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Let’s take this apart —
and then put it back together again.
First of all, John the Baptist.
He says to the leaders of the religion,
”…God is able from these stones
to raise up children to Abraham.”
He is speaking to people
whose entire system of reality
is based upon the belief
that you have to be born a Jew
to be a Jew.
To be in the Covenant
you have to be born
from the proper heritage.
This is no other way
to be a Jew.
Judaism was not evangelical.
In fact, it was anti-evangelical in that sense.
While there was something
like a righteous gentile,
a non-Jew who embraced
the Scripture and Traditions
they were not Jews.
John the Baptists says
to the leaders,
not just the riffraff
but the leaders with high office
and golden reputations,
”God can make a Jew —
children of Abraham —
out of rocks.”
That is worse
than calling your baby ugly —
or your grandchild ugly.
It is dismissing as irrelevant
of your sense of reality.
That is just one of John’s
What John was doing out there
in the wilderness
also stabbed a knife
in the soft underside
of their sense of reality.
If you were a Jew
in first century Judea or Galilee,
there was only one place
and one way
you could get redemption
for your sins.
and one way.
The temple in Jerusalem
was the place,
and making a sacrifice there
and receiving confirmation of it
from a priest of the temple
was the way.
One place, one way.
It was a monopoly,
one that several Christian denominations
patterned themselves after.
Get it here,
or you haven’t gotten it.
It is a bitter irony
that Christianity turned Jesus into
that kind of a monopoly:
One son of God
one source of forgiveness of sin
only way to get to heaven.
So what John was doing out there
in the wilderness
was saying, “No, the monopoly is dead.”
John created a study in contrasts.
He was dressed in the ridiculous rags
of hermit poverty
rather than the regal robes of pristine clean clergy.
He was calling people to redemption
in the wilderness
not the awe-inspiring beauty
and rarified sanctity of the temple.
He was saying a splash in the river
could bring forgiveness of sins
and wash away spiritual infractions
and impurity, rather than the intricate
and costly system of sacrifices
and priestly rituals
performed at the temple.
Did you ever have anyone
challenge your sense of reality?
I mean, just poke and stab and bash
what you believed about
something or someone,
or even the way the world is?
If so, it probably evoked some rage.
When I worked in a mental health unit
many many years ago,
we had a resident with religious ideation.
He was severely bi-polar
with radical mood swings.
In his manic phases,
he became a rabid preacher
casting out demons,
threatening destruction at the hands of God,
and yelling non-stop
while pacing back and forth.
I was not well trained
when I started in that position —
a grunt to help the nursing staff
His rantings challenged my reality,
as I realized only later,
and so I challenged the extreme
pronouncements he was making on behalf of God.
Well, I only did that once.
It escalated his ferocious mania
and he went ballistic.
All of us,
regardless of our mental
and emotional health,
have a well-woven sense of reality.
To have it reinforced
which is why we watch the Drudge Report,
Fox, MSNBC, or other one-sided news products.
Likewise, to have our sense of reality
challenged causes discomfort
and evokes a range of defensive emotions.
What John the Baptist
was doing out there in the wilderness
sent a rototiller right up the stomach
of the religion.
Jesus did it too.
The claim that Jesus —
an uneducated peasant
who disregarded the rules of the religion
and upended the strictly enforced
socio-religious caste system —
was the root of Jesse,
was a thousand cuts to the face
of the religion and its establishment.
Both John and Jesus were executed.
They weren’t just assassinated
or quietly hanged.
They were brutally and publicly
put to death and their bodies
put on display.
his last expression frozen
and placed on a silver tray.
Jesus nailed naked
to a cross on a hill
and left there.
That’s what happens
when we poke the sense of reality
of those who control the narrative
and the resources
devoted to holding the narrative in place.
We no longer have a single national narrative
in this country, one
with skirmishes around the edges
but two political parties basically tending
the same narrative.
Instead we have many narratives,
each one forming a sense of reality
for those who adhere to them.
And with the powerful graphics
and methods of persuasion
available to the electronic media
those narratives get hardened.
Every single one of us here,
no matter how sophisticated we are,
has gotten sucked into a narrative
shaped and hardened
by social and economic forces.
We get angry easily
when the narrative we have chosen
Narrative is another word
for sense of reality.
This is one of the challenges we face
as a community of faith.
They say people come to church
for comfort —
to have our narratives reinforced.
While we may court diversity
of race, class, and ethnicity —
which is part of our narrative —
we hope the people we attract
are mostly like us in hosting similar narratives.
But if we are to be faithful
to Jesus and the gospel narratives,
we are going to get our ox gored —
whether we are rightwing, leftwing
Typically when that happens,
people leave church in a huff.
Or the preacher gets fired or forced out.
Or the pledges get pulled.
I happen to know
that all three of those things
have happened in the history of Trinity.
They were part of the history
of most congregations I have served.
But that is the absolute craziness
when it is authentically practiced.
It invites us to have
our sense of reality challenged.
”Come on in
get a poke in the eye
a slap in the face
a knife in the gut.”
That is the community of Jesus
if we are honest about it
and go along with the gospel narrative.
But we know
there is another kind of Christianity
that is most often practiced.
It is the kind
that requires conformity of belief
and which refuses to tolerate
anyone or anything
that challenges its sense of reality
or theological narrative.
It practices what the Gospel of Matthew
the religion of the Sadducees and Pharisees.
that has an orthodoxy
or has protecting its orthodoxy at its core
is the kind of religion
I am talking about —
but that is my narrative, isn’t it?
That is my sense of reality.
I wonder what is actually true out there?
Here is what I know: things change.
If I held onto what I was taught in seminary
I would not have met the Jesus I know today.
If I tried to make my congregations
do and be what my first congregations were like,
I would have been an utter failure
and unfaithful to each successive congregation.
Many of us are retired here.
The work we did,
the systems we employed,
the processes that took place,
the dysfunctions we experienced,
the opportunities we saw,
all of that has changed.
It is not like what we did
and it is not what we remember.
Each era has its own charism,
that are different from the era before.
The industrial revolution
brought radical shifts in reality
from the agrarian societies it replaced.
The information age caused
a radical shift in reality
from the industrial age it replaced.
Whatever they will call the shift we are in,
and we are living through
a radical shift in reality,
it is a break with the reality we knew
when we were younger.
Things have changed,
Reality has shifted
and boy can we hear the rage about it
all around us.
It is likely that every one of us
has felt some version of that rage.
Here is our task
as a community of Jesus.
We have to figure out
when, where, and what
is relevant about the teachings of Jesus
in the reality we are now living.
There is something about Jesus
I deeply trust.
Something about the ancient wisdom
that runs through the Hebrew
and New testaments
that is very compelling
and seems deeply true to me —
and to all of us here, I think,
at least in varying degrees.
Our task though,
is not simply to repeat it
or mimic it
or regurgitate what Anselm or Augustine
or Paschal said in their eras,
but to let it open our eyes and minds
to what it means in this moment
and amidst how things have changed —
given how reality has shifted.
The wise ones,
the spiritually mature…
are the ones who are able to accept
that reality has shifted
and begin listening and intuiting
and touching in the darkness
to see where the ancient wisdom
is leading us now.
What does it mean now
and how has it changed —
and how does it change
who we are?
To me, if you asked me what Advent is about,
it is a brief season in which we open ourselves
to how reality has shifted around us,
and to look with new eyes
and opened minds
and brave hearts
at how it has shifted.
It is about managing
our anger, defensiveness, and even rage
when our sense of reality is challenged.
Hopefully, as we allow our reality to shift
and to embrace how reality has shifted around us,
no one will cut off our heads
or crucify us for it.
But you never know.