Monday, December 18, 2017

Anointed to Practice the Better: Reflections for the Third Week of Advent

On this third Sunday of Advent, we encounter the familiar words of Isaiah 61. This prophetic lection is the same text read by Jesus in Luke 4, a passage that framed the duration of his ministry. The illustration is clear, God’s holy one is anointed and sent to bear good news in the midst of pervasive devastation, despair, oppression, and injustice that had a chokehold on God’s once-exiled people. The jubilant agency of this prophet, which is assumed by Jesus in his time and place, cuts through their raw and real suffering with a much-needed word of comfort and hope longed for by prior generations. The time for lament had passed; theirs was the time to build, plant, and repair what was in distress.

In our time, there are more than enough reasons for lament. Whether another #metoo or #churchtoo story of sexual harassment and assault, mass shooting at a music festival or Sunday morning worship service, reminder that racism and white supremacy are far from issues of the past, or the madness that has become our country's political landscape, we can quickly become seduced by cynicism and stuck in despair. We may even get lost in the great echo chambers of social media, endlessly reading and occasionally delivering rants laced in fatalism, fear, and righteous indignation in light of whatever issue has unsettled our own prophetic conscience and moral compass. If we read the fullness of Isaiah, we would discover similar, albeit ancient, cries of dereliction provoked by the straying from God’s dreams for a just and whole world.  There is a sure place for such words of woe, especially when the dignity and worth of our most vulnerable neighbors hangs in the balance.

Rest assured, Jesus and the prophets turned over their fair share of tables. 

Yet, the witness of Isaiah 61 affirms that the ultimate call of God’s anointed hinges more so in construction versus deconstruction, building versus tearing down, and revitalizing that which is feared to be beyond repair. While we are to speak out against the horrid ways we see the humanity in our near and distant neighbors violated, well-nuanced statements of condemnation will not suffice on their own. We must be known not only for what we say in these moments, but also the ways we subvert the varied manifestations of evil with our own acts of love, justice, and a commitment to the renewal of the world God so loves.  As Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, writes, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” This is what it means to be an Advent people, practicing the better within a world that is simultaneously ruinous and beautiful.

As a networker, storyteller, and resourcer alongside our churches and related ministries within this presbytery, I am overwhelmed by the varied ways the saints have been anointed by the Spirit to practice the better. In the midst of a very real school-to-prison pipeline, ministries within our bounds have worked alongside public schools and local leaders to create mentoring programs for youth in at-risk neighborhoods. On the other end of the prison system, congregations and faith communities have opened their sacredspaces for those who have previously been incarcerated to develop necessaryskills to enter or the workforce or create elaborate murals that tell theirstory and the stories of their communities. In neighborhoods labeled as food deserts, our ministries have launched nutrition programs for young people toenhance a child’s ability to focus in school. Other congregations, in light ofthe growing opioid epidemic, have collaborated with local service agencies andprofessionals to develop programs for individuals and their families who battleaddiction and loss. Still more, there are congregations who form intentional community across racial-ethnic and political divides, extend welcome and housing to refugees, advocate for human rights, facilitate longest night services for those whom this season is dark and dreary, and host music and artsfestivals that confront and work towards the end of gun violence in our cityand nation. In virtually every realm where there is evidence of ruin, you can be sure there is also a witness to the gospel as proclaimed by the lives and lips of disciples within the bounds of our presbytery and around the country. In these places, as we drape garlands in the midst of ashes, we find God’s favor. 

As we wait for the coming of Immanuel at Christmas, may we be reminded of how the Spirit has anointed us to be such counter practitioners of goodness in a world deeply longing for something better than what is currently on display. May we refuse to sit on our hands in expectation, but refresh our sense of mission that works for the liberation of those captive to silence and fear, comforts the afflicted, extends belonging to those isolated and marginalized, offers compassion to those who grieve, and proclaims a word of hope that ensures nothing is so ruinous that it is beyond God’s promise to repair and rebuild, restore and resurrect. May the oil of such anointed promises drip from all we say and do- not only in this holy season of Advent, but also in the long journey from manger to cross and empty tomb.