Advent 3/Year C
I think as any preacher will tell you, there is the sermon we prepare and the one we end up preaching, and they’re not always the same. I had started this one several days ago and the story in it revolves around some young people who live in a very poor village in Paraguay.
Then on Friday after the shooting in Newtown, CT I started to redo it. But the sense I kept getting was this story of the young people in Paraguay still needs to be told because it is one of beautify, hope, and love and we need to remember what’s possible even in the face of great darkness.
Nonetheless, what happened in CT and what is happening in Paraguay contain great truths about what this time of Advent preparation is about which I do want to talk about.
But first, about a week ago I was sent a link to a promo for an upcoming documentary entitled, Landfill Harmonics. Maestro Luis Szaran, a conductor and symphony director in Paraguay, had a vision to start up programs teaching classical music to poor children living in outlying areas, at no cost to them and their families.
Interestingly, there was a tremendous amount of suspicion and resistance on the part of almost everyone he talked to about it, including politicians, religious leaders, business people, even the peasants who would benefit from the programs. It was such a generous thing to do, they just couldn’t believe he wasn’t going to somehow benefit personally.
But a man named Favio Moran, a musician and music teacher himself, got it and the two of them decided to start a program, with Mr. Moran leading it, in Cateura, an incredibly poor village built over a landfilll.
And the response of young people in their teens wanting to participate was so overwhelming. For instance some 50 kids wanted to learn how to play the violin but they only had 5 violins.
But then someone found the shell of a broken and discarded violin in the landfill and somehow out of that, the idea was born that maybe instruments could be made from materials readily available in the landfill.
Mr. Moran found a man named Nicola, who lived in the village and collected and sold recycled materials from the landfill, and gave him the specifications to make a violin. Which he did. And while you can’t say it was classically beautiful to look at, it actually sounded really good.
Soon Nicola and others were making all kinds of instruments: a cello with a discarded oil can for its body, and the wood for the neck coming in part from a meat tenderizer; a flute made from discarded metal piping and coins; a saxophone made with spoons and buttons. These craftsmen had no idea who Mozart or Bach were but something swelled in their hearts to see these young people play music with their instruments and with such passion. All involved became empowered.
And before long, Mr. Moran had an orchestra of young aspiring musicians playing really very lovely music—which was named aptly named the Recycled Orchestra.
But for these homemade instruments, these young people would never be able play such music. The cost of a regular violin exceeds the cost of a house in Cateura. But here they were and the lessons they were, and are, learning go far beyond simply learning to play an instrument.
For instance, one boy reflecting on the reuse of these recycled materials into making something so beautiful, how junk to one person could be so precious to another, said it made him realize “we shouldn’t throw people away either.”
Together, the young people, their parents and families, the instrument makers, really the whole village developed a sense of pride and self-worth so long denied them, in large part because they had been invisible—they were just among the country’s very poor. But they were no longer invisible. Not only were they being heard in a new way, they learned something about their self-worth that is eternal.
In today’s Gospel, John the Baptizer, as usual does not mince words when addressing the crowds surrounding him.
He makes it perfectly clear that just because they come from good stock, Abraham, it will not spare them from God’s wrath. So they ask him, “What then should we do?” and he gives them very good advice.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” John warns the tax collectors to take only the amount prescribed to them and the soldiers to not extort money and be satisfied with their wages.
It is advice we would all be well served to follow. It’s the “right” thing to do and certainly a good place to start. But John didn’t just come to pass on some good advice and proclaim the coming of the Messiah—which would have been plenty.
Rather his message spoke of the necessity for true repentance, with God’s help, to look fearlessly at our lives, and then turn them around, and open them up so we can receive God in a fundamentally new way. To not give lip service to our love of the Lord but to mean it and live it out, with all the implications attached to it—heart, body, mind, and soul.
Which means we don’t simply just give someone a coat because we have two, or food because we have enough but instead out of our love for God and in the spirit and manner of God’s love for us, as born out in Jesus. Incarnate, real, unconditional, sometimes heartbreaking, often confusing, but in ways that matter.
As The Rev. Robin Meyer puts it, “Indeed, a quick glance around this broken world makes it painfully obvious that we don’t need more arguments on behalf of God; we need more people to live as if they are in covenant with Unconditional Love, which is our best definition of God.”
Maestro Szaran and Mr. Moran could have given the children of Cateura bright, shiny new instruments and taught them to play and that by itself would have been a wonderful thing.
But instead they allowed a spirit, I would say the Holy Spirit, to infuse their efforts which ended up going far beyond teaching the young people how to play, and instead actually empowering the people of the entire village to create and live out something enduring , forever changing how they looked at and valued themselves.
Unconditional Love made incarnate.
On this third Sunday in Advent 2012 we have been given much to consider and ponder in our hearts. We see firsthand what evil—that is things not of God—can do to destroy the beauty of all that has been given us and leave in its wake indescribable heartache.
We grieve this day with the people of Newtown. The children and brave adults killed, and frankly the shooter himself, will always leave a mark on all our hearts. And it should. We need to remember and pray unceasingly for their peace and comfort, knowing God is with them all the very seconds of their lives.
And yet we also see how God’s grace can break through and transform even the grimmest of circumstances. The young people of Cateura had been by and large written off, thrown away, with no hope of a good future.
The questions for all of us as we await and prepare for the inbreaking of Jesus in our world and into our lives, are and let’s make them personal, what must I do to be an instrument of God’s redemptive love? How can I bring the peace of God into a world that all too often is at best indifferent to violence and pain? How do I make Unconditional love incarnate?
And out of these questions, perhaps the most difficult request to God of all: help me to really do what needs to be done.
While Christmas is near, it is still Advent. May we all use this time of waiting and preparation to pray, act and seek help in order to make us increasingly courageous and loving followers of the One who gave absolutely everything for us.
The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas
16 December 2012
More information about the Paraguay project
Landfill Harmonic film teaser from Landfill Harmonic on Vimeo.
Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus from The Church, How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus (Harper Collins e-books) page 20 of 243.