Thursday, December 8, 2016

Watching for Love
A Sermon by Rev. Lee Ann Rathbun
November 4, 2016

God of love, Open our minds, awaken our hearts and enliven our wills as we receive your gospel to us today.  Amen

It is a real delight and privilege for me to be here with you in this pulpit and I feel grateful and humbled.  So, here we are on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A, in the 3-year Lectionary cycle.  Just in case you’re feeling some sort of déjà vu experience, well, it’s real, we’ve been here before together—you and me.  It just so happens that exactly three years ago when these same scriptures were up in the lectionary, I was preaching in this very place.  I can’t help but think that maybe God thought I needed a do-over so depending on how today goes, we just may be meeting here again in 3 years! 

Actually, when I considered these scriptures at that time, I pretty much steered clear of John the Baptist and stuck with Isaiah.  Give me “the wolf dwelling with the lamb” and “a little child shall lead them” from Isaiah rather than the “fire and brimstone” guy any day.  But 2nd time around, no more avoiding.  The gospel reading is on John the Baptist on the 2nd Sunday of Advent each year whether in Matthew, Mark or Luke.  The lectionary writers clearly wanted us to consider this John talking about the adult Jesus right smack dab in the middle of this liturgical season focused on waiting and watching for the birth of Jesus.  So what does that all mean for us?

In my preparation for today and through much wrestling with this prophet John, I had to deal with some of my own baggage from past religious messages focusing on this word “repent” that I heard meant I must feel really bad and sorry about myself as a sinner and promise to be a better person until the next time I sinned and then this started all over again.  Basically reinforcing the perspective that God loves me in spite of who I am.  What shook out in the conversation with John or maybe what just sunk in on a different level is that repentance isn’t about feeling bad or saying “I’m sorry’ but rather it’s about a re-orientation, a change of mind, perspective and direction to something completely new and a commitment to live differently into that new paradigm. 

And we’re not the only ones talking about this kind of change.  There’s a movement in the organizational development/leadership world called “Awareness Based Systems Change.”  You can go to a seminar on it.  I actually think they could shorten their title to “Repentance Seminars” but not sure what kind of attendance they might get.

Eugene Peterson, the author of the Message translation, has described repentance as “turning your life in for a kingdom life.”  So, maybe indeed, this idea of repentance is very much about preparation for a new mind, a new perspective, a new way of being that is coming, that is being birthed—the already, not yet.

When I was first started training as a chaplain during my residency, I thought I was pretty good at this caregiving thing.  I’d graduated with a degree in social work, worked part-time as a chaplain for two years during seminary and so by the time I got to my Clinical Pastoral Education (known as CPE) residency, I thought I knew a thing or two.  It was probably in the second visit write-up that I brought to my supervisor that gave me a new perspective on my skills or lack of.  We weren’t very far into discussing this visit, when my supervisor turned to me and asked, “I’m just wondering, whose needs were you meeting here because I don’t think it was the patient’s?”  Big ouch.  The patient I was visiting with was very concerned about her illness and about dying and I spent the time with her trying to encourage her to eat and focus on all the reasons she had to work hard to get better.  I thought I needed to help and provide hope by “pulling her out of the emotional well” and helping fix what in reality couldn’t be fixed.  I remember that visit because it opened my eyes to a whole other perspective.  The hope to be found in that room was not in my reaching down from above trying to pull her out of that well but rather hope was to be found in the relationship--in me being with her and listening deeply to the pain that she was feeling and abiding with her in love in the midst of her dark place.  That was a huge shift in perspective for me that has continued to shape my ministry because it meant giving up or loving less my place of safety as a helper who stood outside the pain to becoming vulnerable and enter into a relationship of mutuality and love that abides with another in the “valley of the shadow of death.”  In some ways, that supervisor was calling me to repentance and to a change or shift in perspective that led to changed behaviors. 

John the Baptist’s call to repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near requires first an inward look—at what is my sin--- in preparing the way for this huge new shift in perspective that is coming.  The early Christian theologian and philosopher, St. Augustine, defined sin in terms of “disordered loves,” which he described as failing to love what is to be loved or loving too much what should not be loved or be loved less.  Being out of balance with what we love—that there is a proper order and priority to what we give our attention and our love to.  In Sunday School as a kid, I was taught about a correct “order” of loving using the acronym JOY—Jesus, others, and you. This made sense to me in that I knew that a lot could get out of whack with relationships but I couldn’t connect so well to this hierarchy of one above or below another and was confused about just how to live all that out. 

Contemporary theologian Sallie McFague addresses this same idea of sin as disordered loves but in a nonhierarchical, holistic context.  What she says, using the metaphor as God as Love or Lover, is that God who created this world and called it “good” is the lover of all the world.  And in this context of God as Lover, sin is the refusal by us to be the beloved and the refusal to love all that God loves.  It’s all about the refusal of relationships and so the healing work of salvation in this view is making manifest God’s great love for all the world which includes us.

This new thinking, or changing of our minds, that “preparing the way” must begin with that vision that all of us are loved by God with the most extravagant love we can imagine—the love that loves us not in spite of who we are but because of who we are.    And it is through this awareness of God’s tremendous love for us, that a redirection away from the paradigm of myself and my own perspective as central toward one that values all the world including myself.  This new orientation is about waking up to acknowledge the radical relationality and interdependence of all God’s beloved with one another.  From this perspective of being beloved, that love overflows and we are energized to bear fruits worthy of repentance-- to overcome alienation, to heal wounds, to include the outcasts and to stand up against systemic structures of oppression based on race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.

This radical relationality was demonstrated in John’s call to repent and be baptized in that the call was for everyone, Jews as well as Gentiles—the whole community.  Typically, at that time, baptism was a ritual of conversion for Gentiles becoming Jews.  But John’s call in anticipation to be transformed is to everyone.  And he meant transformation from the inside, not just based on entitlement as he says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, that results in “bearing fruits worthy of repentance.” 

The gospel writer Matthew tends to keep his description of John the Baptist rather short and to the point but Luke expands on the story a little more by giving us some of the dialogue between John and the crowd that was asking him about just what does it mean to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”   As they ask in Luke chapter 3, “What then should we do?”

John the Baptist said to them:

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.  Soldiers also asked him. “And we, what should we do?”  He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation and be satisfied with your wages.” 

John’s directions to the crowds reminded me of the contemporary writings of a change agent from the business/academic context who is proposing some radical shifts to leaders throughout the world today.  Dr. Otto Scharmer is a professor at MIT, an innovator on awareness based systems change and author of Leading from the Emerging Future.  In his book he talks about what is needed in our world is a shift from egosystem awareness to eco-system awareness.  He explains that the prefix eco- goes back to the Greek—meaning the “whole house”—and the word economy can be traced back to the same root.  “Transforming our current egosystem economy into an emerging ecosystem economy means reconnecting economic thinking with its real root, which is the well-being of the “whole house” rather than money-making or attention to the well-being of just a few of its inhabitants. “ The whole house in our world today means concern for the well-being of our global communities, villages, and planetary ecosystems.  Sounds kind of familiar doesn’t it?  If you have 2 coats, share with one who has none and the same with food; do not extort money, don’t overcharge, etc. 

Scharmer describes that in order for this new paradigm to emerge it will require us to tap into a deeper level of our humanity, of who we really are and who we want to be as a society.  “It is a future that we can sense, feel and actualize by shifting the inner place from which we operate.” Repent!  Be transformed from the inside out-- from an ego-system awareness that cares about the well-being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that cares about the well-being of all God’s world including oneself.

So as a community of the beloved, how do we, individually and together, live out and make manifest this vision of radical relationality and interdependence with all God’s beloved? 

It starts with the contemplative mind and action—being still, going inward, paying attention to what is there, listening deeply, being still.  Scharmer talks about opening the mind, the heart and the will—by suspending old habits of judgment; empathizing; letting go of what wants to die in oneself and letting come what is waiting to be born.  Perhaps this is what Jesus can help us with as the one who can separate out the wheat from the chaff—what do I need help letting go of and what needs to be gathered up? 

When I was that very novice, young chaplain, working so hard to “fix” and needing to be needed, I learned through reflection in my quiet spaces that a big part of my need to help “fix” what was unfixable for my patients was, and often still is, connected to my own wounds and not allowing myself to live into my own belovedness in God.  What is it this Advent that is calling to you to attend to in yourself?  How are you being beloved by God?

In Paul’s letter to the Romans that was read earlier, he shows us that it takes the whole community working together to show itself to be a reflection of Christ. Romans 15:5-7:

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

This community of First Austin has been intentional about expanding our welcome and we have been enriched and enlivened as a result.  We need to continue to seek out perspectives that are different from our own.  Scharmer says that the journey from egosystem to ecosystem awareness involves exploring the edges of the system and the self.  Exploring the edges of the system means going to the place of most potential—walking in the shoes of the marginalized.  He’s discovered in his research that the new in any system often shows up first at the periphery.  Maybe that is why John the Baptist preached in the wilderness, on the periphery where something new was about to emerge.

Paul’s blessing is that the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony.  Steadfastness can go a long way in promoting harmony.  The Benedictine monk, Fr. Laurence Freeman, describes faith in terms of the “community of faith” as being “our capacity for relationship, for enduring, transcending the instinct to run away and have an easier time somewhere else.”  It is abiding with one another in the midst of the joy, pain, grief, celebration and loss.  It is being attentive to, waking up, during a season that is filled with advertisements of joyful, happy people to those who are suffering, grieving, and struggling.  To not need as I did as a novice chaplain for that one next to me to be in a different place from where they are but instead to be with them in the midst of the dark place.  That is where hope is.  How are we awake to each other and to welcoming all of who we are to one another?  Not just the happy or “okay” parts.

As we go from this place today to do this work of repentance, I’d like to end by offering you some words from the author of Women Who Run with Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes who wrote these inspiring words in a letter after the election season:

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.  Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.  It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.  We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul.  Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.  The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire.  To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.”

Beautiful words indeed.  May you be reminded this season in the depths of your soul that you are loved deeply and passionately by the power whose love pulses through the universe.



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