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Just Between Us, Good News!

A sermon preached by Lee Cheek, Licensed Lay Preacher                                   Grace Episcopal Church, Great Barrington, MA,  @Crissey Farm                                        Advent 2A, December 10, 2017

“Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other” AMEN.

Good morning! How many of you have heard the good news?

The marriage of His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales and Ms. Meghan Markle will take place at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle in May, 2018.  The Royal Family will pay for the wedding.  

I picked up this official press release from Buckingham Palace on the webpage page at Royal.uk, but you may have heard on cable news or read it in a newspaper. Before the electronic age, a royal servant would have distributed paper (or parchment) copies of the announcement to each village.

In Jesus’ time, an ancient press release from Rome was delivered to the colonies by a herald and was called, in Greek or Latin, “evangelion” which means “good news”, or “glad tidings”, or in the old English “gospel”.

This good news could be news of, say, a military victory for the empire, or news of the birth of a son to the emperor of Rome who was considered divine. In other words it was information that was going to change the lives of the people who heard it.

So what has Mark done by imitating the Roman form of “good news”?  He is saying, “Listen up! The King Our God has a Son and this is going to change your life! The world is about to turn. ”

Unlike the evangelists Matthew and Luke,  Mark doesn’t pause to fill us in on how and when this Son was born, but  immediately launches into a second announcement that there will be a messenger who will get us ready for this new prince and the changes he will bring.  For the Jews who heard this at the time, the description of John the Baptist would have conjured up the image of the great prophet Elijah. They would have understood that John the Baptist was taking aim at those in religious power in Jerusalem who had failed to heed all their prophets and their warnings to care for the poor, widowed, orphaned, and alien.

This is why John organizes a wilderness revival at the Jordan, far away from the seat of religious power in Jerusalem. Out of site of the temple and beyond the control its officials, he freely offers cleansing ablutions for redemption of the nation: baptism for becoming God’s people again.

But John knows this cleansing is not enough to turn the world around, so he announces that there is another one coming after him.  Someone who will redeem them by baptizing them not with water, but with the Holy Spirit of God.

Earlier this morning, we heard about the Holy Spirit of God—the breath of the Lord—in the magnificent poetic passage from Isaiah Chapter 40. The author is the “second” writer of Isaiah, the prophet who writes for members of the Jewish community who were taken prisoner after the fall of Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire in 587 BCE.  In this reading, it is 40 years later, and Babylonia itself has fallen to the Persian Empire. The Persian king Cyrus has declared that they may leave.

It is time for them to return to Jerusalem and renew their frayed relationship with their God. Second Isaiah who has been with them describes God and his council discussing what motivation the exiles need in order to leave the culture of Babylon and return to being God’s people.

The passage is striking for its tidal wave of grace from God rather than the fire and brimstone of judgment of their failures. God’s message is comfort and radical forgiveness. All their cultural wrongdoing—their “flesh” [sarx, Gk.]—is graciously breathed away by God’s Spirit, like dead grass blown away by the wind.  God wants them to come home with him and to him–no matter what.

All gods of empires and their ways of diminishing human beings will not last, God says. Only the One True God’s word of our inherent worth and dignity will endure forever.

As I listened to the news this week, I urgently wanted a messenger to arrive and announce some really good news that could change the way we think about each other and care for one another.  I want news that the political landscape can change for the common good so that we will be carried gently into the safety of a world no longer at risk from ecological disaster or nuclear war.

Consider how Mark and Isaiah might be speaking to us. Might they be telling us that we have let our culture take over God’s word about who and what we are?

Tragically yes, for we still define one another by the color of our skin, the religion we practice, and the accent of our speech. We still write legislation that enriches the wealthy and pulls safety nets from the sick, poor, and young. We still give theological cover to national myths of greatness and a patriotism that cannot be challenged or changed.

Mercy is in short supply. Truth is what gets shouted the loudest and repeated the most. Righteousness is for losers and submissive silence substitutes for peace.

But, dear friends of The Way, this is very much what the season of Advent is about:  a time of owning up to the world we have made and seeking to make the turn toward God’s dream for us.   It is a time to flock to the Jordan River wilderness and get ready to be changed.

Episcopal priest and theologian Fleming Rutledge puts it this way:

There are theological reasons for observing a serious Advent without being swallowed up prematurely by the Christmas rush.

Advent offers an unparalleled opportunity to take a fearless inventory of the ways of beastly empire in our world and in our hearts, into which the True Lamb of God brings transformation. 1

Can we do this inventory alone?  No, we can’t, for we need to give each other courage to tell the truth.  We need to hold each other back from the brink of despair. And we need to remind each other that God still loves us no matter what. Father Greg Boyle who works with gang members in Los Angeles says that God is too busy loving us to be disappointed in us. He should know. 2

Jesus shows us that God is working his love through us in our relationships. The religious philosopher Martin Buber says that these relationships live in the SPACE between us. And that this space between us is sacred.  The thirteenth century Sufi poet Rumi says it is a space outside of all right-thinking and all wrong-thinking, and we can meet there. 3

As a devotion of Advent, we might try to remember that there is this meeting space between us. When we can remember this holy, empty space, we have prepared a way between us. We don’t have to fill it for it is simply the space we travel to one another.

Right now, can you imagine that it will be there in every encounter? If you allow yourself to feel it, you realize it isn’t bigger than we are. We won’t get lost in it, because it’s just the right size for us to have between us.  God made it that way for us.

This empty sacred space between us through which we can travel to each other in love is not polluted by the ideas culture has given us about who we are and who the other is.  And when we meet one another there, I believe, the message of really good news is proclaimed on that piece of earth:

Mercy and truth have met together!

Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other!

Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

Alleluia!

1 tweet, 12-4-17, @flemingrut
2 Interview with Krista Tippett, On Being:   https://onbeing.org/programs/greg-boyle-the-calling-of-delight-gangs-service-and-kinship-nov2017/
3 Clinical psychologist Hedy Schleifer takes this concept of space a bit further in her 2010 Tedx talk “The Power of Connection,” https://youtu.be/HEaERAnIqsY  stating that we need to take responsibility for that space, otherwise we pollute, misplacing our emotions into the space.

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