December 4, 2016
Advent 2

Wild Geese Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Matthew 3:1-12
It was the time when John the Dipper started speaking in the desert. “Change your ways”, John shouted. “God’s New World will be here any day now!” Isaiah, one of God’s speakers, talked about John the Dipper. He said,
“Listen for the ‘Voice’ in the desert, shouting, “Repair the road for God; straighten out the bends!”
John had a simple lifestyle, wearing only a camel skin with a leather belt and eating carob nuts and tree sap. People from the south of the country and the city of Jerusalem were attracted by the message and responded by admitting their faults and being dipped by John in the river Jordan.
But when John saw many from the strict set and their rivals from the wealthy free and easy set coming to be dipped, he said,
“You poisonous snakes! I see you’re wriggling out of the cornfield now harvesting is about to start!” Let’s see some change in your behaviour! Don’t rely on the fact that Abraham is your ancestor to save you from trouble. God can make new children for Abraham out of people you’ve no more regard for than these stones! The chopper is ready; it will strike at the very roots of your religion and society. Every institution which has outlived its usefulness will be pulled down and disposed of, like rotten wood on a bonfire. I’m dipping you in the water, inviting you to change. But someone is coming more able than me. I’m not fit to carry his sandals. He will drench you with God’s Spirit and that will be like fire. When corn has been harvested the grain has to be separated from the useless husks. That’s going to happen to you. The one who is coming will do the job thoroughly. He’ll store the grain in his barn and the rubbish left over he’ll put on the fire until it’s burnt to nothing.

 

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John The Baptist or John the Dipper as the translation from Good As New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures, calls him, reminds me of an angry blogger or a loud-mouthed radio talk show host. John the Baptist would give Lars Larson a run for his money.

But then again, he might have been funny. Film maker, Michael Moore, would make a good John the Baptist. To look at Michael Moore, with his baseball cap and shaggy hair, unkempt, not so healthy looking, you wouldn’t think he would be so smart.

But there he is annoying the one-percenters and the bailed-out bankers, calling them poisonous snakes, shoving an unexpected camera and microphone in their faces and asking them to spare a few billion to pay back the taxpayers.

In some respects the term “one-percenters” is relative. Compared to all seven billion inhabitants of Earth, anyone whose income is over $32,000 per year is in the one percent world-wide.

“Change your ways,” John shouted. “God’s new world will be here any day now!”

I wonder what this “new world” will be like? Is it good news or bad news? I suppose I reveal my privilege when I wonder if I really want a “whole new world.” Maybe we can just tweak the present world a bit?

I really don’t know what to make of John the Baptist. I cheer him on when I see him taking on the others, not so much cheering when I feel myself indicted.

But I have had enough of loud-mouthed preachers yelling at me to repent. We all got a taste of those folks when they screamed at us from the sidewalks a while back. Haven’t seen them in a while. I suspect that means that in their minds they either succeeded with us or determined we were a lost cause. Or perhaps there are just so many sinners in the world, and putting them all on the straight path requires too many megaphone hours. The harvest is plenty but the laborers are few.

Everyone has a plan and a passion to make the world a better place. Make it good. Make it great. When I was growing up we needed to end the communist threat. Now the terrorist threat. Or capitalism. I get it. I blather on through my own megaphone about the wrongs of the world. I activate and I pontificate with the best of them.

But there are those times when I realize I don’t really know what I am talking about and I am not sure I really know what I want. Or if this new world, this kingdom of God were to come, would I really want it? Would I want my apple cart upset that much? Is my desire to make the world a better place a helpful distraction from doing my own inner work? Maybe Wendell Berry is John the Baptist. Here is his poem, The Future:

For God’s sake, be done
with this jabber of “a better world.”
What blasphemy! No “futuristic”
twit or child thereof ever
in embodied light will see
a better world than this.
Do something! Go cut the weeds
beside the oblivious road. Pick up
the cans and bottles, old tires,
and dead predictions. No future
can be stuffed into this presence
except by being dead. The day is
clear and bright, and overhead
the sun not yet half finished
with his daily praise.

Wendell Berry.

The text for the second Sunday of Advent with John the Baptist at the river turns our attention to a couple of churchy words:

Repentance and forgiveness.

During worship we are making our way through Marcus Borg’s book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and How They Can Be Restored.

One thing I have embraced over the years is that repentance isn’t about feeling bad about ourselves, or beating up on ourselves, or confessing to whatever some moralist calls our sins. As Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Wild Geese”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…

She knows how repent has been commonly understood. But she writes what repentance can be:

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

To repent is to be honest. In the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, to repent is to bring out what is within you. Doing so will save you. Not doing so will kill you, he warns.

To repent is inner work that aligns itself with what is real. What is real? Mary Oliver points us to the “soft animal of your body.” What does it love? That is what is real. She concludes her poem, by reminding us that the wild geese are our guides. They are the incarnation, the avatar of the world, reminding us who we are. They, like John the Baptist, announce our

…place in the family of things.

To repent is to find our place. Mary Oliver is John the Baptist, too.

That is what it means to repent, to come back to ourselves. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the story of a young man who demanded his share of his father’s estate and spent it in “dissolute living.” Sitting in the hog pen, the text says that “he came to himself” and then decided to change direction. That, too, is to repent. To come to ourselves and to act on it.

To bring out whatever is within us, accept it for what it is, embrace it, face it, and let it go. Then start again. To repent is to align ourselves with what is as real as the soft of our bodies and as wild as geese.

A harder churchy word, I think, is forgiveness. If repentance is coming to ourselves, then forgiveness is coming to others.

Forgiveness has been a problem for the church because the church has tried to use forgiveness to respond to two conditions, guilt and shame. One is about what we do and the other is about what we are. Forgiveness is also tied to power dynamics as in who has the power to grant forgiveness? What then becomes of justice and restoration? Forgiveness also can tend to provide a ritual absolution in place of doing the real work of reconciling with the one we have hurt.

Forgiveness is a complex tangle and I won’t be able to unravel it all here.

I appreciate John Patton’s approach in his book, Is Human Forgiveness Possible? He writes:

“Human forgiveness is not doing something but discovering something—that I am more like those who have hurt me than different from them. I am able to forgive when I discover that I am in no position to forgive.”

With Patton we realize that forgiveness really is inner work. It isn’t about the other except to the degree that our inner work brings us to awareness that we and the other more similar than different.

Forgiveness is an experience not an action.

A monk was walking with his disciple. These male monks were to be celibate and even to touch a woman was a sin. It is pouring rain. The roads are filled with mud. They come across a woman who is struggling to get through this mud. The older monk picks her up and carries her to the other side of the huge bog of mud. He puts her down and the two monks walk on. The younger monk is disturbed. Finally, after some considerable time has past, he blurts out, “Why did you carry her? We are not supposed to touch women!” The older monk looked at him and smiled. “I set her down a long time ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

The path to forgiveness is a hard one. It is not so much about the other, but about the extent that the other still haunts us. When we are finally exhausted from carrying the sins the other has visited upon us, we are then ready to engage in the impossible path of forgiveness that eventually leads to a discovery: we are more alike than different.

You can’t will forgiveness. You cannot dictate it. There are no “shoulds” or commands. This forgiveness is discovery. This forgiveness is grace.

There is work involved to be sure. That work, is like the work of repentance, to listen, to be open, to be guided by the soft of our bodies and the wild geese. To again in the words of Mary Oliver:

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

John Patton is John the Baptist, too.

It is a hard message. I definitely do not want to like some people. I do not want to forgive some people. They don’t deserve it and they aren’t really sorry anyway. When I think in those terms, forgiveness is elusive. It is not something that can be grasped. It is not something I control, even if I want to do so.

Even though forgiveness is about the other, that itself is an illusion. The work is within and how we will continue to let go or carry the other. No “shoulds” no commands; when we are ready to bring out what is within us, then repentance and forgiveness will dance.

I do need to say something about the world, about the fear, about the grief, about the anxiety, about anger, about blame, about torn relationships, about it all. I need to say something, but what can I say?

I will let the season speak for itself. Advent. The season of acknowledging a small flicker of light that is cradled by the night.

I will let Wendell “John the Baptist” Berry say something about it all. I will pass the buck to him. What mercy is for us, Wendell?

This is his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things:”

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Amen.