The Second Sunday of Advent (B)
7 December 2014
Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
2 Peter 3:8-15a, 18
There is a quotation often mis-attributed to Winston Churchill that goes something like: “Show me a young conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I’ll show you someone with no head.” Now it turns out that Churchill never actually said this, which is disappointing as it sounds so good in a comedy Churchill voice, but rather it is an adaptation of a French saying that originated with Francois Guilsot in the nineteenth century and was taken up by Georges Clemenceau.(1) But that is no matter. The essence of the statement has a certain ring to it, a certain pithiness that plays well in the Upper East Side world in which I was raised.
It is too bad, then, that I represent just the type that the saying belittles. When I was in my teens and through college I wanted so badly to fit into that world in which I was raised that I took on many of the attitudes popular in those circles. Yes, I dressed the part. I still do. But that's not the issue. In those days, for example, I frequented meetings of the Young Republicans, calling myself variously a Rockefeller Republican, Liberal Republican, fan of John Lindsey and Senator Jacob Javits. Indeed, these were honourable figures, men whom I still admire, men who were not filled with hate and who actually did care about people, who did a lot of good for New York in difficult times and who helped defeat the corrupt machine politics of an earlier era. But they were still creatures of the Establishment that I so wanted to fit into. They were privileged white men like me who existed at the centre of our society. It was supposed to make things easier for me, but it never felt right and it didn't really fit. I knew that there was more to it, that it was all more complex.
More and more, then, I learnt from having grown up in Manhattan in and through the crises of the 1970s and 1980s, and having seen and met a vast cross section of the amazing people who form the very matrix of our city, that other people's stories and perspectives mattered, they had to. I knew, even, that I had always been drawn to these others, felt a strong attraction, but was afraid to admit it, afraid to act on these impulses, lest I be made fun of or excluded. The effect was that in my youth, I remained more closed that I might have been to really hearing, seeing, attending to the voices on the margins, the voices crying out for love and attention, for equality and freedom, the voices that deep down I knew mattered.
As I grew up, I learnt that the voices of those crying out from the margins, calling us to account, can not be ignored, need to be heeded, honoured, given prominence of place in our civic and religious discourse; that fear can not hold us back, even at the cost of popularity or fitting in. Today’s Gospel presents us with one such voice:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
When I was eighteen, I would never have listened to John the Baptist, right? I would have taken the position that he was just another “dirty hippie” talking revolution, I might even have said just that in conversation with friends, trying to be funny—and perhaps I did. I would probably have felt the need to dismiss him based on his appearance and his radical talk. And yet, there would have been a small, still voice inside of me that was drawn to him, that knew that he was right, that knew what he was saying made sense and I would have been terrified to admit it to anyone. I might also have been afraid that in turn he wouldn’t take me seriously.
I’ve come a long way since then, but even today I still worry about coming off as too radical or, perhaps, as too political. When I posted my sermon on Matthew 25, on the Gospel relationship between loving neighbour and loving God, from a couple of weeks ago up on Facebook and Tumblr the evening that the Fergusson Grand Jury decision came down, I knew immediately that I wanted to tag the post #blacklivesmatter. I wanted to connect the divine imperative to love our neighbour with the enormous racial injustice that still exists in our country, to suggest that loving our neighbour cuts across privilege, race, class, gender, and sexuality and that we as a nation need to be called to account for our collective sin in this regard. And yet, something in me didn't want to rock the boat, something inside still felt like that teenager trying to fit in. I did it. I had to and it wasn’t a big deal, in fact it was far less than I probably should have said, especially given the news in our city this week, all making it doubly painful that I still get those twinges.
Lots of us struggle between the urge to fit in the and need to be authentic to our deepest held beliefs. As I’ve grown older, through my 20s and 30s and into my 40s, I have continued to move in the direction of authenticity, in the direction of Love. I am open to hearing the message of the Baptist today in a way that I wasn’t I was when I was eighteen. It is a challenge for many of us to heed the voices crying out from the margins, the voices calling the Establishment to account, telling us that there is change ahead, that things are not going to be easy, reminding us that those who do not conform to the expectations of dominant society have something profound to teach us.
John the Baptist and Isaiah come to us each Advent with strong words, discomfiting words of seismic change.
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
We are to being told that something monumental is about to happen, that the world will be remade, reformed, that the Establishment will give way to something new. This is not, to put it mildly, a comfortable message for the powerful. It is terrifying and unsettling, but its promise is worth it:
Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
God comes, Christ comes to us from the margins to change the world, to remake it, to reform it in the image of Love, of the shepherd who gathers the lambs in her arms. This process began at the Beginning, and accelerated with the preaching of the Baptist and in the Incarnation, that birth to a teen-age mother in a distant corner of the Roman Empire. Love is coming, Love is changing everything and making all things new, levelling mountains and raising the plains. This is all the work of Love. It is a process we can not stop. We are called to cooperate with it or be left behind.
We can be afraid, like I was when I was younger. We can choose not to hear this message, dismiss it as marginal and unimportant, coming, as it does at the most unexpected of times, from the most unlikely of places, and the most improbable of people. Or we can be open, open to Truth, open to Grace, open to Love, the Love we find when and where we least expect it, sometime even in unconventional relationships. We grow and change when we allow ourselves to connect with and engage new and different people. And in the process, if we are open we can be cracked open, transformed in the encounter.
Christian Radicalism, openness to returning to our roots in Love, openness to the profound change that this can bring, contrary to what the pseudo-Churchill may have quipped, is something not just for the young, but something into which we can grow. It is something that we can achieve as we let go of fear and of the expectations that hold us back. We can see the Baptist, the dirty, locust-eating, camel hair wearing marginal radical and see someone to be ignored or mocked, or we can be open to him (and others like him) who are teaching us profound truths about what it means to live in relationship with the God whom we identify with Love and whom we know, walking amongst us as the personification, the incarnation of Love, in the person of Jesus Christ and for whom we wait in this Advent season.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Advent Feria, 3 December 2014
© 2014 Andrew Charles Blume