Sunday, December 4, 2016

Phil Kniss: Living on the verge

Advent 2: God’s harmony is at hand
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

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Would you believe me if I said,
I’m no less optimistic about the world, and about our future
this December,
than I was last December, or the December before that one.

No, I have not been hiding my head in the sand.
I have not stopped following the news.
I continue to pick up (and read)
two newspapers people deliver, in the dark, every morning,
including one our president-elect openly despises,
and another one . . . he probably doesn’t.

I try to stay informed.
And, I try to stay emotionally present enough to still feel shock
when there is another violent attack in a public place,
and feel empathy for those
who die in crashes and fires and tornadoes and such,
and feel anger when a whole class of people
are demeaned or dismissed as unworthy or unwelcome.

The last thing I want to do is stop caring
about the suffering that surrounds us.
If I did, I think I would also stop feeling joy
at all the good that surrounds us.

But as much as I pay attention
to the truly sorrowful, wrong, and downright evil things
going on in our world daily,
In balance, as I view it all,
I am, as I said, no less optimistic about the world and our future
this December, than last.

Numberless people have commented on the calendar year 2016,
what a dismal and grief-filled year it has been,
and how they can’t wait to start a new calendar, come January 1.
I many ways, I resonate.

I guarantee, on New Year’s Eve, we’ll hear a whole lot more of that
as celebrities and talking heads make commentary
on the celebrations in Times Square and around the world.
I assure you, we will hear them say how this year,
more than any other in recent memory,
people want to close the book on 2016, and start new with 2017.

But I want to offer a different sort of commentary today.
Because I follow a different kind of calendar—
one where we are already in the New Year.
Those of us whose lives are shaped by the Christian story,
by the narrative of God’s redemptive work in Jesus,
are already in the second week of the New Year.

The shared worship calendar for Christians all over the world,
begins, very deliberately, with Advent.
And we just finished the 3-year calendar cycle,
and circled back to the very beginning, Year A.
Today begins the second week of Year A.

This is not a mere technicality.
This is not just some religious bureaucratic decision
to set dates and scripture readings for us.
No, there is a profound theological message
being communicated by the Christian calendar.

When followers of Jesus mark sacred time,
we begin with incarnation.
We begin with the mystery of God’s loving initiative
to come and live among us,
to connect, to commune,
to inhabit our lives.
We celebrate that God the creator
wants to be in relationship with God’s creation.

When the yearly Christian calendar was first devised,
they decided to start the new year
with the most theologically significant and foundational truth—
Emmanuel, God is with us.
God was with us.
God is with us.
God will be with us, in our time and space.
God will never abandon us.

Advent is the time to refocus,
and see where our hope really comes from.
So if I follow the lead of my defining calendar,
and listen to, and believe what I read in our sacred narrative,
how can I be any less than hopeful
about the world, and about our future in it?

This is the time to remember and rejoice
that God has not now, nor ever will, abandon us.
And proof of that was embodied in Jesus of Nazareth,
who lived among us, who conquered death,
who was and is the eternal Christ,
the cosmic Savior and Redeemer of all creation.

We worship, do we not, one who redeems?
Who restores to full value, that which has lost value?
That’s what redemption means,
restoring someone or something to its rightful place,
at full value.

Is there anything in earth or heaven,
past or present,
visible or invisible,
that is outside the reach of God’s redemptive work in Christ?
Our answer has to be NO,
if we believe what we say we believe in every Christian creed,
and what scripture repeatedly affirms.

We are living, always living,
on the verge of a holy inbreaking.
God keeps breaking in, again, and again,
and out of love for us,
God walks with us,
inhabits our time and space,
and works to redeem us.

Now, all that hifalutin theological talk,
in no way takes away our responsibility to act.

Just because we put our hope in a Redeemer,
does not mean we check out of this world and its brokenness.
No, no, no!
If anything, we invest more heavily.

Proclaiming our belief in the Advent of Christ’s reign in the world,
does not mean we just stand back and wait for it to happen.
We are collaborators.
We are co-conspirators in God’s kingdom.

The difference it does make,
is in the way we walk in the world.
When we walk in the way of God,
as this Advent worship series suggests,
we walk in hope and confidence that the way of God
is the way of life in the midst of death,
the way of light in the midst of darkness.

We do not give in to the despair
that threatens to undo the bonds that hold humanity together.

Yes, as people of the way, as followers of Jesus,
there is still plenty of room for righteous anger and action.
Jesus himself is a pretty good model for that.

But where is there any justification for living in fear?
Or for giving in to despair and hopelessness?
I don’t see any.

So as I stand here near the beginning of Advent,
a time of waiting for the imminent re-appearance of Christ,
I stand full of hope.

And yes, I know it’s embarrassingly easy
for me to speak these words from where I stand.
Here, in a place where I personally am safe and secure,
solid job, solid community, solid house over my head,
solid relationships.
My wellbeing is not under threat at the moment.

I am a person of privilege in a community of privilege,
and I have plenty of personal and communal reserves
to hold me over should something terrible happen
today or tomorrow.

Now if I was a preacher preaching at my church
in Gatlinburg, TN, or Rosalie, AL today,
or if I was Pastor Jones this morning in New Orleans,
preaching to my African American church in the Ninth Ward,
a couple miles from the site of Joe McKnight’s murder,
or if I was a priest preaching to my congregation
of Syrian Christians in Aleppo this morning,
I admit I would have a harder time sounding convincing,
or perhaps convincing myself, to have hope.

But if what I said about the incarnation
and the redemptive work of Christ is true here,
it has to be true in every place in every circumstance.

Isaiah seemed to think that God’s agenda
would not ultimately be thwarted
by the violence that engulfed his world.
While his people were enslaved by King Sennacherib,
while their suffering was intense, and their outlook hopeless,
the prophet looks, and sees, a vision of a peaceable kingdom,
with wolves resting beside lambs,
and leopards and goats and lions and calves,
all grazing peacefully, with children nearby.

I’m sure this was not the dominant vision
shared by his suffering neighbors.
But in the face of this suffering,
Isaiah kept proclaiming peace.
He kept talking of swords becoming plowshares,
of rivers in the desert,
of lions that ate straw.
He said to his people, “Look here! See what God is doing!”

And the Quaker preacher artist Edward Hicks
did the same thing,
with 100+ different versions
of his famous “Peaceable Kingdom” painting,
based on Isaiah’s vision.
He just kept on painting, and painting, and painting,
and giving them away everywhere he went,
during a very painful period of division in his church,
and a time of violent conflict between
Native Americans and white settlers.

Now maybe Hick’s painting, and Isaiah’s prophecy,
were just wishful dreaming,
an exercise in the power of positive thinking.

But I don’t think so.
Isaiah was not trying wish something into existence.
His vision of utopia was not his imagination gone wild,
getting people’s minds off their troubles.
It was a picture of what Isaiah actually saw,
when he looked with his God-given eyes
into the heart and intentions of Yahweh, the God of Israel.
Isaiah was giving the people of Israel an inside look
at God’s dream for them, and for all creation.
They were seeing the future God was working on.
No, it was not yet fully realized.
But it was beginning to break forth.
They were living on the verge.

We believe in a sovereign God,
who is made known to us in the flesh in the person of Jesus,
who is still present with us through the Holy Spirit,
who is embodied in us as a community of God’s people,
and who, we confess by faith,
is intent on making all things new.
As such, where is there room for abject despair?

The peaceable kingdom of God is taking root now.
Look and you’ll see the signs.
Wherever God’s people open themselves
to collaborating with God,
to participating in God’s saving, healing, and redeeming work,
there God’s peaceable kingdom
comes a little closer to reality.
We are living on the verge.

There are competing visions being laid before us today.
And I’m not speaking of Republicans and Democrats.

We have a choice of which sort of vision to lock our eyes on—
power politics or God’s peaceable kingdom.

Is our vision to fix ourselves and our nation and the world,
through the use of brute political strength,
where one ideology struggles for supremacy over another,
and doesn’t give up
until one’s opponent is publicly humiliated and vanquished?

Because that vision gets all the air-play these days.
That’s where everyone looks to orient themselves.
Allegiance to an ideology . . . is the north star
for the news industry, and the fake-news industry,
social media, entertainment, business, government,
and partisan political machines of every stripe.
It drives this society . . . constantly.
It’s where we live . . . all the time.
Even if it doesn’t feel like home.
It’s our Babylon.
And glimpses of it even show up in the church.

That’s one choice.
The other is to fix our eyes on what Isaiah saw,
on what Edward Hicks saw,
on what John the Baptist saw.

They all saw a complete remaking of society,
where God’s love and justice rule the day,
a remaking that God would lead,
but in which they would participate,
by the act of repentance,
of turning toward God’s dream,
and making that our orienting vision.

I mourn that many professing followers of the lamb of God,
who is head of this cosmic transformation project,
have been sucked into an emotional vortex that is so life-draining,
because they are oriented around a particular political vision.

In no way do I suggest we don’t get passionate
about causes we care about.
As I said, look to Jesus who demonstrated
righteous indignation,
passion for justice,
and resisting the powers
while maintaining his integrity and identity.

Jesus never lost his capacity to live in peace and tranquility,
while living under a more brutal dictatorship
than anything we could ever imagine,
and a corrupt religious hierarchy.
Jesus showed a lightness of being,
a personal, joyful affect that children were drawn to.
Jesus was patient, and took time for all kinds of folk
the religious elite had no time for.
Jesus was patient with himself—
he didn’t heal everyone,
he knew his limits,
he retreated often to pray.

But he also confronted the powers, without mincing words,
when that needed to happen.

So if you are incensed at the injustice you see in this world,
and feel an urge to act,
by all means, act!
Act . . . like Jesus.
Call out hypocrisy where you see it.
Stand up to the powers.
But also pray, often.
Laugh, often.
Weep, when necessary.
Be with the suffering, and with the powerful.
Shame the authorities with the power of love and kindness.

And always, as often as you can,
come to where you can be reoriented
to the sacred narrative of redemption.
Come to worship with your people
to remind you of your identity,
and to restore your hope in God’s good purposes.

We are not alone.
Not now, not ever.
Emmanuel. God is with us.

Let’s sing “Hallelujah” again,
just to reinforce it.

—Phil Kniss, December 4, 2016

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