Reality Check

Preached on December 4th 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Snohomish, Washington
The Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

It’s the second Sunday of Advent so we hear from John the Baptist

Now one thing to keep in mind about prophets.  They aren’t soothsayers who foretell the future using some kind of crystal ball.  No, they are truth-tellers to the present.  A prophet sees and calls attention to the truth of the situation at hand.  They speak to a particular people in a particular context.

Another thing to keep in mind about prophets is that while their message is for a specific context, if we listen carefully, and pay attention, we can usually find a word of truth relevant to our own context.  So, let’s take look at John.

Where is he and who is his audience?  He doesn’t preach at the Temple where you might expect a prophet to go; or in the town square where the people congregate.  Or in the court of the king or ruler, where we often find prophets speaking Truth to Power.

No, John goes out to the Wilderness – away from the city, away from the centers of power.  The people have to go to him to hear his words.

And his audience appears to be the outcasts and sinners.  People who have no power or influence.  People who may even be blamed for the Roman occupation.
His message?  God has not forgotten you.  You can change your life and be forgiven.

And the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the righteous ones?  He calls them snakes and accuses them of being insincere in their repentance.  Bear fruit worthy of repentance he tells them.

How is John’s message relevant to our context?  How can we connect to this story?  Can you place yourself in the scene?  The outcasts and sinners?  The pharisees?  Maybe you identify with John.  What words of truth does he have for us?

Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.

Repent.  It means more than saying I’m sorry.  Or even I’m sorry and I won’t do it again.
It’s not about regretting making a bad choice.  It’s more than turning around or taking a different path.

Repentance is metanoia, it’s a transformation of your mind and your way of thinking.  John is calling us to wake up, look around, and see what we’ve been missing!

See the world with new eyes, hear our neighbor with new ears.  Who is hurting?  Listen to their voices; voices that may have been silenced.  We may find that how we understand the world and how we relate to the world is transformed.

You see, the first step in repentance is self-examination; to take stock of the reality of our world.  To see the reality of our own participation and complicity in the suffering of other people and the degradation of nature.

Our weekly confession of sin helps us with that exercise.  After a while, though, the words of our liturgy can become so familiar that we don’t really pay attention to them.  So, for the next several weeks, we’ll be using a confession of sin from one of the liturgical supplements to the Book of Common Prayer.

The first thing I want you to notice about our Sunday morning confession is that it is in the plural.  We confess.  It is not about our individual sins but about corporate sin.

The second thing I’ll draw your attention to is that the way this confession describes our sin is different.
We oppose God’s will.  We deny God’s goodness in ourselves, in each other, and in the world.
We repent of evil that enslaves us (that’s a rather strong word, isn’t it?), recognizing that we are also accountable for evil done on our behalf; evil from which we benefit.  That can be anything from police brutality or the killing of civilians by our soldiers or drones; to polluting the air and water; to people working in deplorable conditions so that we have inexpensive products to buy.  Often, we have no way of not participating; it enslaves us.

And finally, notice that we don’t confess just to say we’re sorry and to receive pardon.  We ask God to restore us and strengthen us.  We seek to be restored to a right relationship with God and with the world; to receive God’s grace to live transformed lives.

Right now, there are a lot of people experiencing pain and fear.  We haven’t been listening to each other.  As we begin to listen now, we can ask, “Are there unjust systems within our society that have played a part in their suffering?  Have we been complicit?  Have we been blind to them or deliberately ignorant?

I remember when I learned that most chocolate is made from cacao harvested by child slaves.  I cannot unknow that.  (And now neither can you.)  So, whenever I looked at chocolate after that, I had to confront that reality.  And I really love chocolate.  Would I buy it anyway?  Or would I look for fair trade chocolate?  Just an FYI, Seattle Chocolates are fair trade and it’s a local business owned by women.

Waking up and seeing the reality of the world around us (and of ourselves) is not just about looking for evil.  It’s also waking up and seeing the good in the world, the beauty, the love, the progress we have made in addressing suffering.

For example, yesterday, I watched a fascinating Ted Talk about maps; all kinds of different ways of mapping the world.  Many of them stretch or compress the “land” areas to reflect the population so that each person is represented by the same amount of space.  One that I found particularly interesting is the one that shows the light we emit at night.

At first glance you see clusters of bright light and you think, oh, those are the cities.  Except, no, the people are evenly distributed and the land without people is compressed out.  So, those bright areas represent people who have the resources and inclination to turn on a lot of light at night.  And there are other areas that are dark, where people either don’t have the resources or choose not to light the night sky.  Looking at how these maps change over time, he demonstrates that Tokyo, for example, has reduced its light emission.

He shows how the rate of population growth has drastically slowed.  Maps of the distribution of water and food show that we truly do have enough food and water for everyone.  Infant mortality rates are plummeting while the number of people having access to education are rising.  More and more people, especially women, are getting college degrees.

As we do our reality check, it’s important that we embrace and celebrate the good as well as repent of the evil.

The Good News is that God doesn’t leave us to repent on our own.  We don’t have to figure it out and do it all by ourselves.  Through the prophets – and our own imagination – God gives us a vision, like in our reading from Isaiah of the peaceable kingdom; not a goal to be achieved; we can’t make that happen – we’re not going to get lions to eat straw.  So not a goal to achieve,  but a dream by which to set a course.
God is here transforming our lives.
The kingdom of God is near, it is among us and in us.

Thanks be to God.