Hopes and Dreams


Rev. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

December 3, 2017

Text: Luke 1: 5-24

      Vesicovaginal fistula , called VVF, was a catastrophic complication of childbirth among 19th century American women. The first consistently successful operation for this condition was developed by Dr. J Marion Sims (1813-1883), an Alabama surgeon who carried out a series of experimental operations on black slave women between 1845 and 1849.           Numerous modern authors have attacked Sims's medical ethics, arguing that he manipulated the institution of slavery to perform ethically unacceptable human experiments on powerless women unable to consent to their surgeries. Sims moved from Alabama to New York and, dubbed the father of modern gynecology, he achieved worldwide fame. The City of New York even put up a statue to Sims in Central Park. There was debate regarding the statue before it was erected, but recently, especially in light of the statue controversy of statues of various leaders of the Confederacy, the debate over Sims has risen anew. In the debate about Sims, he has been termed a misogynist, unfeeling toward the women on whom he performed these surgeries.

        Sims, however, gave hope to many women who had been destroyed by childbirth because of VVF, which result from a massive crush injury to the soft tissues of the pelvis during childbirth. If the baby does not fit through the birth canal after prolonged labor, the baby can become trapped and can either die from asphyxiation due to being squeezed between the mother’s pelvic bones. And it often did just that.         Moreover, if the mother herself did not die from uterine rupture, sepsis, hemorrhage, or the sheer exhaustion of labor in this fashion for days on end, a day or two later the fetus decays, macerates, and finally softens enough to slide out of its mother's vagina. As a result, tissue comes away from the injured woman's vesicovaginal septum, and a fistula forms.

Although women in the United States do not experience this horror today, it is still common in the Third World. All the hopes and dreams are destroyed for the mother as she is cast aside as the result of constant leakage, making her unfit for sexual intimacy. Sims changed that by his willingness to take on the medical establishment and addressing this problem, just as did Joseph Lister, who was also ridiculed for insisting that doctors wash their hands between deliveries of babies. Sims enabled women to survive what contemporaries called “a piteous state.”  

        Sims did more than experiment; he saved women, black and white from a lifetime of pain. Anesthesia was not brought onto the medical scene until after he began his surgeries and initially was considered a real danger. And at that time it was considered a curse not to bear children.

         It was no different in the ancient world; indeed, as Scripture attests, not to have children was seen by society as some kind of terrible judgment. In this morning’s reading, the Gospel writer points out that Zechariah and Elizabeth, pre-viously barren, are chosen to become instruments of God’s grace as were Abraham and Sarah or as Elkanah and Hannah. The child that is born is to serve God’s purposes by answering to God’s call and not just fulfill the hopes and dreams of the parents. It’s no different with us and our own children. We invest our children with our hopes and dreams, but what we should do is to be open to the mysterious and often surpris-ing ways that God’s grace works itself out in their lives.

          Hopes and dreams are not just individual but societal, national. The passage from Isaiah certainly points to that fact. Arise, shine, says the prophet, for our light has come and now it is time to move from the darkness into the light. The prophet was speaking to the people of Israel as they were returning from years of exile and building a new society. It is the dream of a new nation: I shall appoint Peace as your overseer and Righteousness as your taskmaster. It is a hope, a dream that resonates with us today.

         But peace and righteousness simply do not spring fully formed as Athena from the head of Zeus. They are much more like the baby growing in a hospitable womb, for if they are not nurtured and properly cared for, they will die. So, how do we nurture peace; how do we give righteousness the nutrition needed in order to grow and develop? As a society we need to regain our moorings that have been shaken loose by hateful invective by our national leadership encouraging even more polarization in our Nation.

         The men and women who established this Nation created a new kind of country, one that is built on an alleg-iance to ideals rather than to what had bound societies together before, namely, language and ethnic identity. They believed that we live by a social contract pledged to the general welfare of all. Our Constitution says it very well: We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity . . . . The hopes and dreams of the founders were that this nation would do all those things.

        The child John was born into a society ruled by a despot under the tutelage of an empire; as an adult he called rulers to task and the people to repentance and he paid for it with his life. Fortunately, we do not find ourselves in that kind of situation. But if we call ourselves the people of God, we need to call society back to the fundamentals of faith – the real fundamentals. This means far more than pious speech. It means turning our society around so that building peace and the establishment of righteousness, which means true justice and equity for all, are our goals.

       Advent, the beginning of the church year, is a good time to focus on turning our nation and our society around. Last month, many people indicated their dissatisfaction on the direction of our nation by making important changes in our elected officials. This month, we must not be caught up in the Christmas frenzy and forget what has been accomplished. Advent – the word derives from the Latin for to come or to arrive – is a period of expectant waiting. This doesn’t mean to just sit down and do nothing. Just as an expectant mother prepares for the coming of her baby, we must prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace.

        Rather than getting caught up in Christmas fever, we should use this time to explore what is expected of us who call ourselves the people of God. That doesn’t mean that we don’t party. Today, the Sanctuary has been decorated, and we can listen to Christmas – and Advent – music. Today, we can make wreaths to share with others, both within and outside of our immediate congregation. In short, we can have an Advent party. That’s fitting because Advent as a time of expectant waiting is also a time to celebrate what is to come. Today is a bit like a baby shower, having fun and getting ready.

        But as we all know, getting ready entails more than the baby shower. It means serious planning for the time when the baby arrives. So, as we plan ahead with our hopes and dreams for our society, the one that is going to be born, we need to think about how we as the people of God can help that birthing process. We need to reclaim the true funda-mentals from the so-called fundamentalists and refocus ourselves and our society back to the central message of John and Jesus. This means building peace, creating a just society, and stewardship of God’s creation.

        On this First Sunday of Advent we come together as a worshiping community to share in the Lord’s Supper. A symbol of our common unity in Christ, it provides us with a time for reflection, binding us together as a community and enabling us to have spiritual sustenance for the days ahead.          Today our brothers and sisters in Christ from Indonesia have an opportunity to have their cases reopened thanks to a Federal court judge. Patti Saris, the judge in this case, said that ICE had to refrain from deporting our Christian friends, some of whom have worshiped with us in this church. Their hopes and dreams of protection may yet be realized. As we enter this Advent season, may we find ourselves additionally graced by the presence of God in our hopes and dreams for a just and righteous society.

        Let us pray: Bestow your grace on us, O God, so we experience the light of the One who is to come. May we use that light to build the kingdom of peace and righteousness that Jesus came to share with us and the world. In the name of him who is God’s hope, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.