Straightening Pathways - Luke 3:1-6
Do you dream of a white Christmas with deep, deep inches of snow? Do you delight in shoveling snow? I love shoveling snow; it’s exercise with purpose, it’s an opportunity to be neighborly. I shovel my walk, my porch stoop, my neighbors’ left and right and sometimes across the street. Clearing pathways and helping neighbors clear their pathways is central to our message today.
The Gospel of Luke imparts a call of repentance and transformation. John the Baptist cries like Isaiah of old a call to transform our lives opening up channels of peace. Open channels to God, open channels to each other, open peaceful channels of relationship. It’s hard work straightening paths, changing the terrain of valleys and mountains making them passable. It’s hard work smoothing relationship’s roadways. Imagine the work of building our country’s interstate system. Earth is moved, mountains tunneled and carved, bridges built. How many of you travel through the never-ending Virginia road construction? You know, road building is slow.
Preparing for the Christmas baby is hard, never-ending, slow work too. We move the earth of our relationships – forgiving mountains of injury, building bridges of love, and changing society to be safe and just for all people.
Loving God and loving our neighbors is more strenuous than shoveling snow and building highways. It is also delightful work. Loving God and our neighbors, is like preparing for beloved guests. Do you remember guests who had you so excited that you were out emptying the trash, changing the sheets, wiping down countertops, shaking out rugs, and cooking up a storm?
In a spiritual way, this Advent we prepare for the greatest guest, Immanuel, the baby of promise. We shake out our hearts, and scrub down our motivations for we have a very special guest coming. The Child comes to teach us that God would have us get excited about every guest, all God’s children. Shovel pathways that all God’s beloved children might have meals together, might enjoy rich community. Shovel pathways of safe passage for the Prince of Peace comes for and to all of us.
The Prophet, John the Baptist John calls down the corridors of Christmas’s past for us to repent, crying, “Change.” Repent, change becoming more loving, more kind, and more faithful. Repent, shovel away behaviors that block relationship, inhibit life, inhibit love.
Repentance takes courage. We examine ourselves to see what behaviors break relationship. Do we hold grudges? Do we get too angry? Are we selfish? Have we forgotten how to love someone? Shovel away selfish roadblocks, shake away bedeviling dust, scrape away the mildews of resentment and try new good habits and loving practices.
Repentance takes courage, sometimes we must confront others. Corporate repentance is a renewal, a turning back to the ways of God. The Prophet calls us to prepare for the Christmas Star, by being prophets too. Call out that paths be straightened, name evil, speak truth to power, and channel welcoming pathways to neighbors.
I remember a Thanksgiving years ago. Some guests’ four year old boy threw a never-ending tantrum. I remember thinking, “not my business, not my child.” But, I had to do something; he was disrupting everyone’s ability to delight in my cooking. I pulled his parents aside and offered advice from the experience of some friends who have five children. Whenever one of their children cried out, they would ascertain the situation. “Are you hurt?” “Are you hungry?” “Are you needing something important?” Or “Are you just wanting your way?” If the child needed something they would attend to the need but if she was petulantly crying for her way, the parents would send her to her room saying, “Come out when you can be less selfish.”
We are called to be prophets, seeking harmony and justice. Today’s Luke passage quotes the transformative prophecy of Isaiah: the mountains and hills shall be made low: the abusers will be humbled no longer allowed to exploit the powerless. The valleys shall be filled: the lowly and the poor, the marginalized and the powerless will be lifted up to equality and justice. The crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth: the injustices we heap upon each other will be shoveled away. Prepare for Jesus, our greatest guest, prepare safe and welcoming places in homes and hearts.
It takes courage to be prophets, to confront and to speak of difficult things. I confess that I enjoy preaching upbeat sermons. I don’t like to speak too often to the hard stuff. But if our churches are to transform society, we must find our voices, and call out from the wilderness for change. I am horrified by the sexual abuse scandals at Penn State. I am horrified that our culture struggles with how to respond to the abuse of children. I am horrified that one known situation of abuse stands before hundreds of abusive situations hiding in shadows. I am horrified that patterns of secrecy and protection of predators prevail. The satirical, mock-newspaper, the Onion, ran a story about a fictitious press conference held by ten year old boys at Penn State?One of the boys was to have said, "Considering that the monstrous acts perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky went unreported for years, even after a fellow coach saw him raping a 10-year-old …, we feel perhaps not everyone is totally clear on what to do if one witnesses such a thing," Just contact the police. Call 911, go to your local precinct, stop an officer on the street—the bottom line is, if you see one of us getting raped, notify the police, and do so as quickly as possible." Whether the allegations leveled against Mr. Sandusky prove to be true or not – we as a culture must start talking about ways to protect children.
We are called to straighten pathways, to correct the crooked, to make rough places smooth. Read today’s story, A Racial Gap for Criminals Seeking Mercy. It reports a disturbing inequity regarding Presidential pardons. Between 2001-2008 of 1918 pardons only 13 were of minority races. We are called to pull injustice into the cleansing light of Christ. We are called to make safe places. We are called by God to be new prophets, enthusiastically straightening the pathways of this world, readying them so that Christ may come, come into hospitals, come into prisons, come into war zones, come into halls of government, come into arguing families, come into grieving hearts, come into cancer-ravaged bodies, come into sexual abuse, come into minds cast down in depression and doubt.
May we channel pathways of peace for Christ to come with health, peace and love.
Here is a story of a mother who shoveled away bickering in her family. Mother MacDonald was frustrated with her children’s constant bickering, especially Eric and Kelly who regularly fought over Eric’s red race car. Kelly just wouldn’t stop playing with it. With Christmas a month away, the home lacked the Christmas Spirit. How could she help her children into this season of sharing? An idea came to her. She called the family together to explain the Christmas project. They would surprise Baby Jesus on Christmas Eve with the softest bed in the world, filled with straw. The catch was that each piece of straw placed in the manger represented a secret task. The family put their names in a hat and pulled out a secret partner. For the week, they would do secret good things for that person, and each time, place a straw in the manger. They drew their secret names. Eric wasn’t happy about his assignment. He frowned and went to his room. Good things began to happen everywhere. Little Kelly’s nightgown was put out every night for her, and her bed turned down. The children were not bickering much anymore. Someone cleaned the sawdust beneath Dad’s work bench. The basket filled with loving straw. The second week, they drew names again. Eric again seemed upset. Much of the same kind spirit continued, and the pile of straw grew. The third week came, they drew names; again Eric frowned. The fourth week came and they drew names for the last time. The basket was brimming with straws representing their secret tasks of love. They drew names, Eric gasped,“I can’t do it anymore” and ran outside. Mrs. MacDonald found him and he cried, “I got Kelly, every single time. I can’t stand her and can’t do one more nice thing for her.” Mrs. MacDonald shared how proud she was that he had done so many good things for Kelly over the last three weeks. She traded names with him to give him a break. Eric was excited to do good deeds for his new pick. This last week, Mrs. MacDonald served Kelly dutifully and Eric served his new secret partner. But on Christmas Eve when she went to put out Kelly’s nightgown and pull down Kelly’s bedding, the gown was already out and the covers were back, and on her pillow lay a little red race car. The last Straw was Eric’s after all.
Friends, as you receive the Lord’s Supper this morning, consuming the love and promise of Jesus Christ recommit yourself to listen for God’s call to be prophets. Learn to be prophetic peoples hearing and enacting God’s gracious ways. Prepare the ways, that God’s ways become our ways, and God’s ways become our society’s ways, and God’s ways shape the world. Amen.
Washington Post, 12/4/2011.
An adaption of Paula MacDonald’s story, “The Last Straw” published in Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul, pp69-78.