December 19, 2004

Dancing at the World's End - December 19, 2004

Dancing at the World’s End
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A; December 19, 2004
Romans 1:1-7; Psalm 24:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Rules are rules.

We need it to be that way. Rules make life predictable, and to make meaning, we need things to be at least somewhat predictable. Rules are how we know what's what -- something we need especially with respect to something that's really important. In some ways, you can tell what's really important in our culture by where we tend most to stick to rules -- things you do because that's how it's done.

Rules help us make sense of the senseless. When I was growing up in the 70's and 80's, there was a rule that had become law, and we called it "Mutually Assured Destruction." There were two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. We each had nuclear weapons. We each were held back from launching them by the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch theirs ... but we knew that couldn't last forever. We talked as children about how close we were to what would be a primary target; everyone hoped to be near one of the initial blasts, so we wouldn’t live to see the aftermath. When I was in high school, there was a television miniseries called The Day After that gave voice to what most people my age believed would happen before we had the chance to see old age: by mistake or intention, someone launches theirs, and we launch ours, and the world ends -- fire, followed by ice, with famine and unspeakable global destruction. Mutually Assured Destruction -- the rule that accounted for how we didn't kill each other, and told us how we would eventually kill each other.

Another rule that’s prominent in many of the world’s cultures – cultures of the kind that anthropologists call “honor-shame cultures,” – has been making headlines lately because of how often it’s applied in Kurdistan, in the north of Iraq, now that local authorities are freer to enforce laws as they see fit. It’s a rule about what men are to do when a woman in their family is perceived to have been sexually violated or defiled in some way, whether voluntarily or by force. It’s called an “honor killing”; such a woman is murdered, usually by her own brother or father.

Cultures around the Mediterranean Sea in the ancient world were honor-shame cultures. They practiced honor killings too. Such a killing may be described in the book of Judges, chapter 19, in which a Levite’s concubine is raped, and the Levite responds by chopping her into twelve pieces. But a case like Mary’s, in which a betrothed woman was found to be pregnant and the man to whom she was betrothed knew the child wasn’t his, had a specific penalty commanded by scripture: both the woman and, if his identity was known, the man who had gotten her pregnant were to be stoned to death.

It's serious stuff, but rules are rules. That's what justice is, isn't it?

That's what Jesus upsets from the beginning -- even before he's born.

In this morning’s gospel, Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, and he knows he’s not the father. He also knows the rules. As a man who is described in the text as “righteous,” you would expect Joseph to play by the rules and turn Mary over to the village authorities to receive the penalty that scripture assigned. That’s why I’d say that verse 19 is best translated as “Joseph, being a righteous man BUT unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Even before the angel intervenes, righteous Joseph resolves to break the rules, divorcing Mary, as would be necessary to dissolve a betrothal, but doing it quietly, hoping that Mary’s kin won’t seek her death to preserve the family honor. Fortunately, Mary’s family breaks the rule of “honor killings” as well.

And then an angel appears to Joseph to tell him that God is breaking the rules too, right down to the biological law that a woman can only conceive a child with a father.

Apparently even God-given laws in scripture and nature were made to be broken.

It’s significant that these are the circumstances in which Jesus was conceived and born. Ancient biographies, unlike modern ones, weren't interested in stages of development, and they certainly weren't interested in surprises. Subjects of ancient biographies were shown as being the same to their dying day as they were the day they were born -- the same the stars proclaimed they'd be at their birth. Jesus was no exception, in Matthew's biography.

Matthew's Jesus is "King of the Judeans," but the first people to recognize his coming, other than Joseph and Mary, are not Jews, but are astrologers, or magi, from eastern kingdoms. Jesus is the person who showed us what true honor is by acting shamelessly, befriending tax collectors and sinners and dying a death on a Roman cross that would -- by the rules, anyway -- be called shameful. Jesus, who has no human father and had no children of his own, incarnates for us the one who is Father to the fatherless.

In other words, Jesus' whole life -- and his being raised to life by the God of Israel after his death -- is, like his conception and birth, a paradox, a justly broken rule.

Here's another rule, one that's trustworthy, by sensible reckonings: you reap what you sow.

But consider that the angel's word to Joseph in this Sunday's gospel is true: Jesus came to save to save people from their sins.

Take a moment to think about what sin is and where it leaves the world -- about everything that speaks and enacts brokenness, despair, dehumanizing people made in the image of God, despising God's good gifts. Think about it. Think about the solutions people have proposed for those things -- a war on poverty, a war on terrorism, eugenics as a "final solution" to make sure that humanity's weaknesses become extinct. Those are from the optimists. The pessimists among us say that there is no salvation from our sins: the poor get poorer, the sick stay poor and (no insurance? sorry -- can't help you!) thus get sicker. They say that the only solution to violence is more violence. They say that the best we can do is to try to keep what we’ve got and protect those we love a world that is steadily going to hell, with or without a handbasket. They say there’s only one way out of this world, and that’s death.

But think about it: an angel of the God of the universe told Joseph that the child who was to be born -- the child whose birth we anticipate in this last Sunday of Advent -- will save people from their sins.

We will not reap what we sow, what our parents sowed.

I started out this morning talking a little bit about the world I grew up in, the world of the Cold War and of Mutually Assured Destruction. And I can tell you about the day when I saw that world end. I was in seminary at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and one morning while we were all having coffee in the common room, someone told us that the Berlin Wall was coming down.

That wall was more than a wall -- it was a world. The world of the Cold War was coming down, and people were dancing on it as it was crumbling. Students left St. Andrews in droves and hitchhiked to ports, bought tickets on ferries, did whatever they had to do to get there and dance with the dancers. They brought back chips of the wall, that thing that was built before we were born and told us how we and the world would die.

One of the few regrets I have in my life so far is that I didn't go.

I had things to do -- classes to attend, papers to write. I had a job waiting on tables that I was afraid to lose. I was afraid that the little money I had wouldn't get me to Berlin, or wouldn't get me back. I was so busy with the life I was living in the world that was ending that I didn't read the signs: that world was ending, and I had the chance to dance with those who were welcoming a new world, one that wasn't doomed to end in massive fireballs or nuclear winter.

This is the last Sunday of Advent. We have spent the last few weeks waiting, listening, watching as people in darkness who yearn for some sign of the light. And the Light of the World is on the horizon now: his name is Jesus, for he will save people from their sins.

The whole world of sin is ending. It's ending now. Imagine that! Without armies or weapons, Jesus has defeated every dark force and impulse that would isolate us from one another and from God. It’s a new world! It's bigger than the end of communism. It’s bigger than the end of terrorism. It is the end of ending and the beginning of beginning.  How foolish it was for me to miss the fall of the Berlin Wall because I was afraid of missing a few theology classes! That’s a mistake I don’t intend to make again. So this morning, as I look to Jesus' Advent, to celebrating Jesus' birth in less than a week, I’m going to pay attention to the signs. When I look to Jesus, I see the world of sin falling. When I'm really in touch with that, there's nothing I won’t drop to dance on the ruins as they fall.

I'm serious -- a world-changing event that makes the fall of the Berlin Wall look like trivia is on its way. It's not a pie in the sky; it's a tree growing from an undying root planted when Mary said "here I am" to God's call, and nurtured by Joseph's doing the right thing by refusing to do what the Law required. It's the end of every damn thing that damns us. Who wouldn't skip class, risk hitching a ride, do what it takes to get to where God's people are dancing there?

It's all happening! There are five days of Advent left to watch for it and get there – to figure out what's holding you back from going to where the stars will reveal the Christ, and make a decision to drop it. The time in which rules are rules is over. The only death needed to end a world of sin happened two thousand years ago. You and I really have been freed. Totally. What would you let slide if you knew that a new world was coming in less than a week? What would you do if the ONLY thing to do were to seek God and God's anointed?

We have received grace and apostleship to bring that to the peoples of the world ... starting with us, right here, right now.

Grace to you, and peace, from God our one Father, and from Jesus the Christ, who saves us from sin.

Thanks be to God!

December 19, 2004 in Advent, Matthew | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 28, 2004

"Jesus Is No Ruthless Master" - November 28, 2004

The Good News of Advent: Jesus is no Ruthless Master
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, Maryland
November 28, 2004; First Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Matthew 24:37-44

There's a Costco warehouse shop right on my way home from work, and I stop by there frequently to pick up something for dinner. Those vast warehouses can be a little overwhelming any time of year, but it's even more overwhelming at the moment, because several aisles form a gauntlet of Christmas things -- fiber-optic laser displays that flash "SANTA STOP HERE," mechanical snowmen who wave at you with a smile that looks a little too much to me like a maniacal leer, and all kinds of gadgets squawking electronic tidings ahead of the season.

But they’re jumping the gun—it isn't Christmastime yet. We're in the season of Advent, a time of prayerful reflection and keen watching for Christ's coming.

This coming of Christ that we’re waiting for is not the second coming of Christ. We call that one "Easter." It's not the third coming we're looking for either. Wherever two or three have gathered in Jesus' name since Easter, Jesus has come among them, so we must be on about the ummpteen kajillionth coming. The particular coming, or "advent," we look forward to in this season is, in a sense, as mundane and as special as all of those other "advents" have been. It's all of those other "advents," all comings of Christ from the Incarnation up to this Sunday morning, that informs us about what the final Advent, the coming of Christ we look forward to during this liturgical season, really means.

So the first thing to know about the final Advent of Christ is that the person we are expecting in it is JESUS. That's the Good News of Advent. We've met and we know the person who is God's appointed judge for the nations, and it's Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter, the healer and teacher, founder of the Eucharistic feast and friend to tax collectors and sinners.

What we expect in Advent is the completion of the work of Creation, when God made the world and us and said, "It is good," and of the work of the Incarnation, when God lived as a human being among us and showed us in one package what real humanity and real divinity look like. And in the end, that real humanity and real divinity looks like it did in the beginning and in the middle. It's Jesus, the Word of God from the beginning. It's the Jesus we've known since he was first revealed to us, and he is concerned in the end with the same things he was concerned with before his crucifixion.

A look at this Sunday's reading in its immediate context in Matthew makes that clear. Our gospel for this Sunday begins a series of parables with the theme, "be ready for Jesus' coming." I think that Matthew paired the last two parables in that series deliberately in a way that makes clear just why Jesus' coming is Good News and what it is that we do to be ready for it.

The first of these "twins" is a story, found in Matthew 25, verses 14 through 30. If you’ve got a bible with you or you’re sitting in front of a pew bible, I encourage you to open it to Matthew 25:14, which is on page ___ in the pew bibles. This story is often called “The Parable of the Talents,” but I think a better title for it would be the "Story of the Ruthless Master." This is the story of a man described in verse 24 as “a harsh man, reaping where [he does] not sow.” This master profits through the work of his slaves, commanding them to increase his wealth by any means necessary – even lending money at interest, a practice condemned clearly and repeatedly in both Old and New Testaments. Two of the three slaves follow the master’s orders and double the master’s money, but the one who was given least of the three is punished for his refusal to break God’s laws by being stripped of what little he has and thrown out in the darkness to suffer. The “moral,” if we can call it that, in the amoral world of this story’s Ruthless Master, is “to all those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” – in other words, “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and those who follow God’s law will get nothing for it but punishment.”

You may have noticed in verse 14 that the story does NOT start with Jesus saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like this,” and that’s because the kingdom of heaven is NOTHING like this! It’s like this story has taken everything that’s wrong in the world – all of the abuses of power and runaway greed in our culture – and has boiled down and distilled them into this horrible slaveowner and the amoral reasoning he gives for his conduct. Is that really what we think is true about the world – that the only way to avoid being left out in the cold is to get everything we can grab? Do we really think it’s true that powerful people can do whatever they want for as long as they want? Do we really think that the Ruthless Masters of this world are the ones who know what’s really important? And the most important question – do we actually think on some level that God is like this Ruthless Master? Do we think that when the time comes for us to meet God’s appointed judge, the question we’ll be asked is, “So, what have you done for me lately? And it better be impressive!”

If that were what God was like, if that were where the world is headed, then the climax of history and the coming of the Son of Man that we anticipate in this Advent season would really be Bad News – something to whisper about fearfully, not proclaim joyfully.

But that isn’t what God is like. That’s not where the world is headed. Matthew follows up the story of the Ruthless Master – his story of what happens when powerful people rule unchecked out of fear and greed – with the “Parable of the Sheep and the Goats,” a description of what it will look like when Jesus' work among us is completed. That’s the story I preached about on St. Martin’s Day, and there couldn’t be more of a difference between that story and the story of the Ruthless Master. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him” (Matthew 25:31), the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats says, he will separate people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The hungry and those who fed them, those without clean water to drink and those who gave them water to drink, the strangers and those who welcomed them, those without clothes and those who clothed them, and convicts in prison and those who visited them, are gathered in to the center, to enjoy God's kingdom.

In other words, the Jesus who is coming to judge the living and the dead is the same Jesus whose whole life – his teaching, his healing, his breaking bread with anyone who would eat with him, and most of all his willingness to die rather than retaliate against those who sought to kill him – speaks of his limitless mercy.

So what we’ll confess in a minute or two – that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord, that he’s coming to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end – is truly Good News.

But who do we really say is Lord? Is it the Ruthless Master? If that were so, if the "way of the world" these masters set up were really the way things are always going to be, then the most sensible course of action for us would probably be to do what the others who served the Ruthless Master did: Keep your head down. Work hard. Line the master's pockets, and maybe there will be something in it for you too.

But this Sunday's gospel and this season of Advent proclaim Good News to God's people. The Ruthless Masters do NOT have the last word. Jesus does. The completion of Jesus' vision for the world, in which "the least of these" and those who worked for justice for them are finally vindicated, is coming! The signs are all around us, though some people don't recognize them any more than the kings of the earth recognized the only true Lord when he was a baby, or a homeless man, or a convict on a cross.

But Jesus is Lord nonetheless – Lord of the world and Lord of history itself, its beginning and its end. Is that just something we mumble in the creed, or is it something we testify to with our lives? Do our lives say that life and light belong to those with wealth and power and the might to take it away from others if necessary? Is that where we believe our salvation lies? Or do we live what we confess in the creed: that the judge of the world, the light of the world, the LIFE of the world, is Jesus. Jesus, whose coming was proclaimed in Mary’s song, that “the mighty are cast down, and the lowly raised up.” Jesus, who taught us that the world belongs to the poor and the meek rather than the rich and the powerful. Jesus, the king we serve not just by saying what he said, but by doing what he did.

The world has it half right – in the end, it really is who you know. And the more fully our lives here on earth say that we know Jesus, the more we can say of the present moment that the world tastes of heaven.

Thanks be to God!

November 28, 2004 in Advent, Matthew | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 21, 2003

"Salvation Isn't a Delicate Cycle" - December 21, 2003

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
Micah 5:2-4; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-56

Last week, the movie Babe was on television, so I watched a good chunk of it again. Babe is the story of a lovable and unshakably optimistic little pig who turns out to have an incredible talent and a genuine vocation for herding sheep, the traditional job of a sheepdog. It's one of my favorite movies and I've seen it many times, so when I saw it last week, I was less caught up in the perspective of Babe, the little pig, and I was able to take a step back and view the story from the point of view of some of the other characters -- especially Rex, the former champion sheepdog who lives on the farm with Babe, and Farmer Hoggett, who owns both Rex and Babe as well as the farm on which they work.

And of course, my mind leapt immediately to the Magnificat, the song of Mary in today's gospel. It's not as wacky as it sounds, because Babe is in some ways a story of the powerful being brought down and the lowly lifted up. Babe, the unassuming little pig intended for the Hoggetts' Christmas dinner, becomes a champion, winning the hearts not only of Farmer Hoggett and all the animals on the farm, but of all of England, glued to their televisions watching the spectacle of this amazing pig in competition. Rex, the proud and mighty sheepdog, is displaced as the lord of the fields. And when we're caught up in rooting for the little pig, we have no trouble seeing the story of Babe as good news.

But from Rex's point of view, the story could have been very bad news indeed. For much of the story, that's exactly how Rex receives it too. Babe's gift for herding sheep, in Rex's view, isn't a gift at all, but a threat — not just to him and his own status, but to a way of life. It's a threat to the world's making any sense at all. As a viewer, you can see what kind of a threat Babe poses in the struggle characters have to name what the little pig is doing. Everybody knows what a 'sheepdog' is, but what do you a call a pig who does that job? A 'sheep-pig'? Sounds more like some kind of genetic experiment. All of the farm animals are quick to tell Babe that he's disrupting "the way things are." Everybody knows that cows are for giving milk, hens for giving eggs, and dogs for herding sheep. Rex is willing, more or less grudgingly, to treat the little pig kindly, regardless of the pig's aspirations, but it's clear to Rex that a pig's doing a sheepdog's job, no matter how well, not only makes a mockery of what pigs and dogs were born and raised to do, but also shames and blasphemes the farmer who would allow such things to happen. Rex cares too much about Farmer Hoggett to watch that happen, even if Farmer Hoggett is foolish enough to go along with it, so he does what he can to help, in his view -- to help Babe realize that he's doing the wrong thing in herding sheep, to help preserve Farmer Hoggett's good name, and to see that the sheep have a proper shepherd. Rex really does care about protecting the sheep, even if he doesn't trust them to know a good shepherd, and so Rex makes a series of mistakes that could turn his story into a tragedy.

Lack of trust is really Rex's problem. He wants to protect the sheep, but doesn't trust the sheep to go where they should or to know the good shepherd. And although Rex wouldn't want to admit it, he doesn't trust Farmer Hoggett, even though Rex loves him. When Farmer Hoggett doesn't stop Babe from herding sheep, Rex assumes that the farmer is just being slow to act, trusting Rex to do the job instead. Rex continues to believe that even when Farmer Hoggett is right before his eyes, calling Babe out to the pastures. Rex can't believe the farmer he knows and loves would approve of something so obviously wrong, even when evidence to the contrary is in front of him.

Farmer Hoggett, though, believes what he sees, even when there's no language to describe it. Pigs don't herd sheep, but when he sees it happen, he believes it and blesses it, in the same understated way he always expresses approval – "that'll do," he says. "That'll do ... pig." The farmer's trust in the rule books and almanacs is shaken, but he trusts his eyes, and he trusts his heart, so he can receive Babe's vocation, disruptive as it is to the way we all thought things were supposed to be, as good news — the best news.

The Magnificat, Mary's song of praise for the God who is casting down the mighty and raising up the lowly, is one of my favorite passages in scripture – maybe my favorite of all. It's framed on my living room wall in the graceful calligraphied script of a monk from the monastery where Karen and I first met. I've studied it, sung it, pondered it, and prayed it, so this week, as I turned to it again, I felt drawn to look at it from a different angle — from the angle of Rex, the ruler, from the perspective of the mighty. I almost couldn't help it, since the last time I stood in this pulpit, I shared with you how important I think it is that we acknowledge that most of us at St. Martin's are among the wealthy and the powerful. We're the ones who have the most to lose, if everything really is changing.

And the faith we have is that everything really is changing. As Christians, we believe that the tide of history turned with the birth of Jesus, the Christ. In Advent, we look to the future, when Jesus' work is complete and everything we see comes into alignment with what we believe:


God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. ...
    He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
    He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
    he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

We believe that's going to happen, and in this last week of Advent in particular, we are called to prepare to receive Christ, who is coming to accomplish all of this, as Good News. But when I pause to really take these words in — not unthinkingly, as pious sentiment, but really listening to them and asking God for openness to feel their impact — it's a profound challenge, especially in "he has filled the hungry with good things,/ and sent the rich away empty." It's like the Beatitudes in Luke (6:20-26):

    Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
    Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
    Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
    Blessed are you when people hate you,
    and when they exclude you, revile you,
    and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

And in Luke, if we're tempted as readers to gloss over these words as pious or strictly metaphorical platitudes, Luke shocks us back to attention with what follows:


  But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
    Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
    Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
    Woe to you when all speak well of you,
    for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

This is the gospel; this is Good News. It's Good News for everyone — it's what the world will look like when, as John the Baptizer preached in the desert, "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6).

But if we're rich, if we have enough to eat now, how is it good news for us? We're not going to stay on top forever.

That's true, but the news we hear in the Magnificat is better news than "you'll always be on top." We who intend to follow Christ have a different aim than staying where we are; we're after the transformation of the world.

That's a heady claim. Let's try some imagery to bring it a little closer to home. For a moment, instead of trying to think of the world, let's think of the laundry.

One of the first lessons I learned when I started using a washing machine is that you can't pack it too tightly. If the clothes stay where they are through the wash, nothing happens. A washing machine doesn't work unless there's movement, and lots of it. At the center of a washing machine, there is something moving and active — the agitator. It agitates; it jolts back and forth to make sure that nothing else can stay where it is. It creates friction with the clothes closest to the center, sending them out to the margins. The friction and the currents created by that movement pull what's at the margins in to the center, and back out again. That keeps going until the whole load is clean, transformed, made new.

When Christ is at the center of our community, things change. The closer we are to the center, the more likely we are to be pushed out to the margins. Being pushed out doesn't always feel good, and friction often doesn't feel good either. And have you ever watched a load of laundry in a machine with a clear door? All that movement can make you pretty dizzy. It's hard to maintain a sense of equilibrium in there, I'm sure. But when Christ is truly at the center, we will be spun around and sent out, and brought in, and sent out. And that's how the transformation happens, the transformation we long for in the deepest part of our being. The proud are humbled, the rich made poor, and the lowly are lifted up and gathered in, and all flesh will see the salvation of our God.

Including us. We all need that transformation, and we all need one another — and we need that agitation that originates with Christ — to see it. We need that more than we need to be top dog. Even Rex, the sheepdog who would remain king, got that by the end of the movie. Because by the end of the story, Rex did two things that allowed him to root for Babe as much as any of us in the audience.

The first was that Rex admitted his own vulnerabilities, his own wounds. Rex's mistrust didn't come from nowhere. He'd been hurt before while trying to protect the sheep. He lost his hearing while trying to guide the sheep in a long and cold storm, and ironically, it was only when he admitted to the sheep that he'd lost the ability to hear as a result of his injury that he really learned to listen. It's a natural thing when we get hurt to try to figure out how we can make sure it never happens again, but in general — and I count this among my most important life lessons — any personal rule that you develop that's about not getting hurt should probably be suspect. Stupid behavior hurts, but love hurts too. Rule out risk, rule out pain, and we rule out redemption. Admit the things that make us uncertain, that render us in need of help, of a Shepherd, and we have some chance of finding healing.

The second, and probably the more important thing that Rex does, is that he stays in relationship, he keeps his eyes open, and, maybe despite himself, he keeps his heart open. The salvation for all flesh in Babe — for dog, pig, and farmer alike — is that they keep listening to one another, and their love for one another wins out. I'll let y'all rent the movie _— a great holiday movie — to find out exactly how that happens, but here's what I took away from my umpteenth viewing of Babe last week, as I was thinking about everything I saw in light of today's gospel, and of this community.

In the end, Farmer Hoggett gets to experience the wonderful thing happening — a pig's becoming a champion — because he keeps his eyes open, and his heart open to receive what his eyes tell him.  Rex is saved, is able to dig himself out of the bitterness he feels in watching a pig get more honor as a sheepdog than he does, because Rex keeps a place in his heart open to listen to the folks who love Babe, even if he can't listen to Babe himself. And Babe — Babe, the lowly pig, and also the one with the extraordinary talent — would, in the end, be lost if Rex hadn't passed along to Babe what he learned from Farmer Hoggett's sheep, once Rex was willing to listen. More importantly, Babe would have been lost in the end had he not been willing to trust that Rex, who in the past insulted and persecuted him, was telling him what he needed to know to connect with a new flock.

There's something these three characters have in common: openness. Farmer Hoggett would have missed out on the amazing story in front of him if he hadn't been willing to discard what he thought he knew about pigs and dogs and sheep when he saw something that said that this was a new thing, a pig that herds sheep. Rex would have been shut out by his own stubbornness had he not let himself get to know Babe even after he was convinced that there was nothing to like. And Babe, in the end, wouldn't have become the champion everyone admired if he hadn't been willing in the end to trust Rex, that Rex had really changed, and was wanting to help.

It's a washing machine, and a pretty delicate cycle. It depends on each of us having room to move. It depends on the friction that inevitably happens when one or more of us do move. It depends on us all not getting stuck, not staying where we are, but being ready to have some real contact with whoever is in the direction Christ is sending us. How ready am I to listen — really listen, deeply listen — to someone who's said hurtful things about me in the past? How ready am I to accept that someone who was really, demonstrably interested in hurting me in the past has something to teach me now? How ready are you to brush up against the person you (according to the lessons of experience, or some other reliable source) think of as eternally and necessarily on the outs, and to find that person drawing you toward the center?

I'm not that old — or so I keep telling myself, as I watch succeeding generations of youth groups move toward adult milestones — but I've lived long enough to say that all bets about where to find eternally safe and solid places are off. There's an agitator in this community who's turning everything upside-down, and in four days, I'll be with my family unwrapping presents to celebrate his birthday. Fools are wise, rich are poor, and the only thing that really makes sense is to go where the Christ is. I hear a star will be on the horizon any day now, but until I see it, I'm going with the rumor I've had that he shows up where two or three are gathered in his name. That's here, so I'm paying attention.

Keep your eyes on the horizon for that star, but keep your ears open for the word our Savior sends to us now. The salvation of our God is at hand!

Thanks be to God.

December 21, 2003 in Advent, Justice, Luke, Micah, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)