Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sermon for III Advent

Trinity, Mattoon--Matthew 11:2-11

Several years ago, I saw a news item on the internet that caught my attention—one of those “odd but true” stories—about the dissolution of the local branch of a nationwide service club, due to lack of new members. After several decades, they just decided to give up, to disband. Of course, what made the event worthy of note was that it was a branch of the Optimists Club, and disbanding seems … well … the opposite of optimism. At any rate, in our society we tend to value the quality of optimism. You know the old contrast between a “glass half empty” attitude and a “glass half full” attitude. Most of us would rather work with a “glass half full” person than a “glass half empty” person. Robert Kennedy captured this way of thinking, and galvanized a generation of young people nearly a half a century ago when he said something along the lines of, “Some people look at the evil we’ve done and ask, ‘Why?’ I look at the good we haven’t done and ask, ‘Why not?’”

I think we can all see the point Mr Kennedy was trying to make. A person who looks at human experience and sees only suffering and evil, and never beauty or goodness, goes through life perpetually discouraged, with a permanent frown. I think we’ve all known such people. Are they fun to be around? Are they easy to love? Do we not rather tend to build emotional hedges between ourselves and them, in order to protect ourselves from their toxic view of the world? Left alone to unfold naturally, it leads only to bitterness. Ultimately, it leads to a kind of false atheism. I’ve talked to people who are certain there is no God, because a real God would not allow all the suffering that goes on around us. But at the same time, they are awfully angry with the God they claim does not exist! 

My hunch is that this bitterly ironic condition is grounded in a failure to exercise the gift of faith. Faith is a gift—a gift from God. And we are not all apportioned an equal quantity or an equal quality of faith. Some are given an extraordinary measure of faith, so they can accomplish extraordinary things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But every human being is given a sufficient amount and a sufficient quality of faith—faith sufficient to lead away from atheistic bitterness and toward optimistic joy. When we exercise even this minimal measure of faith that is available to all who desire it, we begin to look at life from a very different and very interesting perspective: God’s perspective. When we start to see things from God’s point of view, rather than our own constricted point of view, we see all sorts of things we were not able to see before. This is why, in the New Testament and in the early church, baptism is referred to as “illumination,” and the newly-baptized are spoken of as “enlightened ones.” Through the eyes of faith, we see that God is actively involved in our world, bringing to fulfillment, bit by bit, the petition that Christians offer every time we gather for worship: “thy kingdom come.” When we exercise the gift of faith that each of us has been given, when we see the world through God’s eyes, we start to see signs of wholeness where we previously saw only fragmentation. We start to see signs of life in places where previously we saw only signs of decay and death.

Matthew’s gospel tells us that, toward the end of his life, John the Baptist sat in Herod’s dungeon feeling rather doubtful and dejected. He had poured out his life announcing the imminent arrival of one who would separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire—in other words, one who would stand up for righteousness and justice and kick all evildoers into the next millennium. But it wasn’t quite happening that way. Jesus wasn’t kicking anybody anywhere. There were a few healing miracles, but no real action on a grand scale. It was mostly just talk. John began to wonder whether he’d gotten it wrong, whether he’d put all his money on the wrong horse. He sends some of his own disciples to ask Jesus point-blank: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And how does Jesus respond?: “Go and tell John, the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Go and tell John what you see. He’ll know what conclusions to draw.

You and I, of course, as well as those around us, can readily empathize with John the Baptist. We’ve been praying “thy kingdom come” for 2,000 years. But in the century that most of us here this morning have lived most of our lives in, the twentieth century, not only did we fight two world wars, but there was more attempted genocide, and more nearly successful genocide, than at any other time in human history. My friends, this is the point where we are vulnerable to being sucked in to atheistic bitterness, to becoming “glass half-empty” people. Jesus’ word to John is God’s word to us: “Go and tell my people, ‘Look around you. Exercise your faith. See the world through my eyes. Now, what do you see?’”

Well, what do we see? I’ll tell you what I see. I see people overcoming addiction, getting clean and sober, breaking free from the bonds of alcohol and nicotine and heroin and cocaine, and I see this being done through faith, and I give thanks and glory to God for the abundant grace that responds to even a minimal amount of faith. I see marriages that stay intact, even when the vows that brought them into being have been violated in every conceivable way, and I see this being done through faith, and I give glory and thanks to God for the abundant grace that responds to even a minimal amount of faith. I see offenses that get forgiven, even when forgiveness is undeserved, even when forgiveness remains unrequested, and I see this forgiveness healing the lives of those who do the forgiving even more than it benefits the ones who are forgiven, and I see this happening by faith, and I give glory and thanks to God for the abundant grace that responds to even a minimal amount of faith. I see stupid decisions that turn out OK, I see hungry people who get fed, I see stranded people who get reunited with their loved ones, I see first-generation college graduates, I see terrorist attacks that don’t happen, I see wars that get averted, I see nuclear bombs that don’t get built—I see all these things through faith, and I give thanks and glory to God for the abundant grace that responds to even my paltry and minimal amount of faith.

And the best part—the best part for those of us who have made a commitment to live as disciples of Jesus Christ—the best part is that in the gospel ministry of the Church, in our witness to Christ, in our proclamation of the good news, in our works of service to the world, we are already partakers in the blessings of the age to come. In this very celebration of the Eucharist, we, the community of God’s holy ones who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we are assembled as a sign, a living icon, of the reality that God’s kingdom is coming, that God’s will is being done. The question before us today is, Is Jesus the one who is to come, or are we to look for another? For the answer, we simply need to exercise the faith we’ve been given, look around us, and see the world through God’s eyes. Then we’ll know what conclusion to draw.

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

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