How are we?
It is not an easy question these days, is it? My community brother Dennis may answer the question one way because he just loves Advent and Christmas. He starts listening to Carols the moment they hit the airwaves even when the strict Episcopalians would not approve. On the other hand, my son would answer a very different way. He is having a difficult time this season due to the war in the middle east. He asks me, “Mom, are you watching this? Do you see what is happening?”
The question I ask is “how do we approach this season of joy while not ignoring or denying the horrific death count which is increasing every day? How do we bear broken hearts while singing Joy to the World?
Today’s gospel reading is the very first chapter of Mark. He starts not with a manger but by declaring the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God. Mark is not interested in the birth story but in claiming the authority and mission of Jesus the Christ. And it must have been very good news indeed for John the Baptist. Finally, his very existence is relevant – his beloved cousin is in town and hanging out nearby. John, this iconoclastic man who lived away from society in the wilderness, must have been so psyched for Jesus to finally arrive ready to be acknowledged. He had been laying the groundwork for the one who was to come, the one who is far more worthy than him. It is hard to imagine the excitement this must have generated.
John the Baptist was born anticipating his role in this. Even while yet in the womb he leapt with joy when his mother came near the pregnant Mary. What a tender scene this was. And now, he has been in the wild alone with God’s great creation preparing himself to step into his role of proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, and it is more accurately translated as being made new or spiritually awakened. This word metanoia is in the bible 24 times and is clearly an important concept for John the Baptist and Jesus. Repentance is an important step on our spiritual journey, it asks us to take account of our sins and ask for God’s Grace. But this word metanoia asks more of us. It is about transforming ourselves to see with new eyes. It is about waking up and embracing a new way of loving others and God.
I facilitate a program in the men’s prison near San Luis Obispo, and a victim awareness program might easily be called that of metanoia. The men are both repentant and longing for a transformation. Most of them have done long sentences many over 30 years and soon they will be going home, and they truly want to be the best version of themselves possible. In these groups we sit in a circle and pass a battery-operated candle from man to man as they share their stories. Most of them have endured the most devastating childhoods – circumstances that no one should have to experience. They see in each other the impact of unhealthy choices they made to cope with the volcano of pain in their hearts. Some cry while they allow the emotions to finally well up from deep down, the pain they have been pushing down for all these years.
This is what it takes to heal. Looking inside and sharing in a safe space. We make a covenant to be a safe space and the men grow in their trust and most of them are finally able to take full accountability for their actions.
This is church. Even though no prayer is said, no scripture read, no religious words are used.
Father Rand shared with Brother Dennis and I a book called “Why can’t church be more like an AA meeting?” I think this is an important question as we witness mainline churches’ attendance dwindling. Do churches, like AA meetings, offer metanoia or a spiritual awakening? Do they open the door to transformation?
I say yes. I see that singing and praying together offers a warm and safe space for community one is which I could not do without. I could not have spent the last 15 years working with my incarcerated siblings without my monastery and our daily prayer life. It sustains me. Church offers the world safe spaces where a person can be seen and heard. A place to find meaning and nourishment when the world seems like it is tipping off its axis.
Which brings me back to the topic of this sermon. How do we celebrate the season of Advent and Christmas when there is so much horrible suffering going on? How do we make merry and bright while we are exposed to the horrors of children being pulled out of rubble? How do we not have our hearts broken by this endless devastating violence?
One of my favorite spiritual teachers is the Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr. He says that mature spirituality is having the mind of Christ which can live with paradox, uncertainty, and mystery. Paradox is the ability to hold two conflicting concepts at once.
We can see the joy and excitement of the Good News that John the Baptist was participating in, and we also know that soon his head will be cut off and paraded through a banquet. We can celebrate the birth of Jesus knowing that it will lead to the suffering of the Passion.
Can we live with awe for the beauty in our lives and celebrate with all our hearts while also making space and time for the agony of injustice or the horror of war?
I believe this is the gift of our faith. This is spiritual maturity. We Christ following church goers can model metanoia. From our awakened mind we act as agents of justice and peace. The peace that stops wars. The peace that passes all understanding. May your heart break with compassion and may that same heart feel full of joy as you welcome the coming of the Beloved. Amen.