Greater Expectations

Greater Expectations

I think we all realize it by now, but prophets rarely have an easy time of it. Their enemies revile them, their friends are annoyed by them, everyone else rarely listens, and they usually wind up getting killed! So when we hear Jeremiah’s lament, we might give him some allowance to wine a bit. The translation we heard today, he begins by proclaiming: You fooled me, YHWH, and I let myself be fooled. Here, “fooled” is a relatively moderate term, with the original meaning being closer to the word “seduced.” That term is anything but moderate, and combines the sense of being dominated against one’s will but also enticed toward a surrender.

I wondered if you have ever felt fooled by God? Or, at the very least, fooled by Christianity? Fooled by the promises which imply that good things will come to good people, that righteousness will be rewarded, that the meek shall inherit the earth. Not so far, anyway. I know I have felt times in my life when I have felt I have given into a sense of a divine calling, only to find myself lost in the wilderness, only to wonder God, how could you leave me this way? I wonder if there is anyone who has felt called into something like ordained ministry of other kind of vocational commitment who hasn’t occasionally wondered, what have I gotten myself into? But this feeling is not just for the “professional” Christians. Any of us might wonder from time to time if it really worth the effort to seemingly swim upstream against the events of the world.

There is a seductive quality to the heart of the gospel—something that excites and over-whelms. The promises not just of life everlasting but of a world informed more by the beatitudes than the dictates of materialistic, transactional power. Not everyone succumbs to the attractiveness of the promise of justice and transcendent truth, but those who do might easily feel that we have been foolish to believe in so much.
In the face of all that has been unfolding in our country and throughout the world—not just for the past weeks or months—but seemingly for the entire history of Christianity, maintaining a sense of faith in the inherent goodness of all of creation can seem naïve and dangerous. Better to board up your windows, gird your loins, lower your expectations and shut-down your heart. Desolation can come easily, and I have certainly struggled with a sense of despair and futility at times. But the wisdom contained in the spiritual traditions reminds us that times of desolation are inevitable, but are also temporary. Consolation will return, the fog will lift, and we might again feel energized and returned to a stance of greater faith, hope, and love.

I felt the tide turn in me a couple of weeks ago. Like so many people, I was feeling anxious and depressed about the awful death of George Floyd, which seemed too much like a predictable repetition of a national trauma. Add to that rise of violence which followed. The riots and physical destruction in our community and beyond only added to a sense of helplessness. And then, just when it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, the President of the United States required a photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, a stunt which required the violent and forceful “clearing” of peaceful protesters in the square. I was somewhat encouraged by the eloquence and clarity of the rebuke by Mariann Buddy, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington. But the rage continued to build, fueled by threats of military intervention by the same President who had recently desecrated a sacred spot as well as the Holy Scriptures. But after a few more days, there seemed to be something shifting. The violence seemed to abate in most places, but the protesters kept coming—in more places, in more varieties, from more lifestyles. More and more people began to express a sense that this was not merely a repeat of the pattern of protest followed by complacency, which seems to happen whenever something really heinous occurs in our society. More and more people are mad as hell, and are not going to take it anymore.

I’m sure many of you have had similar thoughts: Are well foolish to believe that this time could be different? Have we been seduced into a naïve optimism that this collective effort might produce substantial change? And, of course, these dramatic events are merely the tip of the iceberg of incidents of racial prejudice and injustice, which have been occurring for generations.

In the letter to the Romans, Paul writes: don’t you know that when we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized int Christ’s death? We’ve been buried with Jesus through baptism, and we joined with Jesus in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by God’s glory, we will also be united with Christ in the likeness of Christ’s resurrection. Often, it seems we can only make sense of passages like this if we spiritualize it, or presume it’s talking only about life after death, or as the far-off second coming. But having been part of a recent discussion of Richard Rohr’s book, The Universal Christ, I’ve come to appreciate how Paul is not really talking about the future, but is talking about the here and now. And that signing-on to Christianity is not merely about seeking a place of comfort and inspiration, but means throwing oneself into the whole catastrophe, caught up in the full mystery of the Christ who by dying and rising brought us more completely into the God’s ownership of all of creation. For us to truly be dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus means far more than we should just behave ourselves. It means we should live as if everything has changed, even in the midst of so much evidence that would seduce us into believing that nothing has changed at all. The truth is, in spite of the heroic effort of many, it seems as though many more have been deaf to the prophetic call for full justice for all races, genders, nationalities and sexualities. Well, maybe not this time. Maybe a sea-change is occurring. Maybe more and more of us are awakening to the reality of a Christ-centered world which is inclusive of all.

I am an inpatient person. I don’t want to wait until heaven to live happily ever after. I also realize that I can easily slack off and not do as much as I should or could be doing to bring more heaven to this earth. And though I don’t want to be fooled or to fool anybody by committing to impossible dreams, I am convinced that being a fool for Christ means embracing the conflict and division which, far from being the signs of the absence of God, is often God’s presence in the agitation of the status quo. Jeremiah and the prophets—on their better days—recognized that there would be times of blessing and times of desolation. Times for planting and for harvesting, and times when the fields seem barren. But the more we all feel that the cry for justice is like a fire in our hearts that we cannot hold in, the more that fire might spread over the whole earth—the holy Pentecost fire of God’s love and eternal insistence that we embrace who we are through the dying and rising of Christ Jesus. As Christians, we don’t really have an option of lowering our expectations and collapsing into resignation. We are the beneficiaries of strength and beauty. We understand the inevitability of suffering even as we are committed to easing the pain. We find God in our worship, in our cities and communities, and in one another. And deep within our hearts. We don’t suffer fools but are willing to be “all in” which restlessly expects—and energetically works for—a God centered reality. And so it shall be, more and more, by the grace of God!

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The Rev. Dr. Joseph Schaller is the assisting priest at St. Peter’s Church.

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