Resetting the Discipleship Compass

Mark 8:31-38

If faith is to deepen, hope to strengthen, and love to flower in our lives and to flow through us abundantly into our world, Mark 8 is where the journey begins.

I struggle with this text from Mark 8. Feeling stumped over several days, out of curiosity I looked back on how I addressed this text in 2015.

Then, I avoided my current struggle by writing on verse 35 –For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it. Back then I wrote somewhat eloquently, if I do say so myself, on the psychological distinction between soul and persona; between living from the expansiveness of our soul which bears the imprint of the divine dream upon us – in contrast to lives dominated by our small individual personal stories constructed from neuronal misfiring of memory.

But times change. 2021 is not 2015. To repeat my 2015 message in 2021 feels to me like an intellectual luxury none of us can currently afford. 2021 asks a different question of Mark’s text – question much closer to the ones Mark wanted his readers to hear.

In 2021 I have to ask – is there anything remotely honest to say to a community like ours in the face of Jesus’ words predicting his passion and death?

Can there be anything more comfortable, more smug than being middleclass Episcopalians? Ours is a Christianity that exacts of us little if any cost at all. Our sense of discipleship – if we even think in these terms – meshes seamlessly with – and offers little challenge to the prevailing materialist worldview of our society.

I could stand here and expound on the costs of discipleship as Mark shows Jesus beginning to explain to the disciples. But by what authority would I do so? My fear is by the authority all hypocrites claim – to be holier than thou.

When it comes to following Jesus on the road of his passion – we are milk toast disciples at best. It’s not that we lack conviction, it’s that our convictions mostly come at no cost to us. That like the disciples as Mark depicts them – we think we can say yes to Jesus but dictate our own terms and reset the direction of travel for our discipleship’s direction.

Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

In 2021 I feel compelled to address the bruising encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter.

To fully appreciate the searing impact of the encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter we need to go back to verse 27 where Mark reports that Jesus on his way to Caesarea Philippi asked his disciples about what people were saying about him? Reporting the general gossip – the disciples tell him: Well Rabbi, some say this, and some say that. To which Jesus asks: But you – who do you say I am? His question provokes Simon Peter to declare: We know who you are, you are the Messiah! But giving the correct answer doesn’t necessarily mean understanding what that answer means.

Today’s text picks up at verse 31 with: Then he began to teach them —. What Jesus has to teach them is not what they want to hear. Simon Peter – from his culturally conditioned misunderstanding of messiahship speaks up and taking Jesus aside rebukes him with what I imagine probably went like this: What on earth are you talking about, Jesus. What nonsense are you spouting about suffering and death. You are the Messiah – the great king sent by God to get us out of this mess of Roman occupation and restore us to our status of a great and free nation. So, let’s hear no more of this defeatist nonsense about suffering and death. Can’t you see the undermining effect on morale you’re having on the others when you speak like this?

Jesus’ response could not have been stronger. He fixes Simon with a steely gaze and with a heart stopping authority commands: Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

Flashback to Jesus experience in the wilderness. During his 40 days in the wilderness, faced with hunger, Jesus realizes that stuffing his face and filling his stomach will not provide the satiation for the real hunger within him. Faced with the prospect of ultimate power over earthly things, Jesus understands that justice is not the fruit of omnipotent power. Faced with an invitation to use his superman-messiah powers and jump off the panicle of the Temple and fly, Jesus reaffirms his humanity. For he has only a human body that will be smashed and broken upon the paving stones below. Jesus passes his time in the wilderness – a kind of messiah confirmation hearing by rejecting human desire for mastery and acknowledging his human dependence on God; proclaiming that he will not question his ultimate trust in God.

In the wilderness, Jesus rebuffed Satan’s temptations by calling out the all too human desire for self-protection through the possession and exercise of power. Now, as he tries to open the disciples’ minds to the cost of discipleship he’s confronted by Satan – this time insinuating with the face and voice of Simon Peter.

Is there anything remotely honest to say in a community like ours about our response in the face of Jesus’ prediction of suffering and death? Like Simon Peter, these are not words we want to hear. But unlike Peter we don’t even have the courage to protest. We just tune out – preferring to think the choice is ours whether or not to follow along with Jesus on our own terms and with no cost to us.

Our temptations tend to come cloaked in very ordinary disguise. We enter upon the journey of another Lent – a season in which we are called to face down our temptations through bringing a particular intentionality, a mindful consciousness, to the task of disciplining our addictive appetites, our unruly wills, and distracted minds. We are faced with having to acknowledge the buried sorrows that often find their way to the surface of the mind as anger feeding a legion of envious resentments and grievances. In some instances, the acknowledgment of sorrow demands of us a spirit of repentance for intensions and actions that have hurt others. But there again, it might require what is even more difficult – the offering of forgiveness to those who have hurt us.

All of this is costly enough on the personal and interpersonal level. But what about our connivance with benefiting from the evils of a society in which we still continue to deny that racism, gender identity oppression, sexual identity persecution, not to mention the really big ones – of pandemic and environmental injustice from which all social injustices flow and become magnified – have anything to do with us. Oh, we decry these evils, but are we willing to pay the cost of doing something about them?

What will it take for us to discover what the disciples eventually came to understand – that the fruits of discipleship cannot be separated from the costs?

What will it cost us to be agents with God in the healing of the world? This is Jesus’ 21st century discipleship question. What will it take for us to discover what the disciples eventually came to understand – that the fruits of discipleship cannot be separated from the costs.

My message is not entirely a counsel of despair with a focus on the cost of discipleship along the road of suffering and death. Living on the far side of the resurrection we know that the discipleship path opens us to undreamed fruitfulness of living. But if faith is to deepen, hope to strengthen, and love to flower in our lives and to flow through us abundantly into our world, Mark 8 is where the journey begins. It’s from here we reset our compass needle towards the resurrection.

The Shame of Love

In those daysJesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son, with you, I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11

Notice how in Mark, God speaks directly to Jesus: “You are my son, the Beloved, with you, I am well pleased”. Compare with Matthew’s account where God says “This is my son, the Beloved,” as if speaking not to Jesus but to a wider audience. For Mark God’s address to Jesus is deeply personal: You are my son, the beloved!

At Jesus’ baptism, God claims Jesus as the be-loved one. At our baptism God likewise claims us as be-loved.

Now I know I am loved by God, but do I experience myself being loved by God? My answer is mixed and equivocal – a yes and no. I know that God loves me. Looking back on my life I can see that God has deeply loved me. Looking to my future I know that God will always love me.  Yet, in the present moment, I often feel very detached from the direct experience of God’s love.

The real challenge of my spiritual journey has been – and remains – to experience the reality that God loves me with an unconditional love in the present moment – a love that has nothing to do with how much or how little I love God in return.

There’s love and then there’s shame. It is tempting for me to put my lack of a sense experience of being loved in the present moment by God down to two sources of shame. Firstly, there is my inability to love God as much as I feel I should. If I loved God more I might feel more of God’s love for me. Secondly, I feel myself to be both unworthy of and certainly ungrateful for God’s love. Despite my longing to more powerfully feel God’s love of me, the sorry truth is shame leads me to shy away from the experience of being loved. Being the one who does the loving – no matter how imperfectly – is easier than being the one who is loved. The lover is always in control while the beloved has no control over being loved. There’s a paradox for in being loved unconditionally exposes me to my sense of shame.

In his poem Love III, George Herbert describes my experience of shying away when God tells me he loves me. I too want to cry out with Herbert: I, the unkind the ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee. It’s as if I want to tell God: thank you, but no thank you! To be beloved of God is too intrusive and potentially demanding, too intimate an experience. Being loved exposes me to my vulnerability and shame. Between humility and humiliation – there lies the finest of lines.

We are in a continual negotiation around the shame of loving and being loved. As the lover, God pursues us and has no intention of allowing us to set the comfort level for intimacy.

In Love III, George Herbert describes our struggle with the shame that causes us to shy away from the fullest experience of being loved by God.  

 I, the unkind the ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee.
 Love takes my hand and smiling did reply, ‘Who made the eyes but I?’
 Truth Lord, but I have marred them, let my shame go where it doth deserve. 
 And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
 Ah, my dear, then I will serve.

 You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat,
 So I did sit and eat.  

Yet, in the end, we must capitulate in the face of God’s relentless pursuit to love us. 

I’ve had the courage to speak honestly and in very personal terms because my experience is not an isolated one, unique to me. We all know that when it comes to God’s love, it is not about earning and deserving but believing and receiving. Yet, so much of our identity is predicated on being worthy – which is just a way of dressing up the fact that we want to remain in control. If we are deserving of God’s love, we tell ourselves, it can only be to the extent of having somehow, earned it. What a ridiculous notion!  

The truth is we are be-loved. We are all be-loved because God’s love is a gift – gifted to us without strings. Capitulation to being loved is the only healthy response we can make.

As we move into Lent, let us look more deeply into our own experience of temptation and struggle. In particular, let us face the greatest temptation of all – to allow our shame to come between us and the experience of being loved by God. This is for many of us hard to do and comes only with the practice of prayer and the discipline self-examination – the purpose of which is to let: our shame go where it doth deserve.

Mark ends this section with Jesus returning from his time of preparation in the wilderness to find John has been arrested. The time he says has come, the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news! For us Lent is a time remind ourselves that for us also, there’s no time to lose!

[We will be familiar with Love as part of a series of metaphysical poems written by the 17-cenutry Anglican priest, George Herbert. Less familiar to some may be that in 1911, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams took love together with four others of Herbert’s poems setting them as his Five Mystical Songs within which the poem Love is the third in sequence. You might like to listen here.]

Love (III)
George Herbert - 1593-1633
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
            Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
            From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
            If I lacked anything.
"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here":
            Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
            I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
            "Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
            Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
            "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
            So I did sit and eat.

Journeying!

Last Sunday in Epiphany Mark 9:2-9

We stand in the shadow of the cross – wriggling.

We’ve arrived at the last Sunday in the Epiphany season. Epiphany as a season is a series of showings – of revealings – each one stripping away the filters that prevent us from seeing that which is hidden in plain sight, that is, who Jesus really is. But more significantly – and I want you to hold onto this – the series of revealings not only strips our filters from seeing who Jesus standing in plain sight as the Christ, but also strip away the filters that hide seeing who we are are as opposed to who we want to think we are.

There is a cumulative effect in this season of showings, beginning with the Visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Mark does not record this event but takes up the epiphany theme with the Baptism of Jesus, and then in the course of his first chapter to focus the revealing of Jesus true identity through his encounter with the demonic.

It would pay dividends to revisit the sermons for the last two Sunday’s. Two weeks ago, I drew attention to the way Jesus confronts the demonic – not by destroying it but by disembodying it – in effect rendering it homeless. Evil manifests in human bodies, in human hearts, in individual lives – and by extension collectively, in human society.

Last week Linda+ reminded us that:

The vocation of the people of God as healers of the world requires that we not turn away from the evil that manifests itself in humanity’s brokenness and suffering. Seeing it, we must name it and defeat it every time, in whatever form it takes.

We name evil and defeat evil rendering it homeless through truth telling, justice making, and the spiritual restoration that disembodies evil – one truth, one heart, one act of compassion at a time.

We leave the season of Epiphany with the story of the Transfiguration – the final filter stripping event revealing that which is hidden in plain sight. Remember that what is hidden in plain sight is not only who Jesus really is but who we really are. From here, we journey down the mountain of transfiguration to begin the slow Lenten journey of discipline and learning discipleship.

When the filters fall from our eyes we come to see that what is hidden in plain sight – we see ourselves standing in the shadow of the cross – squirming and wriggling.

Of the Evangelists, it is Mark who most graphically depicts this journey that Jesus begins after coming down the mountain. This is the journey that will lead him to his ultimate destination – to Jerusalem and the reality of the cross.

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8: 34-5)

Who in their right mind would want to follow Jesus along this road? Actually, if we were in our right minds this is exactly what we would do. The problem is that we hear this invitation clothed in our wrong minds. Minds shrouded by a preoccupation with our own self interests.

The disciples heard Jesus invitation clothed in their wrong minds which caused them to play dumb, to resist through continually misunderstanding Jesus, and to accept his invitation thinking that they could dictate the terms and set the direction of travel. Mark continually slams the disciples for their willful resistance to the reality of Jesus invitation to follow him. He offers four clear instances of the disciples’ resistance to the true nature of Jesus’s discipleship call from the very outset of the journey from this point of transfiguration:

  1. Peter refuses to accept Jesus’ political fate (8: 31-3)
  2. Peter misinterprets the transfiguration vision (9: 5-7)
  3. The disciples discuss who will be greatest among them (9: 33ff)
  4. James and John try to secure the highest rank (10: 35ff)

In these refusals do we not hear the echo of our own self preoccupations? Like the disciples, we also think we can follow Jesus by resetting the directions of his roadmap and dictating the terms of travel. Like the disciples we stand clothed in our wrong minds. When that which is hidden in plain sight is revealed we find ourselves standing in the shadow of the cross – wriggling.

Think back to how you looked at and felt about the world this time last year. Now ask yourself -how are you different today and what is it that’s made you different? Over this past year we have been buffeted by a prolonged experience of epiphany that has stripped the filters from our eyes – filters of willful and self-protective blindness.

Even though the temptation is to think we can accept Jesus invitation to follow him on the road to the cross in the mistaken belief that we can somehow dictate the terms, do we have a choice? As Christians in some shape or form, we are on the road with Jesus whether we like it or not. The question becomes what kind of experience will we allow this to be?

This Lent the extended pandemic has given us a gift of time – time to be more reflective – time to cultivate a deeper awareness and practice of being in God’s presence – or to put it another way – letting God be more present on our lives. In 2021 we enter Lent with the advantage that we have had a year of buffeting that has worn away our glossy illusions about ourselves and the world we have created.

Lent is a time for discipline. Discipline does not mean punishment. Discipline describes the practices of discipleship-making.

Whatever we decide to do this Lent by way of a different spiritual practice – the key is to to strip away the filters that prevent us from seeing ourselves revealed as we are in plain sight making the disciplines of our Anglican spiritual tradition part of our own daily and weekly experience. These are namely:

  • Prayer – making space in our day for God.
  • Study – deepening our understanding of God’s call to be agents for the healing of a broken world through one truth telling, one heart turning, one act of compassion at a time.
  • Repentance through – making room for sorrow through self-examination, – voicing a lament for the painful journey of loss and suffering we see all  around us, – self-denial as the practice of listening to and privileging others first
  • Worship – journeying to God – not alone – but in the company of others.

Who in their right mind would want to follow Jesus along this discipleship road? Actually, if when we become clothed in our right minds this is exactly what we would do. There is no shame in acknowledging discomfort – to acknowledge our wriggling. Our shame is when we hide our doubts and discomfort from ourselves and from God. So, this Lent, let’s learn to see ourselves standing in the shadow of the cross – wriggling. At least that’s a beginning.

A Fight Scene

Chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel moves at a breath-taking pace. For Mark there is not a moment too soon; there is no time to lose. In verses 21-28, he ushers us into a scene of some significance. Matt Skinner notes that: Possessed by the Holy Spirit, fresh from successfully confronting Satan in the wilderness, preaching the reign of God, and now in the company of at least four followers, it’s time for Jesus’ public ministry to gather momentum. In other words, it’s time for a fight scene. The scene takes place in the synagogue where we find Jesus preaching to the gathered congregation. Within the congregation Mark tells us there are two different sets of ears who receive Jesus message very differently.

Mark describes Jesus as teaching with authority and he uses the word exousia to describe the effect of Jesus’ teaching upon his hearers. In the ears of the congregation Jesus’ teaching provokes utter astonishment causing them to exclaim – what is this? A new teaching – and with authority.  Stephen Hultgren sums it up nicely when he says that in other words, exousia is the “sovereign freedom” of one who acts without hindrance. Immediately they hear in Jesus’ teaching a breaking free of the constraints imposed by the conventional scribal hedging – their umming and aahing of Torah interpretation.

From exousia we get our English word exorcism – which means to bind with authority. The ears of the demons inhabiting the man with an unclean spirit(s) are provoked by Jesus teaching to cry out -What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are the Holy One of God. Matt Skinner notes that the teaching and the exorcism are connected since both result in amazement and acclamations about Jesus’ authority.

However, there is a third set of ears to consider. How do we hear Jesus teaching in Mark 1:21-28? This immediately raises the thorny question of what are we to make of the many biblical stories of exorcism as in Mark 1:21-28?

For us, biblical stories about demon possession echo a pre-scientific mindset in which physical affliction is credited to the action of spiritual forces. We, on the other hand, understand these afflictions as the result of physical or psychological causes. As the heirs of Enlightenment rationalism, we no longer believe in demons or resort to demonology as a causal explanation for human behavior or suffering. By and large we think this is a good thing too!

But even from our seemingly confident 21st-century world view things are not so simple. We are increasingly living into a world that is well and truly beyond the modern-rationalist reductionism that dominated 20th-century thought which arrogantly assumed that given time, all challenges could be brought under human control. We are truly experiencing life in a post-modern world – a world of pandemic and the return of the dynamics and phobias of a global plague; a world which confronts us with a host of issues – spiritual, sociological, anthropological, habitual, political, biological, climatological; issues so interconnected that we are not even capable of so neatly dividing them into such categories. The common feature of all these issues is that they appear to remain stubbornly beyond our ability to control. 

In Mark’s story we should notice that the demons are not free-floating spirits, but are embodied spirits. Jesus does not destroy them, he disembodies them.

It is no accident that Mark chooses an exorcism to inaugurate Jesus public ministry. The importance of such a story for us lies not in its cause-and-effect attribution to evil forces.

Mark relates and event that still speaks to us of our experience of forces that are beyond our control -because- they are embodied within us.

So here’s the point about the host of issues – spiritual, sociological, anthropological, habitual, political, biological, climatological; issues so interconnected that we are not even capable of so neatly dividing them into such categories – is not just that they remain stubbornly beyond our ability to control but that they continue to exercise power over us through their embodiment within us.

In binding evil, Jesus strips the spirits of their human embodiment denying them the capability to have a settled place or entrenched influence in the world. Jesus confronts the power of evil not by eliminating it but by banishing its individual and systemic embodiment from human affairs. As his followers we are called to likewise confront and bind – banish all those isms of race, ethnicity, gender, identity, privilege, and environmental denial; to strip these evil spirits from their embodiment in our individual and social lives. At the heart of this host of isms we find enthroned the most corrosive isms of all – skepticism and cynicism.

Of all the gospel writers, within the scope of his first chapter Mark most concisely and clearly declares the priorities with which Jesus inaugurates his announcement of the kingdom. After calling others to join him and to share his ministry he initiates a confrontation with the forces of evil – denying them embodiment from which they draw the power to hold ultimate sway over our lives.

Can there be any confusion in our minds about what it means to hear the call to come: come follow me and to go and do likewise?

No Time To Lose

Mark 1:14-20, I Cor. 7:29-31

You are sitting minding your own business by the water’s edge, just getting on with the work at hand when this rather interesting guy appears in your peripheral and calls out hey you, yes you, come follow me! So, what would you do? If you get up to follow, what might be going through your mind? If you ignore him, again what might be going through your mind?

I would hope that I might be at least curious – let my curiosity get the better of me and find out what this guy’s about. Of course, Galilee is a small place and I may already know this guy by his reputation -which is doing the rounds on the local gossip grapevine.

Yet, if I acted true to form, my natural suspicion coupled with a sense of not wanting to complicate my life any more than it already is – would have me weighing up the pros and cons of a yes or no response. Like most of the people I know, I’m not a spontaneous – throw caution to the wind – kind of person. A big con – as in contrary indicator would be what’s it going to cost me to get involved? After all, anything for a quiet life.

Chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel moves at a breath-taking pace. It opens on the grand panorama of Jesus’ descent from the hill country into the valley of the Jordan to join the crowded throng of those streaming out from Jerusalem to listen to John the Baptizer and be baptized by him in the river Jordan. There follows Jesus’ own baptism – the occasion for a second epiphany as the heavens are torn apart as God loudly adopts Jesus as his son.

For Mark there is not a moment too soon; there is no time to lose. In the encompass of Mark’s first chapter Jesus is baptized and tested. John is arrested and Jesus calls his first disciples. He preaches in the synagogue provoking the unclean spirits to cry out in fearful protest, and there’s astonishment among the congregation at the authority of his teaching. He heals Simon’s mother-in-law and the whole city gathers at Simon’s door. An exhausted Jesus seeks solitude during the small hours of the night, only to be hunted and hounded by his disciples’ panic as they desperately look for him. The day no sooner begins, when a leper comes begging to be healed. Things are moving very fast, indeed. The chapter ends with the healed man broadcasting Jesus’ fame far and wide – specifically against Jesus’ instruction to keep things on the down-low.

At verse 14 mark begins: Now after John was arrested Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.

His sense of urgency does not allow Mark to dwell on too much detail in the telling of his Jesus biography. Intent on keeping up a sense of urgency he adds nothing that would cushion the impact between decision and action. Mark wants to present Jesus as someone of such charismatic presence and authority that it never occurs to these busy fishermen not to follow him.

Perhaps there have been times in our lives when we have had a similar experience of being arrested by another’s charismatic request – that so excited us, had our heart pounding, blood pressure rising that saying no was an option that just didn’t occur to us. Whether such an experience has happened to us or not – it’s hard to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples as Mark depicts them. We live lives of such caution – deeply formed by a culture of suspicion – continually preoccupied with the prospect of loss following hasty ill thought through action. Our actions are preceded by solemn deliberation, habitually weighing the pros and cons before acting as a buffer insulating us from the experience of urgency.

Who among us do not at some level desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves – to be caught up in a greater cause bringing to ordinary lives marked by frustration and limitation a sense of greater purpose and direction?

With equal measure of trepidation and desire I suspect we might secretly desire encountering the kind of hey you, yes you – kind of call – wrenching us out of the mind-numbing mundanity of our lives – filling us with passion and conviction. Perhaps this was the experience of so many who heeded the former-President’s call to mount an insurrection. The desire to respond to a call to action -triggering passions born of disillusion and dissatisfaction – is a moment of intoxicating liberation – a sense of being part of something so much greater than our small selves.

Who among us do not at some level desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves – to be caught up in a greater cause bringing to ordinary lives marked by frustration and limitation a sense of greater purpose and direction?

In answer to my opening question – so, what would you do? The likelihood of getting up and following Jesus is slim. We are not the kind of people who take this kind of risk – perhaps more’s the pity! Because despite whatever secret desire we harbor in the deeper regions of our hearts, our kind of faith works to insulate us from the urgency of the kingdom’s expectations. Do we even recognize kingdom expectations in the first place? For instance, take the call for repentance. Repentance is mostly a noble notion to be attained to rather than a pressing concern driving us at the level of daily urgency.

If we are likely to be unmoved by a hey you – yes you call to discipleship what might move us from complacency to urgency?  I think we need to take a second look at Mark 1:14.

The first thing Mark does is to set the stage with: Now after John was arrested. Mark sees John’s arrest as the catalyst moment for Jesus to launch onto the public stage with his proclamation manifesto – listen up, the kingdom of God has arrived!

Last Sunday I announced that we find ourselves in a liminal season defined as the sweet spot between the known and unknown where originality happens. Simon, Andrew, James and John get up to follow Jesus without a second backwards glance because they’ve little to lose given their predicament as itinerant fisherman struggling to make ends meet under a Roman occupation – an economic system in which everything was stacked against them. In short they are propelled by a sense of urgency for change.

Jesus announces the arrival of a window of time between the known that has ceased to work and the unknown yet to be tested.

Jesus announces the arrival of a window of time between the known that has ceased to work and the unknown yet to be tested. Jesus announces the arrival of  a liminal time in which the past remembered pivots towards the future reshaped. His call to the disciples is an invitation that reverberates through every cell of their bodies – every fiber of their being.

St Paul clearly understood the vibrant urgency of the kingdom’s call when in 1 Corinthians 7 he writes: I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short – for the present form of this world is passing away.

We need to think about repentance not so much as sack cloth and ashes but as our wholehearted support for change. Discipleship for us means in the words of a somewhat overused yet important phrase – EMBRACING with fear and trembling, sorrow and remorse, the very change we long to see.

But what of us? Do we hear God calling us to a recognition that the time has grown short the form of this world is passing away. The call to discipleship for us is less of a personal charismatic rapture and more an urgent recognition of the need for repentance. We need to think about repentance not so much as sack cloth and ashes but as our wholehearted support for change. Discipleship for us means in the words of a somewhat overused yet important phrase – embracing with fear and trembling, sorrow and remorse, the very change we long to see.

For Mark there is not a moment too soon; there is no time to lose. For Paul the form of this world – the pall of injustice and greed that cloaks a deeper view of creation’s possibilities – is passing away.

A modern paraphrasing of Mark 1:14 – an announcement of a liminal time – might read as follows: Now after the onslaught of the pandemic laying bare all that is wrong in our world and bringing the specter of death to Americans numbering in the hundreds of thousands; after decades of the powerful sowing the seeds of division and suspicion for power and profit leading to an attempt to overthrow the Constitution incited by a sitting president desperate to cling to power; we are rudely awakened to:

Lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division. Amanda Gorman.
 
There really isn’t a moment too soon, there’s not time left to lose. Amen.

The Sweet Spot

Within Christianity, there is always a tension between prophecy and culture.  In the playing out of this tension, faith runs the risk of accommodating itself to cultural expectations, bestowing a spiritual imprimatur upon them. When it resists this tendency and is faithful to its prophetic responsibility, faith poses a challenge to prevailing cultural assumptions that conflict with the gospel message of love-justice and tenderness-inclusion.

Prophecy can be likened to the unimpeded free-flowing movement of the Spirit, which like a natural spring of water gushes and spills out everywhere. Organized religion creates a walled reservoir collecting the gushing spiritual spring water of the Spirit, channeling it to become a flow of spiritual energy to irrigate civic and cultural life. This is an essential function but herein also lies the danger of faith jettisoning its prophetic mission in order to compromise with the values of a surrounding culture. When this boundary between spiritual and cultural values is blurred, Christian faith becomes cultural religion. Cultural religion not only suppresses prophecy but becomes its greatest opposition.

When religion puts on cultural blinkers, the journey from Christian faith to cultural religion is but a very short detour.

In the pages of the Old Testament, we witness this age-old struggle between the divine vision for Israel expressed in its covenant with God and its adoption of the cultural values of the world around it. The history of ancient Israel is a rollercoaster ride, a record of the ups and downs in a struggle that finds no simple solution.

The first lesson for this Sunday, the call of Samuel, is set in an age when: the word of the Lord was rare, and visions were not widespread.  This is a description of a society in which God’s voice is no longer heard or even expected to be heard.

Samuel grew up to become the last of the great charismatic Judges who ruled in Israel before the age of monarchy. In his call, we see God repudiating a religion corrupted by the misuse of power as identified with the hereditary priest Ely and his corrupt sons.

The period of Samuel’s judgeship is a liminal period between Israel’s tribal confederacy led by a charismatic leader and the emergence of monarchy. This was a period of huge political and social change, which Samuel at first tried to resist. Eventually, under pressure, he finally gave way to the people’s demand to: give us a king like all the other nations around us. Against his better judgment he anointed first Saul, and then David, to be kings over Israel.

Susan Beaumont’s in How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You Are Going – writes about the leadership challenges in a liminal season. To capture the essence of liminality she quotes Ed Catmull of Pixar: 

There is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking. 

A liminal season is a place on the threshold between the ending of what has been known and the arrival of what is yet to become known.

Samuel personifies liminality. He is the last judge but also the first prophet. With the advent of the monarchy, Hebrew religion becomes corrupted by the cult of divine kingship. As a result, the office of the prophet arises to speak out against the cultural corruption of Israel’s covenant faith which was always in danger of giving way before a cultural religion that no longer blessed God, but blessed kings who acted as if they were God.

In the politics of ancient Israel, prophecy becomes the constitutional counterpoint story to that of authoritarian kingship.

We are in the season after the Epiphany. 10 days ago, on January 6th, the Epiphany of Jesus, we awoke to an epiphany of another sort – a stark revealing of America’s dark side. This coming week will see Joe Biden become the 46th President of the Republic. His incoming administration will face no greater challenge than the challenge of leadership in a liminal season. For America is at a point of transition from the known which no longer works to the unknown yet to be tested.  

In a liminal season the present moment pivots through an openness to new directions -and the tight spot becomes the sweet spot – the place where originality happens.

With Ed Catmull in mind again – one might say the situation facing the new administration seems hardly a sweet spot – more like a tight spot.   The danger will lie in any attempt to go back to a status quo before Donald Trump’s presidency. The temptation will be to promise solutions that ceased to work a long time before.

The present moment is the point at which the past remembered becomes the future reshaped. The present moment in a liminal season has the potential to pivot between being a tight spot and a sweet spot. In a liminal season the present moment pivots through an openness to new directions -and the tight spot becomes the sweet spot – the place where originality happens.

The key is to be able to linger in the liminal space long enough without panicking.

In these days following the events of January 6th I went back to what I wrote in on the call of Samuel text in 2018. I then quoted Ross Douthat who in a NYT op-ed asked the prescient question:

Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge?

Douthat concluded that for all of us the direction of history will be determined by our freely chosen answer.

For Christian faith in today’s America, there is a clear litmus test to determine the vibrancy of its prophetic health. On the eve of the commemoration of Dr Martin Luther King’s birth, that great prophet and agitator for social justice in our time, this litmus test remains simple, clear, and uncompromising. Our Christian faith reminds us that love is the key. A great phrase! But what does this actually look like in practice?  Cornel West has reminded us that justice is what love looks like in the public sphere and tenderness is what love feels like in private.

For all of us, the direction of history will be determined by our freely chosen answer. As people of faith in this liminal season our task is to sit in the sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens – without panicking. When we remain alive to the dangers of jettisoning our prophetic responsibility for accommodation with prevailing cultural assumptions, we become a beacon of hope and force for good; the exponents of justice and practitioners of tenderness in the world.

But as Douthat reminds us the choice is ours.

Stories Thick and Thin

Baptism of Christ 2021: Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Identity is always a moving target. We discover, rediscover, and affirm our identity through the stories we give allegiance to. Our minds are story making machines. The meaning and purpose of life comes to us through the stories we tell. Meaning is missed, purpose is squandered when we get locked into telling the wrong story.

I refer to stories in the plural because while we really only have one life story, nevertheless, we can tell it in lots of different ways. Depending on life stage and context our story changes as we hash and rehash elements in our history – some remembered, some misremembered, others suppressed and seemingly forgotten.

Our experience of living in the expanse of time and space is structured around the stories we tell because it’s through story that the world around us is given shape with meaning and purpose. The question we need to ask about the stories we tell – and story more generally – is not are they true or false but are they thick or thin stories? Thick stories are made up of an interweaving of multiple strands – weaving a rich technicolored picture of experience that fosters human flourishing. Thin stories by contrast weave a threadbare monochrome picture – a picture of experience that is too small for our needs – often too fear driven – confining us and stifling our ability to thrive.

It’s the thickness or the quality and complexity of stories that matters!

Our minds are story making machines. It’s the thickness or thinness of our stories that matter. The meaning and purpose of life comes to us through the stories we tell. Meaning is missed, purpose is squandered when we get locked into telling the wrong story.

On Wednesday of this week, we reached a turning point – a pivotal juncture in the current cycle of a resurgent very thin story in our national life. This is a story of domination, not of flourishing. It’s a story driven by fear – a story in which the thin strands of misremembered nostalgia are woven together to form a fearful story in which domination is empowered and maintained through violence, fear is stoked by conspiracy. This is not a new story for America. It’s a recurring one – periodically resurfacing during times of change as a conduit for the repressed paranoia in our collective national consciousness.  

America is not exceptional in this regard. As Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury reminded us in his message of solidarity with the American people – many nations also have sorry experience of similar thin national stories resurfacing from time to time.

This last week however, we have witnessed the true nature of the particular American story. It is the quality of this story which earns us the epithet exceptional.

This week we saw the final showdown – at least in its current cycle of resurgence – between a thin rendition of our national story and the thick and abiding story of the Constitution. Many of us over the last four years had come to wonder whether when the final showdown came – as we knew it must – the thick story of national identity given to us by the Constitution would prevail in the face of the paranoid imbued strands of a thin story of domination and oppression –supported by the violence inherent in all forms of despotism. And to our relief we discovered – yet again – that thick stories eventually prevail – because they show us a more fruitful way for the remembrance of our past to become our future reshaped.

In 1792, The father of the nation, George Washington, delivered these words in his farewell address to Congress.

 The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.  All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.  However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion. 

Washington sounds a further warning:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

We catch more than a glimpse in Washington’s words of the motivating story behind them. The Constitution – like the Bible is often mischaracterized as simply a document. In reality – like that Bible – the Constitution is the transcription of a thick story giving shape and substance to a picture of a people constituted as a republic of citizens empowered to elect their own government according to the guiding principles of a foundational story.

Between our thick and thin national stories, it may often seem the contest is a close-run thing. This week we once again witnessed how the thickness of our founding story preserved a picture of national life characterized by equality in diversity against the attacks of an increasingly undisguised thin alternative.

I’ve noted the events of this past week to demonstrate how stories operate at our national level and how crucial it is which stories we give allegiance to. Choice is everything.

The Christian Kalendar plays havoc with the chronology of time – moving from infancy to adulthood in a matter of weeks. Today we celebrate the story of Jesus’ baptism – a story reported by all three of the synoptic gospel writers. Yet, whereas Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with the story of Jesus birth, Mark begins with Jesus– seemingly out of the mists of childhood and adolescence striding onto center stage as a fully grown man – a man who has come to begin the active phase of God’s purpose for him.

By beginning with his baptism, Mark offers us a different story lens through which to view Jesus. Mark’s Jesus is not born into divine sonship, he is chosen through adoption into his identity of divine son – although Mark, writing earlier than the other gospel writers sticks more faithfully to the Jewish messianic title Son of Man.

The New Testament contains four Jesus origin stories. They differ markedly. From the birth stories of Matthew and Luke to Mark’s baptism story and John’s cosmic story of pre-existence. Even when the same story is being told as in the case of Matthew and Luke’s birth stories, each writer gives it their own characteristic spin.

Likewise, we tell our own individual stories differently influenced by time and context. We can emphasis our identity through birth, and for some – such as members of dynastic families, privileged classes or elites, the birth story is the primary source bestowing identity. Yet for most of us identity is shaped less by birth and more by adoption. We become ourselves through multiple experiences of adoption; each adoption experience shaping the persons we have been destined to become.

The human Jesus at his baptism is adopted by God as the divine son. The story of this event conjures images of a dramatic tearing open of the heavens as the Holy Spirit – the divine breath of God breathes into Jesus – loudly proclaiming his sonship – an action that echoes image given us in the first reading from Genesis where the wind-breath of God swept over the face of the waters.

The story of the Constitution is the foundational story of our nation. The baptism of Jesus is in a very special way our foundational story as Christians. As he was adopted by baptism into his inheritance as the divine son, so through him we too have been adopted by baptism as daughters and sons of God. As God chose and embraced Jesus, so through our baptism God chooses and embraces us as divine children. And like Jesus, we bring God pleasure. As the breath of God enters into us, we become renewed and empowered as Jesus was – to fulfil the purpose God calls us to.

There are times, as this past week has revealed to us, when the outcome of competing and at times clashing stories within us can be a close-run thing.

Stories articulate the core themes of identity. This past week’s political drama represents the struggle over which story will we allow to define our identity as a nation – which story will we draw upon to tell us who we are. Through the story to which we give our ultimate allegiance, we rediscover and reconfirm that identity over and over again in response to new as well as some very old challenges. There are times, as this past week has revealed to us, when the outcome of competing and at times clashing stories within us can be a close-run thing.

A Christmas Story

The human mind is a story telling machine – constructing stories to explain our experience of the world. Religious faith is not – as so many believe – shaped by assertions of propositional truth -true/false, good /bad, light/dark – but by the power of story to communicate more imaginative and skillful ways of living. The Bible is full of such stories with the potential to be life enhancing or life constricting – depending on the way we receive and retell them in each new moment.

Larger stories reframe our own self-limiting stories. Faith-based stories challenge our awareness of pernicious cultural stories that lay claim on us, competing for our primary allegiance. Good stories break the power of the illusion that we have no choice – as if there are no other stories to draw from or no other ways to reframe the stories we have.

To the ordinary demands of 21st-century American life 2020 has added the unprecedented stresses of a full-blown global pandemic visited upon us in full medieval horror. On the cusp of 2020 turning into 2021, pandemic losses are urgently reshaping the stories we tell. Threats to the very environment that sustains us now means that there can be no justice that is not environmental justice.

Tonight, we hear the Christmas Story retold afresh in the context of 2020 – as a story of renewal that demands that our long-held certainties begin to give way to the fruitfulness of uncertainty – so that a new world can begin to grow through the cracks in the old.

It’s Luke who tells the best story of the birth of Jesus. It’s Francis of Assisi who populates Luke’s story of the birth of the savior with the visual props of the traditional nativity play. We now can’t think of Christmas Eve without the mental images of a ruined stable lean-to, bestrewed with straw, with grazing sheep, lowing cattle, incredulous shepherd yokels, and an angel or two singing glory to God in the highest and peace among all people on earth.

Viewing the old master depictions of Luke’s nativity, haven’t you noticed that the idyllic foreground scene is set against a background of collapsing civilization and darkened sky. Glory to God in heaven is all well and good but the reign of peace on earth is not yet arrived. With the birth of Jesus, the story has begun but it’s ending is not yet in sight or as Sonny Kapoor, proprietor of the Most Exotic and Best Marigold Hotel proclaims it will be OK in the end and if things are not OK it’s because it’s not yet the end.

As 2020 draws towards its painful and still frightening end, it’s not the quaint details of the manger scene that communicate the meaning we yearn for.  Old stories with each retelling have the potential to become new stories. If the particular chemistry of the present moment is the key to the past remembered becoming the future reshaped – our question tonight is not so much what did Luke intend to convey – but what, do we hear in his story?

In 2020 we have all come to experience the frightening novelty of no longer knowing with any assurance where safety lies. Anxiety about who’s safe and who’s not – has forced us to view one another with increased suspicion as we retreat into social isolation. In 2020, so many more of us are experiencing a frightening sense of social and economic marginalization as our previously held certainties no longer feel so certain.

Yet with every action there is a reaction. Social isolation is countered by new virtual ways of bringing us together –ways that will leave a lasting legacy for facilitating social relationships into the future. Hated mutual suspicion of one another spurred by the age-old fear of contamination refocuses our attention on the interpersonal qualities of mercy, forgiveness, humility and compassion. Absence only makes the heart grow fonder. The threat of social collapse demands we relinquish old ways of working that will no longer serve us going forward – requiring that our long-held certainties give way to fruitful uncertainty – so that a new world can begin to grow through the cracks in the old.

The enchanted magical realism of Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ birth among angels and shepherds may no longer speak to us as it once did in previous generations. Yet, in 2020 we cannot miss the themes beneath the surface; themes of safety versus risk, between invulnerability and vulnerability, belonging and rejection, hope and fear.

So, on Christmas Eve in 2020 I believe in the power of Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus to change our lives. I believe in this story, not because I mistake it for a literal description of true events, but because to not believe in it impoverishes and limits me. My life is all the richer, my ability to weather the vicissitudes of fate strengthened, because I believe that the Creator has entered into the very structures of the creation to experience it as we do.

The universe has purpose and this story reveals how God is actively engaged in bringing that purpose to its fulfillment. Luke’s nativity story is a story we’ve heard before – but in the present context of 2020 it becomes a new story – speaking to us no longer of the past remembered but of future possibility emerging from the tensions of the present time. Tonight we hear the story as the jumping off point to reshaping a future inviting us to grow into our responsibilities as God’s agents – actively engaged in the continual in-breaking of an environmental justice embracing all forms of injustice – as a sign of the divine repair of a broken world.

The birth of Jesus is a story about the creator’s self-emptying into the creation – witnessing the endless power of God’s love to provide the creation with the energy for continual renewal. Hearing the Christmas Story retold afresh in the context of 2020 –requires that our long-held certainties begin to give way to discovering the fruitfulness of uncertainty – so that new worlds can begin to grow through the cracks in the old.

Our Christian story is a drama in two acts. In the birth of Jesus God has inaugurated messianic age in which we live. Keeping act two – the final fulfillment of a new heaven and a new earth in mind – reorients us back to the work of the messianic age, i.e. the remaking of a broken world despite the frustrating fact that the in breaking of justice and peace is still in the process of moving towards its final completion.

What better than to end with a contemporary voice – the voice of the Irish mystic poet, the late John O’Donohue inviting us into a future reshaped:

May the stories we choose to live by – enliven us to the invisible geography that invites us to new frontiers, to break the dead shell of yesterdays, to risk being disturbed and changed, so to live the lives we long to love, and to postpone no longer the life we came here for and waste our hearts on fear no more.

Morning Offering

Encountering Mary’s Story

We now inch day-by-day towards Gods third great act of creation. Genesis offers us stories of the original act of creation when the Spirit of God hovered over the abyss and brought order to the hitherto undifferentiated universe – separating night from day, light from dark, sea from sky, and the emergence of solid ground on which God planted the seeds of all life. With the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the primordial garden we see the first shift in the way the creation will hence forth progress.

Genesis reports that things continue – going from bad to worse – until in the story of Noah and the Flood we God’s destruction of all but the sea and sky along with the solitary ark bearing the remnants of living life. This great eruption of divine anger is followed by an act of remorse. God grieves – it seems God has been hasty destroying the very thing he ha most loved. His profound remorse is symbolized for all eternity in the sign of the rainbow – a sign in God of of the triumph of love over rage.

The Christmas Carol It came upon a midnight clear speaks of an angelic song which opens the way for God’s third great action in the story of creation. The carol’s second verse speaks of angel-song as:

With peaceful wings unfurled,
their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

Yet beneath the unimaginable beauty of the angelic strain:

with woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

In God’s third great act in the creation, we find a 15-year-old girl sitting entranced by the words of a heavenly messenger– hail O highly favored one, the Lord is with you. Mary alone hears the angel-song. She lets the words enter deeply into her, slowly allowing them to arouse in her a deep curiosity. Her first words are the predictable how can this be?

On the surface of things, the angel’s greeting makes little sense to her.

Mary’s world is far from secure. A 15-year-old peasant girl occupies a vulnerable place within a world that is consistently harsh and often cruel. A world in which for a young woman there can be little hope of escape from the endless round of servitude and labor. So how can this be?

Yet, there is curiosity in her question. I often comment that curiosity is one of the essentials in the pursuit of a spiritual life. There is a wonder in curiosity in the way it opens the curious to new and undreamt-of possibilities. Curiosity precedes hope – hope the whispering of longing to be translated into action in the present-time.

And so, Mary sits in silence. Gabriel, the angel with unfurled wings hovers soundlessly with a deafening soundlessness that penetrates every cell of Mary’s body – every fiber of her being. Together their silence brings all of creation to a stand-still – like the pause between two breaths. Mary sits, Gabriel hovers patiently, and God – the Creator of heaven and earth and all they contain – our God waits. For God must now wait upon Mary’s response.

Suddenly the waiting is over. From the depth of her being Mary whispers her yes – a simple yes – her word of agreement that will change forever the course of creation.

In the words of the carol through Mary’s yes the creation (the whole world) finally gives back the song which the angels sing.

Despite the difference of time and context separating us from her, like Mary’s – our world is a far from easy or safe place. If nothing else, 2020 has brought this home for many of us who otherwise enjoyed the illusion of a degree of separation from the harsher realities of the world.  We struggle to hope – hope which ultimately requires us the whisper of a yes. But our question is not Mary’s but how can this be? Our question is more often yes, but yes to what? A conditional yes.

All we can know is that when we whisper our yes we, as Mary did, consent to enter into a partnership of covenant with God – giving ourselves over to God’s purpose for us.

In every moment of every day God addresses us as highly favored ones – asking for our willing consent to become those in or through whom the Word of God is born.

Our Advent waiting is over. Our confusion as to what or who we have been waiting for becomes clear. We are the ones God has been waiting for. Let it be to us according to the divine life-giving word.

 Fifteen years old –
 The flowers printed on her dress
 Cease moving in the middle of her prayer
 When God, Who sends the messenger,
 Meets His messenger in her Heart.
 Her answer, between breath and breath,
 Wrings from her innocence our Sacrament!
 In her {white} body God becomes our Bread.

 Annunciation by Thomas Merton 

Who are we waiting for? Sermon for Dec. 13, Advent 3 – from Mark+

Main text Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Advent is a time that refocuses our attention on the spiritual virtue of hope. Hope is the universal aspiration of the human heart. Regardless of differences in the imagined outcome -hope is a universal of the human spirit.

I’ve mentioned before that one of my fatalistic Irish grandmother’s sayings was don’t hope- never be disappointed. This saying captures that quality of risk inherent in hope. To hope is to risk wanting – and wanting raises the possibility of disappointment. But my grandmother’s expression, while it captures our fear of risk, it nonetheless misses the essential point about hope. Hope’s not primarily a picture of a longed-for future – realizable or not. Hope is the compass setting that establishes a direction of travel in the present.

Hope is the compass setting that establishes a direction of travel in the present.

You see, hope is not a future dream – although much of human hope is couched in this way. Hope is primarily an expectation for the present. Don’t hope -never be disappointed is not simply a protection against future disappointment it’s a severe limitation on present time possibility.

We are the ones we have been waiting for is a saying the origin of which has multiple attributions. We are the ones we have been waiting for is however the title of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book about which Alice Walker has said:

We are the ones we have been waiting for because we live in an age in which we are able to see and understand our own predicament. With so much greater awareness than our ancestors – and with such capacity for insight, knowledge, and empathy – we are uniquely prepared to create positive change within ourselves and our world.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for was also used by Barak Obama – not to indicate that he or his administration were necessarily the ones desperately awaited but that present generations of our society have the potential to really change American society’s direction of travel towards an – as yet – unrealized future.

Don’t hope -never be disappointed is not simply a protection against future disappointment it’s a severe limitation on present time possibility.

Sustaining hope is a lifetime’s work. Advent invites us to refocus on this task of sustaining hope in a world that tends often – like my grandmother’s saying – to play up the risk of hope’s disappointment.

We can see the tension played out in the book of the Prophet Isaiah between hope as a longed-for future expectation and hope as the invitation to open to present time possibility. The book of Isaiah begins around 740 BCE when the figure known as First Isaiah begins to prophesy and ends in the mid 650’s BCE with the prophecies of Third Isaiah – The combined prophecies of First, Second, and Third Isaiah form the mainstay of Advent’s O.T. lessons. On Advent Sunday, picking up on Third Isaiah’s plaintiff cry: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence, I posed the question: in Advent what are we waiting for, and why are we still waiting? I noted that the answer was too complex for one sermon and I promised to return to the question.

Third Isaiah’s cry: why God are you too long in fulfilling your promises – is certainly a complaint we can identify with. But the problem here lies in the nature of expectation. Third Isaiah’s complaint is an expectation of a God who dwells outside of human affairs and is required from time to time to swoop in to rescue us from our folly. Yet, in the book of Isaiah we find the earlier voice – that of First Isaiah, writing some 200 years prior to Third Isaiah anticipates God’s arrival not as an all-powerful – God who rescues us – but as Emmanu-El –literally, God is with us.

The implications of First Isaiah’s expectation of God as Emmanu-El  – is of a God who has come not to rescue us and take us out of the mess of our own creation, but as a God who enters into the mess of the world alongside us: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.

If our Advent hope causes us to raise our eyes heavenwards waiting for divine rescue – we will miss the object of Advent hope- that God is already here – among us – journeying alongside us in our travail.

At the heart of our Christian faith is the realization that in the birth of Jesus, the Creator, hitherto dwelling outside of creation – now enters to dwell within the tent of the creation. In the Incarnation God comes to be with us. However, the birth of Jesus is only the beginning.

Although not the gospel appointed for Advent 3, Luke’s chapter 4 show us the adult Jesus on entering the synagogue, reading First Isaiah’s words: the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. His audience’s familiarity with these words as future promise give way to astonishment and then to anger as he tells them that: today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. They react badly to being told to forget about the future, and open their eyes to see that things are really happening now. In Jesus, hope has come as the challenge for change in the present time and his first act inaugurating his ministry.

We are the ones we have been waiting for focuses our attention firmly on the present time in which hope is not a future dream but a present-time activity. Of course, there is a hidden irony here. Writing of Obama’s use of the phrase in the Atlantic Magazine, Andrew Sullivan wrote:

But I think some have missed a nuance. The phrase is actually a self-indictment as well as a self-congratulation. The point is surely that we shouldn't wait for someone else to save us, or lift us up, or fix our problems or address our fate.

What are we waiting for and why are we still waiting?  Maybe this is not the question after all.

The great 20th -century theologian Paul Tillich wrote:

the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait

On Advent 3 we arrive at a different question from the one I posed on Advent 1. What are we waiting for becomes who are we waiting for? Allowing for an appropriate sense of humility, if we are not to be the ones we have been waiting for – then who will be?

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