Zephaniah’s short three-chapter prophecy is exceedingly gloomy except for this passage appointed for today 3:14-20.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more. … I shall save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home ….gather you….make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth.
It’s so out of character with the rest of the book that it’s now thought to be a later insertion. But for me, its relevance lies in God’s promise to bring the outcast and the shamed, home.
The passage is a fine example of hope realized in the sense which I think Alice Miller is getting at. The definition of hope is something both looked forward to. However, the crucial point Miller identifies is that hope prefigures future expectation in present-time action. For while the focus of hope is future directed, the process or action of hoping is always a present time activity. Thus, the power of that for which we hope in the future is already effective within us – by virtue of the action of hoping in the present.
Knowing what God promises to do has the power to reshape our perspective on present time events – and when reflected upon – influences the choices we make and the actions we take.
The power of that for which we hope is already effective within us. Another way of putting this is to say that without hope we have no compass to direct our present time actions. Miller’s words find an echo in another great 20-century figure, the philosophical theologian, Paul Tillich who wrote:
Returning to God’s promise to bring the outcast and the shamed, home in the Zephaniah passage. Where exactly is home?
This past week, a community hope came one step further towards its fruition. Inspired by our common religious obligation to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless, St Martin’s and Temple Beth-El have teamed up in a joint initiative to support what may eventually be up to three Afghan resettlement families. The first step was some weeks ago to meet and plan for the collection of household furniture and other domestic resources. Following our recent estate sale St Martin’s donated furniture to Dorcas International and we are thankful for the members of both communities who generously continue to support this appeal.
Then, this past week we came one step closer to our hope becoming a reality when a small group from both communities; our contingent led by the ever resourceful Susan Esposito, ably supported by Jennifer Kiddie, Julienne Isaacs, Lori Istok, Burleigh Morton, and Carol Tucker – readied a two bed apartment provided through Dorcas International, into which it is planned to move a family of seven.
Although the inspiration comes from our long shared Judeo-Christian Tradition, I am aware that our national response to the Afghan resettlement program differs from our normally regrettable attitudes to the resettlement of refugees.
Americans have come to deeply regret our involvement in Afghanistan, and despite the many good things accomplished in the process of rebuilding this nation’s infrastructure, nation building with the establishment of a thriving democracy with Afghan features has been a failure. Some rather regrettable Afghan features did democracy in.
The profound implications of this failure, is something for which we bear a huge responsibility. We repeat the same mistakes – made all those years ago in Vietnam and repeated elsewhere with our historic tendency to support corrupt and oppressive agencies in the interests of maintaining our own security interests. This mistake came home to roost with a vengeance with the collapse of the Afghan government – revealed to be nothing but a house of cards. The rapid Taliban takeover in the face of collapsed resistance from an overly equipped Afghan National Army is less an endorsement of ordinary Afghans support for the Taliban than it is an expression of their hatred for a corrupt government and brutally oppressive warlord system.
Our response to the resettlement of Afghan refugees shows how national guilt and shame can be a powerful catalysts in driving us to rediscover the obligations our faith places upon us.
If I look deeply into my own heart what I cannot escape from is this: the resettlement of Afghan evacuees and their successful integration into our Rhode Island society is a symbol for my own largely unaddressed existential sense of homelessness.
St Augustine noted, we human beings are endlessly restless. The cause of our restlessness is our continual searching for a coming home. We deal with our restlessness through diverting our time and energy into endless busy-ness. The paradox is that when our Christian faith presents us with the possibility of coming home, we reject it because we are too busy. And so, we tell God in a myriad of ways, don’t trouble us God, please don’t make any demands on us, we are too busy with the demands of life as it is.
The result is we are the agents of our own continued alienation from the longed-for experience of home coming when we reject the priorities of the Kingdom. Our sense of being spiritually and existentially homeless is because we are already too busy, thank you God – little recognizing that it is God’s call to come home that we need to be busy about.
John the Baptist attracted all conditions of people into the desert beyond the Jordan. The pious, the comfortable, the despised security thugs of the oppressive regime – Jewish as well as Roman. He warned them all that the axe is already laid to the roots of all they place their misguided hope and faith in – in their misdirected search for a true experience of being at home in God.
In her commentary for Advent 3, Jane Williams writes: It is God’s willingness to be homeless to bring us home that we celebrate at Christmas and spend Advent trying to imagine and prepare ourselves for. She quotes from the final stanza of G.K. Chesterton’s poem:
As we prepare for the coming of the homeless child, let us recognize our own sense of spiritual and existential homelessness as an expression of our desire to build false homes in the wrong places. We need to ask in all honesty where exactly is home? The answer is rather crucial because those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait.