Disowning the Right Things

Second Week in Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

In the days since the US presidential election (which now seems but one phase in an accelerating process of rancorous division), I’ve returned often to a familiar prayer from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

I’m not the only one feeling lost.The coarse and ugly partisan bickering that passes for news may disguise this growing sense of bewilderment, but I see and hear it in the faces and voices of those I meet. I’ve heard many expressions of fear, disillusionment, and anger since November 8. I’ve spoken with reluctant Trump supporters whose confidence in their choice is little more than a hope that things get better. Not far below the varied reactions to the election lurks a palpable uncertainty uncharacteristic of Americans who, despite being world leaders in illegal and prescription drug consumption, nevertheless think themselves inherently capable, future-oriented, and optimistic.

It seems today’s fragmented electorate can’t agree on the merest outline of a desirable future. Among my family, friends, and fellow Christians are many good people whose political vision is starkly different from mine, and when the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year is “post-truth,” and individual “consumers” choose only those news sources – legitimate and fake – that confirm prior political commitments, there’s scant hope for consensus on current reality, much less agreement on shared goals or “the common good.” Still, I want to tell “those people” who see things so differently why they’re misguided, how their precious convictions will reap little more than war, tyranny, and injustice. I want them to change.

So what do those of us who claim to follow Christ do in this time and place of whipsaw change and nagging uncertainty? At first glance, this week’s scriptures appear unhelpful. Isaiah tells – in words perhaps too familiar to stir us anymore – of the coming One who will deliver true justice and uncommon peace. Twenty seven hundred years after those words were written, and two thousand years after the arrival of the one Christians claim as the text’s fulfillment, all available evidence puts Isaiah’s vision in the “Not Yet” column of the eschatological ledger.

There is that heartening bit about the “signal to the nations the Gentiles shall seek out,” if only that many Christians see themselves as Gentiles, having repeatedly disowned our common bond with the Jewish people. We pause a moment to enjoy a comforting supersessionist pat on the back. It’s hard to know what else the reading has to do with our lives today. Like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream,” Isaiah’s vision has turned from convicting challenge into wistful reverie.

Matthew’s gospel cuts closer to the bone, offering radically different sides of John’s baptism of repentance. Despite his odd wardrobe and bizarre eating habits, his message attracts a sizable following of penitents. Yet when members of the two great religious factions in Roman-occupied Judea appear, John’s preaching turns to warning and wrath, with axes, winnowing fans, and unquenchable fire.

The temptation here is to read the Sadducees and Pharisees as “those people,” the ones whose words and opinions rouse my passions, not least of which is wrath. “They” are standing between an ill-defined “us” and a better future. It takes some effort to hear the command “bear fruit worthy of repentance”(1) directed my way. I’m quite skilled at mouthing repentant words. Bearing fruit worthy of repentance, however, may be more than I can manage. I’m not even sure what that would look like.

Yet Paul assures us in his letter to the Romans, “…whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” A shared sense of hope would be most welcome, as would glorifying God with one voice, though I’m not too confident about “living in harmony with one another.” (2)

Then comes the hardest part:

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

The problem is that my broad-brush responses to the other two readings paint me into a corner. If I count myself with the Gentiles in the Isaiah reading and against the hypocritical religious Jews in the gospel, then I’m surely among “the Gentiles” Paul has in mind here. Count me one of the latecomers, part of what Paul describes elsewhere as that “wild olive shoot” grafted onto “the rich root of the olive tree” constituted by the first observers of the Law. I’m among those preached to and reached for by the very people I disown or find disagreeable. No matter how badly they’ve gotten things wrong – straining at gnats while swallowing camels – I stand in their debt.

Harder still, Paul’s welcoming community is not some hazy vision of the future but an expectation of our life together now. “Those people,” the ones whose words and opinions so offend me, form an essential part of the wholeness to which we are called in this life. They have a part of the truth without which I am incomplete. And it may be that I see their sins so clearly because I know those same, familiar sins from the inside.

None of this requires anyone to stop speaking and acting for what they see as the common good. It does, however, put those efforts in a most challenging context. The person who most needs to change, it turns out, is me. Jesus never promised that loving one’s enemies would change the enemy or save anyone’s life. In some circumstances, it might cost one’s own life. I pray that’s rare.

In the season of Advent, the start of the church year, we reset our clocks to the “Now Here” of the Incarnation and the “Not Yet” of the Eschaton. We relearn what it is like to be Jews, waiting for the Messiah and, at the same time, unlearn our old habits of discord and division. We do this together, as a church, because we aren’t capable of doing this alone. I need someone to whom I’m accountable, knowing that I can’t change anyone else’s heart without first changing mine.

So, in this season of waiting, uncertainty, and rancor, as I think about – and sometimes actually do – what little I can for the most vulnerable among us, I return to another passage from Merton, this time from New Seeds of Contemplation:

Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

“Hate” seems a rather strong word here, unless we apply to ourselves the old chestnut, “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.” That’s never as easy as it sounds. To conform oneself more fully to Christ, there is much to be unlearned, disowned. To approach Isaiah’s peaceable vision, there are many to whom I must listen and one who, by the grace of God, I must change.

1 Alternately translated as “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.”
2 Alternately translated as ”thinking in harmony with one another.”

The accompanying image is a detail of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in which John the Baptist points toward the crucified Christ. The Latin words “illum oportet crescere me autem minui” are from the Vulgate, John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

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