The. Rev. Elaine Breckenridge
December 7, 2014
Advent 2B 2014
Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. Thinking about the word path brought an experience to mind this past week. Right before I moved to Lodi, I went to a doctor’s office for a routine checkup, only to find out that the doctor had re-located the office. Of course I was running on time, which meant I was going to be late trying to get to the new location. But I was only across the street from the new location. Walking would be faster than driving. All I had to do was to descend a little hill to get to the sidewalk and then cross the street. So I set off but soon realized that there was no path on this little hill. Instead I found myself trying to walk through a thick ground cover of juniper bushes. It was not the best plan. But I carried on, slipping, getting filthy and praying that I was not damaging the plants too much. A week later, I again returned to the first clinic for a different appointment. After I parked the car, I noticed a new sign on top of the very hill that I had traversed the week before which read “This is not a path.”
This is not a path. Hmn. I thought to myself, I wish that sign had been there the previous week. I would have repented. That is, I would have turned around and found another way to get to the doctor’s new office.
This is not a path. What a useful sign that is. If only we could get such direct messages about our own faith journeys. Often we seek God’s guidance, looking for direction for our own spiritual paths. As we stand at a fork in the road, it would be helpful to get more direction from on high that at least said, “Hello, there, that is not the path for you.” But often times, we only discover the wrong path because we have actually taken it. At other times, life forces us to take path we would have never chosen for ourselves. And it’s usually not been the easy road, the smooth and straight path. Taking the wrong path either by choice or not can lead one into exile.
And by exile, I mean the place where we live spiritually outside the Garden of Eden, a place that feels like life away from God’s presence. It is a place where we are not at home. The experience of exile is succinctly portrayed in Porter’s poem, printed on page eight of your bulletin this morning. “Advent again, and the very stones are silent. In the east, no star/only shadows/ and the threat of darkness. We have run out of light and we wait in fear.”
We have run out of light and we wait in fear. I think now of those who live in exile, daily, in places like Ferguson and New York City. I think of the killings, the grand jury decisions, the riots and fires. Those of us, who are paying attention, look at these events with sadness, fear or anger. Some of us continue to live in denial, imagining that these are other people’s problems and we distance ourselves. Others of us look deeper and see the system of racism and oppression that is pervasive in our country regardless of the facts of those particular cases. We recall the words of Martin Luther King who in the 60’s said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” He also said, “America has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
People of color in this country often live in exile. Marcus Borg has written that exile “usually involves powerlessness and marginality, often oppression and victimization. It has psychological as well as cultural-political dimensions. The experience of exile as estrangement or alienation can be felt as a loss of connection with a center of vitality and meaning, when one day becomes very much like another and nothing has much zest.” (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time)
Today, many Americans than ever before know the experience of exile. Our cities are seeing more homeless. Even in Lodi, I am told that one in five families don’t have enough to eat. Over fifty percent of our senior citizens live near or below the poverty line. And for those of us who may not be living in poverty or in fear of poverty, many of us still experience exile as a psycho/spiritual state as we fear an unknown future for this country and indeed worry about the survival of our planet.
That means, this year more than ever before, the words of Isaiah have direct application for our lives. “Comfort, comfort ye my people.” The writer of Isaiah wrote for a people who lived in exile. Parts of the book of Isaiah are referred to as the Book of Consolation, because as we heard in our first reading, Isaiah longed to speak a message of hope. No matter what may happen to us in exile, the prophet says, remember that God is coming. And so he shouts “Make straight in the desert a highway for God, because the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” There is a voice of hope crying in the wilderness. There IS the hope of the journey of return. God is coming, bringing a path for the journey home. That IS the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God is coming and the herald of this good news is John the Baptist.
John the Baptist, we are told in the Gospel of Mark, appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Now I have always thought of the wilderness as a lonely place, but look at what Mark’s Gospel says this morning, “All the people of the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the wilderness to be with John the Baptist.” This was not just a handful of people going to John for baptism. It was more like hundreds, maybe even thousands, some scholars say.
These would have been faithful seekers, faithful religious people who for whatever reasons were living in some kind of religious or spiritual exile. But they also realized that the spiritual life could never be static. It is a journey. They left off looking for God in the place where the tradition told them they would find God, rejecting the religion of the temple in Jerusalem and instead going to John in the River Jordan. That was a radical move for them– to look outside the acceptable structures of their religion, following this prophet who preached forgiveness and repentance and with it new birth.
With John, they discovered new life in the wilderness. They learned that the wilderness is not the place of God’s absence; rather it is the place of God’s presence, the place of salvation. “Still from the cosmic distance/ tentacles of brilliance, probe, seek us out, looking for a dwelling place/ among us.”
If exile is any experience that takes us away from God, it is in the wilderness that life in God begins again. The wilderness is the place of prophets and mystics. The wilderness is the place of intense spiritual opportunity, where hope is re-discovered. It is the place where God rolls back the boundaries to give us plenty of space to roam, to seek, to listen to voices that speak of hope and consolation. And they might be voices who like John the Baptist in his time, speak to us from outside our own tradition and culture. Hear then, such a voice crying in the wilderness. I turned to him once again this week, looking for a word of hope. This is from a message written to the world by the Dali Lama on September 11, 2001.
“We look earnestly for ways in which we might recreate ourselves anew as a human species, so that we will never treat each other this way again…
The message we hear from all sources of truth is clear: We are all one. That is a message the human race has largely ignored. Forgetting this truth is the only cause of hatred and war, and the way to remember is simple: Love, this and every moment. If we want the beauty of the world that we have co-created to be experienced by our children and our children’s children, we will have to become spiritual activists right here, right now, and cause that to happen.
A central teaching in most spiritual traditions is: what you wish to experience, provide for another. Look to see, now, what it is you wish to experience in your own life, and in the world, and then see if there is another for whom you may be the source of that. If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another. If you wish to know that you are safe, cause another to know that they are safe. If you wish to better understand seemingly incomprehensible things, help another to better understand. If you wish to heal your own sadness or anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of another. Those others are waiting for you now. They are looking to you for guidance, for help, for courage, for strength, for understanding, and for assurance at this hour. Most of all, they are looking to you for love.”
Advent’s hope and promise is that God provides a new path out of exile through the wilderness for the journey home. Maybe instead of looking for that path, we are called to be that path. And so let us pray. Holy One, give us not only hope and consolation. Make our hearts ready to hear and follow the prophets. May we find you a dwelling place among us now? Amen.