1st Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14, and Matthew 24:36-44

The rule of thumb in Advent is the same one you hear when you travel by air: When the oxygen masks drop overhead, fasten your own before attempting to help the person next to you.

With that in mind, visit the table near the font and find a good resource for yourself as you step into a new year (that’s what the Church says we’re doing today) and as you face the daily choice, either to ride the escalator that takes you to every floor of the Christmas Extravaganza (from Santa’s lap on the mezzanine all the way up to the credit office, top floor), or to walk and wait and breathe and enjoy and encourage a sweet short season that opens you to the reason we shall celebrate the Christ who comes.

And while you’re selecting a good resource for you, look for something you might give to a friend. Who knows, maybe it will give the two of you something fresh to talk about, some fresh air to breathe together this Advent (whether you’re reading the same daily meditations, or different ones). Who knows?

We notice a lot of not-knowing in today’s Gospel. A decisive moment for the universe is near, but no one (not even Jesus) knows exactly when. Jesus teaches that this sharp turn will affect everyone, and he likens it to the ancient story of Noah and the flood, when Noah’s family obediently (if reluctantly) prepared for the rising of the sea, while just about everybody else partied on, or plodded on, knowing nothing until Noah entered that crowded ark and the flood waters rose.

There is in that ancient story more than a hint that people didn’t want to know anything that confronted and challenged their expected daily routine. The partiers wanted to party and the plodders wanted to plod, and it was nobody’s business to sound any alarms. Don’t try to regulate our partying, those partiers might have shouted. It’s not government’s business to interfere with our plodding, argued the others.

Meanwhile, animals were getting restless. Horses pawed the ground, bees looked lost, burrowing creatures skittered uphill—they all knew, they all showed it.

Rain splattered everywhere like a legion of catapults, and still the wise species did not know, except for Noah the awake, Noah the aware.

And that’s all we need from that primeval story. Jesus doesn’t give us all of it, just enough to show us how tempting it is, in anxious times, to bury your head in your party (or in your plodding) and know nothing except what entertains and justifies and comforts.

Quickly he reaches for another metaphor. What’s coming, he says, will separate people from one another, will divide friends and neighbors, fracture society. Imagining this needn’t be like in science fiction, an invasion of body snatchers. Two people could be watching the news, one on PBS, the other on Fox. Are they both seeing one and the same world? Or one will be watching Dancing with the Stars, the other Frontline. One will be here, one will be there, not unlike living on two different planets! One person’s reality is not real to the next: it all depends on to what, and to whom, you’re paying attention.

Two women will be in the workforce, working as they have, side by side, for many years. Suddenly one is laid off. Losing her job, she is taken into a parallel universe of unemployment compensation on which she and her dependents cannot rely, because society is coming apart at the seams of its old safety nets.

Thinking globally, as we approach World AIDS Day, 33.3 million people are living with HIV, including 2.5 million children. Last year, 2.6 million people became newly infected with the virus. 1.8 million died of AIDS.

In keeping with our Gospel’s insistence on awareness, consider two people living with HIV, one in this country, the other in one of the sub-Saharan nations of Africa.

Both will need good nutrition. Eating well can help each of these two people prevent or delay loss of muscle tissue, sometimes called wasting. Eating well can strengthen the immune system, reduce viral mutations, decrease infections and hospitalizations, and lessen the symptoms of HIV/AIDS, and the side-effects of anti-retroviral drugs.

Our two people living with HIV/AIDS need better nutrition than their neighbors have—let’s say 30% better if they’re adults, 100% better if they are children. In this country, better-than-average nutrition may be available. In sub-Saharan Africa? It’s unlikely. There, the rule may be that food goes to whoever is the wage-earner in the family, not so much the young, the old, or the sick.

Of our two people, the African faces at best a 50% chance of getting the anti-retroviral drugs he or she needs. The rule about food may apply to a family’s share of anti-retroviral drugs: if several members of the family need them, they will go first to the wage-earners, a harsh fact of life, a different reality from the American person’s experience.

What else gets in the way of drug therapy? In Mozambique, floods. In Zimbabwe, an unstable political and economic situation. In South Africa, public sector strikes. When society is fractured, people needing health care suffer. And the global recession has seen several western nations cut their financial commitment to equalizing access to drug therapy (though the United States, if I’m not mistaken, has kept on schedule with its aid).

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready…”

What is the house that we own, that we are to protect?

Is it a fractured nation, needing reunification and brave government?

Is it a society whose safety nets are in tatters, and its values as well?

Is it a global economy requiring worldwide purging of graft and bribery, insider deals and outsized pay disparity?

Is it our one world, comprising the well and the ill, the affluent and the poor, the seas rising on us all?

Is it the kingdom of God, the realm of light where we learn how to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, technology freed to serve the new creation?

We also must be ready, freed, and prepared.

That he makes us able to be so is good news, telling us that he walks with us and before us, that his grace will meet us and equip us.

But he needs us, and needs us to be ready.