This sermon was preached on Advent 3B 2011 at Holy Cross Lutheran Church.
When John the Baptist cried out from the wilderness to the world with his infamous exhortation to “Make straight the way of the Lord” he never could have imagined the highways and the byways that we 21st century preparers of the way encounter. These days the ways in which we travel are far from straight.
The day after I married the love of my life, Carol and I travelled to England to enjoy our honeymoon. The flight over the Atlantic had been packed, so even though we were dead tired when we boarded, it had been impossible to sleep. The days before the overnight flight had been filled with wedding celebrations, visits with family, that included conversations into the wee hours, followed by early morning trips to the airport as family members returned to their far flung homes.
I was exhausted as I tried to make my way through the construction site that is now Gatwick Airport. Dragging luggage past temporary signs designed to make do until the completed new Gatwick is unveiled just in time for the 2012 Olympics. Tired and confused we made our way past a shed, to the edifice that housed the car rental offices. While I secretly hoped that the perturbed looking woman behind the desk, would announce that they’d lost our reservation. Suddenly, the idea that anyone would entrust me with a vehicle in my brain-dead state, terrified me.
The very idea that I would be set loose behind the wheel of a right-hand drive car struck fear into my heart. Surely the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland had in place some laws designed to protect the British people. One look at my zoombizized persona, should have been enough to warn the purveyor of rental agreements, that I was not to be trusted with a vehicle designed to be driven on the left side of the road. But rather than, deny me access to such a dangerous weapon in my weakened condition, all this representative of Eurocar wanted to know was weather or not I carried adequate insurance. Sensing a way out, I suggested that the insurance coverage that came with my credit card might not be up to the task. A little too gleefully, I thought, the woman ensconced safely behind a desk, explained that they had just the right insurance for me. It seems that I would be on the hook for 12,000 pounds should I happen to total the car they were going to lend me. But for just 13 pounds a day, I could bring what was left of the car back on the hook of a tow truck if need be and I was covered.
It seems that nothing was going to deter this company from setting me loose on an unsuspecting British nation. So, as she handed over the keys, I bid a fond farewell to my mother, who sat waiting for my exhausted 78-year-old father, who was busy securing his own vehicle. I told myself that if Dad could do this, surely I could. So, Carol and I headed out to the parking lot to pick up our almost new, Voxhaul, Astra. It was beautiful and under normal circumstances I would have been delighted with this speedy little machine. But as I approached the driver’s door, I begin to tremble. It had been more than 20 years since I drove a car from that particular vantage point. It was cold and damp, so it took a while to get my GPS installed on the windscreen, and when I punched in the address of the hotel down in Bournmouth, I was relieved to see that the journey should only take about an hour and 40 minutes. I wanted nothing more than a clean bed upon which to lay my weary head. I warned my lovely bride Carol that we’d better find a place where I could get some caffeine or this might prove to be a disastrous trip.
I was just about to put the key in the ignition when my father rapped on the window. It seems he was not happy with his car. How come I got a sporty little Astra while he was stuck with a Hyundia? Dad was 78, and normally his driving scares the life out of me. But his 3 recent driving holidays in the UK, have given him the confidence to tackle the challenge of driving on the other side of the road. I was tempted to abandon our plans to head off in the opposite direction to my parents. I longed to sit in the back seat and let my Dad do all the driving, when I remembered that this after all was my honeymoon, and so I wished my Mom and Dad good-bye and good-luck and I tried to muster all the confidence that was left in myself and drive off.
Parking lots are one thing, but round-abouts are something completely different. It took only one round-about to undo my confidence, so as we approached the second round-about and the GPS told me to go right on the round about and take the third exit, then take the Motorway, I went left on the round about and took the first exit. I told the GPS in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t ready for the Motorway. Then I told Carol that we’d just get our bearings on a quiet country road first and then we’d follow the GPS’s directions to Bournemouth. Then thwack, I hit the curb.
I was so terrified of drifting into oncoming traffic that I was hugging the curb and with each bend in the road, thwack, the front end was slammed by the curb. As I tried to correct my position on the road, a giant truck was coming straight for me, and visions of this shiny new astra dangling on the end of a tow-truck hook, sent me reeling back towards the curb. Carol told me to be careful, I told her….well…let’s just say…it wasn’t talk that was appropriate to a honeymoon.
At the next round-about, I took the road that looked less travelled and found myself on a very narrow country road that wound itself in and out of the outskirts of Gatwick and thwak after twack, jolted us each time the oncoming traffic frightened me into believing that they were headed straight for me. To top it all off, I’d finally figured out where my rear-veiw mirror was. Think about it, we look over here, while they look over there to see what’s behind them. Any idea what was behind me?
A land-rover….but not just any land-rover…this one had a big light on top. A member of the Surrey constabulary was following me. Round each bend, following every thwack, charting my route through the idyllic British countryside, were the police and the police were being followed by a long line of traffic.
Twack, the Astra was at a bear minimum going to need a front-end alignment by the time I was through with it. I was mumbling some pretty elaborate curses, when from the rearview mirror, the police lights began to flash, and the sound of the siren, was music to my ears, because surely they’d lock me up and through away the key and I ‘d finally be able to get some sleep. By the time I figured out how to get the window down, the smiling face of one of Britian’s finest leaned in and said:
“I have some concerns about your driving, Madame.”
“Well so you should.” I replied.
“I just got off a plane. And they gave me this car. And I thought I’d get may bearings on a quiet country road.”….
“Where are you from Madame?” asked the kind young officer.
“Canada.” says I.
“Well now, in Canada are you allowed to hit the curb over and over again, when you’re driving in traffic?”
I told him that hitting the curb seemed so much better than being hit by oncoming traffic.
“And how many times do they let you hit the curb in Canada?”
I didn’t know what to say.
So, he tried again…”Three times, do they let you hit the curb three times?”
I was about to say something when the young officer said, “Just say, “Yes, 3 times”. And while I tried to figure out if he wanted me to simply say “yes” 3 times or if we’re allowed to hit the curb 3 times in Canada.”
He just said, “Say yes.” To which I said “Yes.”
He then asked me were I was going.
I said, “Not far, just down to Bournmouth.”
He said, “Bournmouth is quite far” and I was just about ready to hand over the keys, when he said.
“You need to get off this road. You’ll be far safer on the motorways. They’re not as narrow as these roads. Drive on the Motorway for a while and then you’ll be ready for these roads.”
I was disappointed when I realized that he wasn’t going to arrest me and when he made me promise to get onto the Motorway, I figured he just wanted to get me out of his jurisdiction. He bid us farewell and told us to enjoy our vacation and as he got back into his landrover, I started up the Astra and tried not to hit the curb as the officer followed us all the way to the Motorway.
Several hours later, and more than a few twacks later we arrived at our hotel without a scratch. We put just over a 1000 miles on that Astra and despite my best efforts to the contrary, we never put a scratch on that car. The challenge of driving in the UK is not just driving on the other side of the road. The roads themselves are the challenge. Centuries of building roads around the property of others has left the UK with roads that wind in and out, and round and about. There just aren’t that many straight roads in Britain. Curves, bends and roundabouts abound! Compared to Canada, where you can drive for days on the parries and never once have to turn the wheel, the UK is a complicated network of twists and turns and for the past couple of Sundays, listening to John the Baptist’s cry, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” has caused me to chuckle.
First of all making anything straight, is not something I’ve ever advocated. Some things just can’t be made straight, no matter how hard you try. But don’t try telling John the Baptist that. He wanted every valley and hill to be leveled and the rough places and the crooked made straight. John wanted a straight path for Christ to travel upon; a nice, straight, easy to navigate a way upon which to travel.
But the pathways have never been straight and as time goes on there seem to be even more bends in the road. When they build a road in the UK, they have to take into consideration the property rights of individuals, together with the common grazing rights, the rights of access of the general public and together with the need to get from A to B. Is it any wonder that the pathways weave in and out, to and fro as roads wind their way through the countryside? On one particularly windy road in Wales, I was heard to shout at a house on the road, “Get your bedroom out of my lane!”
Life is complicated, so preparing a way is complicated. So what are we to do in order to, “prepare the way for our God.”? I’ve been playing catch-up this week. Trying to figure out the complicated issues that face us each day as we listen to the news isn’t easy at the best of times. But when you’ve been away for a while, it’s difficult to understand the complicated nature of stories of continued injustice.
The first story to grab my attention when I returned was the plight of the people of Attawapiskat, just the latest travesty in the complicated journey that the peoples of Canada have been traversing for centuries. My first reaction was one of sheer disgust. Here we go again, another case of sheer incompetence by the government. Third world conditions in a first world country. It was easy to blame the government, until you read a little farther dig a little deeper…then it was easy to blame the band council…dig a little deeper and then it was easy to blame the media…dig a little deeper and you don’t know who to blame. It’s complicated. While we’d all love to find someone who is clearly to blame, the reality is that there is more blame to go around than there are people willing to roll-up their sleeves and do something. It took centuries to arrive at this juncture and it won’t be easy to straighten out.
The other story that caught my eye this week was about Walmart. T’is the season for shopping at Walmart and billions of dollars will be rung trough their tills. So when the news broke that six members of the Walton family, who own Walmart, have a net worth that is equal to the combined net worth of the bottom 30% of Americans. $93 billion dollars is held by six Waltons. That’s six people whose net worth equals the net worth of 90 million people. That such a concentration of wealth should lie in the hands of so few people and that those few people are all members of the same family profiting from the activities of one company; a company that most of us support in one way or another. Well it boggles the mind. Such a vast monopoly, that wields its power over the little guy each and every day, makes you wonder if this is the death knell of capitalism itself. But just as your about to object, someone reminds you about the people who work at Walmart and asks where would they be without their jobs. And all that stuff that gets made in China; where would the Chinese be without the opportunity to work all be it for wages we would consider getting out of bed for?
It’s a complicated world, with no easy answers. Straightening this all out is not going to be easy. Justice is complicated. We can’t just figure out who is guilty and punish them and be done with it. There are layers upon layers and consequences within consequences that make it difficult to work out who’s to blame, who’s profiting, who should be punished, who is really suffering, who needs liberating, and who needs to change their ways. Creating justice has its ins and outs, its twists and turns in this ever complicated world of ours.
While we’d all like to make things simple, or harken back to the day when all was called for was the intervention of some divine being to swoosh in and punish the guilty and reward the innocent, we all know that life is far more complicated than our primitive notions of justice would have us believe. There are no divine punishments for injustice. The sun rises and sets on the unjust just as surely as it does on the just. Evil prospers alongside the good.
So, what are we to do? How do we make straight the pathways of our God? How do we go about preparing the way for our God? Well first of all we must be prepared to confess that life is complicated and in this complicated life we are all implicated in the injustices of this world, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We must also begin to understand that although it might appear easier to simply take the path of least resistance, there are days when we have to get out on the motorway.
There may be no divine punishments for injustice, but there are human consequences for injustice. While the people of Attawapiskat are suffering all of humanity suffers. As the universe unfolds, humanity evolves. As we evolve, what we evolve into is directly related to who we are as human beings. If we are the type of people who are okay with the idea that our sisters and brothers are suffering in Attawapiskat regardless of who’s to blame, that has an impact on who we will become as a people. If we are the type of people who throw our hands up in the air and say, well we don’t like it that so much wealth resides in the hands of so few, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles’, so let’s just keep on keeping on and not worry about how or where our stuff gets manufactured, well that compliance has an impact on who and what we will become as a people. There are human consequences for injustice.
If on the other hand we recognize that we are wonderfully and beautifully made and capable of being so much more than we are right at this moment in time, then every effort that we make toward justice, makes the path just a little straighter as we navigate toward becoming all that we are created to be.
So, that means worrying and wondering what to do about the injustices we encounter, whether those injustices are large or small, simple or complex. It means each and every day, doing what we can to lift every valley, to make the rough places smooth, and the crooked, straight.
As the universe unfolds we have been entrusted with the power to affect our own evolution. We have been made co-creators with our God. That’s what incarnation is all about — God with us; dwelling in our midst; creating in, with, through, and beyond us, working with us as we fret over the injustices of it all, and working in, with, through, and beyond us to untangle the mess, one strand at a time. Incarnation means God in, with, through, and beyond us strengthen us so that we don’t just through up our hands in despair, empowering us with the wisdom to discern ways of being in the world that create peace and justice for all.
Advent is the time when we wait for that power to be born again in all of us. As we wait, let us prepare the way for our God. So that all the world may know the glory of our God, who is, was, and evermore shall be, the One through whom and with whom, we bring, good news to those who are poor; healing to the broken hearted, and release to those held captive, comfort to those who mourn, gladness to replace tears and restoration to the ruined.