3 Advent A Episcopal Church at Yale
The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. December 15, 2019
The One We’re Waiting For
Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11: 2-11
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
What ever happened to John the Baptist, the wild prophet people flocked from all over Galilee to see, full of fire & brimstone, making straight the path for the Messiah to come?
Today we meet a very different John. He’s in prison. Life has beaten him down. And although he doesn’t yet know it, he’s headed toward a beheading. He’s asking the big life questions. Has his life made any difference? So he sends messengers to ask, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”
And Jesus answers clearly, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Look at the fruit, of my life and ministry, Jesus says; and you decide.
William Sloane Coffin, once chaplain at Yale, asked a similar question to Jesus’ followers over the ages, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would you be convicted?” In other words, would the fruits, of your life bear any relationship to those of Jesus’?
So maybe rather than just John, Jesus is speaking directly to each one of us in today’s gospel, asking, “Are you … and you and you and you, the one I’ve been waiting for, or shall I wait for another?”
I recently read The Power of Half, written by a father – daughter team, Kevin and Hannah Salwen, and describing their ordinary Atlanta family, Kevin & Joan & two teenagers, Hannah & Joe. The story opens with Kevin driving Hannah back from a sleepover, when they stop at a traffic light. To the right is a sleek brand new Mercedes sports car, and to the left, a homeless man, begging. “Dad,” Hannah asked, “Do you think if that man had a less nice car, then maybe that man could have a decent meal?”
Well, the light changed, and they drove on. But Hannah, being 14, kept pestering and badgering her parents with this question. Finally Mom blurted out, “What do you want us to do, sell the house?” Now you ask, “What was Mom thinking?” Didn’t she know that you never suggest such a grand gesture to an idealistic teenager? Because, of course, Hannah kept right on pestering and badgering – but now she was pestering them to sell their house!
Bizarre as it sounds – the Salwens actually did sell their house, bought a smaller one, and gave half of the proceeds to fight world hunger. And somehow, they became a lot closer and happier in their smaller space. They travelled to Ghana to see the impact of their giving, and they witnessed first – hand how many lives they had fundamentally changed.
Hannah, a high school senior when they wrote the book, insists they didn’t write it to get people to sell their houses. “Most people are not that nutty,” she says, “and it is a kind of a ridiculous thing to do. But for us, that house was something we could live without. It was too big for us. Everyone has too much of something – time, talent, money. You just have to find which one.”
“Am I the one God is waiting for, or shall God wait for another?”
It turns out that, who we think God is, and who we think we are largely determine the fruits that our lives will bear. Now we know that the world we live in today, whether writ large as all of creation, or writ small as the Yale bubble, can be a difficult and contentious one, with increasingly polarized perspectives, growing intolerance, and deep existential concerns about both our country and our planet. In times like these, like John’s prison time, it’s no wonder that our modal response is often fear, and then denial. This makes perfect sense.
Cognitive psychologists tell us that when we’re afraid, our lizard brain’s immediate response is to sort the immediate possibilities into extremes: “This is overwhelming and deadly; that is just fine.” So many of my friends, for example, view the crisis of climate change that way. It is either so overwhelming and inevitable that we can’t do anything about; OR it couldn’t possibly be that bad – we’re going to be just fine.
The problem is that the fruits of these radically different ways of thinking, psychologists tell us, are exactly the same. In either case, we withdraw from participation in solving the problem, or even thinking about it, until it’s too late.
And so it is with our life in God. We are often so preoccupied with some ideal image of being a faithful follower of Christ, an image that involves denying ourselves, and giving up everything we have in service to others, that we’re afraid we’ll never make such a mark, so we throw up our hands and say, “Why try?” French worker priest and poet, Michael Quiost, puts it perfectly, “God, I am so afraid of that first ‘Yes’ you ask of me, for I know it leads to so many other yesses.” I’m sure that Mary, at the Annunciation, felt exactly that same way.
So the question is, what is it that allows us to respond without fear? How do we grow that kind of faith, the kind that, as St. Paul reminds us, is “the perfect faith that casts out fear?”
And the answer, at least as far as what’s worked in my own life, is to try as often as possible to place myself in situations that allow God’s love for me to flow unhampered, freely, so I actually get to taste it, to experience it, to weep with joy at its presence, to watch as it heals and strengthens me. That’s the power of prayer, the power of reading and reflecting on scripture, the power of sharing spiritual autobiographies, and of going on retreats. It’s the power of talking about your faith with others, with sharing and comparing and growing together, building the muscles of our faith, in community, with God.
The prescription for overcoming our fear lies in knowing we’re never alone, that we’re deeply loved, and that all that is asked of us is to consent to God’s presence as our north star, by simply saying “Yes” to the next right action.
Another psychologist Gerald Jampolsky, in a wonderful little book called “Love is Letting Go of Fear,” contends that ultimately every choice we’re asked to make is a choice between love and fear. Leaning into love opens up our curiosity, our imagination to all sorts of possibilities that we simply can’t see when we’re afraid.
Ultimately, love, that intimate blend of comfort, vulnerability and trust, that we all hunger for so deeply, is only something we discover in union with God. We find echoes and suggestions of it in the healthiest human relationships and vocations, but its depth and breadth is only found in God.
So stick close to God. And when God asks us, in those moments large and small, “Are you the one I’ve been waiting for, or shall I wait for another?” All we need do is just say yes.