Anticipation of God coming in and as Love incarnate.
I find the season of fall to be a time of preparation. It feels good to actively transition from the heat of summer to the coming chill of winter; to wash all the sweaters and shake out the jackets; to see how many wool socks have holes in them and need replacing. For me this season is a time to imagine a different routine, or come up with practices I want to try out. Autumn signals the hope of change and opportunities for maturation. Maybe this season I can . . [fill in the blank].
Of course, I also experience a shadowy side to such optimism, which is that mental list of All the Things Not Done (yet). And in the shadows sit habits that seem to cling tightly no matter how much I want them gone. It is not easy to shift gears with the wheels spinning in ruts, slinging mud everywhere.
Even still, hope returns with the scent of pumpkin spice. Maybe—just, maybe—this year can be different. I’ll find the perfect planner to get my life in order. I’ll cement a morning routine that makes each day golden. As yellow school buses begin to rumble along roadways during the week, salvation is on the horizon. . . .
As silly as it is, I have a sticky note on my computer that simply says, “TODAY: align my actions with my goals, my desires, my dreams.” When I wrote the note it was important to have “today” in all capital letters, because that is the key—today I can do something that moves me toward who I want to be or what I need to do, no matter how small.
And, if I’m honest, I need that reminder every single day, especially during seasonal changes, when the shadow of Things Not Done grows tall and, daily, I fear getting swamped by the woulda-coulda-shouldas of productive living. Do you know that swamp? It’s next to the bog of impending obligations.
For the moment, though, we can pause together here in this space, and in the virtual realm, remember that today is Sunday. It is (still) early September, and we are gathered to put on Jesus Christ as we would put on a comfortable sweater. The readings might not be comfortable, but don’t be afraid, God is here.
The lessons this week help draw our gaze toward three important and related messages. They are important because they highlight God’s saving acts on earth, and they are related because they heighten anticipation of God’s coming salvation for the whole earth ( indeed the whole cosmos).
I see anticipation as a keyword for both the message of the gospel and an integral part of the fabric of Paul’s theology. Through his letters we can sense that the moment Paul’s blindness was ripped away from him, when he was no longer Saul the persecutor, it was as though he experienced his own liberation from a Pharoah, his own temple curtain torn open—all that Jesus the Messiah is came pouring into him. From that point forward, nothing is the same for him.
I mention this because, in the midst of all the instructions that scripture lists, it’s important to hear a tingle of anticipation that comes with knowing that God acts in and as Love incarnate. God who is Love desires to renew us daily.
So, what might we hear from the readings?
Be prepared – the Israelites were instructed to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice because God was about to do something that would initiate their freedom from oppression.
In the lesson from Exodus, did you notice the part where it says, “if a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor” – there’s no excuse to leave anyone out. Conceivably widows and children, the elderly and orphaned would all have a meal. No one needs to miss out when God acts. And everyone is to eat as if in a rush.
This is the image of preparedness: eating lamb roasted over a fire, fully clothed and with shoes on. The bread isn’t even allowed time to rise. Any moment, dawn would break, a new beginning would arrive, “the beginning of months” “the first month of the year.” For the Israelites, time (essentially) is starting anew.
Paul encourages the church in Rome to fulfill the law (which is Torah/the ultimate teaching) by loving your neighbor as yourself (because) “the day is near.” In other words, Now is the time to choose love (and its companion, forgiveness).
Be reconciled – Jesus reminds his listeners that they have the power and the authority to forgive others, on earth as it is in heaven.
For Paul, life begins anew when believers “put on Christ.” As the Israelites girded themselves, putting on their clothes and footwear, Paul exhorts his readers to clothe themselves with Christ, and to be ready for the day of salvation. Preparedness here looks like being in right relationship with others in the community, loving neighbor as oneself.
Yet, here we are, nearly two millennia later, hearing his message still, “Now [is] the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Be prepared for God’s saving action by loving one another, and not allowing friction to spring up in the many ways it does—when we act out against a fellow sibling, when we (un)wittingly harm another, when we do something that steals life or joy from a neighbor.
Commenting on this passage, sixteenth century reformer, Martin Luther, described those who sleep as Christians “sluggish in good works, and overcome by the feeling of security.” (Uff da!) If you’ve never read Luther before, consider this your forewarning: he is not diplomatic in his writing. In fact, he insists that humans are fundamentally selfish and self-serving, and so interprets “love your neighbor as yourself” to mean, “love your neighbor in place of yourself” – set them first, deny yourself, and only then are you fulfilling the law of love. I can’t say that I fully agree with his approach on that one. Instead I prefer to draw from feminist scholars who begin with an ethic of mutuality and reciprocity as a way of contouring love for neighbor-as-self. (But that’s another sermon for another day.)
However, Luther’s barb still bites—perhaps even more so in our age of comfort and convenience, of remote controls and “soft pants.” How often have I been sluggish to do something for others, to act out of generosity in a Holy Spirit spur of the moment sort of way? I can’t think of many places I’ve lived or traveled where there wasn’t a prevailing sense of security or safety (which is not a bad thing in and of itself). To Luther’s point, when comforts lull us into a set of practices that cushion us, or insulate us against responding compassionately to others, that’s when we risk snoozing (spiritually).
And yet, what are we to do when entire communities of faith are experiencing high levels of compassion fatigue? When, in the wake of exhausting news cycles and a global pandemic, ministries that had strong support in the past can barely function? How do we manage to choose love every morning of every day?
We’re human; we get tired, and cranky. I’ve learned over the years that I can be mean and snap at people on occasion, no matter how much I try to hide my frustration. Or, worse, I may not even realize I was short with someone.
Jesus knows this about us. He knows we’ll hurt someone (un)intentionally. He knows we’ll misunderstand what another person says. He knows we’ll act out of frustration or anger or irritation. And he gives us some direction on how to make amends.
David Bentley Hart translates verse 15 like this: ‘Now if your brother sins, go and remonstrate with him [speak protest], between you and him privately. If he listens to you, you gain your brother.’
I once gave a sermon that hurt someone’s feelings. Or perhaps I should say, I only know of one instance where my words from the pulpit hurt someone, because she was gracious enough to talk with me afterwards. In the context of a community that was charismatic-leaning and tended to lift up dramatic conversion testimonials, I tried to give a message about the significance of quiet, persistent faith, of faith that wanders and returns to Christ. I was trying to put words to my own journey that’s had its mountain highs, but more often tends to plod along with little fanfare.
A friend whom I respect immensely pulled me aside afterward, looking upset. What she heard was that, for those who had experienced a sudden conversion to Christianity, it wasn’t all that special, or it was somehow lesser than others. What she heard seemed to utterly undermine her own testimony. I was stunned. In seeking to communicate an alternate understanding of rebirth and renewal, I had alienated a beloved sister.
By God’s grace we were able to listen to one another and share our thoughts so as to come to a better understanding. But it makes me wonder, when have I hurt others and either had no idea—or worse, simply didn’t take the time to speak humbly with them?
And, what wounds remain open when I don’t approach someone who (un)wittingly injures me? I still feel the pain from when a pastor told me, after I had served as a lay leader for a while, “I don’t trust you.” There was little to no context or explanation given around that statement—or if there was, my mind certainly didn’t hear the words that followed. The statement just dropped onto the coffee shop floor, like some bovine pie deposited in a field for flies to start circling. Now, years later, the sound continues to ring in my head, yet I have no doubt it’s long since forgotten by the person who spoke it.
God knows we’re human, we hurt one another, even (especially?) when we’re simply trying to explain or justify our own experience.
Martin Luther also notes that “to go forward means ever to begin anew.”
Love compels us forward. God acts in and as Love incarnate when we love our neighbors as ourselves, when we seek to be reconciled to one another, when we remain alert and ready to forgive others and ourselves. For forgiveness is the companion to love. Jesus makes a radical statement when he says, “truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Thanks to the grace and gift of Love incarnate, we can be released from the woundings of words and actions, and by the Spirit be renewed each day to choose love in anticipation of Jesus coming again.
May the Holy Spirit refresh our innermost places as she renews the soil with dew and rain; may she gather us in love together with a great cloud of witnesses to put courage in our hearts, that we may seek love anew as the day approaches. Amen.