Sunday, December 07, 2008

“Wilderness Happens”

“Wilderness Happens”
Advent 2B – December 7, 2008 – All Saints Church, Pasadena

Time flies when you’re having Advent! It hardly seems possible, but here we are again: the second candle on the wreath is lit, the Christmas preparations are well underway and the prayers and hymns and lessons on this Second Sunday in Advent once again focus our attention on those prophets who came before us to prepare the way of our God.

And our lessons for this Second Sunday of Advent 2008 give me the annual opportunity to remember what I learned about prophets in seminary: that if you’re going to be a prophet it helps to be ambidextrous because prophets have a two-fold job description: to comfort the afflicted – and to afflict the comfortable.

John the Baptist was working the afflicting the comfortable angle – in order to prepare the way he had to preach repentance to those who were so busy being religious that they’d forgotten how to be faithful. His words were not new to his hearers – he was echoing the proclamation of the prophet Isaiah who had uttered them centuries before in a very different context. Isaiah spoke them not to a settled people but an exiled one; he did not preach to afflict those comfortable in their religious institutions but to those who mourned in lonely exile – to an Israel held captive in Babylon: without homeland or hope -- as they waited for God's promise to them to be realized.

We know the end of the story, of course. The captive people returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple -- and the people who Isaiah had comforted in the affliction of their exile became the people John afflicted in the comfort of their self-righteousnes.

For it seems that wilderness happens – and whether it’s the physical wilderness of a people oppressed and marginalized or the spiritual wilderness of a people oppressing and marginalizing, God’s response is to send a prophet – coming soon to a wilderness near you!

Wilderness happens. The wilderness of economic downturn with its fears and anxieties and “what ifs.” The wilderness of the loss of a loved one with its grief and loneliness and “if onlys.” The wilderness of institutionalized bigotry and discrimination that values the dignity of some human beings over others. There is no shortage of 21st century wildernesses – and, thankfully, there is no shortage of 21st century prophets, either: those afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

And this morning I’m thinking of three in particular: Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, politician Rahm Emanuel and author Anne Lammot.

“Advent is the season when Christians are called to live with more hope that the world thinks is reasonable,” said our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori in her sermon on Friday at the opening Eucharist of the 113th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

What does that kind of hope look like? You may remember the story that, by some reports, was Ronald Reagan’s favorite: Worried that their son was too optimistic, the parents of a little boy took him to a psychiatrist. Trying to dampen the boy’s spirits, the psychiatrist showed him into a room piled high with nothing but horse manure. Yet instead of displaying distaste, the little boy clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to all fours, and began digging.

“With all this manure,” the little boy exclaimed, excitedly, “there must be a pony in here somewhere.”

I am a daughter of the Diocese of Los Angeles and this was my 21st Diocesan Convention. I couldn't help thinking how far we've come from the days when the secretary of convention just could not bring himself to find an alternative to the word "clergymen" when addressing the increasingly gender-diverse clergy of the diocese. I remember when if we'd sung something NOT out of the Hymnal there would have been points-of-personal-outrage at microphones all over the convention hall.

There’s been a lot of manure under the diocesan bridge over these several decades, but we’re not that church anymore.

By living with more hope than the world might have thought was reasonable, this Episcopal Diocese of my birth and baptism – the one where girls could grow up to do nursery duty but not be acolytes (much less anything else!) – has become a diocese where we welcomed a Presiding Bishop who is a woman to a convention where our own bishop announced in his convention address that he has authorized a liturgy for the sacramental blessing of life-long covenants intended to be equally available to same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
(And if anybody out there doesn't think that sounds like a very big deal, drop by my office and I'll give you peek at my email inbox!)

After this Diocesan Convention, I swear: will never again not believe there isn’t a pony in there somewhere – and that no matter how much digging we have to do to get to it, it’s going to be worth it!

Another one of my favorite 21st century prophets is Anne Lammot. In a recent essay she writes, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers; grace that meets you exactly where you are and does not leave you where it found you but carries you through to safety again. Grace,” Lammot concludes, “is when God makes a way out of No Way.”

The God of making ways out of no ways is the one the prophets call us to not only trust but to follow this Advent 2008. The God who makes a way out of No Way is the God who inspires the one crying in the wilderness – make ready the way of our God. And it is nothing less than grace – grace in action – that will pave that road, will straighten that way, will move that mountain, will meets us exactly where we are and carry us through to safety again.

The third in my modern day trinity of prophets this morning is Rahm Emanuel – and the quote is one the rector has been carrying around with him for the last couple of weeks.

"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” says Emanuel. “It is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” His words were a response to the economic challenges we face as a nation – and in them I hear another way of saying “wilderness happens” ... now let’s do something about it. Another way of being that prophetic voice that says “make a way where there was no way.”

Rahm Emanuel’s words call us not just to make “a” way but to imagine “a new way” – allowing the crisis that challenges us to quiet the “but we’ve always done it that way” chorus that too often drowns out the still, small voice saying, “Psst … over here … try this!”

Was it that still, small voice that inspired those prophetic ones who, sixty years ago in the wilderness of a world ravaged by two world wars, dared to imagine a Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- to make a way where there was no way -- for the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family?

As we celebrate this week those sixty years of striving for the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms we recognize that we are clearly “not there yet” … but we are infinitely closer than we would have been without the prophetic voices who gave us this document of vision, grace and empowerment.

And we are no where near where we’re going to end up as we journey forward together with those committed to this high calling of turning the human race into the human family.

Wilderness happens, alright. But in spite of the challenges around us we find ourselves with much to rejoice in this Advent.

Rejoice that after eight years in the wilderness of “don’t even think about it” we have lived to see the new dawn of “yes we can.”

Rejoice that in the wilderness labeled “Proposition 8” our diocese has seized the opportunity to do things it hasn’t done before by offering equity to all couples asking for the church’s blessing on their relationships.

Rejoice that in the wilderness of this war-weary world, visionary peacemakers made a way for universal rights where there was no way offering hope to everyone – everywhere – that still bears fruit these sixty years later.

Rejoice that we may not be out of the wilderness – or the woods -- yet … but rejoice that here we are again – knee deep in Advent: the season that calls us to live with more hope than the world thinks is reasonable.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.

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