Saturday, November 26, 2016

Winter is Coming/We Don't Have to Win

Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 122
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Troubled times, troubled people.

I have a confession to make.  I have never developed any enthusiasm for my presumed role as the Advent police.  Honestly, I don't care whether you put up your Christmas tree this weekend, or if you are humming along with the musak at Ray's.

I think it was my early exposure to the movie Mame.  See, I grew up poor, the sometimes-hungry kind of poor.  And that one year in the depths of the Great Depression, when Mame couldn't pay her staff, when the butcher cut off her credit and she couldn't buy groceries, when she declared, We need a little Christmas now! and they opened their presents early, I knew at a youngster's existential level exactly what that was about.

The heart needs what the heart needs.  And God knows, we need a little Christmas now.

We won't be singing Christmas carols in church just yet.  That's partly because we don't have anything to sell.  And partly because here we are not about the business of cheering ourselves up.

For the Church, Advent, the Coming of Christ is about the reign of God.  I suppose we don't try to sell the reign of God because, frankly, it's a hard sell.

The Gospel writer today looks back on a calamity that took place thirty-some years after the death of Jesus, when the Romans put down a rebellion in Palestine, culminating in 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the massacre or deportation and enslavement of the remaining population.  Jesus would not have known the details that Matthew puts into his mouth.  But Jesus could see it coming.

And not just him.  Indeed, he was executed to try to prevent it.  The leaders of Jerusalem feared, they foresaw the end of 500 years worth of Jewish civilization, all the work of carefully rebuilding and protecting their nation after the last time the sky fell in on them.

There is a television show now, Game of Thrones.  It's set in a fantasy world based on 15th century Great Britain.  The plot is this power struggle between competing clans.  Who will sit on the throne?  Each clan has its flag, its animal symbol, and its motto.  The show's theme, ultimately, is the motto of one of the clans, the Starks.  Winter is coming.

In the world of Game of Thrones, winter does not last three months or four.  Each time winter comes, it varies in length.  Winter can last four years; it can last for decades.  And it's not just about the weather.  This time, when they say, Winter is coming, there is an existential threat on the horizon, the end of life as they know it, the end, maybe, of life itself.

The Romans were that existential threat to Israel.  The doom foretold in today's Gospel lasted almost 2000 years.  The Nazis understood themselves to be heirs to the Romans, the third Roman empire, and brought the Jews to the brink of extinction.  Knowing that it was coming, that doom, staring it straight in the eye, the followers of Jesus, like the prophets, like Isaiah before them proclaimed, Look, God is in charge here.  God reigns.  Talk about a hard sell.

Back in Isaiah's day it was the Assyrians marching up to the gates of the city.  The Assyrians had already swept through the North.  And ten of the twelve tribes of Israel would never be heard from again.  Never.

This was no alarmist, overblown, hysterical forecast.  Okay, everybody settle down.  The Assyrians won.  Let's give them a chance.  No, ten of the twelve tribes of Israel were never heard from again.  And now the Assyrians were knocking at the gates of Jerusalem.

That is when Isaiah said,

The nations, the Gentiles shall say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, [meaning, to Jerusalem], to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.  For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem... O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Double down on this hard sell.  Winter is coming.  The darkness descends.  Christmas may distract us for a season.  But we have not come to be distracted.  We have come to suck it up and walk in the light of the Lord.

Ah, but those nice words...  You know, I read a lot of them.  I can't get out of bed these days until I say Morning Prayer.  I come to the Psalms, the promises of God, and the record of God's salvation -- hungry.  I hunger for God's word and the long history of God's people who have faced ordeals before me.

And then once in a while, middle of my prayers, the First Song of Isaiah, Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.  For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior, once in a while I wonder, am I deluding myself?  Is this a sham?  Outside of my prayer book and these four walls, does God reign?  Really?

You know, last week's Gospel reading, the person hanging next to Jesus said, Well, are you the Messiah or not?  You can't even save yourself!

And he couldn't.  He hung there, slowly suffocating to death.  And even he wondered, Where was his savior?  My God, why have you forsaken me?

Se, we don't talk about this, we haven't needed to talk about this.  But to be a Christian, to follow Jesus does not mean that we win.

To be a Christian, to follow Jesus does not mean that we win.

We don't have to win.

I don't know what your Thanksgiving was like, if your family and neighbors are as deeply divided as mine.  But some of you had to face your sister or uncle or whoever this week.  Maybe you avoided all the land mines, talked about football or the new Harry Potter movie.  Maybe you had the grace to listen in love to another from whom you are divided.  Maybe that somebody else had a different intention, and things were not so loving.

I expect, whatever your circumstance, you did your best.  And maybe you lost.  Lost your cool, lost the argument, lost your best intention.

You don't have to win.  Jesus didn't win.  He knew his platform would go down in flames, and he would with it.  He knew his followers were going to get creamed.

He sent them out anyway.  There is something so much deeper here than success.  There is faithfulness.

After he died, after he was humiliated and tortured and died -- what was that written over his head -- loser! -- after he was buried in haste, and women who feared that they would be attacked came back anyway to give him a proper burial -- after all that, even then, he did not rest in peace.  He got back up.  And he sent us out to keep trying.

Success is not necessary.  Success is not promised, and looks like a long shot, a long, long shot.  If God reigns, we have to have a horizon that extends beyond winter, whether winter lasts four months, four years, for decades, whether we ever see it end in our lifetimes.

It comes down to, what is the meaning of your life.  Do you have to win?  Or do you have to follow Jesus?

So this poem arrived in my alumni magazine last month, in anticipation.  It's by David Hernandez.

                              ANYONE WHO IS STILL TRYING

                    Any person, any human, any someone who breaks
                       up the fight, who spackles holes or FedExes
                    ice shelves to the Arctic to keep the polar bears
                       afloat, who talks the wind-rippled woman
                    down from the bridge.  Any citizen
                       who skims muck from the coughing ocean,
                    who pickets across the street from anti gay picketers
                       with a sign that reads, GOD HATES MAGGOTS,
                       LESS THAN 27.  Any citizen who kisses
                    a forehead heated by fever or despair, who reads
                       the X ray, pins the severed bone.  Any biped
                    who volunteers at soup kitchens, who chokes
                       a Washington lobbyist with his own silk necktie --
                    I take that back, who gives him mouth-to-mouth
                       until his startled heart resumes its kaboom.
                    Sorry, I get cynical sometimes, there is so much
                       broken in the system, the districts, the crooked
                    thinking, I'm working on whittling away at this
                       pessimism, harvesting light where I can find it.
                    Any countryman or countrywoman who is still
                       trying, who still pushes against entropy,
                    who staunches or donates blood, who douses fires
                       real or metaphorical, who rakes the earth
                    where tires once zeroed the ground, plants something
                       green, say spinach or kale, say a modest forest
                    for restless breezes to play with.  Any anyone
                       from anywhere who considers and repairs,
                    who builds a prosthetic beak for an eagle --
                      I saw the video, the majestic bird disfigured
                    by a bullet, the visionary with a 3-D printer,
                       with polymer and fidelity, with hours
                    and hours and hours, I keep thinking about it,
                       thinking we need more of that commitment,
                    those thoughtful gestures, the flight afterward.

Let every such act you do this winter lift up the light.
Let every such act you do this winter declare that you follow Jesus.
Let every such act you do this winter proclaim the reign of God.

photo of Iron Throne by Eva Rinaldi, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
photo of Roman Imperial eagle by Rombaldyszx, in the public domain
photo of candle used under the Creative Commons license
photo of light in distance used under the Creative Commons license

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