The Peaceful Heart

(sermon 12/10/17 – Advent 2B)

Fallingwater-resized

Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA, 1935 – Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

=====

One of the true masterpieces of modern architecture, not just in this country but in the world – and arguably the most recognized house in the history of modern architecture – is Fallingwater, the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s for the Kaufman family, built over a waterfall in a beautiful wooded area in southwestern Pennsylvania. This house is the definitive illustration of what Wright called Organic Architecture – the idea that a building design should respect and spring from, and be uniquely tied to, its site. At Fallingwater, you can see this in a number of ways – as just a few examples, a large boulder on the site stayed in place and became an integral part of the main floor. Terraces cantilever out over much of the site, making its actual footprint on the land less imposing. Windows are set at a level that makes you feel as if you’re living in a tree house. Stone walls are laid up using native stone quarried onsite, and in a pattern reminiscent of the natural stone outcroppings that are found around the site. You can see one small symbolic way that Wright expressed this respect for nature, as an integral part of the design, near the entrance of the house. Wright designed a trellis, a series of concrete beams, that spans over the entry drive and ties the house together to an exposed ledge of stone that crops out of the hillside on the opposite side of the drive. But as it turned out, there was a tall, thin tree that was growing right in the path of one of the trellis beams. So instead of just cutting the tree down to make way for the beam, Wright had the beam built to bend and go around the tree, deviating from its straight path and giving the tree room to grow.

Fallingwater trellis with tree-resized

It makes for an interesting design detail, while making an important statement about  incorporating the natural elements of a site into the overall design of a building.

Of course, it only takes a moment or two to realize that trees don’t stop growing just because you’ve built something close to it. Over the next number of years, the tree eventually got too big for the bend in the trellis to accommodate it. It had to be cut down anyway, and another young, thin tree was put in its place to keep the design intent intact. In fact, I’d imagine that it’s been probably been replaced several times since the house was originally built, but I suppose the idea is the important thing here.

For whatever reason, the image of that tree, and how it caused the beam to bend off it’s intended path came to mind when I read today’s gospel lesson – Mark’s account of John the Baptist, calling on people to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord; to make the paths straight and clear for his arrival.

John was offering that message to people who were in many was a lot like us. Most of them had been raised to know about God’s goodness, and God’s love for them. Most of them knew about the prophets who called them to a certain way of treating one another with compassion and mercy, caring for the orphan and the widow, the outcast, the refugee and the resident alien – and that this was the purest and most pleasing way, in God’s estimation, to worship and show love and gratitude to God. They knew the Ten Commandments, and in their hearts, they knew the simple, profound truths found in what we now call the Beatitudes, long before Jesus was even born to teach them – they knew the Hebrew scriptures, so when they would eventually hear Jesus’ teaching years later, they’d know that there was very little if anything in his words that couldn’t already be found in those scriptures.  For the most part, they knew the way of the Lord, and for the most part, we do, too. The path that John was calling us to return to really isn’t too hard to see.

But if it isn’t hard to see, it can still be hard to follow. For the people who came out to hear John, and for us, the concrete experiences of life can sometimes collide with its abstractions. Boulders and trees, of one definition or another, can obstruct the way. Concerns about living life “in the real world” can cause us to make compromises, deviations, from the straight path. And then, as it always works, one deviation will lead to another that builds upon the first, and then another, and another, until eventually we’re so far in the weeds, removed from that straight path that we know in our hearts, that we can’t even see it any more.

And then there are other things that can cloud our vision of the straight path that John called people to, also. Just like those people who came out to the banks of the Jordan River, our minds can get overwhelmed, bogged down, preoccupied with what’s going on in the social, cultural, and political surroundings, the landscape of the times. In thinking, worrying, fearing those kinds of things, we aren’t necessarily led any further away from the right path that God desires for us; they just tend to cloud our eyes so that we can’t see the path through the fog of the 24-hour news cycle and all the worries and anxieties that it can bring.

John’s stark words, and yes, no doubt his slightly scary appearance, cut through the fog and the deviations in the lives of the people who came out to hear him, and across the years, his words can cut through all that for us, too.

I think that often, when we hear his words, what we hear is challenge. We hear yet another “to do” list, a bunch more things to worry about, that we’re somehow supposed to add to everything else we have to get done. We hear more things to take on. More work, and hopefully, all that additional work will make God pleased with us.

But I think that the reality of John’s message for us can be heard a little differently. Instead of it being a challenge to do *more* in order to please God, I think it’s more of an invitation to do *less,* to let go of all those fears and distractions and deviations, in order to see that God is already pleased with us. God already loves us, and to whatever extent that it’s necessary, God has already forgiven us for our shortcomings and failures and deviations from that path, because God knows, literally firsthand, how difficult it is, that it’s truly impossible, for us to completely stay on that path, living in this broken world.

Hearing John’s words as invitation instead of challenge can help to create a peaceful heart within us instead of just adding anxiety on top of anxiety. And after all, isn’t peace, and a peaceful heart, what God desires for us above everything else? Living a life of true shalom, true contentedness and peacefulness through our relationship of love and gratitude with God, and compassion and connection with one another? Isn’t peace what the angels proclaimed to the shepherds in the fields when Jesus was born? Isn’t peace what Jesus repeatedly wished for his disciples after his resurrection? Isn’t having a peaceful heart, and being at peace with God, the entire reason for God’s choosing to enter our world, to live, and laugh, and cry with us, to work, and play, and die with us, so that we can have the peace of heart and mind that comes from knowing that God is truly with us?

Observing Advent is, in a way, our creating a “safe space” where we can help one another live into John’s invitation, and to let go of those things that cause us to lose sight of God’s path, and, like the concrete trellis at Fallingwater, to bend, to turn back around, and to get back on that original path. In this season, we’re trying to hear God’s Spirit speaking to us, enabling us to rediscover our own peaceful heart and to rediscover God’s path of love, mercy, and compassion, the path of hope and peace. In part, we observe Advent to help us to no not miss seeing the forest for the trees.

Thanks be to God.

Advertisements

Shock and Awe

(sermon 12/3/17)

manger

Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

=====

Mark 13:24-37

“But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

=====

He looked around and saw a world turned upside down. Living under a government that had taken away people’s rights, their freedoms, their wealth. Every day the news chronicled yet another way that things were going wrong, and every day he thought this was rock bottom, things couldn’t get any worse, and yet, every day, they did. People were filled with uncertainty and dread, and coming to believe that things would never get any better, they lived their lives in the hell of lost hope.

That was what the prophet Isaiah saw as he and his fellow countrymen were living in exile as slaves serving the Babylonian Empire, which had conquered Jerusalem and Judea, destroying the Temple and life as the Judeans had known it. They had believed that in a very real and special way, God dwelled in that Temple, and the only way the Babylonians could have captured and destroyed it, they felt, would have been if God had left the Temple, abandoning them to the Babylonians – and if that was the case, then what hope was left? Many of the Judeans were angry at God. Many of them gave up believing that God had ever existed and been present at all. No all-powerful and loving God would have ever let something like this happen.

That was the situation that prompted Isaiah to write the words we heard this morning, calling, begging, even demanding that God return and save them – and to do it in a big, dramatic, decisive way. Shock and awe. Earthquakes, fire, nations trembling in fear; make sure there’s no doubt who’s in charge, and that the good people would be vindicated and the bad ones punished. God, if you really exist, come down here and set things right.

Today, we start the journey of Advent, week by week considering a different aspect of the meaning of Jesus’ birth, and the incoming of God into our world and our human existence. This morning, we think about the particular aspect of the hope that Jesus’ birth offers. Hope is essential to us. It’s the water that sustains our roots; without it, our life itself withers and dies. In the facing of the biggest challenges and setbacks, when people were the most discouraged, the gay-rights activist Harvey Milk used to say “You’ve got to give ‘em hope!” because he knew that without it, everything was lost, and he was right.

Hope is what makes it possible to see past the hard realities and setbacks of the present, to the goodness that can, and will, eventually follow. And it’s hope that enables us to somehow see God in the midst of all of it.

Many times, when we’re struggling to have hope for something better than our present, for things to be set right, just like Isaiah, we want God to come with a big, bold show of force, something that won’t leave any doubt about what’s going on – something like a literal playing out of the words Jesus uses to describe his return, the end of the age, in today’s gospel lesson. Darkened skies, clouds rolling back, ominous events better than any Hollywood special effects team could come up with. However each of us imagines that culmination of this age, we have to realize that in some way, literal or otherwise, what Jesus describes is going to happen eventually, and because of that we can have hope.

He sat in the assisted living center that he’d been living in for the past couple of years. All of his life he’d been in control of his own life. He’d always been on the go, physically and mentally. Now, he spent his days in this little shoebox of a mini-apartment, and it might as well have been a real shoebox – he felt as if someone had just put him up on a shelf in a stockroom, out of the normal flow of daily life, left there and largely forgotten. His physical abilities had definitely declined, but mentally he was as sharp as ever, and it made his furious when the staff, and just as often, his family and friends, talked at him – and it was *at* him, almost never actually *with* him –  they treated him as if he were a helpless little child. The whole system seemed to be designed to strip away every shred of human dignity he had left. And at some point almost every day, the prayer entered his mind: “God, where are you? Do you even exist at all? I want to have hope, but right now I’m so mad at you that I wonder if you are even there, or if I’ve just been wasting my breath all these years. I deserve better than this! God, if you really exist, come set things right.”

In Jesus’ birth, God has come to set things right. In his birth, we see that God loves us so much that God actually chooses to live among us, as one of us – knowing all of our joys, sorrows, fears, doubts, suffering, and eventually, while on the cross, even experiencing the feeling of being completely abandoned by God, and the hopelessness that comes along with it. Understanding this about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection allows us to know that when we experience the same things, God hasn’t abandoned us any more than Jesus was abandoned. And that just as God vindicated Jesus through his resurrection, God will vindicate us, too. Looking at Jesus’ birth, and everything that followed, we can be assured, and have hope, because we can know that even in our darkest moments, God hasn’t abandoned us at all, but is actually right there in the midst of those moments right alongside us.

In Jesus’ birth, God entered the world not in the dramatic way that Isaiah wanted, or the way that we might want intervention today, or the way that people often imagine Jesus’ return. Instead of shock and awe, when that intervention actually happened, God appeared humbly, in the middle of nowhere, out of the spotlight, born to nobody parents that the world would consider losers; not with trumpets blaring and riding in on clouds of glory, but with sheep bleating and lying helplessly in hay in a manger surrounded by animal manure. The thundering voice of God now the frightened whimper of a newborn.

Maybe entering the world this way actually makes it easier for us to find hope, because now we know that we can find God in the everyday. We can find the face of Christ in the face of anyone, without having to wait to see him in the clouds, in the sweet by-and-by. We can find the love of God in the love we receive, and give, to one another.

In Mark’s gospel lesson today, Jesus doesn’t tell us why we, or he himself, would have to endure hardship and suffering, and why God wouldn’t spare us from it before the culmination of all things. He just promises that whatever the actual details of it happening, when it’s all said and done, it really will be all said and done. Things will be set right. And it will be good, and just, and peaceful, and loving, and reconciled, and it will be forever. And it all starts to unfold with the birth of a child in a stable. And whenever and however it does finally come to completion, it will be so dramatic and different that people will understand it as being a time when the current heaven and earth actually passed away. Speaking just for myself, that will be all the shock and awe I’ll need.

Thanks be to God.