Why Sparkle When You Can Twinkle

November 29, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister


Arguably the hidden history of Advent, the time of preparation for the birth of Jesus, lies in the role of nature, especially the role of wild nature in the preparation. We are guided by a giant star to the manger. It neither sparkles nor twinkles but instead amazes, by its size and its brightness.

The events are foretold by John the Baptist, a desert man, a wild man, a hairy man. He is part of the narrative string leading from Jacob and Esau. Esau was the hairy one; Jacob the smooth one. They also get involved with long voyages in multiple wildernesses. Rocks figure in their story, as do wild animals that appear at the edge of pits or gators.


John the Baptist always appears in the lectionary on Advent one, as a voice crying in the wilderness, begging us to prepare the way of the Lord. A path appears in the wilderness first to him as in a vision. A way appears when there is no way. This surprise child of Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old age has gone off and out. I so wonder what his parents thought of his desert life, where he garbs himself like an animal and issues proclamations.

Later the path appears for the shepherds in their pastoral setting. They are abiding in their fields – not their wilderness – keeping watch over their flocks by night. A star surprises them. They are guided by it to a baby who becomes one of the North Star stories, one of the really good ones. Again a way is provided when there is no way. First in the desert, then in the fields, then in the towns and cities and finally for the earth, and eventually in our hearts, in that great promise of peace on earth, good will to all. The desert way becomes the field’s way, which becomes the urban way, which becomes the heart’s way.

Maybe we also can find a way today, when there appears to be no way. Colorado springs involves the interruption of health care at the hands of another gun and a man with a gun in his hand. Terror replaces peace, there, and in stories people tell about going to parades on Thanksgiving. My upstairs neighbors include two German teenagers. They exulted in telling me the story of going to the parade. “My Dad knows a police man who told us where to stand and watch safely, said they.” I hated to suggest the fragility of this safety and so nodded in approval. Awesome, said I, knowing when to take my cue and participate in the taming of the terror.

Today for Advent One I want to suggest a walk through nature’s Advent path. There are of course other paths. From wilderness to star, we go. Whether we make it to peace is a completely different question. I want to praise the wild way. I want to make sure we know how to tame terror and to suggest that maybe the way to the tame is the route of the wild. Wilderness we all know; wildness we may know less.

Will you permit two wild jokes? I know it is not yet a funny day. I even know that preparation for Jesus involves the evocation of some fear. Advent has a minor key to its songs. Christmas is the major chord. Advent combines a sense of foreboding – as in what if we miss it? What if we get it wrong? What if God fails to get our attention? What if we just watch and wait and then watch and wait some more?

Sister Joan Chittister, arguably the strongest woman’s voice expanding the Pope’s message while directly questioning it, told these two jokes for the National Catholic Reporter’s fiftieth anniversary. She was arguing an Advent message of persistence in waiting, even after we have already waited too damn long for just about everything.

A duck walks in to a bar. You got any grapes? No says the bartender, I do not have any grapes. Next day same duck walks into the same bar. You got any grapes? No I told you yesterday I don’t have any grapes. This is a bar. Get out of here you crazy duck. Third day, the duck comes back, asks for grapes again, the bartender grabs the duck around the throat and begins to evict him. The duck gasps, ok, do you have any nails?

Chittister advised her audience to be persistent in the search for the grape drawn sacrament, as the only way to avoid the nails of the cross.

She tells another joke about a Rabbi and a Priest going to a boxing match. On the one side the Rabbi is helping the Jewish kid puff himself up for the fight. The kid is pounding his chest and getting himself all Alpha. The Priest is helping the Catholic kid puff himself up for the fight. That kid is also pounding his chest and getting himself all alpha. The Rabbi asks the Priest whether it will help his kid to do all this puffing up as preparation. “Only if he can fight,” said he.

Chittister argues that we can prepare ourselves by puffing up and pounding our chests. We can use the usual self-aggrandizing methodologies and fictions for getting ready for the largeness of our existence. In the great Tedification of the universe, there is actually a very popular talk about posture and about opening our chest before we give a speech. Advent is not a how to or a self-improvement methodology. It is not a preparation for you or yours. It is a preparation for us and ours. Finally we will have to know how to box, we will have to know how to fight. Again persistence is suggested.

I am going to suggest that the wild route is better than the tame route this Advent. I am going to agree with Chittister about knowing how to fight and knowing how to persist in fighting. But much more than a fight is happening here. We are struggling to get a hold of the American narrative. Are we scared people or free people? Are we people of doors or people of windows? Are we people who rely on guns or who rely on each other? Even if we believe abortion is murder, which it is not, do we murder to stop murder? Might we prepare for better days and better ways in this wilderness?

The reason I am leaving for Paris on Tuesday to spend ten days acting as a megaphone for Pope Francis’ wild intervention on behalf of nature and against emissions is part of my Advent preparation. I don’t want to just fight. I do want to be persistent. I do want the sacrament of the grape and the sacrament of the earth to become real among us again, as real as the sound of the gun in the land. I want to commend and join the thousands of people who are preparing themselves to drag nations into enough wilderness that they will find a way to the fields and the towns and the cities and the hearts of all the people who love the earth. This is about Jesus and his birth among us, again. But it is about much more than Jesus. It is about the earth and its stars, the earth and its animals, even the ducks who walk into bars. It is about the earth and its wild places. Humans who only know how to puff themselves up by constant and deceitful fictions about their self-importance are hurting the animals and the air and the stars. This injury must be stopped. Jesus can help. So can the deep energy of the earth. Tedification? No. I am looking for a Thread Talk, a Rethreadification.

Right now, God’s thread – that great way in the wilderness - is being mocked. I mean the God of Allah and Yahweh, Spirit and Breath, Cosmos and cosmology. The mockery of God devolves into the mockery of God’s earth, which devolves into hunger, which is not a game. I know you have lots of leftovers. Lots more people have been flat out left behind.

The best time I had over Thanksgiving was in a conversation with my daughter. Katie is queer and beautifully so. She wanted to make a plan for the next forty years. Like me, she loves lists and visions and plans, most of which never pan out. But what does pan out by the taming of the wild possibilities in time is so much fun that it is always worth doing. She argued that it was her life mission to stop gentrification. Why? Because she hates it so much. Why does she hate it so much? Because she loves the greatness of cities so much that she can’ stand the way they are injured by gentrification. Why does she love he greatness of cities so much? Because historically they have been a place where people get all mixed up, gay and straight, old and young, black and brown and white and yellow, rich and poor. The homogenization of the city harms the mixture of the city, which harms culture, which harms her, which harms the thread. She was downright eloquent about the thrill she gets walking down the street some times. I know that thrill. It is a wild thrill. A vision of Gods creation asking you if you have a quarter for the subway or a dollar for some food or if you know where the best Ethiopian restaurant is in the Village. Some days in great cities like New York you aren’t looking for the safest place to see a parade. Someday in great cities like New York you are the parade. You are part of the parade.

What I loved about Katie’s process is the way she moved from what she hates so much to what she loves so much. When we make a way in the wilderness, we are moving from pathlessness to path. We are finding a way when there is no way.

Prepare ye the Way of the Lord. Make his way straight…I mean queer…in the wilderness. Don’t become tame or even try to tame the wild. Don’t just sparkle or just twinkle as if you were the star or you were the universe. You’re not. You are one who sparkles by following a Star, by embracing something you love so much that you know you will do it for the forty days of event or the forty days you have in the wilderness. Or every time you walk into a bar, welcome or not.

Ethan Murrow has drawn in marker on the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston a phenomenal mural, called “Sea Stead.” It is seriously disturbing in that rapidly gentrifying “seaport.” It may be the only real thing in miles. Everything else is just like New York, crane after crane after crane..

The mural is a ship sailing out of the Boston Harbor. The ship is based on a US AIRCRAFT CARRIER. Perched on the ship, precariously, as though it is about to fall off, is a full Cathedral, the one from St. Paul’s in England. The structures are immense but tenuous. Were they forced to depart? Are they on high seas? Clearly they are exiled from the land and the sea they governed. Or are they striking out for new seas? Leaving the old ways and the old days? Did they have to leave because of rising sea levels? Is this a hasty departure and that’s why the cathedral is not tied down well? Will it fall into the sea? Were they driven out politically?

Whatever, or whichever, they are leaving their place of power. Going out in to the unknown and the wild of the sea. Like the Desert Wisdom Ascetic extremists, who avidly followed John the Baptist in the 4th and 5th centuries, they don’t know where they are going. Like the Baptizer, they were becoming people without a country, people without borders or boundaries. The best thing about the wilderness is the way we leave borders and their enforcement behind. We join the wolves in not having or needing a passport or documents. We join the panthers in becoming undocumented. Which is why it is so much fun to get involved in a silly preparation like planning your net forty years. You can plan wildly. You can plan hopefully. You just have to make sure you know God has plans, which you may not.

At the same Boston museum, there is also a marvelous exhibit about Black Mountain College, one of the great wild places. Their motto, “Leap before you look” applies interestingly to Katie’s dilemma. What we discovered in our long talk was this. When you have a tame plan in place, you have the security you need to take a gamble or go on a gambit or allow yourself to be surprised.

Thus my advent message to you: make a great plan for these forty days. Be ready to abandon it at any moment that the Divine knocks on your door. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare. There is no need to join the Grump in his hatred or even be annoyed by him. There is no need to stop the men with guns who murder to stop murder. There is no need to even bother with them. Instead prepare to love what you love with all your heart and soul and mind. That is the way of the only ones worth calling Lord at all.



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