It turns out that we have routines, patterns that are hard to break. I was reading about efforts by retailers to identify when people are going through a few different life changes: having a baby or moving to a new city, among a few others. The retailers wanted to know this because these are some of the few major life changes when people are open to shifting their patterns of where they buy stuff. In general, we don’t shift those patterns…you keep buying particular products where you’ve always bought those products. Except it turns out in the case of one of these very few major life events when you’re willing to rethink those patterns. So retailers are particularly interested in figuring out if one of these life events is going on for you.
I was thinking about this because we’re starting Advent today. And everybody knows that Advent is a season of buying stuff. Okay, it is…but that’s not why I was thinking about this. Advent is a season of preparation. There’s a crazy amount of external preparation, but I’m talking about the inner preparation…this is a season for us of inner preparation for Christmas.
One of the priests, Catholic priest and theologian, that I respect the very most, Richard Rohr, writes that the spiritual journey is more about unlearning than learning. It’s really a wild claim, and for us I think it’s very true. The spiritual journey is about unlearning patterns, or sets of ideas, that we’ve incorporated into our lives so that we can be open to something deeper about us and about others and about the world around us. And this is hard for us to do, that’s what struck me about the research by retailers…there are only a few times in our lives when we’ll rethink where we buy soap, but this season of the church year asks us to rethink ourselves and God. And it’s a tall order. It requires intentionality on our part and it requires practice. And I’ll go ahead and tell you my conclusion: What it gives us in return is much better than a new place to buy soap.
One of the theological ideas that you’ve heard from me before is that God is “concrete and specific”. That’s a phrase by Rohr. And I’m really drawn to it because for a long time I thought that God was mainly abstract, somewhere out in space, but my experience of life is that the Holy if it’s anywhere at all for us, then it’s in specific people and places and events in our lives. That’s where we either know the Holy or we don’t. Not in some abstract thought. But in our lives.
I was fortunate to grow up hearing a great preacher, Ed Bacon, the priest at the parish where I grew up. Ed went on to write a book, you can search for him on you tube. Ed discusses in many of his sermons and in his book – this is in my words, not his – he says that we have a basic underpinning for much of our lives and that underpinning is either based on fear or it’s based on love.
And a system based on fear operates in a variety of ways.
A system of fear operates in a sin-suffering virtue-reward way of understanding God. Bacon says that this is a model of God that we’ve inherited, just from the air around us, the sin-suffering virtue-reward model of God. People suffer as a result of their sin, and people are rewarded as a result of their virtue. So people who are sick or who are in a bad situation, they have that sickness or they’re in that situation because of something sinful that they’ve done. And people who are well-off – healthy, wealthy, you name it – they’ve been blessed by God as a result of virtuous behavior. At these prosperity Gospel extremes, it’s easy to poke holes in the theology. HIV or Hurricane Harvey, they’re not somehow punishment from God. But this idea – sin-suffering, virtue-reward — its influence for us is more subtle.
This theology operates underneath our preference for people who seem like they have it together and our preference against people who don’t. It operates underneath our desire for outward expressions of mourning and sadness to be neat and tidy. It’s great when people mourn for a little while, and then they need to get over it. Or there must be something wrong… and if you’ve suffered loss you know that there can be new life and happiness for you but you never really get over your loss.
And it operates underneath our desire for security and control. Because when we achieve those things it must mean we’re good people. And when we suffer, we must be bad people.
And it operates underneath our desire that people we help be appropriately thankful and conform to our expectations – that they share our priorities. Otherwise we might be supporting unvirtuous behavior.
A successful career or marriage or child means we’re virtuous; and failure means we’re not.
This is a fear based system. God is the ultimate punisher and ultimate rewarder, and this fear based system can be so constricting for us. It keeps us, according to Bacon, in a mode of fight or flight. It keeps us in a mode of identifying dangers, which is so useful for a time, but then it traps us in an ever narrower sphere where we can’t be creative, and we can’t see new connections, and we can’t imagine love.
Contrast that with Jesus: Rohr writes that Jesus has no test before he heals in the Gospel stories of the New Testament. He doesn’t ask people their religion. He doesn’t ask people their ethnic group. He doesn’t ask people if they’re successful. There’s no test for how virtuous they’ve been. He doesn’t ask if they’re Jewish, or Samaritan. Doesn’t ask if they’re American, or Muslim, or happily married or divorced ten times, or rich or poor, or whether they have an advanced degree or no high school diploma. Jesus asks the folks he encounters if they’re ready to receive healing, if they’re open to something new.
I am good at checking boxes. Whether it was figuring out a teacher’s preferences so that I could get good grades or learning how to maximize the hourly rates that I could charge clients, I could prove my worth to myself and to those around me. But if that’s what life is all about, it creates – to use a term of Bacon’s — it creates a forcefield of fear. When will the shoe drop? And what will I be then?
And Jesus has none of that. Instead he asks “are you ready to receive love?”
And it’s a love that shatters all of the boxes that the fear-based system creates. Are you ready to receive love? And to become for the world a beacon of love?
In our reading from Isaiah today, from a portion of the book written when the Israelites were dealing with the challenges of a return from exile in Babylon, the author recognizes that God hasn’t somehow left God’s people. “We are the clay, and you are our potter.” Even when their outward circumstances are difficult, the author writes that God is still present with them.
It takes a lot of preparation – a lot of “keeping awake” in the words of today’s Gospel — to recognize this fear and to see a way to something else. It takes a readiness, a longing for, the Holy in our lives. And it takes courage, and it takes creativity, and it takes a willingness to fail and try again. And fear shuts down our ability, our brain’s ability, to do these things.
Our Gospel today is from chapter 13 of Mark. This chapter is often called a “mini-apocalypse” because it’s just that. It’s a vision of the end of the world. You can hear that in today’s passage. I don’t spend much time thinking about the end of the world. But it features in both the Old and New Testaments, in large part because it featured significantly in parts of Judaism in the time of Jesus.
Underneath this apocalipticism is truth for us – things change, systems change, ours is a God of change.
And as Advent begins we’re preparing for that change. I suggest that you see it as a change from fear to love. Love that opens the possibility of new connection to others, love that seeks justice and mercy and that forms the ground of forgiveness, love that brings new life and new joy. Amen.