Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Letting go of Expectations

The Third Sunday of Advent

One of the many museums I have been to in my life is the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Texas. Before I started my last job in Houston, I spent a week setting up my apartment and trying to get to know the city a little bit. I had plenty of expectations about what moving to Texas was going to be like, but part of that first week, I was trying to figure out if those expectations were correct or not. The Museum district in Houston has plenty of museums to choose from and I wandered in and out of a number of them. In the Contemporary Arts Museum though is where I started to realize that many of my expectations were going to be broken, had to be let go of. In its halls were a dizzying array of abstract art compilations, pieces made out of trash, graffiti type works, and a number of things that I stared at, simply wondering what I was looking at. I’m still not sure I understand all of what I saw that day.

We all move through our lives with plenty of expectations. We all have different expectations when it comes to the Christmas Holiday season. We have expectations about what we want our decorations to look like, what we want to have for our special meals, what we expect to receive and how much and so on. We are really good at creating expectations out of what has happened in the past and what we wish would happen. Any time we walk into a room, we bring with ourselves expectations. Its interesting that expectation setting is a natural default. We anticipate something coming in the future and we imagine what is going to happen or how it will look or who will be involved. And yet, our expectations do not always line up with reality. A huge part of what it means to cope with our lives means letting go of expectations - usually around how other people are going to behave. We cannot control anyone else's behavior, no matter how hard we try. Any parent who has had a toddler knows this well. Toddlers look adorable but they can be hell in tottering new shoes. Letting go of expectations can be really hard. We get emotionally attached to our imagination of how things will go. Openness to the  new and unexpected is scary. Sometimes quite literally hard pounding, pulse racing, scary.

The Israelites had been waiting for a Messiah for hundreds of years. They had been waiting so long they were starting to forget what they were truly waiting for in a Messiah, at least by the way the New Testament writers describe the crowds. There were so many layers of expectations and so many different perspectives and hopes and dreams, that to fulfill everybody's wishes would be contradictory and quite impossible. Luckily, Jesus didn't set out to fulfill all the expectations of the people of Israel throughout the centuries. Jesus had a very different mission in Palestine in the first century.

We can see this tension in the gospel passage from Matthew this morning. John the Baptist, who has known that Jesus was the Messiah since before he was born, starts to question and have doubts about what is going on. There are expectations that are not being met, whether they were cultural expectations or personal expectations for John, he obviously has a moment in which he seeks clarity. But since John is in prison at this point in his life, he has to send his disciples in order to find out any answers. Jesus, almost naturally, doesn't give any clear straightforward answers. That is not how Jesus works.

John receives an unexpected message from Jesus through his disciples. I can imagine them going back to John, "John, we talked to Jesus. He didn't say yes or no. He said we had to report what we heard and saw. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. Oh, and blessed are those who take no offense at him. That's what he said. What does that mean?" And John, scratching his head, "Hmmm... well..." and we don't know how he felt about this answer, we don't know whether his doubts and his questions were assuaged at that moment. We don't know whether or not that is what he was expecting the Messiah to do. Jesus and John were obviously on the same page about some things, but naturally as leaders and different men, they had some differences of opinion. Jesus sends John's disciples back to him with out a positive or negative answer. Again, against expectations. Jesus points to those things are the fruits of his labor. The actions that point to his real mission and his intention. The actions that show exactly who he is. Jesus never tries to force anyone into anything. He allows people to make their own decisions about himself. Jesus tells John's disciples to tell John what they see and hear. Jesus knows that whatever he says could be misconstrued. The Pharisees and the other religious leaders are looking for reasons to imprison him.

Jesus questions the crowds about their expectations as well. About John specifically, but also in a way about himself. Many of the people in the crowd that is with him at the time had gone to see John. What were all those normal regular people's expectations of what was going on? What were they looking for? We have to ask ourselves the same things. What are we looking for in our leaders, in our sages, in our heroes? If we are looking for rich celebrities in pricey garments, certainly the world has found them for us! If we are looking for those who seek and speak the truth, well, then, we need to look somewhere else! John was sent as a messenger, to speak the truth, to show the way, to prepare the people for what was to come next. John wasn't sent to do miracles, to overturn the political system, or to overthrow the religious authorities. And neither was Jesus.

Jesus’ way of answering John’s question is very important. For John to truly accept Jesus as the Messiah, John needs to make that decision on his own. He has to let go of his expectations of what the Messiah is going to do and allow the Messiah to work his wisdom in the world. In this way John is also a role model for us. We too are going to have to accept Jesus for who he is, without all of our expectations. If we are truly going to be able to welcome and accept Jesus, into our hearts, into our lives, into our world, this year and every year, we are going to have to let go of our expectations of what he is supposed to do.

Some of us are better at letting go of our expectations. As we age, we naturally have to start letting go of some of the things we used to be able to do all the time. Our expectations about what our bodies are able to do and handle change, sometimes through our own mental changes, and sometimes the harsh reality of what we are able to do changes our minds for us. There is great wisdom in listening and paying attention to what our bodies are telling us they can and cannot handle. There is great wisdom in learning how to let go of our expectations, especially around control, in our lives.

This week, as we move ever more closer to the birth of Jesus in our lives, look at your expectations of what Christmas will bring for you. God does not always come into our lives in expected ways. What do we expect of Jesus? How are we open to the coming of Jesus and his mission in our lives? Have you, like John, been putting expectations on the work of the Messiah? Examine your hearts and minds and let go of those expectations. Open up space for Jesus to come and work wonders beyond all expectations. God can do more than we could ever possibly imagine and for that we give great thanks. Amen.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!

Second Sunday of Advent
Year A

Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!

What a promise! What a call! What a loaded statement. Thank you, John the Baptist.

Last week in the sermon, I talked about Jesus’ reminder to keep awake. Keeping awake and paying attention to every moment of our lives can be a very hard thing to do. However, the riches to be gained from such a practice are plentiful. By keeping awake, by paying attention to the moments of our lives, we see things we may have never seen before. We see God at work in our lives in new ways, in places we never thought God would venture. We see connections we may have missed before, between other people and ourselves. We see how we imitate our parents, probably way too much, not only in their sayings and gestures, but in the way we handle our emotions. We notice how our own bodies react and respond to what is going on around us and how that affects our daily lives. Our bodies are great at taking overloaded stress from one area of our lives and trying to off load it in another.

When we start to notice all these things, we probably start to notice a bunch of things we are doing that we don’t necessarily want to be doing. We want to be open, to other people, to love, to the Holy Spirit, but instead, we notice how we find ways to shut others out or to close ourselves off from the Spirit. Like the passage in Romans in which Paul complains that he does what he does not want to do and cannot do that which he wants to do, sometimes keeping awake in watching our own lives simply leads us to realize we are not doing what we thought we were or want to be doing.

There is a system in this. We cannot be open to others or God in our lives without cleaning up all that clogs our systems. If you go to clean your shower, but can’t because there is standing water in it, you have to first address the clogged drain. It makes no sense to clean things out of order... then you just make other things dirty. If all your dish cloths are dirty, you can't get a clean dish. You have to start with the laundry, clean the dish cloth, then clean the dishes, then of course do more laundry... the process continues. In order to be open, we have to make sure our hearts and minds are open.

Cleaning up our hearts and minds is exactly what John the Baptist is calling us to today. Repentance is a process of cleaning up, cleaning out, making sure things are open and working. Repentance is the process of cleaning out our interpersonal, relationship, and spiritual systems. Nowadays, we typically use the word reconciliation to talk about repentance. The Catholics still have Confession, but in the Protestant churches, we talk about reconciliation. Have you ever felt that gut feeling of unease when you are in a guilt trip with yourself? Or the tension in a relationship where you know things are not right between you? Or that buildup of frustration in prayer that comes from feeling hurt, let down, or confused about what is going on? Yes? Those are all reasons we need repentance, reconciliation.

Repent, in the Hebrew, literally means to turn around. Repent and return are pretty much the same verb, at least in the Hebrew. We are not great anymore at focusing on one thing at a time. We learn early how to be multitaskers. Like a panoramic or fish eye photo, we want to see and do everything all at the same time. But paying attention requires focusing on one thing at a time. Taking time to focus on repentance leads to cleaner, happier, more fruitful relational and spiritual lives. Repentance is the contrition and act of confessing our sins. We follow through with our repentance in reconciliation when we reconnect with the people and things we have hurt. How can we be excited and prepared for God's coming if we are in tension with God? It's like preparing your house for the coming of an unwanted or disliked relative or guest. It's not joyful, it's frustrating, it's annoying! God's coming should not be like that!

Many times we want to forget the unpleasant things that have happened in the past. We want to move on, move forward, start over. But sometimes we have to return to what is behind us in order to move forward, especially if it is pulling us back or clogging our systems. What John is calling for isn't easy. In the Anglican tradition, this is the reason we say the general confession every week. Because we know that we are always messing up, always making mistakes, always trying to run from things we do not want to face. So every week we come here together, to worship, to pray, to praise God, and yes, to confess, to repent, to turn away from our sinful decisions and to return to walking the path of God. We may question, do we really need to do this? Lest, you forgot, we already promised we would. We have a baptismal vow about repentance. In our baptisms, we and those who spoke on our behalf were asked, "Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" And they answered, "I will with God's help." It is not a vow we can accomplish on our own. We have to have the stirrings of God within in us to be able to resist and persevere and repent and return.

In the gospel passage, we see the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to John the Baptist being told off for trying to run away from their past. They feel that they can move forward without dealing with what they have done, but John calls them out on it. They try to justify themselves, but there is no justification. We cannot justify ourselves in our relationships with God. John tells them that they cannot think that God will look past everything that they have done unless they repent. He foretells of some culling to come. He talks about trees being cut down and wheat being processed. They are both metaphors and we are used to certain interpretations of them. But before we jump to the conclusion that some people are going to burn in unquenchable fire, and that this means someone else is going to burn in unquenchable fire, lets think about what chaff actually is. Chaff is a normal part of a wheat plant. Every wheat plant has chaff. Chaff is the part of the wheat stalk that protects the vulnerable inner important fruit. Chaff is a dry protective wall around the fruit of the plant. Like the rind on an orange or watermelon or the husk of an ear of corn. In this metaphor, chaff is effectively the protective walls around each and every one of us that keeps us closed up and away from God. Chaff is those walls we build up around ourselves that clog up our relationship systems. We all need to be processed, stripped of our chaff, pruned of the parts of us that do not bear good fruit, so that what is good inside of us can be seen. We all have chaff that needs to be burned with unquenchable fire so that we can be open and ready for God. Repentance is this process of tearing down, cleaning out, burning the part of us that stands in our way. We have to keep awake in this process, keep vigilance on how what we are saying and doing. Once we acknowledge, confess, repent, we can move forward being open and bearing good fruit. We are called into the future of what is coming. However, we cannot do so until we have opened ourselves to what may come. 

Advent reminds us of that process year after year, calling us to admit our failures of another year, calling us to repent and return to the Lord, calling us to walk into the wilderness of unknowing, waiting, through the difficult times of change. Advent the season of preparation, and part of preparation for something is always cleaning. John calls us to clean out our relationship and spiritual systems. Repent! He says. Prepare! He says. Get Ready! He says, because the completion, the promise of the gift of the Kingdom of Heaven, is near! Is here!

Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!