With Reference Isaiah 11:1-9 and Matthew 3: 1-12
Each Advent season we get to meet John the Baptist, again. We hear of a wild sort of man living in the desert, pacing up and down the banks of the Jordan River calling for repentance, calling for people to clean up their lives.
I have seen assorted portrayals of John the Baptist and the Jordan River over the years. (I particularly liked Michael York as John, in the epic movie Jesus of Nazareth). However, three years ago, I got to actually go to the Jordan River with a busload of people. We wound our way through the barren wilderness, then along a valley, lush with irrigation. Finally, we passed an empty stretch of land, marked only by a few warning signs: Danger – do not enter! Land mines. Wow. They didn’t show that in the movies!
Just past the mine-field, was a parking lot, a postcard kiosk, and finally – the Jordan River.
As I think of what John was challenging people to do, maybe the image of a mine-field isn’t that far off. He insists that people seeking God need to seek integrity between what they know of God’s vision of shalom and their daily lives. He is unimpressed by the photo-op of the Pharisees and Saducees, parading out to the desert as if their intention was repentance.
Even when we long to live sincere and integrated lives, we have to watch our step. We have to decide when to speak out, when to keep silent, when to act and when to refrain from action. When do we practice slacktivity – the act of signing petitions on line, or posting things you support – at least in theory, and when is that simply not enough. Where do you hold to your convictions? Where do you go along to get along? When is it just all too overwhelming?
I have read further along in the gospel and John unfortunately, ends up with his head on a platter. So… holding to those convictions can be costly.
And sometimes our convictions can cause more division in a situation where we are actually seeking community. I found this insightful article in the Seasons of the Spirit curriculum this week, and I’d like to share a bit of it with you. It wasn’t until after I read it, I realized it was by Keri Wehlander, a friend, author and presently the Youth Minister for KO Presbytery. She writes:
“Whenever I turn on the news or whenever we are having conflict in the different church and church-related organizations I am involved with, I wonder, “Why can’t we just get along?” It seems like we should be able to sit down together and work things out. Instead we find ourselves taking positions and then harbouring negative emotions toward the people on the other side of the divide. But maybe the problem isn’t so much that we can’t agree; maybe it’s that we don’t know how to disagree.
In 2012, the leaders of a variety of religious and spiritual communities in Wisconsin published an open letter titled, “Call for a Season of Civility in Wisconsin from our State’s Religious Leaders.” It addressed the fact that the extreme political polarization in Wisconsin had created an environment in which many people were afraid to speak out for fear of being demonized by their neighbours. It said that, “our ability to cooperate to solve common problems and achieve shared goals is now undermined by rampant disrespect, disinformation, distrust, and disregard for the interests and ideas of others.” These words certainly seem as true today as a few years ago, and we need to address them in more than just Wisconson!
They came up with five “habits of the heart” they found essential for healthy democratic dialogue, based on Parker Palmer’s book `Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.’
An understanding that we are all in this together;
An appreciation of the value of otherness;
An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways;
A sense of personal voice and agency; and
A capacity to create community.
…In their “Call for a Season of Civility,” the religious leaders of Wisconsin made three commitments that were meant to create a personal foundation for open dialogue. With just a little tweaking, they could be adapted for a congregational setting, a family setting, workplace etc.
We commit ourselves…
To model and support respectful and honest conversations on the issues we face in our congregation. (family, organization, nation etc.)
To make a genuine effort to understand the reasons for the views of those with whom we disagree and try to explain the grounds for our own positions clearly and without arrogance, with the goal of identifying shared values and concerns rather than “winning” arguments.
To be mindful of our own fallibility and to keep our views open to correction and reconsideration without betraying our deepest convictions.
During the word for all ages, we shared this beautiful book of unlikely friendships, but what does it say about the humanity when animals are better at this than we are?
On Friday, I met with some colleagues in Revelstoke and that was good and mutually encouraging. On the drive home, a colleague and I talked of some shared history, where I had felt betrayed and maligned. This person agreed with me and I really appreciated this, but I also found that as I talked about the situation again, I got worked up about it, I felt angry again and rather self-righteous and victimized… It was not a good feeling. I wanted to be able to let go, and move on. It’s very annoying when I have to face the scripture in my own life!
In Isaiah’s image of the peaceable kingdom, we are both lamb and leopard (rather than lamb and shepherd) we are both predator and prey. We make choices in our thoughts and actions. I am reminded that Nelson Mandela said that if he chose to hate those who imprisoned him, even though set free, he would still be imprisoned.
How can we set ourselves free? I invite you to think of someone you may be in conflict with, or with whom you have a strong opposing opinion… Hear again the three commitments in relation to this person, situation…
Mandela made a choice to let his goodness shine through all the mess and pain of his life. John the Baptist calls us to do the same. May we hold to convictions in line with the healing love of God, and build community through respect, shared values, and a touch of humility. Amen.