Monday, December 7, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - Preparing for the Unknown

Mal. 3:1-4
Luke 3:1-6

            How many of you have seen the movie “French Kiss?”  The movie begins with Meg Ryan’s character, Kate, acting as a typical middle class person, saving money, planning for the future, working hard to make the dreams of many a typical middle class person come true.  She is engaged to a Doctor, and living in a home away from home, which for her is Canada, hoping to become a Canadian citizen.  She has saved enough money to buy a wonderful house and she is dreaming and planning for the family and kids she hopes to have.  She seems happy and excited about her life and the only clue we are given that things are not all that they seem is that she is terrified of flying.  So when her fiancé invites her to go with him to France, she declines, despite all his urgings.  The crisis in the movie comes just a few minutes later when her fiancé calls from France to tell her that he has met a “Godesse” in France and that he will not be returning to her.  She feels the secure walls of her life begin to crumble and she pushes herself to fly to France, despite her terror, in a desperate attempt to “get him back!”   When she arrives in France, she is met by a number of people who block her attempts to connect with her fiancé and finally everything she has is stolen from her.  She finds herself across the world from her home, without fiancé, without possessions, without security, “without my vitamins!!” as she declares, and on top of that because she left Canada to fly to France before her resident visa was approved, neither Canada nor the United States will give her a new visa.  She has in the span of a day, gone from being a complete “has” to being a total “has not.” 
            At first she is devastated.  But as she later explains, “I thought, there is no way that everything I was building for would be destroyed ... and so I bought a plane ticket, got on the plane, somehow made it over the big blue ocean,... and then the most extraordinary thing happened.  Everything went wrong.  I was wandering the streets of Paris, penniless, without a hope in the world.  And let me tell you, you can do a lot of soul searching in a time like that and I realized that I spent most of my adult life trying to protect myself from exactly this situation.  And you can’t do it.  There is no home safe enough, there is no country nice enough, there’s no relationship secure enough.  You’re just setting yourself up for an even bigger fall and having an incredibly boring time in the process.”
            Throughout the movie Kate learns to let go of her fear, to the point that towards the end of the movie she gives away her life savings to someone she expects to never see again - out of love - just because.
            The lesson in the story is pretty clear.  Out of our fear of losing the security, the wealth, the status that we have, we sometimes fail to appreciate the most important thing of all: the gift of life that God has given us. We fail to really live that life, but instead are controlled by our need for security. Still, most of us are not put into the situation where we are forced to reevaluate and reexamine our priorities, our fears, and our use of resources....
            Unless, of course, we are Christians who take seriously that this is a part of God’s call for our lives.  Especially during times like advent and lent, times of preparing, we are called to reexamine our lives, and to make some significant changes.
            Today’s passage in Luke tells us that we are to prepare for Christ’s coming.  More than that it tells us HOW we are to prepare.  John, we are told, was proclaiming a baptism of repentance.  We are to prepare for Christ’s coming by repenting.  Repenting does not mean being sorry for something you’ve done.  It does not mean wallowing in guilt or shame.  It literally means turning the other way, choosing a new direction.  It means committing to a radical change and then doing it, living out that change.  This passage in Luke details what that path is to look like.  We are told to make straight the paths for God’s coming.  In other words, we are called to repent, or rather, to really look at our ways, look at our actions and our behaviors, and then change them, being focused and direct in our behaviors, no longer taking roads to the right or left that are distractions and are all over the map.  The rest of the passage from Luke also helps explain this.  Luke continues, quoting Isaiah, by telling us what God’s coming will be about.  God will raise the valleys and bring low the mountains.  Raising up the valleys and bringing the mountains low: what is that all about? 
            This passage is talking about systemic change.  It is talking about even-ing out of the playing field.  It’s about confronting and not allowing suffering; lifting up the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, bringing them into physical, emotional, societal ... complete relief. We are all for that.  Of course we are.  As people of faith, we want the oppressed and those suffering to be okay.  However, he doesn’t just talk about raising up the valleys.  He also talks about bringing down the mountains.  It is also about bringing low the high and mighty: liberating the famous from their burden of constant attention, the powerful from their total control, and liberating the rich from their excess stuff.  And while we may not be powerful or famous, we are, in comparison to the rest of the world, very, very rich.  And while I know it sounds funny to talk about liberating the famous, powerful and rich, the reality is that God is about that, too.  These things that we seek after imprison people.  The famous really do loose their privacy, and sometimes their sense of self, because the person everyone sees and adores (or hates) is not the real person whom it takes time and intimacy to know.  The powerful carry the burden of huge responsibility and what it means to choose life for some, and often death or poverty for others.  And the rich, well the more people have, the more they fear to lose.  They end up becoming owned by their stuff, controlled by their fear of losing that stuff.  Now they have to have an alarm system or systems to protect their stuff.  Now every stranger is a potential danger.  And we live in fear of not having a high enough paying job, of something happening that will cost us more than we “can afford” if we want to maintain the style of living to which we are accustomed.  We’ve talked before about how the poorest people in Central America, for example, a family with six kids who live in a one room house with dirt floors, will give you their only chicken as a meal: will serve you truly the best they have, and they will feel honored, happy, proud in the best sense to have been able to offer that kind of hospitality.  In contrast a person living in a million dollar home here will begrudge a poor homeless person a dollar for something to eat.  We may feel we own our stuff, but it is at least a mutual owning and often times I think our stuff has ultimate control.  So in this passage from Luke we are told that God is about redeeming all people: the poor will have more than one chicken to share, the oppressed will regain their dignity and respect.  The powerful will be relieved of their burdens, and the rich will no longer have so much that they live in the fear of losing it.  ALL flesh, as it says here, will see the salvation of God.
            We then prepare for God’s coming in two ways.  First, we are called as part of our repentance to understand our part both in the current situation of haves and have-nots, but also in the new creation that we are told God will bring.  Even those of us who are “poor” in this room are richer than most of the world.  We are called to repent our having at the cost of others who have not.  And we are called to look at the promise God makes to bring the hills low and raise the valleys, recognizing that even-ing out for most of us will mean we have less.  We will be liberated from our nice cars, from our fancy computers and phones, from all of our electronic toys. The good news for us is there really will be freedom in that, no matter what our current fears.  Not easy to see from where we sit.  But remember God wants us to be as whole as we can be and this will be part of that wholeness.
            Second, this passage says we are called to prepare for Christ’s coming by making the way straight.  Making the way straight, preparing for God’s coming looks like choosing to be part of that world where all have enough, because we are not so rich anymore. It is a call to us for just action on our part.  We make the way straight by no longer bending the road to the distractions of that luxury over there, or this status over here or that entertainment over there.   In other words, we make the way straight by being part of bringing that justice to the world.   We are called to prepare for Christ’s coming by caring for one another, at the deepest level.
            This is more than charity. Because sometimes charity keeps the needy needing.  Charity keeps some as givers and some as receivers.  It doesn’t ultimately raise the valleys and bring low the mountains.  I’m not saying that charity isn’t important.  It is a good start.  Teaching a person to fish is pointless if their stomach is so empty they can’t see the fishing pole.  But this passage calls us to something much more than charity.  It calls for systemic change in the way we treat one another, in the way we see one another, in the way we interact with one another.  That person who is poor is your BROTHER.  That woman who is crazy and angry and even violent is your SISTER.  And we are called to LOVE HER with respect and care.
            Part of what keeps our preparations for Christ’s coming less in the realm of total change and more in the area of shopping and baking cookies, is that when we prepare for Christ’s coming at Christmas, we tend to be imagining Christ as the Christmas stories show us: as a baby. 
            That is important and good.  There is a great gift in seeing God enter the world helpless, in innocence, in vulnerability, in humility.  There is incredible joy and peace in seeing Christ as a baby, someone we cannot help but love and adore, someone who depends on our care for survival and who is therefore everything good that a baby can be.
            But the passage we read today from Malachi calls us to something different.  This passage from Malachi says that God’s coming will be as unlike a baby as we might imagine.  Malachi describes God’s coming how?  Like a refiner’s fire: a fire used to purify metals like gold and silver: very hot, very true, very intense.  Malachi also says that it will be like fuller’s soap, which is a very harsh soap: it cleans deeply and purely, but not without pain or cost.
            God comes to us then in different ways.  Yes, as a baby.  But also as one who calls us, commands us even, to act with justice and love towards our enemies.  And God comes as the one who will clean us into the righteous behavior, into that love, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.  There are many ways God comes to us. Preparing for God is always, then, preparing for the unexpected.
            One evening about eight years ago, my family and I were sitting around the dinner table talking about our experiences of the day.  We were feeling down and were talking about some of the terrible things we had heard in the news that day.  Natural disasters, violence, war.  Closer to home, another parishioner was seriously ill, there was a conflict in the church with a neighbor, road rage was getting all of us down.  It was a lot to hear and experience in one day.  I found myself sitting there feeling helpless, wondering what we were supposed to do, how we were supposed to be God’s voice in the world in the midst of the pain and chaos, when Jasmyn, then only three years old, suddenly piped up, “I heard God talk to me today.”  I’ve shared with you before about Jasmyn’s conversations with God, and this was one of them.  As I’ve said before, when it comes to children hearing God’s voice I do not doubt this reality.  Call me superstitious if you will, but I deeply believe that children have a connection to the Divine that many of us have lost.  So when Jasmyn told me she heard God’s voice, there was no doubt in my mind that she actually had. And I wondered what God’s message to her, and perhaps to all of us present might be.  So I turned and said, “Yes, Jasmyn?  And what did God say to you?”
Her eyes opened really wide and she leaned forward and said in an intense whisper, “This is my World.”  “This is my world.”  This is God’s World.
            God appears to us sometimes as one convicting us of failing to love one another fully.  Other times God appears to us as a baby, newly born, dependent on our love and care, trusting us, reaching out to us.  And sometimes God just shows up in the unexpected moments of our grumpiness, in our helplessness, in our fear or pain or joy or confusion.  We need to keep our eyes open.  For God is there, calling us to care completely with all that is ours.  For this is God’s world, and we are called by that to act with justice, to act with humility, and to look for God’s coming in unexpected and amazing places, to make the paths straight. 
            I invite you this Advent to prepare by looking at the ways in which we support the system of haves and have-nots.  I invite you to look at your life and scrutinize the ways in which we fail to bring the mountains low and raise the valleys up.  I invite you to see in what ways that failure is holding you back from becoming the whole person God calls you to be.  And then I encourage you to change, to repent, not out of guilt, but out of a recognition that we are called to be part of making the paths straight for God’s coming.

            God does come, God will come, in wonderful, glorious, awesome ways.  God’s coming will, no doubt, be surprising.  God’s coming will, no doubt, happen, again and again.  So prepare for it, through repentance, through justice, through peace, through love.  In Christ’s name we pray.  Amen.