Dec. 10, 2017
The theme for Wednesday’s mini-retreat at Barbara and Neil’s house was inspired by a quote from Pope Francis. He says, “Whenever we encounter another person in love we learn something new about God.” He suggests that often our approach to another – to the other – is guided more by a sense of confrontation than encounter. But, there’s an openness to encounter that’s not there with confrontation, and if we think more in terms of encounter we are more apt to see the sacred in that person, to experience the God within them.
Pope Francis goes on, “Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well.” (Repeat)
Serendipitously, I read a reflection from a member of the Greenfield Hill Congregational Church that echoed that very point. In an effort to encounter and encourage one another, they put together a book of reflections not unlike our little collection, but their’s covers each day of the season of Advent. In the reflection that I shared at the mini retreat the author begins by saying that she’s not really a person of tremendous faith. She just can’t understand or ascribe to certain claims of the Christian faith. Babies don’t come from virgins, she says, and why should God’s only child be male?!
The thing is, by the end of her reflection we all felt very strongly that she was quite wrong in her self-assessment. It seemed clear to us that her faith was actually quite active and alive, and perhaps there were better measures of faith than one’s ability to claim certain creedal statements. She writes, “This is where my faith lies; when my soul turns sour, I have faith that I will see a person whose actions speak God’s love: a friend teaching English to a child refugee living here without his parents and siblings; my tired husband staying up late and fighting off sleep to help our children with homework; an indefatigable activist writing letters and attending meetings to ensure we do no further damage to this earth; my children taking care of their younger cousins; a teenager withholding judgment and showing patience and compassion for a peer. This is Christianity. This is humanity. This is God with us.”
Our scriptures today are well paired. Mark quotes Isaiah, and that’s pretty obvious, but what’s not obvious is the punctuation differences. Mark suggests that John the Baptist is the messenger about whom Isaiah prophesied. He’s the one crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” But, what Isaiah says is, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” You may think the difference is insignificant, but the location of our preparation is more clearly emphasized by Isaiah. In Mark, John’s out there in the wilderness being eccentric; in Isaiah, it’s the people who are in the wilderness, not because they are unusual but because they are conquered and in exile. They are marginalized and displaced, uprooted and unsure that God is still their God. But, Isaiah says that it is in this very state of homelessness – this very wilderness – in which they are to prepare. God enters life as it is, not as it should be. It is in the mess that God is coming, and feel free, says Isaiah, to shout it from the mountain tops because this God is coming in power and in might. But, we should note, it’s a funny kind of power and might. What will God do with this power and might? Isaiah says he will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will gather his lambs into his arms. He will carry them in his bosom. He will come in might to do gentle things.
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says Isaiah. But, it’s not the kind of modern individualized comfort that tells us its okay to live detached, distracted, busy lives dedicated to our own self-interests, because after all God loves us, and “there there, be comforted.” Rather, it is the comfort of hope, hope for an entire people, a people who are willing to embody an alternative that mirrors the powerful, gentle ways of God. It is hope for transformation; it is hope for new life out of life’s wildernesses, because in Isaiah’s vision the people are gathered together; they have one another with whom and by whom they will know the grace of their God.
A recent Christian Century devotes 6 pages to the Advent theme of wilderness – 6 pages of the wilderness stories of subscribers, most of whom are clergy. This one brought me to tears when I first read it.
“I didn’t expect many people in church on Sunday because it was Christmas morning. I planned a simple service. We’d sing a few carols, tell the holy story, pray for hope and peace in the world, and celebrate communion.
When the kids came forward for the children’s time, I let them share their excitement about Santa and told them that we must be grateful and generous with the many things we have.
When I was halfway through my remarks, a little boy I’ll call Jake, who must have been seven or eight, suddenly stood up, clenched his fists, and said in a loud voice, ‘I hate my dad!’
The congregation gasped. His older brother tried to pull him back down and shush him, but Jake pulled violently away. His brother abandoned him and went to sit with his mother.
‘He promised to come for Christmas,’ cried Jake, ‘but we woke up and he wasn’t there. He made my mom cry, and I hate him. He is one big, fat liar!’
With some panic-inspired instinct of grace, I grabbed Jake and pulled him into my lap. He wailed, his small body shaking in spasms against my chest. I swallowed hard, wiping away my own tears with my hand. Then, when I felt I could trust my voice again, I stammered, ‘So, you know what, Jake?’ Then I realized that whatever I was going to say was for Jake alone. So I placed my cheek against his hot, wet cheek.
I whispered something about knowing Jake well and believing that he actually didn’t hate his dad. He was angry, sure, and had every right to be, because his dad disappointed him and his mom and brother and hurt all their feelings and made a big mistake. ‘But, Jake, Jake, Jake, ‘ I whispered fiercely, ‘You’re so upset because you love him so much.’
Exactly at the word love, he became very still, and I felt his muscles relax. His arms came free from hugging his chest and he held on to me. I mumbled something to the congregation about helping little boys disappointed by love’s promises to still find some holy Christmas. Then his mom came to the altar to reclaim her son. The rest of us left the church haunted by a little boy’s broken heart.”
The story leaves us with lots of unanswered questions and of course we don’t know how the boy’s wilderness journey of disappointment unfolds. But, even so, we’re left with a sense of hope about it. It’s the way he suddenly became still, how his muscles softened, how he released the clench he had on himself, and instead held on to his pastor. It’s how he did all this at the mention of love. He was reminded of his love. Reminded that he is a person of love and that even his pain is rooted in love.
The question of Advent’s call to prepare came up at our mini-retreat. “How do you know if you are prepared?” asked someone. It’s a good question and I’m not sure I have a great answer. “Prepared” sounds too finished to me, and with God I just don’t see us ever finished. A more answerable question might be simply, “Are you preparing for God’s coming? Are you readying yourself to receive more of God?”
The best way to prepare, which is really the point of the sermon, is to encounter one another in love. Just as being reminded of his love softened that little boy and opened him to something more than his anger, love opens us too. We can be angry, or disappointed, or afraid, or hurt, or anyway else in the wilderness, but by remembering our love in all of these things we open ourselves to the new thing that God’s coming brings. So my friends, for the sake of others and for the sake of ourselves let us love one another.
 Kerry Edminster, Advent Reflections, 2017, (Dec. 18 reflection)
 The Christian Century, Rodolph Rowe, Nov. 8, 2017, page 26-27.