Jerry Folk’s Homily, December 11, 2016

Holy Wisdom Monastery Homilies 1 Comment

December 11, 2016 (Advent III)

Holy Wisdom Monastery, Madison, WI

John the Baptist is a prominent figure in the scripture readings for the Advent Season.  Last Sunday we heard him declare, “The Reign of God is at hand and the Messiah will be here soon with a winnowing fork in his hand. He’ll separate the wheat from the chaff and throw the chaff in an unquenchable fire.” A few verses later, John reveals the identity of the Messiah. He points to Jesus and says, “He is the one.” But in today’s reading he’s not so sure. Reports about what Jesus is doing are coming to him in his prison cell and he’s a little disappointed. Where’s the ax? Where’s the unquenchable fire? He decides to launch an investigation and sends his disciples out to question Jesus. “Are you the One or should we look for someone else?”

Jesus didn’t answer this question directly. As he often did, he tossed it back to the questioners. “You will have to decide for yourselves whether or not I’m One,” he says. “Listen to me and look at what I’m doing. I’m   restoring sight to the blind, cleansing lepers, raising the dead, opening the ears of the deaf, and preaching good news the poor. If that’s what you’re looking in a Messiah, then I’m the One and my ministry won’t scandalize you.”  This response implies that some people are scandalized by Jesus and his ministry, perhaps even John himself.

Why would anyone be scandalized by Jesus? Well, look at the crowds that surround him. There aren’t many religious people, many holy people, many powerful people among them. Many in these crowds are probably too poor to keep kosher well. Many are disabled or sick and there are a few well-known sinners like prostitutes and crooked tax collectors among them. These are needy people and people who know they are needy. They’ve come to Jesus because he offers what they need—love, forgiveness, acceptance, embrace, and healing. This is completely the opposite of what many pious, religious and powerful people, including most of the religious leaders, are expecting in a Messiah. Like John, they expect a Messiah who will separate this worthless chaff from the wheat and burn it up, not fraternize with it. What Jesus is doing scandalizes them. And when they listen to Jesus’ teaching they find it equally scandalous. He tells stories that turn their world upside down—the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which John Dominick Crossen renames the Pope and Pimp. How can such a man be the Messiah? He is not separating the chaff from the wheat, sinners from the righteous. On the contrary, he’s confusing things, mixing things up, inviting everybody into God’s new world. He’s not threatening cosmic fire. He’s offering cosmic reconciliation through forgiveness and love. He restoring creation to what God intends it to be. Or perhaps it would be better in our time to speak, as Teilhard de Chardin does, not about the restoration of creation but about its completion and consummation. That language fits better with Jesus’ imagery, because when Jesus speaks about the coming of God’s reign, he doesn’t point back to the past, to some Golden Age that must be restored, but to a future completion and consummation toward which God is moving the universe. Jesus’ work reflects more the beautiful lyric poetry of Isaiah that we’ve heard the last two weeks than the fire and brimstone of John the Baptist.

Jesus message and ministry are profoundly counter-cultural and counter intuitive. They fly in the face of the mythology that dominates human culture, especially what Walter Wink called the “Myth of Redemptive Violence.” This myth is as old as human civilization. It’s the plot of the Enuma Elish, the ancient Babylonian creation story, in which the young male God, Marduk, subdues the old female Goddess Tiamat, cuts her body in half and makes heaven and earth out of the two halves. Good triumphs over evil through violence. This myth has been a powerful force throughout human history and remains one today. It’s the theme of countless contemporary films, cartoons, novels and television programs. We all feel its power, don’t we? It’s so satisfying to see those bad guys get what they deserve. That’s one of the reasons we enjoy watching these dramas.

In the verse that immediately follows today’s Gospel, Jesus seems to allude to this myth of redemptive violence when he sums up his words about John the Baptist. He says, “From the days of John until now, the reign of heaven has suffered violence and the violent have sought to take it by force.” But Jesus initiates a new Age in which the power of this myth will no longer go unchallenged. And he unleashes a new, more powerful force —the power of redemptive suffering.  The early Christians made use of this power when they resisted Roman persecution non-violently. Francis of Assisi embraced it when he rejected the warring spirit of the crusades and went unarmed to the Sultan to preach to him about Jesus. But the Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi was the first to realize that the power of redemptive suffering could change not only individuals and personal relationships but the course of human history and he employed that power in numerous nonviolent campaigns. He described these campaigns in his autobiography, which he titled, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi’s disciples like Martin Luther King, Jr. continued his experiments throughout the 20th century with dramatic effect. Commenting on this in his book The Powers that Be, Walter Wink wrote, “In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,100,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that” (overthrew their governments.)… If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in (the 20tyh) century…the figure reaches 3,337, 400,000, a staggering 64% of humanity. All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn’t work in the ‘real’ world.”

Experiments with the power of redemptive suffering unleashed by Jesus are still going on in many places today and continue to turn the world upside down. One that’s been in the news a lot lately is taking place in Standing Rock, ND, not so far away from here. I was deeply moved recently by a 2 minute 45 second video of a forgiveness ceremony that occurred 3 or 4 days ago at Standing Rock. This ceremony gives us a glimpse of the power of redemptive suffering. The people gathered as Standing Rock are suffering as they are buffeted by a brutal North Dakota winter. Snow, ice, wind and below zero temperatures assail them as they huddle together for warmth and seek shelter in their flimsy tents and tepees. They don’t have to be there. They have chosen to suffer for what they believe is Truth. And the veterans at Standing Rock have chosen to share that suffering and to publicly confess their own and our nation’s sin.  “We have come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service. We beg your forgiveness,” their spokesman, Wesley Clark says. Then he kneels before the native elder, who lays hands on him and gives him absolution. I include the link to this short video below and encourage you to watch it.



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