Today is the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. Which is a vital part of our story. But so is the regular reading in Luke (21; 29-36) because it tells us something about our responsibility to bring forth the Kingdom of God, the fruit of our Baptism by water and the Holy Spirit.
Now and then the question comes up in some meeting or other, how did you become a Christian, or how did you come to this parish? My answer always is, “God,” and that is never satisfactory. People want a story. One about something that happened or someone who reached out. Well, for me it has always been God. I have walked the way of the mystics, but have grown into the recognition of the Body of Christ, coming to a balance between the inner world and recognizing my life in the world. And the more I pray and grow and heed the words of those who guide me, the more I see the currents swirling around the complexity of people who make up the Body. How often do any of us, probably all of us, get swept up in the emotion of what someone said or did, the hurts received and given? All this is creates the rocks and thorny branches around us which defeat radical reconciliation or any reconciliation at all. And Jesus is clear about that. Love your neighbor, friend, and enemy. I found I couldn’t just withdraw. I had to learn to swim.
So in this frame of mind I have spent some time pondering some things I have lived, seen, heard, been told. And as they say in the movies, “based on real events,” and “names have been changed.” More than names have been changed, so don’t look for yourself here.
Case Study One: Mothers and Daughters. After Jean’s divorce her daughter Tracy went with her father. The father’s family was pretty prejudiced against Jean, even though she hadn’t initiated the separation. Now, decades later, Tracy still blames her mother, and contacts between them often degenerate into bitter fights. What is different about their attitudes is that Jean has spent time in prayer and is active in a faith community and has learned to forgive, but the exchanges are painful. What a difference the Gospel makes. What would it take to bring true reconciliation? The old me would say only the Holy Spirit, and that is true. But we can employ tools to heal those wounds through mediated dialogue. For real healing, it would take both to be willing. But there are skills that can be taught to express feelings without being swept up in anger.
Case Study Two: Politics over the Dinner Table. Two brothers, once close, are now torn apart over national politics. One brother is homophobic, racist, but by local normative standards a “nice guy.” His brother has graduated seminary, and his outlook, which was never that extreme, is now radically different, even on the liberal left. They continue to wrestle with themselves and each other every time they meet. The struggle between then has not gotten better, although there are moments when the more liberal brother has hope that they have turned a corner in accepting each other, if not agreeing. And the struggle goes on. Is acceptance of where we are, trusting in the love of God and a lot of patience, the only solution here?
Case Study Three: Power Inequity in the Office. Two women are working for the same nonprofit. One is young and has a higher position and has been given authority, although she is new to the nonprofit and, although very skilled, lacks background. The other is older and has more experience and knowledge. Both are devout Christians. They periodically fall out. And reconcile. And fall out. And reconcile. At least they are both trying, and under all that tension, the one feeling threatened, the other resenting her forced subordination, they love each other in Christ. And the current moves on and they swim, sometimes alongside, sometimes not. And it is part of the way to Salvation for both. And a blessing for both of them as they wrestle with hard lessons which each needs to learn. Salvation takes time, and a lot of bumps.
We live in a world of complex people in various stages of self-recognition before God, with all the sins of ego and envy and grasping for power that fight with the fruits of the Spirit within us. That’s the sad truth. Are we swimming in the current, the words of Jesus guiding us through the rapids and whirlpools, or are we being swept away by our needs, lack of faith, the secular world? This not about the political or religious left or right. Both extremes are just as capable of being guilty. Remember, the Pharisees were religious, observant, devout, and scholarly. And when confronting Jesus, they blew it. When Jesus, in truth but perhaps with a lack of tact, said that his followers were his mother and his brothers, not his human family only trying to take him home before he got arrested, he made it clear that following him did not permit compromise. When Jesus said he came to tear families apart we can easily see that from the point of view of the first century Gospel writers. Imagine the distress of pagan or Jewish families finding a disciple at the dinner table. But I think it runs deeper than that. We tear each other apart in the everyday interactions with each other. I am particularly aware of how it plays out in a Christian community. We each have a shape, a flavor, the culmination of our unique life experiences. How we behave towards each other may be dependent on how deeply committed each of us is to picking up our Cross to follow Jesus. Can we put down our ego, pain, annoyance? Can we find boundaries that are fair, but yield to humility. And so we rub against each other, and it takes a lot of effort to overcome the urge to bristle, try to change, fix, control each other. Reconciliation is not about fixing, and it certainly isn’t about winning.
Jesus said, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. (Lk 21: 34).” That is, don’t let everyday life distract you from a righteous life and give you a hangover by being intoxicated and overwhelmed with worry. This comes at the end of another fig tree parable where Jesus points out that ripening buds promise the bounty of summer, and that the Kingdom of God is near. Today, not the apocalypse, not the first Pentecost, today we have to ask, “Is the Kingdom of God still coming? Is summer upon us?” It looks pretty grim right now. But I would suspect it always looked pretty bad. And probably always will. We broken, sinful humans are the only bulwark against the evils of the world, and the only people who can bring forth that Kingdom of God. And, frankly, with due respect and honor to all those who follow other paths to God, I honestly believe that Jesus as Son of Man and God is the best Way I have ever seen or experienced that gives swimming lessons in the current of life.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.