Prepare the Way of Love

Baruch 5:1-9 | Philippians 1:3-11 | Luke 3:1-6 | Canticle 16

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee (i.e. King of the Jews), and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” when this was the time of all these people of power, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

John, from the beautiful, verdant hill country, born to the faithful Zechariah and Elizabeth, left the comforts of his home to wander in the wilderness, where the word of God came to him. The wilderness, a scarce and desolate place, is also a place of safety and divine protection. However dark the wilderness, it’s not a place without the presence of God.

In fact, in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine, when the Christian church transitioned into the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, there were Christians who also fled to the wilderness to stay closer to God. These people became known as the desert fathers and mothers–the abbas and ammas–to whom people would seek for their wisdom, wisdom acquired from their time in prayer and solitude apart from the political/social scene. These people who fled intentionally decided not to practice their beliefs within a system that offered reward for their affiliation. Where there is favor, there’s tendency toward corruption. The folks who fled to the desert weren’t having any part of it.

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to see John the Baptist as someone who wouldn’t have any part of it, either, as we’ll be reminded next week. But he didn’t stay isolated.

John went all around the River Jordan in the midst of everyone he met along the way, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This wasn’t anything new. The Jewish people had a ritual cleansing signifying a return to God with expectation of forgiveness. His methodology might have been unconventional. I don’t think any of us would go up to a roadside preacher or someone wearing a sandwich board (let alone camel hair), telling us to get baptized in a muddy river. Even the synagogues then had their baths for the ritual cleansings.

But John is intent and hearkens to the Prophet Isaiah, as he conveys the traditional hopes for Israel’s restoration into a place of favor as God’s people. These are their hopes; this is what Baruch offers words of encouragement for; even Zechariah’s song places John in a position to proclaim the goodness to come. There is hope for God’s people.

Valleys shall be filled. Mountains made low. The crooked made straight, and the rough made smooth. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

John believed it with all his heart and all his life, even if he couldn’t fully comprehend what it meant that such a promise is open to everyone, to all. Still, he lived it. I don’t see John asking a lot of questions at the border of the river. I don’t see him playing favorites with those in positions of power. He does what the word of God guided him to do, and when he comes face to face with Jesus, he continues to do what God tells him to do and baptizes Jesus, then fading into the background, even with his tragic death, knowing that as he decreases, Jesus will increase, even if he doesn’t know exactly how. It will be done. All this in the midst of the people.

We have a president and a governor. We have rule-makers for our regions, counties, cities, and towns. We have priests and pastors of all kinds, who similarly have their systems of governance. We rejoice that we have a system of governance in both our nation and our church that gives voice to many so that decisions aren’t made by a top few or even a top one. But there are powers at play that have fallen prey to corruption in the name of what is right or even Christian. Even as people flock into metropolises to plug into a system of bigger, better, more, there are people simultaneously saying no and moving off the grid or into communities that work together for a common good. It seems that it’s all or nothing.

Those of us who had the honor and privilege of listening to Bryan Stevenson last night at Crystal Bridges heard directly from one who has heard the word of God.

Disillusioned by law school, Stevenson told us he went into government policy. But there he said they were studying how to maximize benefits and cut costs, regardless of whose benefits and costs were affected. As someone who knew it was a privilege to be in college and knew the plight of those who lived in struggle, he returned to law school determined that he could make a difference, even if he didn’t know how. In his book Just Mercy, he details events of his work in the South that one could describe as wilderness experiences but also account for all the difference he has and continues to make.

His lifetime of experiences, starting with his mom and grandma and going on to today with all the people he encounters in his endeavors, teaches and affirms that while we could isolate ourselves or ignore the world around us as we pursue personal gain, that lifestyle won’t change the brokenness that is. And when he really hit the core of his own suffering and grief, typically when sitting in the midst of someone else’s suffering–like the pending death of an inmate whom he had tried to save–he realized that not only had that person’s life been broken, but he himself was a broken person, too. Not only that, but he worked within a broken system. But brokenness revealed makes way for mercy. What are we all called to do but to do justice (what he called the opposite of poverty), love mercy, and walk humbly? (Micah 6:8)

It sounds a lot like filling valleys of poverty, addiction, and despair and lowering mountains of pride, gluttony, and greed. It sounds like clearing a way through the twist and turns of bureaucratic, convoluted systems and calming storms of anger, fear, and distrust to get straight to the heart of matters and work efficiently. Rather than focus on what’s broken and what needs to be done, though, Stevenson provided four characteristics on how to meet the challenges we face when we are preparing the way for the kingdom:

> Get close to those who are marginalized,

> Change false narratives that are out there,

> Stay hopeful, and

> Do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Oh, Bryan John-the-Baptist Stevenson, you’re gonna get a lot of people beheaded. But for this man who still feels the hugs of his grandmother, speaks truth to those who face death, and won’t back down from his charge from a civil rights veteran to keep beating the drum of justice, he knows what it means to be in proximity to those who are pushed down and beaten back. He hears the stories we tell that some people are worth fighting for or defending while some people–some of our neighbors–are disposable. He has sat in the shadow of the valley of death and wanted to give up, but he learned that we can either be hopeful or be part of the problem. So he does what he’s gotta do. He’s found his vocation, his purpose in life. He’s living out the prophecy.

And I sat in that crowded room of people, and I slouched back in my chair, angry. Angry because I was sad, and I realize it’s a selfish sadness because I’m sure many of these people are doing good and great things in their own time, but I can’t see it and don’t know about it. Maybe someone else was sitting across the room thinking the same thing about me. But for this sold out lecture, I don’t know who is also beating that drum for justice with hope, guiding us toward a future where our neighbors don’t have to worry about being wrongfully imprisoned, profiled, discriminated against for housing or work, fed a story that convinces them that they are the ones who need to apologize and be grateful for the so-called worthless life they have.

Advent is about preparing the way for the Lord to break into our lives. Not just our own blessed life but the lives of all. How willing are we to go into the midst of the oppressed, to speak up when false narratives are told about us or even of strangers, to keep faith and hope alive in the darkness, and to do that which is uncomfortable and inconvenient?

From prison Paul wrote to the Philippians who had disagreement among themselves and doubts and struggles. Paul reminded them of his joy for all of them. When he thought of them all, of sharing in God’s grace with all of them, he was even more inspired to pray for them all. All of them, he keeps repeating. His prayer: “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that come through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” For Paul, faith in Jesus Christ was more important than following the letter of the law. Determining “what is best,” I found, actually translates better as determining “things that matter.”

Paul’s prayer for his companions in faith is that they love one another and have wisdom to discern what matters most. Without love we are but a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal, right? (That’s what he told the Corinthians.) John’s love for God opened him to hear the word of God in the wilderness that called him back into the midst of the people to kindle in them hope in their forgiveness. Bryan Stevenson, fueled for love of justice and mercy, works in the trenches of law and everywhere that takes him to confront the narratives that we’ve misshapen to the detriment and brokenness of one another.

We’re called to wake up. We’re called to heed the voice and voices of those crying out in the wilderness. The Word of God is coming to us all. May we be grounded in Love for God and one another so that we don’t miss what matters most.

 

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Can You Imagine: Forgiveness & Judgment

Exodus 14:19-31 | Psalm 114 | Romans 14:1-12 | Matthew 18:21-35

We’re going to save Moses and the parting of the sea for another day. It warrants a sermon of its own, given all the implications of the miracle at the beginning of the Exodus, especially that of a God that not only sanctioned the death of the firstborns but now also wiped out the pursuing Egyptian army. Today we’ll address our Gospel and Epistle topics of judgment and forgiveness. At the Continuing the Conversation on Wednesday, where 18 folks gathered to talk about racism– representing at least 5 different Christian denominations–one of the women said that given the need for dialogue and discussion, she didn’t feel like she had the tools to engage with people, the language to use in regards to having conversations regarding privilege and race. How could she give voice to where she’s coming from while respecting whomever she’s in conversation with? If we are filled with an understanding of judgment and well-stocked in forgiveness, aren’t these significant components pertaining to full reconciliation? I believe they are.

We want guidance and instruction, right? Peter asks Jesus: How many times am I to forgive? Is seven enough? (Because surely that’s more than generous.) Like us, Peter wants to make sure he’s doing the right thing and that it’s quantifiable, a transaction. Someone does you a wrong, you forgive them. The parable set forth shows a master who forgives his slave, yet the slave doesn’t show the same forgiveness to another. We can keep track of the forgivings and the withholding of forgiveness. This is what I call human economy: we can keep track of what’s going on, who owes who, and where we stand in relation to what’s expected. But Jesus . . . in response to Peter, Jesus says we’re to forgive 77 times, not that we’re going to actually count that many (if we could even keep track) but because

we’re not supposed to be counting in the first place.

Jesus sees our humanity and knocks it out of the park into God’s economy, where we try to comprehend terms like grace, mercy, unconditional, and infinite. We’re not supposed to keep track; we’re just supposed to keep sharing God’s grace.

But this storyline of the master and slave we have, it’s familiar to us. I can’t help but think of Beauty and the Beast–the Disney versions, of course, how at the end after Gaston has led the charge into the castle and tangled with the beast on the rooftop: the beast is given the opportunity to kill Gaston. He shows an act of mercy, telling Gaston just to go. What is he thinking?!? We’re proud and amazed at the compassion shown by the beast, and when Gaston pulls a gun on him (in the newer version — whole scene around minute 5:00), we see the injustice of it all flare and aren’t exactly disappointed when Gaston falls from the castle roof on his own. We breathe a sigh of relief at the happily ever after. When it comes down to it, it’s hard for us to comprehend forgiving someone who has wronged us. We are the master in the parable when it comes to withholding forgiveness or even taking it back. We make our human judgment calls on who is worthy or not of our forgiveness, forgetting what Jesus tells us and what Paul elaborates on: that it’s not our place to judge.

We joke about judging one another: I’ll ask you not to judge the cleanliness of my house when you come for dinner or my car if I give you a ride. We’ll more seriously ask not to be judged on the basis of our family system, our sexuality, our ethnicity. We’re not to cast judgment, but we make judgments all the time, discerning what to do or say in the next moment. Our decisions reflect the judgments we make. But what Paul tells us is basically: don’t sweat the small stuff and leave ultimate judgment to God. It’s our job to show God’s grace and mercy to others by staying in relationship with them, to the extent that we can. God isn’t telling us to stay in dangerous situations. God certainly isn’t telling us to forget. Forgiving someone does not mean we forget. We learn from our mistakes and know the burden of our sins. The knowledge we glean and the relief we experience are worth the scars we bear, and we can’t forget the stories of why we are better for what we’ve overcome. Even if we can’t stay in relationship with those who have done us wrong, we can stay in relationship with God as we work to let go of what was wrong and move toward life and love.

There’s a song in the Hamilton soundtrack about forgiveness. (Yes, I told you I love the soundtrack!) At the Garland County Jail, in the program I did with the folks there,  I wanted to play this song so we could talk about all the levels of forgiveness. But I realized they wouldn’t have any context if they didn’t know all the stories involved, all the references made. Did they know what Alexander was going through, the significance of this proud man using his wife’s words? Did they know Eliza’s grief of finding out about her husband’s past affair and then shortly thereafter losing her son when he died in a duel? Did they know how trusting and kind Eliza was? How deep the betrayal and how true her love? So, we had to listen to the whole thing. 😉  And when it came to the song about the unimaginable and forgiveness, there was stillness in the room, both times with the men and the women. In this song called “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the relationship unfolds in this confession, of not being afraid to admit what was wrong, and this willingness to be in relationship, to return to relationship. All the while, the company sings the chorus as witness to this beautiful thing unfolding with the words: “Can you imagine? . . . Forgiveness . . . Can you imagine?”

It’s hard for us to imagine forgiveness in the face of the horrible. Such swift judgment affords us the death penalty, just cause, self defense. We are absolutely amazed and in awe when not just in movies but in real life, people show true forgiveness and leave judgment to God. A prime example can be found in the survivors of the families who were killed at the AME church in Charlston in 2015, like the families of the children killed at the Amish school shooting in Lancaster in 2006–people who chose to relinquish the burden of judgment, giving that to God. Whatever their reasonings for doing so, I know that their decisions enable them to  move forward in their grief with a foundation of love. And it is hard to imagine, because it’s not the way of our world.

In the face of another acquittal for a police officer who shot and killed a black man, people in and around St. Louis demonstrate–literally–how difficult it is to stay in relationship with one another. On the way to church this morning, I heard a St. Louis alderman speaking on NPR about the peaceful demonstrations that are happening and the pockets of violence that erupted. His voice portrayed his fatigue, along with his words that said he was extremely frustrated by the same pattern repeating itself and not for the first or second time. What he sees reflected in the outcomes is a reinforcement of the message that black lives don’t matter, that they are not valuable. But he did seem encouraged at the unification of many in the area who were showing their solidarity and support for black lives. Maybe not all hope was lost.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we sit idly by while injustice continues, whether it’s race relations, domestic violence, or any other of our societal maladies. Giving judgment to God doesn’t mean we abandon all responsibility. WE are the hands and feet here on earth sharing the presence of Christ. We don’t have to judge others, but we do have to discern what is right and wrong and choose how to best convey the presence of Jesus to the world around us.

And it often involves taking yet another long look in the mirror and making sure we forgive ourselves. However easy it may be for us to forgive others, sometimes we bear the hubris of not seeing ourselves as worthy of the generosity we extend to others. I’ll be infinitely patient with you and forgive you a million times over, but I don’t cut myself any slack. I have to be very intentional with myself, reminding myself how worthy I am of the love and compassion that others need just as much as I do. I have to remind myself that my relationship to God is only as healthy as I let God’s grace flow through me and others. Can you imagine what our town, our world would look like if we turned to one another with understanding of all our heartaches, all the sufferings, and let ourselves move toward forgiveness, toward reconciliation in safety and love? I can imagine it because I believe in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, which have already accomplished the unimaginable.

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The Fine Art of Balance

Naturally, after thinking about how I need to prioritize my life and home, I realize this morning that what I also need is balance.  I cannot fully exclude anything from my life (as I join yet another Yahoo! Group) if it is indeed nourishing to me in some way.  A day of t.v. and chocolate, after all, reminds me how important a day of gardening and exercise is.

Yet there are so many different levels on which to seek true balance.  Of course there’s the budget and housework versus playtime.  The bigger topics include my time vs. family time, community work vs. home projects, career vs. leisure.  The list goes on.  All themes interconnect.  We aren’t necessarily having to draw a line over which never to cross; rather, we rest on a ball.  A little too far one way or the other might send us crashing down. 

How often have we wondered why there isn’t a manual on how to fill our days?  Sure, there are some books.  Some accept holy texts as instruction manuals, and I can’t help but admire their discipline and devotion.  We all have the free will to see what works for us, and the truth is that what works will be as unique as each of us.  As long as we are striving for balance, there always seems to be a net on either side to help us try again to get on track. 

We’ve all known people, however, who can’t seem to get back on the ball.  Forgiveness may just be our strongest net, not just from others but mostly from ourselves.  If you’re already down, it’s hard to see, hard to realize that there’s something there to help.  I believe that if you look deep enough within yourself, you can connect to a divine source, whatever you believe that to be.  When you look deeply and sense that you can genuinely forgive yourself, feel that you are forgiven, then you’ve connected to a love that helps you up again. 

Hopefully on our next try our priorities will be re-evaluated and a new sense of balance achieved.  Life is so multi-faceted.  We have
choices to make, and our actions reveal who we really are, especially
when we think no one is looking.

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