December 8, 2019

Advent 2A

Repent and Resist What is Evil

GOSPEL
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:1-12
SERMON
Advent is a summons and a call that comes from both outside ourselves and from within ourselves. It is a call to live our lives in ever-deeper intimacy and communion with God. It is a call to live with ever more authenticity and integrity with one another. In the words of the Advent hymn, “Sleepers awake, a voice is calling”.

Our faith in the incarnation – our faith that God became one with us in every nook and cranny of our humanity – gives us the where with all to say, “yes”. It gives us all that we need to offer a hope-filled embrace to all of life, to all the relationships that constitute our lives, to all the ups and downs of our personal and communal stories and yes, even to our arch enemy – death itself. Yes, brother death, I embrace even you with hope.

Any attending to the mystery of our humanity takes us very quickly to the reality of what our tradition refers to as our fallen nature, to the reality of our brokenness. In the words of Saint Paul, “the good that we will, we do not; and the bad that we do not want, we do.” Advent then is also a summons to face our sinfulness. And if anyone of us says, “I have no sin”, to that one, the scriptures say, “You are a liar”.

But even as our faith in the incarnation allows us to face and embrace all of life, even its pain and loss with sure and certain hope. So too it allows us to face and acknowledge our sin with sure and certain hope. For as fear, pain and death give way to life eternal, by the mystery of the incarnation, so too does sin give way to forgiveness.

In Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, the forgiveness of God, which is beyond reason, meets the sin of men and women that is always beyond any excuse.

The word of God came to John in the wilderness. Now the wilderness is a place where one can easily experience what it means to be lost. Each hill that is climbed offers the same endless vista that was seen from the top of the last hill. In the wilderness there are no signs, no markers, making it more likely that movement will be in circles rather than in a direction. And so the wilderness is a frightening place.

The Word of God came to John in the wilderness. It came to him in the wilderness where he was lost, alone, without direction and where he was walking in circles. Where he put one foot in front of the other, only to get nowhere. The wilderness was that frightening place where he was thrown back on his own resources for survival and discovered himself to be so inadequate to the task. We all know the wilderness. We have been in that place or very possibly we are in that place right now.

But as frightening as it is, the wilderness is also the place that is most fertile for grace. Either John was most poignantly aware that he was absolutely alone or he knew beyond explanation the sustaining presence of God.

It seems that John emerged from the wilderness, powerfully aware of the presence of God and his connection with God. And he addressed the crowds from this place of intimate connectedness in full possession of his self – and certainly his prophetic self.

Now, in the time of John, when royalty came to visit a city, a messenger was customarily sent ahead to alert the people that it was time to repair the roads for the king’s arrival.

John emerged from the wilderness in full possession of the Spirit of God. He called the people to repair the roads in their hearts. He called the people to repentance. “Prepare the way of the Lord,“ he cried. Does our preparation for Christmas involve any roadwork?

Now you and I don’t make excuses for our sins. For example, we don’t blame someone else for our failures to communicate with courage.

Or we really believe that our casually giving thanks is sufficient, because in all truth we deserve to have much more than we have and are always settling for less than would really make us happy.

I wasn’t able to make time for an intimate communion with my God this Sunday morning, because I had something else to do. I mean, I really can’t be in two places at once.

I don’t feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned because I work nine to five, and all I really have are my weekends.

Now since you and I don’t make excuses for our sins – if we can really call them that – they are mistakes, indiscretions, stretching the truth, having some fun, or family time. Since you and I don’t make excuses, the voice crying from the wilderness, the voice crying from my own wilderness (you know there is a little John the Baptist living in our inner wilderness) that little John has got to be talking to somebody else. I don’t have any valleys to be filled, any mountain or hill to be brought low, any path to be made straight, and any rough way to be made smooth. I’m afraid, John, that I don’t even have a single pothole to fill in advance of the coming of the King.

Sadly, when we don’t acknowledge our personal sin and our communal sin and repent, more sin is sure to follow. And where there is sin, death is never far behind.

On a societal level, in the present moment, this country has not just a pothole to fill but a number of gaping sink holes to fill. You don’t fill a sinkhole with a bit of asphalt and without great cost. Grave social sins, even crimes against humanity, are being committed.

In 2016, 74% of white evangelicals revealed them selves to be hypocrites. Too many so-called Christians revealed themselves to be capable of electing as leader of the most powerful nation in the world someone who can, without much makeup, easily pass as a personification of the biblical antichrist. And the hypocrisy, and now add blasphemy, continues as they hail him as “God’s Anointed One”.

And while the middleclass white male may rightly feel that the system has let him down, no amount of whatever pain or dispossession one feels gives him the right to make a choice for what is clearly evil incarnate.

A thief, a liar, a racist and a sexual predator now, holds the office of president. And that thief, liar, racist and sexual predator is soon to be exonerated of crimes that he has committed, and committed with with impunity, by a senate majority comprised of white males. In so doing, a complicit Senate majority will embolden the reprobate to engage in more destructive, divisive, hateful and evil behavior. In doing so they make themselves complicit in these past, present and future expressions of the very worst in us. If John were to enter the Senate chamber, you can be sure he would cry out, “You brood of vipers”.

These last few years have seen us not only step back from dealing with the crisis of climate change but also as a nation embrace climate change denial.

These last few years have seen an increase in gun violence such that parents send their children to school in fear of their not returning at the end of the day.

These last few years have seen an increase in the public expression of fascist hatred and invective. Just yesterday it was reported that a group of West Virginia law enforcement officers where photographed giving the Nazi salute.

Two days ago another child died in ICE custody. Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, was a 16 year old Guatemalan refugee.

Three days ago UIDN picked up Uruguayan couple who had been sleeping for four days in a disabled car at a Walmart parking lot in Fishkill. They had been denied public assistance because of their status. They are now in Kingston Hospital. When discharged, they will be taken to a safe house in the network.

These last few years have seen a reduction in taxes for the wealthy and the stage is being set for cutting food stamps for 750,000 of the nation’s poor.

Oh, how this supposedly exceptional nation stands in need of the forgiveness of God, which is beyond reason. The sinkholes in our communal reality are indeed so very wide and so very deep. But the possibility of and capacity for national repentance appears to be remote to non-existent.

This nation has yet to publically acknowledge and apologize for its inhumanity in the genocide of its native-American peoples; the internment of its citizens of Japanese descent; and the continuing enslavement, now mass incarceration, of Black people. The caging of children and the separation of families is the latest iteration of our frightful capacity for inhumanity.

All this must be resisted and it is we who must be the resistance. There are many ways to be part of that resistance. Inaction is not one. Or we can simply deck the halls and get on with another round of eggnog.

In Jesus the forgiveness of God that is beyond reason, meets the sin of men and women that is beyond excuse.

If I and we don’t acknowledge and repent of my and our sin, but rather stand by my and our excuses, then we will not know the forgiveness of God that is beyond reason. How sad, when forgiveness is there as soon as sin is acknowledged – to forego the grace, the healing and the peace. How sad that the future will be as the past.

The Mystery of God is respectful. It does not invade unwelcoming space. It does not crowd out what we will to hold inside and hold between ourselves. Each time we face a sin and fill a pothole and repair a sinkhole there is more room for the mystery of God within us and among us. Advent, John, and the One Who Comes summon us to make more room. Make more room for God and less room for excuses, less room for sin and no room for evil.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
December 8, 2019