Sunday, December 7, 2014

Advent 2 B - Dec 7, 2014

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Advent 2 B, Sunday, December 7, 2014

Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

John the Baptist preaching
The Gospel last Sunday was focused on the future return of Christ. Things could not get any more cosmic; everyone “from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” will see the coming and be shaken. Advent starts off with a big, collective, cosmic bang about what awaits the world.

Today as we continue the Advent journey we shift from future hope backwards in time to promise fulfilled. John the Baptist, the bridge figure between the prophets of the Old Testament and the preparation for Messiah breaks the 400 years of prophetic silence that preceded him with a different kind of bang, crying "prepare" "repent" "accept God’s forgiveness". The essential message and call in both Gospels is the same; Jesus is coming, so wake up and be about conversion, reconciliation, and peace – get ready. But the means John uses to receive and express this preparation is, especially in this time and culture, surprising and unsettling.

John's invitation is not merely for a change of mind. He knows we are not disembodied intellects, but flesh and blood people. A physical sign, baptism in the Jordan, is the public witness of the inner change of heart. John is calling the people to faith expressed in action and action that nurtures faith. For the writer of the Gospel and for John, the spiritual meaning and the physical act must go together -
sins are forgiven because of baptism in water and baptism in water is a sign that sins are forgiven. I remember attending confirmation classes at St. James’ Episcopal Church in 1993 and learning about emergency baptism. Any baptized Christian can baptize anyone if there is a danger that the unbaptized is near death. Two things must be present: the name of the Trinity and water. The priest said, "If there is no water around, use your spit, but there has to be some matter."

A harmonious relationship between the physical and the spiritual is the basis for spiritual maturity. As I work with retreat groups and directees, I am more and more aware of the danger in our culture of a dis-embodied, individualistic spirituality. It shows up in the belief that “spiritual” is contained within the safe external confines of doctrine, information, church, and within me only as it reinforces my personal positions. This and this alone is what God cares about. The rest is left up to me and me alone to figure out, possess, and manage. Whatever that theology is, it is not the good news. Individualistic relativism splits me from you and splits my beliefs from objective reality. The power of John the Baptist calling Israel into repentance and into the water is to show us that the coming of the Gospel is not to our individual heads - the Gospel brings harmony between the spiritual and the physical, between the individual and the community.

Because we are so information and analysis-driven, this is very weird to us.
If we lived in John's time and heard him, we might be tempted to analyze and question: What does repentance mean? What are the costs and benefits of a new way of life? Can I have some kind of assurance that I won't suffer or be mistreated? Will I be safe and secure? Do you have a website? We stand forever at the shore, thinking about the how’s and what ifs rather than getting in the water. What story after story in the gospel declares is that faith exists in those who act without ever knowing the outcome of their faith other than God is and will be with them. And that is why the gospel springs from the muddy water of the Jordan and not the Temple or the religious elite – as an indictment on those with the so-called answers and power and control. The Gospel begins with a different way to see the world, one that smashes false categories like “spiritual” and “ordinary”, “God’s” and “mine”. John is the image of the harmonized man – the only category is the divine.

Our temptation to rarely to cruelty or crime, it is more often the allure to be selectively virtuous, cautious; moving in and out of awareness, proclaiming ourselves good enough, and content to stand safely on the riverbank of spiritual growth. I’ll be spiritual on my own terms, thank you very much. Repentance, then, is the restructuring of my perception so that I may act in the reality of the sacredness of the whole world, not what I decide is sacred. It is the willingness to see in the waters of the Jordan River or the crowded aisle of the grocery store or in the desperate stare of a friend a sign; an invitation to depend on God's help, receive it, and share it.

St. Benedict picks up this theme in the Rule. All of the monk's life is oriented around being present to God's presence; therefore all of life is ritual sign, the harmony of physical and spiritual. In the chapter on the cellarer, the brother in charge of the tools and supplies, he writes, "he will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected." Benedict is the image of the harmonized man – nothing is ordinary, everything is pulsating with the divine. Benedict has been liberated from the illusion that there is such a thing as ordinary, such a thing as “my terms”. His heart was awakened and he saw truly.

As is true in any healthy monastic community, as you have seen this weekend, our life here is infused with all kinds of ritual signs, but it is in our liturgy that the physical and spiritual most dramatically come together. Liturgy is about the celebration of the God-designed harmony between matter and spirit. Liturgy brings our divided perception back into reality after we have drifted off into selfish individualism. We enter the church past bowls of holy water, we see icons, candles, smell incense, we bow, we sit silently, stand, sing or recite psalms, listen - all with the intention of being prayerfully aware of God's presence, listening for God's voice. We don't absolutely need the symbols in this church or the gymnastics of our particular form of prayer in order to connect to God. But we do all of this for a reason. We are not just thinking about or interiorly processing the liturgy, we are acting it out as well. We practice regarding ourselves, our brothers and guests, and God’s creation as sacred. We use body, mind, and spirit in worship because they are meant for worship. We are recognizing the connection between the spiritual and the physical. We are acting ourselves into a new way of being, getting down into the Jordan River of commitment and community and manifesting through the material what is happening inside.

These various ritual signs and acts carry us along, especially when we stand thinking at the shore, as I often find myself. On those days when my faith is not very strong, when I don't feel like it, or am wondering through my own personal desert - I show up anyway. Even before I enter this church I dip my finger in the holy water and make the sign of the cross and say to myself "I am a baptized member of the Body of Christ, I am a new creation, I am loved and accepted by God, I resolve, with God's help, to live out my place in the Body and in this community with humility, obedience, love, and joy..." With God’s help I don't wait until I understand what it means, until I know what will happen, until I feel like it. I don't say "this is not working for me". I don’t demand God on my terms. I ask God to take me once again to the river, to the place of repentance, forgiveness, and community - of getting wet with the Gospel. I trust the water to do its work. I act in the faith that beyond my struggles, my feelings, my desire to just fall asleep, is love offering his hand, welcoming me, always welcoming - all of me, and eventually I am awakened and brought to myself and reminded that I am forgiven and accepted and that all will be well even if I don't know how or when.

The water, the sacredness that dwells within it and that works on you and me, has done what I could not do for myself. The promise of Baptism past is in that moment made present and its future fulfillment, its hope becomes my hope. Heaven and earth, flesh and spirit touch each other. There is no more ordinary. The world is full of the sacred vessels of the altar. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

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