A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
December 9 2018
The Church has made a valiant effort to separate Advent from Christmas, but culturally, I think, that ship has sailed. Today “Christmas” begins after Thanksgiving and ends December 26 – or certainly after New Year’s Day when some of us pull down the tree, box up the decorations and begin complaining about the long winter.
One reason why the season of Advent overwhelms the season after it (and sometimes Christmas itself) is that anticipation can be preferable to memory, the fresh and the new preferable to what we’ve gotten used to, the reliable LED twinkle lights preferable to the elusive Star. Granted the season of Epiphany arrives shortly after Christmas, centering on the visit of the Wise Men, but by this time a lot of the crèche scenes have been packed away, the Christmas angels returned to heaven, and maybe we’re kind of tired of it?
Of course, there are vast differences in how each of us handle these things, just as there are vast differences in how the historical Church has handled them. But it’s hard to pull the Church out of the culture.
Some of my friends explain, “I’m a cultural Jew not a religious Jew.” Well, there are also cultural Christians, although this group is shrinking, giving way to the “none’s” – those who identify with no formal religion. One person notes, “For most of US history, to be American was to be ‘Christian.’ National identity was conflated with religious identity that produced a distorted form of Christianity mostly about family values, Golden Rule moralism, and good citizenship. The God of this Christianity was first and foremost a nice guy who rewarded moral living by sanctifying the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” i.e. a good salary, a nice home, and 2.3 children. Of course, there were rules to be observed: being white, being straight, being male, being middle class or above.
The Pew Research Center says that while 96% of Americans say they celebrate Christmas, only 46% of Americans say they celebrate it as primarily a religious rather than a cultural holiday.
So what about you? Do you observe Advent as a time of spiritual preparation — in addition to the commercial and cultural and family preparation? Other than the hour we spend here on Sundays?
Into this conflicted landscape strides the Prophet of Preparation, the most charismatic character of the Christian Scriptures, John, called the Baptist. It is no accident that the Advent word of the day is: Wild.
Known as one who loves historical details, Luke is certainly specific setting the scene. You just heard it read so I’ll translate for you: “In the eighteenth year of the twenty-first century, when Donald Trump was president of the United States and Mark Dayton was governor of Minnesota and Melvin Carter was mayor of Saint Paul and Michael Curry was presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the word of the Lord came to Saint John’s church in Saint Paul….”
The political aspects of the setting are undeniable. But note that by the time Luke wrote this, some sixty years after the death of Jesus, all of the people he names are dead and the people to whom he was writing knew this. Things do not go on forever. The Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sachs, reminds us: “There have been many superpowers: Spain in the 15th century, Venice in the 16th, Holland in the17th, France in the 18th, Britain in the 19th, the United States in the 20th. Religions survive; superpowers do not. Awareness of the fragility of our world should penetrate the cocoon of denial we have woven so carefully.”
Into the first century landscape – as well as our own – strides the prophet John, known as the Baptist.
The longed-for son of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and the small-town priest Zechariah (whose “Song” we just heard today), John was marked by his father from birth as “The prophet of the Most High who will prepare the way for Jesus.”
John was larger than life; his favorite way of addressing the crowd was “you brood of vipers.” He was probably a disappointment to the family, whose family must have hoped he would be more “traditional,’ but Elizabeth and Zechariah had educated him well on the Hebrew Scriptures, and about Jesus. This is why John was able to recognize him when he saw him and label him the Messiah.
John seemed a mess of a man: adorned in a craggy camel skin with a piece of leather holding it together; he chomped on bugs and slurped honey; but he had a poetic side: “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals” he said about Jesus. He was passionate and incredibly charismatic, attracting huge crowds. Today his Facebook friends would be in the millions.
But John had second thoughts about Jesus later when his mild and loving message didn’t align with the fire and brimstone version of God preached by John. In prison, for angering the wrong people and soon to be murdered in a memorable way having to do with his head and a piece of pottery, John sends this message to Jesus, “Are you the One? Or Not?” Do we wait for somebody else or not? Which is it?
The answer Jesus sends is full of evidence that must have even convinced John – but we don’t know that. About John, Jesus said, “I tell you this, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist.”
John’s message is not about belief in God or faith, it is about repentance, a word that now seems antique and churchy but actually means to mend your life, to change your ways, to stop with the self-destructive and other-destructive behavior. Repentance is seldom modeled in public life now and if it is, well think Al Franken. It can be seen as weakness, as insincere, as calculating. Yet in our own hearts, we know that in some form or other, we need to offer repentance to God and we need to hear it from others.
We all have our own list of what we need to confess but I only want to talk about one thing today: the cultural sin of distraction and its spiritual cost. What is the constant interruption of our attention costing us? Well, we know that distracted driving is now the number one cause of traffic accidents. What about distracted living?
I am certainly not going to rant about the evils of technology; it’s here; it’s wonderful and I can’t imagine life without Google, G.P.S. or the medical miracles it brings us, and a lot of the research about technology is conflicting.
However, some related facts are inescapable: Life expectancy in the US is declining, largely driven by increases in drug-overdose deaths related to the nation’s ongoing opioid epidemic, and deaths from alcoholism and suicide, collectively what some call “deaths of despair.”
Another fact is that we are spending far less time with each other face –to-face:
In 1974, a third of Americans socialized with their neighbors several times a week. Now, only 19% do.
We spent 2.5 hours a week in the mid 1970s schmoozing with our coworkers; today barely an hour a week
We have a G.P.S. so we no longer have to stop and ask another human for directions.
An Atlantic article last year highlighted how teens were less interested in driving and getting out of the house than past generations.
The “family dinner” is not a regular occurrence– my daughter informed me of this recently and that I should stop taking it personally.
And we all know church attendance is down.
We are also overloaded with information. Less of it has to do with real people in real time. Could the “deaths of despair” and the increasing isolation from other people be related?
The journalist Andrew Sullivan writes about this:
“Think of how rarely you now use the phone to speak to someone. A text is far easier, quicker, less burdensome. A phone call could take longer; it could force you to encounter that person’s idiosyncrasies or digressions or unexpected emotional needs. Remember when you left voice-mail messages — or actually listened to one? An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts.“
No matter how many “spirituality” apps you have on your phone, no matter if “internet addiction” is a reality or not, there are spiritual costs of distraction and technologically-mediated contact. One of them is that it is through other people that we know God and we know love.
We hear a lot in church and other places about loving the other. I have often wondered “Can you will yourself to love someone?” Not only romantic love but the love Jesus calls us to?
I don’t think it’s that easy. I can’t jut look at someone on the street and fool myself into thinking I love them. I have to find some point of empathy with the person—somehow step into shared humanity. David Whyte says that “Friendship begins with recognition.” So does love.
Jesus wasn’t good at time-management. It would have been more efficient to say to the crowd on the hillside: “You are all healed. Good-by.” Except for the ten lepers, it was one person at a time, in person, with great care and divine touch. Looking at the rich young ruler, Matthew says this: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Jesus could do that. I hope he does it looking at each of us.
This is from a review of the book “Bowling Alone:” Before October 29, 1997, John Lambert and Andy Boschma knew each other only through their local bowling league at the Ypsi-Arbor Lanes in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Lambert, a sixty-four-year-old retired employee of the University of Michigan hospital, had been on a kidney transplant waiting list for three years when Boschma, a thirty-three-year-old accountant, learned casually of Lambert’s need and unexpectedly approached him to offer to donate one of his own kidneys.
“Andy saw something in me that others didn’t,” said Lambert. “… This story speaks for itself, but the photograph that accompanied this report in the Ann Arbor News reveals that in addition to their differences in profession and generation, Boschma (the young donor) is white and Lambert is African American. That they bowled together made all the difference. In small ways like this — and in larger ways, too — we Americans need to reconnect with one another.”
On Friday I wrote on the blog that in some ways, Christmas seems more restrained this year. Is it online shopping that makes it different? Washington politics that saps hope? The threatened climate that sobers us up? Is it just me?
Since the new High Bridge opened, it is easier to get to West St Paul. When I have to go to the Robert Street Big Box Stores or to a restaurant there, I often drive by the house on Curtice Street where I grew up and where my parents lived for fifty plus years. Then I drive three blocks further to Manomin Street and go by my grandparents’ old house with its front porch, and look across the street at what was the house of my aunt and uncle.
Sometimes I just sit there and look at these places, remembering the good times there before things got weird. In some ways I was never really “at home” in any of these places after age twelve or so and after my grandmother died.
As I looked at these houses, sitting in my car last week, I remembered a statement from our speaker at last week’s Forum, Dr. Jermaine Singleton. He said that “Melancholy is ungrieved loss.”
The loss I felt sitting there was not just of good times and wishing I could see these people again and tell them how much I loved them — we would never in a million years speak like that anyway! It was that in those houses, however indirectly, I had received love.
The admonition to love made by Jesus is not only about loving other people, but is also made on our behalf, so that we, too, may feel the love of God. And sometimes even when we’re sitting there unrepentant, distracted, filled with grief and doubt (and almost pretending we’re in a movie), love still comes to us as lightly as the falling snow, as did to me as I sat in my car on West Curtice Street in the early evening December darkness.
So I leave you with these words for the season, from television’s Call the Midwife. They are what the Reverend Mother say to the midwives as they set out on their bicycles on their rounds to serve the poor in the slums of London’s East End: “Let’s go and see what love can do.”
Let’s go and see what love can do.