The other day I was telling Stuart about the 1947 movie “The Bishop’s Wife” with Carey Grant and David Niven and Loretta Young, a movie that I consider to be required holiday viewing for all clergy. Strangely, he claims he had never even heard of it much less seen it, although I distinctly remember having had this conversation before. Anyway, I basically told him the whole of the movie by heart. Good movies are like that. My children, for example, can recite the entire screenplay of “The Princess Bride”. And, frequently here in the office, Alan or Stuart offers a famous line from a well-known film as a caption for the cartoon that is our day, at that point.
There’s a sort of comfort in re-watching annual holiday movies. Maybe we remember a time we watched it with friends or family who we no longer see. Or we associate it with the whole schedule of other activities that are tied to it; like, right after we finish this movie we always put up the tree or make s’mores.
Sometimes, however, there are annual holiday dramas that get replayed for no good reason, except that it’s what we’ve always done at this time of year. These are more like Charlie Brown trusting Lucy to hold that football, year after year after year. You know the dramas I’m talking about. We know every word of those screenplays by heart, as well. Yet, strangely, we continue to expect that maybe this will be the year that Cousin Sally will actually show up on time for dinner instead of four hours late and that mom won’t end up crying that no one appreciates all the work she goes to, etc. Why do we keep replaying those annual dramas? What were we hoping to see?
In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist is in considerably worse straits than when we last saw him. Last week he was taking care of business, calling out the Pharisees: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to get out of the way??!?” This week he’s not so tough. This week he is in prison, will soon have his head literally handed over as a party favor to a spoiled and manipulative teenage girl. The story looks pretty bleak at this point. And so he sends word to Jesus: “Just checking” he says, “just want to make sure I’ve hitched my wagon to the right star before I pay for the privilege with my life.”
And, apparently, Jesus sees the same concern in the faces of the other disciples and the crowd. Are you the real thing? Because suddenly, this is getting very real. And so Jesus puts it back onto them. “What were you thinking you were getting into? What did you go out there looking for? Because if you were looking for a comfortable life, for the status quo to remain unchallenged, you showed up for the wrong wilderness adventure.”
The same question is put to us today. What are we thinking about Jesus? What does it mean for us today in 2016 in our homes and in our communities when Jesus IS the answer, but it costs us everything to accept it? Before going further, we should look hard at what we lose by saying yes to Christ.
First, we lose the obligation to continue to join in crazy-making stuff; our own or someone else’s. God has called us to higher ground – not a place of pride but rather a vantage point to see God’s creation from God’s perspective. From here we see before us the full array of God’s work on the sixth day of creation. We are wildly diverse, often anxious, and always just wanting life to matter. There is no doubt that, in a rush to matter, we often act impatiently and unwisely. And the truth is that patterns form quickly. One way to break bad patterns is to change our starting point from negative judgment to an assumption that people (ourselves included) are generally trying to do the best they can. Offering compassionate understanding along with support in choosing differently can go a long way toward encouraging folks to make better choices.
Second, we lose the burden of needing to be right all the time and always having to have “the” answer to everything. There’s no shame in admitting we need outside assistance to figure out some problems. We are also invited to catch God’s imagination and make room for the Holy Spirit to chasten us, humble us, and redirect our paths in the direction of God’s glory, allowing us to wait patiently for the Lord and not rush to a judgment that is unjust and unmerciful.
But perhaps the greatest cost to us personally is that we lose the right to follow the smallest most manageable God possible and to remain as we are, as we have always been. We have to face the fact that the God we worship has not been domesticated. This is why we frequently encounter God in wilderness spaces – either geographically or spiritually. This “Wilderness God” seems feral and unpredictable to us. And yet, the over-arching message of the biblical narrative is that God is faithful and never changes. The same cannot be said for us! But, thanks be to God that change for us is possible!
We can kick and scream, resist, and deny. But God’s fearless and fierce compassion knows no impediment to successfully engage us in the lowest hell or the darkest corner that we can find – even a family Christmas.
There is simply no time for us to waste by replaying the same tired scripts of petty jealousies and stubborn insistence of our way or the highway.
Like John the Baptist, it seems fair that we would want to know whether “all this” radical transformation will make sense soon. Will we be strong enough to remain faithful without knowing how it will all end?
One of the most challenging things in our lives as Christian disciples is remembering how the story started, who started it, and trusting in the one who started it to bring it all together for God’s glory and our wholeness. If we try to write the summary of our lives based on the snapshot of only one day or one period of time, it is likely we will get it all wrong. On bad days, it can be hard to encourage each other, but we must. As Isaiah says, we must “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong; do not fear! Here is your God. He will come and save you!”
“Here” is our God, indeed. God is there at those annual holiday dramas – compelling us to listen closely, to respond differently, to look for an alternate ending to the usual pathos. God is there in us. As Teresa of Avila reminds us, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. The feet, the eyes – you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
“Be strong; do not fear!” Our God is here.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
December 11, 2016
The Third Sunday in Advent 2016 Year A