Saturday, December 07, 2013

Survival Stories

Here's tomorrow's homily; the Gospel is Matthew 3:1-12.  Advent's my least favorite liturgical season, and I've never found John the Baptist very appealing, so finding my way into the readings is always a challenge. Gary thinks this works.  I hope other people will, too.


Happy New Year! This is the second week of Advent, the beginning of the church year, and you know what that means. John the Baptist is back, chomping on locusts, howling about the end of the world as he exhorts people to save themselves through baptism and repentance. The Kingdom of God has come near, and the approaching messiah is one scary dude.

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

In his day, John was hugely popular. On the face of it, this seems odd. John preaches a gospel of fear lightened with just a little good news: the world’s ending, but you may be okay if you repent and get baptized. I wonder, though, if John was so appealing because he got people’s adrenaline going while also giving them a simple way to save themselves.

Remember the Y2K crisis? Fourteen years ago, we were warned that on January 1, 2000, computers everywhere would crash, hopelessly confused by the logical problem of moving from the double-nine of 1999 backwards to double-zero. Planes would fall from the sky, banks would fail, personal electronics would become useless hunks of metal and plastic, and civilization as we knew it would grind to a halt. People who knew a lot about computers – like my husband, who’d spent years working as a programmer -- believed this was a real danger. We, along with many other people, laid in extra food and water and a Coleman stove, just in case the power grid failed and we couldn’t use our mostly electrical kitchen.

Nothing happened. Either the threat was overstated, or programmers around the world spotted it early enough to have time to fix it. Computers kept working. Banks stayed open. Stoves and coffeemakers remained operational.

In the weeks before Y2K, a few lonely voices had suggested that the new year would not usher in doomsday. My husband dismissed these people as ignorant optimists. “It’s a really complicated problem,” he said, and of course I believed him.  Mixed with my alarm, though, was a kind of thrill. This was an adventure. I was preparing for life after the apocalypse. Everything was heightened by the adrenaline rush. Planning for the end of the world was exhilarating.

I don’t know if that’s how the crowds following John the Baptist felt, but there’s no denying that we humans love scary stories, especially about apocalypses. Look at the current obsession with zombies. We love to imagine ourselves in danger, especially if someone gives us some simple, decisive way to survive. Lay in emergency supplies for the year 2000! Flee zombies so they won’t eat your brain! Repent of your sins and be baptized in the River Jordan!

The people warning us about the year 2000 were wrong. So far, there’s been no sign of zombies, either. But back in A.D. 29 or so, very shortly before Jesus began his public ministry, John the Baptist was right. The Kingdom of God was at hand. Someone greater than John was about to appear. Repentence was -- and is – essential.

What John got wrong were the special effects. The messiah had already arrived, three decades earlier:  not as a gigantic striding figure with a winnowing fork, tossing unbaptized and unrepentent sinners left and right, but as a human infant, vulnerable and needy. This was not a towering, threatening figure. This was a God of love, not one of fear: not a God who condemned us, but one who became us, putting on our fragile flesh, opening himself to weapons and wounds.

The end-of-the-world stories we enjoy tend to start with the world wiped clean by plague or war or winnowing fork. These stories radically simplify the landscape of survival. When you’re juggling a job, bills, growing children, aging parents, health problems, car problems, and Christmas shopping, zombies can seem almost restful. When zombies show up, all that other stuff no longer matters. All you have to do is outrun the zombies. Stories like this paint the world in stark either/or terms: right versus wrong, us versus them.

The Christian story is a lot more complicated. Christ requires us to welcome strangers, rather than locking them out because they might want to eat our brains or steal our bottled water.  Christ requires us to recognize our own role in harming the neighbors we are called to love, our own complicity in other people’s apocalypses. Each of us participates in systems that oppress God’s children, harm God’s creation, and threaten our own wholeness. We can’t turn on an electric light, fill up our car’s gas tank, or shop in any kind of store without raising a swarm of ethical questions. Am I being as energy-efficient as possible? How can I reduce my dependence on dwindling resources? Was my Thanksgiving turkey humanely housed and slaughtered? How can I be sure the coat I’m buying wasn’t made by children in a Third-World sweatshop?
There are no clear, easy lines here: not between us and them, rarely even between right and wrong. We live and work in a complicated society that always pulls us into murky territory. Nothing we do is pure. Everything is interconnected. No one is completely innocent.

This entanglement in messy human systems and institutions is my current definition of original sin. We are all born into it. We cannot move outside it. All we can do is repent, pay attention, and do the best we can, knowing that we can’t walk without taking at least a few wrong steps. We cannot save ourselves. Only God’s grace, mercy and love can save us.

John was right that we need to repent, because we never know when our personal worlds will end. John himself would only be alive for another few years. But this is still a story of hope. God loves us and yearns to save us. God’s love shines through the darkness of John’s tragic death, through the darkness of our tangled relationships with ourselves and other people, through the darkness of mortality. God’s light leads us to the ultimate happy ending:  Easter, the impossibly empty tomb, the final triumph of love and life over fear and death.

In the fiction workshops I teach at UNR, my students often write very dark stories. They love tragic endings, especially ones where everybody dies. A few years ago, in a class where the stories were even more depressing than usual, I asked about this. Why were happy endings so unpopular? Why not write stories where everyone survived, where things got better?

My students thought about this for a while. Then one of them said, “Well, you know, that kind of happy ending is what you find in kids’ books. Those are the kinds of stories you hear when you’re a child, so telling them feels childish.” These students, eager to be sophisticated adults, were as disappointed by happy endings as I had been secretly disappointed when nothing happened on January 1, 2000.  Happy endings can seem like a letdown.

Jesus says that unless we become as little children, we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe part of what he means is that we need to reclaim our joy in happy endings. After John the Baptist -- the wild man gobbling locusts and thundering about the end of the world -- a baby sleeping in a manger can indeed seem like a letdown. It’s our job to remember what John himself knew and proclaimed, even if he got some of the details wrong: that the approaching messiah offers us the best kind of survival story, although it is neither the easiest nor the simplest.  This is the story where, even though we die, yet we shall live.