During my elementary school days at South River School, we were graded on our participation. For each subject listed on our report card—be it science or math or social studies—we’d get the grade we earned doing our homework and taking quizzes and completing projects, and then there’d be a grade listed for our participation during the school day. Were we engaged or just phoning it in? The idea was to help parents know that even if Johnny os Susie was earning a C+ in a certain subject that they were in fact taking an active part in the class time as shown by the A- in participation. They weren’t just trying to silently soak it all in by osmosis, nor were they overly distracted by the world outside the classroom window. They were present and active and engaged. They weren’t sitting on the sidelines.
In July 2019 a Gallup/Populace survey of more than 5000 Americans probed the question: How do Americans define success? The respondents were asked it in two different ways: how do they think other Americans define success, and how do they define success for themselves. The hope was to tease out what might be seen as societal expectations when it comes to success, and if those same qualities held true in a person’s own life.
And we’re here.
Sure, technically it’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent—and we have an entire week before we get to Christmas—but that’s not stopping our gospel lesson for the day from skipping ahead. It’s all there in the last sentence, Mary bears a son, and Joseph names him Jesus. Fini. Done. No manger. No shepherds. No singing angels. Matthew goes the minimalist route when it comes to that first Silent Night. (He will have much more to say come Epiphany, but that’s still 18 days away.)
Every year at Advent it’s the same: we get two weeks of John the Baptist even though we’re drawing closer to Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph’s story won’t show up until next week on the Fourth Sunday of Advent getting short shrift, so we’ll have to wait until then to talk about angels and annunciations and the like. This year in our readings from Matthew rather than a second dose of John by the River Jordan, we encounter the Baptizer in jail. Last week he was proclaiming with conviction that we needed to prepare the way of the Lord because one was coming who was more powerful than John himself. In fact, John said that he wouldn’t even be worthy enough to carry the sandals of this one who would appear with both winnowing fork and fire in order to set things straight.
A dozen years ago when I served a church in Colorado, I remember the music director—a child of the 70s—suggesting we sing “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” from “Godspell” for the gospel song on this Second Sunday of Advent. Others on the Worship Committee quickly jumped onboard. “I love that song!” one said. Another chimed, “‘Godspell’ is one of my favorite musicals.” With no organ in the worship space—they had a baby grand—the suggestion fit the liturgical style of the place, and so we agreed. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that in the church I grew up in “Godspell”—and its compatriot “Jesus Christ Superstar”—were verboten, or at the very least significantly frowned upon due to their irreverence to the Gospel story. Portraying Jesus as a clown with a painted face and an afro while donning a Superman t-shirt was a bit too much for the powers there. I’m certain some of the teens and young adults of that church saw it and loved it, but I’m also positive there was a lot of head shaking and finger waving as a result.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday, the day when we give thanks for the lives of all those held up in esteem as exemplars of the faith. When I imagine the saints, I think of them as achieving perfectionism. Followers of Jesus who got it all right, and whose lives are ideals for us to follow. One definition for perfectionism does in fact focus on the theological: perfectionism is “a doctrine holding that perfection is attainable, especially the theory that human moral or spiritual perfection should be or has been attained.” And the saintly ones who do this are way beyond where we ourselves could ever be. But we can try, right? Perfectionism is what we’re called to achieve, isn’t it?
For those of a certain generation, you may recall the hit song by the band R.E.M titled “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” For the rest of you, it starts with an earthquake and birds and snakes and airplanes and governments for hire and combats and fires and furies breathing down your neck, as the band describes the apocalypse in a stream of conscious way. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Things which had once been are no longer. It’s awful. And, the band wants you to know, in spite of all this, they feel fine.
The results from a 2014 survey detailed what Americans pray for most often. First on that list: family and friends. Their own problems came in at the number 2 spot. Future prosperity was a common prayer for more than a third of respondents, while praying for government officials—something Paul commends to Timothy in his letter to him—was done only by 12 percent. It turns out that praying for politicians happened less frequently than those who prayed for their favorite sports team to win, with 13% of respondents doing that.
Melissa, Noah, Olivia, and I walked 500 miles this summer on the Way of St. James—the Camino de Santiago. Well, slightly less mileage for Melissa and me; when Melissa sprained her ankle 3 days and 38 miles from our destination, it meant that she and I wouldn’t finish but we sent Noah and Olivia along with Camino friends so that they could. Around the middle of our trip as we walked in the Meseta—a long stretch of 228 kilometers and 10 days of walking through landscape similar to the Great Plains here in the US with little shade, and miles upon miles of fields—I asked what we were learning on the Way. What might God be teaching us, showing us. What was opening up for us.
There is much I want to say today to you before I embark on my sabbatical leave. The lesson from 2 Kings seems on first blush to be perfect. Elijah handing things over to Elisha as he’s whisked away in a chariot to heaven. But once you start laying it out, that would mean I’m getting whisked away by God—who, as singer-songwriter Marc Cohn suggests, would be using a silver Thunderbird instead of a fiery chariot, but I digress—and I’d be leaving Christine behind to pick up the ministry here. Except that knowing her as I do, I would be the one like Elisha asking for a double portion of Christine’s spirit. More so, as someone who has retired from full-time ministry, I suspect Christine will be honored to do this for a season, but then wanting to return to the things she loves that sustain her life. And there’s the simple fact that Elijah is gone forever while I’ll be returning to you in three months time. So that’s not it.