Are you basically an optimist or basically a pessimist? Do you tend to see the glass as half empty or half full? John the Baptist seems to be a bit of both – both optimist and pessimist. I tend to be a worrier myself, so I don’t see the glass as either half full or half empty. Instead I worry about the glass tipping over and spilling whatever water it might have. My tendency is to look at the future and think about the bad things that could happen.
I feel as if there’s a lot to worry about right now in our world. Global warming or global trade wars, the rising costs of healthcare, mass gun violence, the anger and hatred in our national political discourse, the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor. We seem to be going in the wrong direction, and bad things are coming. You probably share at least some of those anxieties.
John the Baptist confronted high anxiety in his own age. The Jewish people could look ahead and see disaster threatening them. John the Baptist does not try to reassure them; instead he tells them, “Yes, you’re right, disaster is coming! You better get ready for it!” He uses their anxiety to try to get people to act, to make changes in their lives that will get them back on the path to God. Now is the time to get right with God.
Because the other part of his message is a message of hope. We hear that in the gospel this morning. God is going to bring salvation to God’s people. There’s a glorious future that lies somewhere ahead of us. This is the vision that’s also laid out so beautifully in this morning’s lesson from the prophet Baruch: God is going to bring all of God’s children home, God is going to bring redemption. Looking at disaster ahead and yet still finding hope – that’s the balance.
In some ways this balance is essential to our spiritual lives. We are always on the knife edge between being anxious about disaster ahead and looking for the small signs of hope in God’s promised salvation.
I had an experience of this last week. I was in Seattle helping an aging family member move – always a difficult process, but made more so by the fact that they are in a relentless decline in physical and cognitive health. This is something that I know some of you have faced with your own family members or friends, and it’s a bleak kind of outlook to have. You know it’s not going to end well, there’s no bright light at the end, and this is so hard, because you feel there’s nothing you can do.
But in fact I did experience moments of hope and moments of light last week. It came in small, unexpected moments, and it always involved an interaction with someone else. A brief moment of humor, a word of encouragement, acts of kindness and understanding and grace. It was like going outside on a dark night this time of year and looking up at the sky and seeing a few bright stars. Small signs of hope in the darkness, signs of God’s presence. It was enough to sustain me, even knowing the difficult path ahead.
I feel that Advent is a time like that, when we are experiencing darkness, experiencing maybe fear and anxiety about lots of things. And yet this is also a time when we can be aware of what the late President Bush liked to call the “thousand points of light.” Do you remember how he talked about this? It was about the people around us and their small acts of compassion and generosity that are pointing the way forward.
So that’s what we can do in this dark season. We can look for those points of light, those points of hope in the people around us, and we, too, can make our effort to be points of light, points of hope for others. We can do that in the acts of kindness we share with others – we become light to them in the acts of grace and of good humor. We become the light in the darkness, that gives us hope and confidence in the redemption and salvation that God is going to bring for all of us.
We are experiencing Advent….the preparation for the coming of Jesus. We hear from John the Baptist during the time when the Roman empire was causing great unrest, torture, killing, and brutality to the people who lived throughout the region but especially in the Galilee. The people were experiencing an occupation that was very cruel and many of the religious thinkers of the day were predicting an end to the world or a messiah that would come and lead an army to vanquish the Romans. Their expectations were many and varied.
But what happened was the most unexpected event that no one was predicting.
What happened was a man by the name of Jesus. Born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth in the Galilee, a person raised in the understanding of what it meant to belong to a tribe, it just so happened his tribe was Jewish. He was aware of the teaching of what we now call The Old Testament. He was aware of the danger of speaking out against the Roman occupation. Every breath he had taken, every step he took, every conversation he had, every person he met, was somehow affected by the cruelty of the Roman occupation. People lived in fear and yet hoped for a future without fear. They were hungry for the words of John the Baptist. And John was aware that a new moment in time was coming. He probably knew Jesus. He had probably heard him. And they were probably friends who disagreed on matters of religion and politics. Jesus would say, “You have heard it said by men of old but I say to you”. And he spoke with authority.
John recognized that authority and was preparing people for the ministry of Jesus. So much happened in the brief ministry of Jesus. No more than 3 years and maybe even less.
One of the most important teachings Jesus made was to equate the love of God, neighbor, and self that had never before been taught. He taught us the Great Commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
We have heard this so many times over the years; we fail to recognize it as a revolutionary teaching in the 1st century and remain revolutionary today.
At the time of Jesus, love your neighbor means that you love your neighbor within your tribe within your own family…..yet Jesus was revolutionary in teaching that to love your neighbor you were to love your enemies and to give special attention to people who were excluded such as Samaritans and all people could share and know the love of God as well as sinners and unbelievers.
What was so revolutionary about the Commandments to love God, neighbor and self was that Christianity left its tribal heritage in Jerusalem. Under the leadership of the Apostle Paul Christianity became a worldwide religion that has incorporated many cultures, languages, and people of many colors. In fact, every child sees the baby Jesus as a reflection of their own part of humanity. At the Roman Catholic Basilica in Nazareth, Jesus and Mary are artistically celebrated as persons of color whether in India, Africa, Europe, Asia, South America and that is how it should be. The word becoming flesh in the person of Jesus is about all of humanity….at all times and in all places. One of my favorite places to visit in Jerusalem is the Church of the Paternoster where the Lord’s Prayer is on the wall in over a hundred languages. Proof of the way the Spirit has moved in the lives of millions of people over the centuries.
I would like to submit another way as to how the Spirit is moving in our lives today. Sixty-nine years ago today the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations produced a document that needs to be honored by all people throughout the world. But especially by Christians as they reflect the Commandments of Jesus. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, I will read from its preamble.
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and unalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscious of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress in better standards of life in larger freedom.
Now therefore, the General Assembly, proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples in all nations, to the end that every individual and every organs of society, keeping this declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observant, both among people of member states themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”
Following this preamble, there are 30 articles that spell out the meaning of human rights. In your spare time you may wish to read it.
All of us know this past week the disruption that is taking place regarding Jerusalem. I received a letter that I wish to speak to you about as part of human rights regarding Palestinians and especially those who live in East Jerusalem.
Subject of the letter “Still occupied in East Jerusalem”.
The following letter is someone who works for an Israeli peace organization called B’Tselem. He as a Palestinian is employed for purposes of Jewish human rights organization issues.
“My name is Kareem Jubran. I am a Palestinian in East Jerusalem. On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump “recognized” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Yet this announcement does not change the fact that East Jerusalem is occupied territory, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are deprived of political rights. We must recognize this reality and work relentlessly to change it.”
He goes on further to say:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”, states The Human Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 and marked every year on December 10th. Yet, since annexing East Jerusalem unlawfully in 1967, Israel has made it unequivocally clear that Palestinians are unwanted in the city and repeatedly demonstrated how little it values our lives. On a routine basis, Israel authorities wrongfully detain, wound, and even kill us, they deny us permits to build our homes, schools and roads and they bar us from living with our love ones who are not residents of Israel. After more than 50 years of deliberate underdevelopment, the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem suffer from overcrowding, poverty and substandard infrastructure.” End of letter.
Human rights violations occur in every country throughout the world including our own country. It is our task as Christians throughout the world to challenge these violations and to adhere to the teachings of Jesus especially within the great commandment of love of God, Neighbor and Self. All three understandings of love becomes a focus for spirituality that reflects love to a world that often gives in to evil. We often do not advocate for our own rights much less the rights of others. Witness the explosion of sexual harassment and how women are now dismantling a male dominance over women. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was a direct response out of the evils of World War II and the Holocaust and the ways in which we mistreat each other. We know there is a way that points us in a direction that leads to healing and hope. That way has been tried and tested and proven by countless pilgrims in their own journey of life in relationship to Jesus Christ. It is a way that leads us to accept and love God, our neighbor and ourselves. It opens doors into relationships, issues of human rights, new learning’s and brings into focus the future. That way is here and now and coming to us always as the future breaks into our lives. God is with us. Oh come, oh come Emanuel.
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me,
and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.
The messenger of the covenant
in whom you delight –
indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
Well, that’s great news, right? But then there’s this reversal, this new direction:
But who can endure the day of his coming,
and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire
The messenger is like someone who melts things down
and like fullers’ soap;
The messenger is like a fuller, like someone who scrubs and shapes and bleaches cloth. (If any of you are fans of the King James translation, you may remember that, at Transfiguration, Jesus’ “raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.”) God’s messenger:
will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver,
until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.
Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
God will be pleased with us. But not before we pass through fire. Not before we are scrubbed down and bleached. Not before we are transformed.
In the past two weeks, the news has brought us two more stories of staggering violence on our own soil, two more instances in which individuals have succumbed to alienation and rage and, taking a gun, have chosen to kill. In the now familiar aftermath of the violence, we have heard the now familiar arguments. Arguments about guns and gun control and freedom and mental health and prayer.
I have been struggling to figure out what to say and do in response; how I am called to respond as an individual and how we, together, are called to respond as church.
There are a couple of well-worn paths available to us, and both of them are pretty seductive. Probably the most well-worn path available to church is to say, “This is hard and we need to pray about it.” That is the church’s way of saying “no comment” or “I’d rather not talk about this” while still sounding pious.
The other path is to simply to take a pre-existing argument from the evening news or Twitter and dress it up in theological language, to go fetch the Biblical proof text that establishes that, yes, my political beliefs are backed up by Jesus. Thus, we can enter into the national shouting match (it is too generous to call it a debate) with the sanctimonious knowledge that God is on our side.
Neither of those paths is particularly helpful. The first is unhelpful because it contributes nothing, because it is cowardly. And the second is unhelpful because it represents a decision to pour more kerosene on an already raging fire, because it add nothing new to the conversation, and because it ignores the possibility that we might have something to say as church.
What I want to suggest is that as people of faith, and as followers of Jesus in particular, we can offer an insight about stories, about myths.
In a lot of popular parlance, a myth is a falsehood, a misconception, perhaps even a dangerous superstition. There is a TV Show, for instance, called Myth Busters. But this morning, I would like to use the term myth is a more neutral sense, I’d like to use it refer to a meaning-making story, a story that tells you who you are and whose you are as a person, as a member of a family, as a member of a country, and so on. Myths can be good and freeing. Or they can be draining and limiting.
Let’s choose a local example. “Keep Portland Weird” is a myth. And it’s probably a good one. It says that our city has room for creativity, for diversity, for inclusivity, for eccentricity. How about a national example? “America is the greatest country in the world” is one of the myths upon which this nation is founded. And I would say that is mostly a good myth, that it infuses this country with energy and optimism and a can-do spirit, a deep sense that we are chosen and beloved by God. Although that myth sometimes does make us reluctant to listen to the experiences of our neighbours from elsewhere in the world, reluctant to acknowledge that they, too, might be chosen and beloved by God. How about personal or family myths? “I’m good at making friends” or “Nobody in my family does well in school” or “It’s really important to go to college” or “The most important thing is to work hard.” Some of these myths are freeing, some of them limiting, some of them a bit of both. I bet that you can think of your own examples of myths good, bad, and in between.
I want to suggest that the sort of violence that we witnessed in Colorado and San Bernadino – and that much of the response to those shootings – is predicated on an old myth. And that is the myth that God is a God of violence, a God of anger, and a God of exclusion.
That myth is limiting and destructive. This myth is a lie.
Now, if you want, you can back up that myth, that lie, with scripture or other holy texts, you can back in up with the Old and the New Testament alike. That myth is absolutely attested in the Bible: as Richard Rohr has said, the Bible keeps on taking three steps forward into compassion and generosity and then two steps back into xenophobia and hatred. In that respect, the Bible is a lot like humanity in general.
But here’s the critical thing: while scriptures journey to wholeness is slower and more painful than we would like (again, a lot like our own journeys), there are more steps forward than back, scripture does keep on getting closer to compassion and generosity and love all the time. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the arc of history bends towards justice. Well, so does the arc of scripture. So yes, you can use individual passages to make the case for God as God of violence. You cannot use scripture in its entirety to do so.
If that myth of God as a God of violence is indeed a lie – if scripture is telling the truth, if John is right when he says that God is love – then what does that mean for shootings and our response to them?
Well, I’ve got four possible answers. Let’s start somewhere easy and work our way to a place that is harder. Here’s the easy beginning: it means that the shooters at Planned Parenthood in Colorado and in San Bernadino profoundly and disastrously misunderstood who God is, what God hopes for them, and what God hopes for the world. The notion that God’s justice, that the coming of the Kingdom, can ever look like releasing a hail of bullets or setting off a bomb or waterboarding a prisoner or driving nails into a cross is a perversion of faith. Scripture demands that we reject such an understanding of God, Jesus demands that we reject such an understanding of God.
Let’s go somewhere harder. If God is love, then we are called to reject any effort to solve the violence that we witnessed in Colorado and San Bernadino with violence of our own. The lament that we hear after every shooting – if only the victims themselves had been armed, then they could have defended themselves – is itself a symptom of the lie that God is in the violence business. It is a symptom of what the late theologian and philosopher Rene Girard called the Myth of Redemptive Violence, the notion that there is violence that can bring goodness, that if we just got the violence right, that if we just fine-tuned the violence, we would be good and safe and whole. The notion of Redemptive violence is lodged deep in the human psyche, it is attested in just about every Western and every Action movie ever made, where you know that you’ve reached the happy ending because the villain is face down in the dust. But that myth is not of God.
I’ll just come out and admit that I believe that we are called to work for a society with fewer guns: it is not a coincidence that mass shootings are a rarity in countries where guns are harder to get are where assault rifles and high capacity magazines are prohibited. But that’s not all that we are called to do. Because having fewer guns is treating a symptom rather than the cause of the disease, it is a technical fix to a spiritual problem, it is a technical fix to a broken myth. We need to proclaim an alternative myth to redemptive violence. An alternative to the myth that the world is made of bad guys and good guys and that it is the job of the righteous to take the bad guys out, an alternative to the myth that God is in the violence business. We need to tell a myth in which God is in the healing business, in which God is in the reconciliation business, in which God is in the love business. That, by the way, is the myth that Jesus tells throughout the Gospel.
Let’s get harder. If God is love, then we are called to a wild and radical empathy, a wild and radical inclusion. We are called to withhold our empathy from no one. That means rejecting the temptation to mock or exclude those with whom we disagree.
I don’t understand those who reject any limitation on gun ownership, who insist that unlimited access to guns is indivisible from freedom. But I want to understand. I don’t understand those who figure that barring the gates of our country to refugees fleeing from terrorists will keep us safe. But I want to understand. I don’t understand those who lampoon people of faith for praying after tragedies such as these. But I want to understand. I don’t understand those who waste no opportunity to connect the San Bernadino shooters with radical Islam but are unwilling to connect the Colorado shooter with radical Christianity. But I want to understand.
And so, with God’s help, I commit to refusing to reduce such folks to caricature, to refusing to make their arguments into straw men which I can effortlessly knock down, to refusing to shun such folks by unfriending them on Facebook or by avoiding them at Christmas dinner. I begin – however halting and incomplete my efforts may be – by insisting that such people are my neighbours, that they have the same longings and fears and hopes as me.
Let’s end in the hardest place of all. If God really is love, then the radical inclusion and empathy that I just spoke of must extend to the perpetrators as well. The deep temptation is to make the shooters into devils, into evil incarnate. As opposed to human beings deep in the sway of a broken myth, a myth to which you and I are vulnerable. This is the radical inclusion that Jesus models on the cross. Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.
There is an old aphorism that goes something like this: God loves you and me just the way that we are. And God loves you and me too much to let us stay that way.
Malachi proclaims the hard and beautiful and good news that God wants to remake us, to refine us, to clothe us in shining new garments, to transform us. And John – perhaps the messenger of whom Malachi speaks – proclaim that we are participants in the work of transformation. We shall not sit by passively while God changes us, while God changes the world. We shall be full participants in the refining, full participants as God tells a new myth. A myth not of violence but a myth of wholeness and of reconciliation and of love.