2 Advent 2017: A Bald Face Challenge

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TEXTS for Preaching

Isaiah 40:1-11

“Savior” by Maya Angelou

Petulant priests, greedy
centurions, and one million
incensed gestures stand
between your love and me.

Your agape sacrifice
is reduced to colored glass,
vapid penance, and the
tedium of ritual.

Your footprints yet
mark the crest of
billowing seas but
your joy
fades upon the tablets
of ordained prophets.

Visit us again, Savior.
Your children, burdened with
disbelief, blinded by a patina
of wisdom,
carom down this vale of
fear. We cry for you
although we have lost
your name.

Mark 1:1-8


“Visit us again, Savior.
Your children, (are) burdened with
disbelief, blinded by a patina
of wisdom…”

Burden – a heavy load.
Disbelief – an inability to accept something as real.
Patina – a film of calcification
covering old implements and metals.

I realize that while “patina”
may not be an ordinary word,
“burden” and “disbelief” enter our speech
with such routine they go without notice.
But examining the average, mundane,
and tediously dull
can stir up a little gold.

Much of our religion
is a film of calcification, a patina,
that is burdening the generations with disbelief.

Much of our religion
is a film of calcification, a patina,
that is burdening the generations with disbelief.

While that may not be a controversial statement at all,
given that secularism
and other historic whirlwinds
have beaten bare the stone institutions of religion
like a thousand-year tempest,
I do recognize that it may be hurtful
and cause pain.

It is the kind of thing
I said prophetically forty years ago
as a young preacher
but without too much compassion.

Now, as a preacher standing on the dock
and able to look out and see old age,
I wish I had been more kindhearted earlier.

To say that much of our religion
is a patina, a calcification,
burdening our children with disbelief,
is surely a hurtful thing to say
to those of us who are deeply grateful
for what we have received from the church.
Many of us have invested great parts of our lives
in the community of faith
and supporting the institution of our religion.
To call much of it a green scale of film
obscuring the beauty of our ancient wisdom,
may feel painful and disrespectful.
And yet, standing here between Isaiah
and John the Baptist this morning,
saying so seems an apt way to honor those prophets.

Here is what I mean.
Isaiah steps forward
and preaches a counter-intuitive message
to his peers.

First, we have to understand,
that for 39 chapters,
Isaiah has been preaching discomfort.

For 39 chapters, he has been warning
his peers that their social and economic injustice
will be their undoing;
and he has castigated
the political and religious leaders,
for being purveyors of greed and self-interest.
Death and destruction are coming, he warns,
and now is the time to reform.
The people do not see it,
and they think things are good.
Isaiah is a weirdo.

Then, on a dime, Isaiah suddenly,
at the beginning of chapter 40,
begins preaching the comfort of hope.

But now, at chapter 40,
it is a time in which the people have been suffering
and nothing is good,
and nothing will ever be good again,
and hope feels like mocking their pain.
Isaiah is a weirdo.

The reason for this sharp change
is that the Book of Isaiah is actually several books,
written and compiled
over one-hundred and fifty years or more,
and so the historical circumstances of each section
represent how the world changed over time.

But that being said,
the preaching and the poetry
associated with the name, Isaiah,
often walks upstream from the real-time experience
of the people the prophet is preaching among.

He points out their selfishness and corruption,
preaching reform, when things seem good;
and then he offers the love of God and hope,
even in the midst of their brokenness and suffering,
when things seem bad.

Likewise, with Maya Angelou:
Much of our religion
is a film of calcification, a patina,
that is burdening the generations with disbelief…
is to challenge the foot-dragging
institutional self-interest that resists reforming Christianity, while also
pointing toward a real-time hope.

“Visit us again, Savior,
your children are burdened with disbelief…”
is a plea dripping with the experience
of our own moment in history,
AND the presumption
there is an alternative experience
both possible and expected.

So I think Isaiah,
both the reform-minded one
and the hopeful comforter one,
would look at our moment of anxiety –
when there is a swelling disbelief
in institutional religion
even as there is a strong, if generic,
desire for spiritual connection –
and point to both the need of reform, and hope.

So Isaiah stands on our left side today,
listening for what we might say –
listening for what you and I
will preach from a high mountain.
On the right side then, is John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was a weirdo too,
less poetic than Isaiah, but a fierce reformer.
Mostly we know about John
through the filter of those writing about Jesus
fifty to eighty years later,
after both John and Jesus had been executed
by state power.

Let us first of all, acknowledge
that John the Baptist did not see Jesus
as Number 1 to his being Number 2.
That is early Christian theological propaganda.
We know this from an outside historical view.
John had many more followers in Judah
than did Jesus did.
Even after John was dead,
his followers were more numerous than Jesus’.
In fact, there are still people today
for whom John the Baptist is their primary prophet –
they are known as Mandaeans.

The followers of Jesus and the followers of John
were in competition with one another for followers.
But Jesus likely had a deep appreciation
for the ministry and work that John began.
John too was a reformer
and what he did was hugely important.

You see, John figured out how to bust a monopoly –
a theological and spiritual monopoly.

The temple, and the temple clergy,
had a monopoly on God’s power and authority.
Every important aspect of the religion
was centered in the one-and-only temple
in Jerusalem.
All acts of piety,
all rituals of contrition and repentance,
all corporate acts of worship,
were focused in the temple.

That meant that those in charge of the temple
possessed a great deal of power.

So much so, the temple priesthood
had become an inherited privilege
passed on from generation to generation.
It was a closed world of power and wealth,
managing a hugely important
religious and economic center of the society.

John the Baptist busted that monopoly.

His practice of baptism,
a ritual cleansing for the forgiveness of sins,
sidestepped the religious institution
and provided an alternative spiritual practice
for ordinary people who could not afford
the high price of religion at the temple.d
John’s baptism was cost no money.

You see, John the Baptist wasn’t just some crazy
preacher doing weird things out in the wilderness,
he was organizing a rebellion
and busting a religious and economic monopoly.
Jesus was down with it too.
Jesus was so down with it, he went and got baptized.
Jesus was all about what John was doing,
even though Jesus was not quite the purist
John was when it came to being a vegetarian
and anti-materialist.

So now, I hope,
you can see the connection
between Isaiah on our left side,
and John on our right side:
both preachers, prophets, and reformers.
It’s not a bad place for Maya Angelou
to be standing either,
because she was a prophet, poet, and reformer too.

Visit us again, Savior.
Your children, (are) burdened with
disbelief, blinded by a patina
of wisdom…”

That brings us to our need to scratch off the patina
and reveal the spiritual truth and wisdom
that will unburden our children,
that will move them within reach of belief
instead of burdening them with disbelief.
And it begins with the Christmas story.

The Christmas story is a refugee story.
It is a dark tale of oppression
and the dangers of living as an illegal citizens
among a people who do not believe in,
respect, protect, or even care
about their dignity.
That is Joseph and Mary.

We tell the Christmas story
as a romanticized Victorian sentimental journey,
with jingle bells and a gentle falling snow.
There is nothing whatsoever
cozy and comforting
about the manger.
It is a dark tale,
of skulking around in the night
to avoid agents of the government
bent on hunting them down
and threatening their very existence.
The Christmas story
is a story of exile and repression
and the whispers of an alternative being born,
a divine spark of liberation
that will bring down kings and empires.

We have wrapped Christmas
in gaudy paper and pretty bows and the way we tell it,
it is simply unbelievable to our children –
associated with the fantasy of Santa Claus.
And that is what we have done
with the entire Jesus story –
created a protective film
that distorts or hides the real Jesus.
Jesus is a threat to our institutions
not Mr. Nice Guy carrying lambs on his shoulders.
Jesus and John the Baptist
did not get tortured and executed
because they used the wrong fork at dinner!
Something about what they were up to,
and what they preached,
and what they did,
was threatening to the powers and principalities.
They were prophets
and reformers,
and they preached an alternative reality.

So here is what I think that means for us,
on this second Sunday of Advent 2017.

We need to scratch the patina of religion
to see if we can discover
a credible
whisper of God
that does not
and will not
feel like a burden of disbelief to our children.
Where, in the our body of ancient wisdom,
does the voice of Jesus
pierce the butcher paper we have wrapped it in?
Where does it leak out,
drip down and leave a trail on the floor
for us to follow?

How can we keep doing what we value
and have loved about our religion,
and at the same time, unleash it
from the protective cage
it has been jailed in for all these years?

I am not up here with a “How-to” book of answers,
even though I have my own ideas
about what to do.
Instead, this is an invitation,
and bald-faced challenge:
Let us use Advent for what it is,
a time to get ready for change.

Let us enter into the new year
expecting change
and nurturing change
and looking for what God is doing
in the midst of change.
Let us get out our wire brushes
and our brass polish
and go to work on the tarnish
so that the generations might know
the liberation of belief.