Slouching Towards Jerusalem
John 12: 1-8 and Isaiah 43: 16-21
There will be poetry tonight. That’s your warning and your promise. If you think you won’t like it, keep your ears open. If you think you’ve heard it before, keep your ears open. If you think you can read it better than I, you’re probably right. But keep your ears open anyway.
The desert is the wellspring of poetry, one of the wild and holy places where it bubbles up from underground, unexpected, spare, necessary, and full of life. And we are smack in the middle of the desert. We are making our way through this long, dry season of Lent.
This past week marked seven years of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Air travel feels as risky and cumbersome as it did back then when we first started taking off our shoes and belts and using 3 oz. bottles for liquids. Today our legislators try again to come to terms with health care costs, coverage, and responsibility. Earthquakes in Haiti and Chile have left people suffering terribly while the rest of us scurry to help. Everyone’s belt is tighter as the economy slugs along and the new graduates we know are thankful for any job they find. Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart duke it out each night over red and blue issues and the meaning of social justice. States flip-flop over allowing gay marriages and most of our churches dither and worry and fight over the same issue.
Another spring, during an exciting, turbulent time in this country, Joan Didion set out to chronicle the wilderness around her in a book called Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She wrote, “It was a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the GNP high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not.”
Didion took her title from a poem by Yeats called “The Second Coming.” Here it is – let the poetry begin!
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Are we frightened of this mysterious, moving shape of something about to be born? Birth brings hope and promise but also fear and loss of control. Something wants to be born and we aren’t quite sure what it is. Is this the Spirit of God moving in the world or something sinister?
Our denominational discussions about sexuality and ordination and marriage are vexing. To all sides. Is all this unrest and tension the birthing of the new thing God is about to do? And just what thing is that, exactly? The desert is disorienting. We forget which way we came from and our thirst makes us irrational and snippy.
The desert is also a chance for God to reorient us. It is a place to strip away everything we don’t need, look for shade, stick together, and praise the Water. It’s a time to remember that we’ve been here before and that every time, God has been with us and delivered us. God has always been there to lead us out of the wilderness, back towards home.
Remembering can bring us to a new understanding of our current circumstances or it can keep us locked stagnantly in the past. We can look around at the scrubby desert plants, the cactus needles, the cracked earth, up at the baking sun – and remember the last time our fortunes turned on us like this. We can sit here in the shadeless desert, and bemoan the state of church disunity, our meager understandings of God’s gift of sexuality, the lines in the airport, the number of papers and exams left before the semester ends, or the remaining weeks before Easter dawns… We can remember that we’ve sat on other parched ground under a noonday sun, upset and lost over the state of the church, the world, and our lives. We can even remember that God has been our traveling companion through other deserts and that God has given us water when we needed it.
But we can’t get anywhere with only those memories. They won’t get us out of this wilderness.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert (Isa. 43: 18-19). (I just slipped some more poetry in, there.) The writer of Second Isaiah says this just after reminding the people in Babylonian exile of Israel’s former sojourn in the wilderness. So, after bringing up the inspiring images of the exodus from Egypt and the path through the waters of the Red Sea, the writer here says, “But forget about all that. Forget about all that and look at what God is about to do now.”
It’s helpful to remember where we have been and how God has provided for us in the past. But if we aren’t careful, we can get so comfortable with the memories that we become uncomfortable with the new actions of God, springing forth in the midst of our lives now. Right here in the middle of all this wilderness.
Think of our Eucharistic liturgy. The Great Thanksgiving is almost all story, intended to remind us who we are and how we got here – the whole great story arc of God’s saving acts in history – but it also pushes us out of those memories into the new thing God is doing right now around this table tonight.
Listen to the poetry of this story we keep remembering. Listen to these words and hear the story: [READ UMH pp. 9-10, stopping after the second “…in remembrance of me.”]
We don’t usually stop there. As is, it’s a nice story, kind of inspiring. But don’t you feel left hanging?
Is it enough to remember what happened to us before? Is it faithful to consult only the past when discerning how God is moving in our lives and in the life of the world today? Would it be OK with you if we stopped the liturgy there and went home?
I hope not. Don’t get me wrong – I love this story. But without the ending – without the wildly untamable Holy Spirit, without the living Christ, without our eternally creating God, it is only a story.
Let’s finish it: [READ beginning at “And so…” to Lord’s Prayer.] Then we pray the Lord’s prayer, I break the loaf and lift the cup, we gather round the table, and share the meal.
The difference in where I stopped the first time and finishing out this liturgy, is the difference between just telling a story and feeding on the story. It’s the difference between remembering the former things and keeping ourselves open so that God can keep telling the story in us today. It’s the difference between telling ourselves a story and living out of that story in such a way that our lives are transformed and we expect further revelations and reverberations of the plot. It’s the difference between talking about God and expecting God to show up.
God does not want to be held captive in the story or in the communion elements, like a genie needing permission to be let out of her bottle. Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, so that we can be the body of Christ for the world. God is doing a new thing right here, right now. In the middle of this desert-scape world of fighting and mistrust and lines in the sand. God is doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?
In the story from John’s gospel, we meet up with the familiar characters of Mary, Martha, and their brother, Lazarus. This story simply describes the house Jesus comes to as “the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” Fairly understated and no mention of even a word on the side, Lazarus saying to Jesus, “Hey about that whole scene at the tomb – thanks again.”
But when you hear the name Lazarus don’t you always think of that other story first? Well here’s an entirely new story – God moving on, about to do a new thing – and though we are clearly meant to recall the other story, we are not bound only to that one, the first one we knew. As with Second Isaiah’s audience, it’s important for us to remember how God has acted in the past, but only so that we can trust enough to open our eyes to how God is acting here and now. The Mary story emerges from and goes beyond that previous Lazarus story. The smell from Lazarus’ tomb is recalled in the fragrance of nard spreading throughout the house. But these siblings aren’t looking for the same miracle twice. They’re ready and open to how God continues to move now.
Mary perceives the new thing Jesus is about to do and responds extravagantly, wholeheartedly, and (according to some) foolishly. Mary has been listening. She’s the one who annoys her sister Martha when she chooses to sit and listen to Jesus on another visit to their house (Luke 10: 38-42). In John’s gospel, where Jesus’ first miracle is the generous, improbable, and completely “unnecessary” act of turning water into wine during a wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-12), Mary has been paying attention. She sees the new thing Jesus is about to do and she pours herself out along with all that expensive oil, slathering his feet.
Later Jesus bends to wash his disciples’s feet after the Last Supper (John 13: 1-20). But here is Mary, enacting that teaching before it’s taught (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume IX, p. 703). And Jesus blesses her for what others call waste. You might even say Jesus encourages us all to get wasted – like this. To pay attention to the scent of that new thing on the Wind and to throw ourselves into what God is already doing, even when it seems over-the-top, ridiculously extravagant, scandalous, or scary. To be more like Mary, who knows how to pay attention and to hope.
With a thankful memory and an open heart Mary is poised for the new thing springing forth. And this is where hope is born. In the space between what was and what might still be. Surely some revelation is at hand, its hour come round at last.
Listen to poet Scott Cairns talk about the audacious tenacity and improbability of hope. And the necessity for it.
I am told there are no moose in Judea; but I have seen them, thousands and thousands of moose. – Shaya Kline
I’ve been in this desert longer than I care to
admit to any of you. I haven’t eaten a bite
since I left Jerusalem, unless you count the sand
the wind keeps throwing in my face.
I came here for the moose, though everyone
I’ve asked continues to insist moose
have never been here, and never will be.
I don’t care for that kind of talk. I’m convinced
moose can get along anywhere. And where better
than here, a holy land for the holiest of beasts?
I admit, I nearly gave up, girded my sandy loins
for the long walk out. But last night,
I was awakened from my pillow of sand
to a strange calling, a low sound like wind,
but with blood in it. And as I stared blindly
into the blank world, the moon lifted
from behind a dune, lighting up
an entire desert of moose, their shaggy heads
all lifted and calling out their one, holy word.
Our church will never agree on issues of sexuality. Those people read the Bible too literally and don’t know how to live for Christ in the world today. Those people think that striving for an inclusive church means anything goes. Those people act like they own Jesus. Those people don’t know Jesus… I don’t care for that kind of talk.
There is room in the desert for moose. There is room in this wilderness for hope, no matter how improbable it seems. There is room in this church – in Christ’s body – for all of us. It is precisely in these arid, apparently lifeless, deserts that God chooses to give water and to give birth to a new thing. Are we going to stand around debating the pregnancy, or are we prepared to midwife God’s new creation?
Today’s our first “Wesley Foundation Day” – a new thing! We are so pleased to be here today with so many different people who support and pray for campus ministry. We are thrilled to throw open the doors and invite more people in. Our Board has been working for more than a year on structural changes and strengthening relationships with churches in our District. As of Thursday night we have a brand new Student Coordinating Council. I spent the day in Richmond yesterday with our Conference’s Board of Higher Education Ministries, discerning how we go forward together, where we need to change, and how to live more fully into who God is calling us to be. Right in the middle of this Lenten desert, the economic wilderness, the semester at hand, and this imperfect church, God is doing a new thing. Right here in the desert we are learning to be midwives as we prepare for the birth.
But what if the new thing looks like a waste? What if the Savior we await is not who we anticipated? What if Lordship looks like washing someone’s feet?
One of the fascinating and perplexing things about desert life is the presence of dried riverbeds called washes. These are the spots you don’t want to be caught in a downpour, when water is frantically, mightily racing through the bed that was dry a few seconds before.
Imagine the terror at finding yourself in this situation. No rules seem to apply. No river banks to hold in the deluge. Water coming at you faster and fiercer than you can move. Maybe this is how some of us feel right now. The church is changing before our eyes and we are afraid to stand still and don’t know which way to run. The world feels less safe than it used to and our own lives and direction seem less certain.
The dry wash with the storm coming on is both terrifying and vital for life. Thank God for making rivers run in the desert. Thank God for giving pathways in the desert for the water and for our own lives.
We came here looking for moose when everyone said we’d never find them. We come to this table seeking a family, the Body of Christ, a mere thimble-full of water in this wild and lonely desert.
Can we see beyond the dunes to the new thing ahead? Is that the flicker of light on water ahead? Are we still too far to see it? Draw closer, hunker down. But be ready for how God will appear and what the path might look like once it’s revealed. God is doing a new thing. Now. Today. With us. God hasn’t left us in the wilderness yet and won’t now. But the way out never looks like the path in.
There will be rivers in the desert and a way in the wilderness. God is doing a new thing. That’s your warning and your promise. Do you not perceive it? This may look like a desert but it’s a holy land for the holiest of beasts – even beasts like us. God is doing a new thing. If you think you won’t like it, keep yourself open. If you think you remember something like this happening before, keep yourself open to what is before you now. If you are not sure you like or understand the new thing, keep yourself open anyway. God is doing a new thing. Don’t you want to be a part of it?
Thanks be to God!
© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis