Sermons

Soulful Preparations…Rev. Dee Ledger, December 10, 2017

The poet, Wislawa Szymborska once said, “Every beginning is only a sequel, after all, and the book of events is always open halfway through.”  As we begin a new church year with the start of Advent, we are beginning the new liturgical year with the gospel of Mark.  Mark is the earliest gospel and you can read it fairly easily in one sitting.  For those who are looking for an Advent challenge, consider reading this earliest gospel as part of your Advent spiritual practice.  You will be well-prepared to encounter the gospel on future Sundays.

The first line of Mark’s gospel begins, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In the Roman world, the good news was the peace brought by the emperor.  But here, we hear something different.  This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.  It is a different kind of peace.  It is a different kind of good news that doesn’t come externally by way of an emperor, empire, force, or imposition. This good news comes internally by the way of soul, service, forgiveness, and invitation.

Now, we are all stories, each of us.  Do you know that you are a story?  Imagine for a moment that the first line of Mark’s gospel names YOU.  This is the beginning of the good news of _____________, ____________, ___________.”  What is your good news?  Your story has not yet ended; you have chapters yet to be written.  As Orson Wells once famously said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” We each have our own good news to bear to the world in peace.  But if we are all stories and if every beginning is a sequel, how might someone read your life?  With what chapter would he or she begin with you? What transforming news would we find in your own story?

Where to begin?  This time of year, there are so many things to do, so many places to go, so much rushing and robust activity that finding the beginning of anything, much less ourselves, our souls, or our good news, can be rather hard.  Add to that the pressure of family traditions, holiday customs, and the daily count-down to Christmas and we may find that we yearn more for an ending, than a beginning.  Our to-do lists are longer than a 24 hour day, and our expectations of ourselves and others stretch beyond the horizon.  Where do we begin?  With what do we begin when we talk about our storied and sacred lives in the world?  And how do we begin preparing our spirit or our soul for God’s coming?

In the gospel of Mark, the place where we begin is not with the birth story of Jesus.  Unlike the gospels of Luke or Matthew, there is no nativity here in this story.   May I suggest, the place to begin may not necessarily be your birth or your childhood either.  Oh, I know that many of us have examined the behavioral issues that are rooted in childhood, or our propensity for reacting a specific way which might be traceable to our father’s stoicism or our mother’s temper or our brother’s rivalry, but the place to begin may not be with your nativity, or your childhood, or your ancestors.  Even as we approach the nativity of Christ, the place of beginning in THIS story is with John—a kind of rustic prophet standing out in the wilderness with his diet of locusts and honey and his camel-hair cloak.  John’s is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, the voice calling for repentance and turning, the voice that calls out for the kind of soul honesty that knows there is a better way and that we have need of it.

John is the prequel of Jesus, or as Szymborska might say, only the sequel of the prophet Isaiah, one of multiple voices who were forerunners, or better, relay runners.  In indoor track, when I was a relay runner, each member had the same goal.  Each of us carried the baton to the best of our ability.  True, some were faster and some were slower, but we all moved in a similar direction.  We all moved toward the same finish line.  Whether forerunner or relay runner, Isaiah, John, Jesus, and you move in a similar direction towards revealing God in this world.  And the place to begin is more often in the wilderness, not the nativity.  For often it is in our wilderness and emotional deserts that God can finally break thru our defenses and get an actual hearing from our souls.

 

So–From what wilderness has your spirit or soul found its beginning?

And from what wilderness has your soul or spirit been able and willing to listen to God?

 

In the wilderness, in the strange solitude of the night, in the midst of trying circumstances when our attention must finally focus, or when our monkey-mind settles down like a child going to bed, we will eventually hear the voice of our souls talking with God.  Perhaps in that wilderness there is a question that keeps bubbling to the surface like water rising from a well.  Perhaps in that wilderness there is something showing green growth in the midst of dry ditches and hard rocks.  Perhaps in that wilderness you are reminded of your humanness and your acknowledged limitations, but you can finally hear something that comes to you like a voice of understanding and mercy, rather than that of parental judgement or unforgiving regret.  The wilderness offers its gifts, and one of them is that we are slowed down, made to pay attention to things, moments, and people that we might have skimmed over previously.  We are quieted.  We are exiled from our comfort zones; we are in the place of not-knowing, searching for landmarks, but far from our civilized routines as we have known them.  If you’ve been in the wilderness, you know that absolutely nothing is routine.  Nothing is taken for granted.  Everything is examined for potential meaning or possibility.

John the Baptizer comes before Jesus, just as Jesus walks before us.   He prepares the way for Jesus to be heard because John has discovered who he is not.  He is not the way, but points to the way.  He is not the One, but prepares for a greater One.  There is strange, firm humility in John the Baptizer, even as he is presented as being the precursor “movement” to Jesus.

Today we begin with John, with this voice crying out in the wilderness to come clean, and to turn around.  However, where is your beginning?  Where is the beginning of your turning, your change of heart, or your making a smoother path for God in the world, with fewer obstacles and potholes?

Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli poet, suggests that the beginning of our beginning may be in the midst of our doubts and uncertainties, and not in the places where we believe that we are right or correct.  He writes:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.[1]

 

Our doubts, our loves, and our uncertainty may be fertile ground for God’s nativity to take place in our soul.  Indeed, this may be the beginning of our soul’s beginning—not in our parents, or our ancestors, or our need to be right, whether about politics, religion, morals, or the proper way to live a life or meet a particular need in the world.  To prepare our souls for a incarnate God who loves our creature-hood is to prepare our souls for One who does not seek our perfection, but who seeks our story—in all of its complicated plot twists, character assassinations, comedy, tragedy, lost chapters, and plateaus.  To prepare our souls for God is to realize that our story is only a sequel of the story God has been sharing for a long time and will continue to share thru us and with us.  To prepare our souls for God is to remember that this baby who is coming soon also found himself in a wilderness as an adult, standing before John the Baptizer, looking for a blessing, and later, will find himself in the desert sorely tempted to become someone he was not.  To prepare our souls for God’s coming is to understand that we are not the sum of our wild places, but we often find a new beginning and God’s profound forgiveness in them.

In her book, Marrow, Elizabeth Lesser defines soul as “the bridge between pure essence and human individuality.”  She says that, “when the soul bridge is in place, we can go back and forth between essence and ego, unity and diversity. We remember how we all come from the same place, but have different purposes while here.  We realize how spectacular a chance we’ve been given to bring heaven to earth.  [But] when our egos get puffed up, or when our rational minds dominate, or our emotions and senses overwhelm, the soul retreats.  The bridge draws up; we are stranded in separateness.” [2]

Like others, Lesser believes that we can woo the soul back.  And I believe that Advent is as good a time to do this than any other.  To woo your soul back in wonder.  To kneel before the Mystery of each one of us, as well as before the Human-Divine One, Jesus.  We do not need to live in separateness; indeed, Christian tradition teaches that sin is being separated from ourselves, each other, and God and that God meets us on the way.  Isaiah as forerunner to John, John as forerunner to Jesus, and Jesus as forerunner to YOU believed and trusted that our souls could find their way out of the wilderness and out of sin’s sorrow by returning to God and preparing the way for the Messiah to come.

This Advent, brothers and sisters, may all of our wild places lead to wonder; may we hear the whisper of our souls, and may we discover a beginning where and when we least expect it.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] “The Place Where We are Right,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yehuda_Amichai: Yehuda Amichai

[2] Lesser, Elizabeth.  Marrow: A Love Story (New York: HarperCollins, 2016) 93.