Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
1st Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10
2nd Reading: James 5:7-10
What are we waiting for? What are we expecting? Are we expecting the same ol’, same ‘ol? What are John and Jesus preparing us to expect? Finally, what are we going to do about it? What are we waiting for? Let’s get moving!
Are we expecting that some things never change? Sterling has come to expect certain patterns. We turn on our block and he shouts, “Our house!” He has come to expect “Farmer’s market,” “Grocery Outlet,” and “Fred Meyer.” He has come to expect daddy home from work at a certain hour and watches the door expectantly at that time of the evening. He has come to expect Susan and Betsy and Marlene and Don and Harry and Gene and Mary at church. We said the Lord’s Prayer at our Advent service the other night and he turned to me and said, “Bread.” He knows to expect communion directly following the Lord’s Prayer.
But this season, we are also preparing him for what is new. We point out the Christmas lights. We explain about Santa and show him pictures so hopefully he won’t be scared out of his mind if he sees Santa in person this season. I talk to him about the star and baby Jesus and bells and Christmas lights and trees and stockings and soup. We’re preparing him to expect something a little different from what he’s used to.
We don’t just expect it, we help bring it about. We put a can in the food barrel together. We go and see the Christmas lights. We decorate our house. We share the stories from the Bible. We gather with family. We wrap gifts and talk about God’s gifts to us. Who knows how much he can understand, but we find he’s paying more attention and soaking up more than we think. Last week he suddenly said, “I’m two years old,” and held up two fingers. For months, we were preparing him, saying that to him with no response, hoping by the time he’s four, he will be able to let people know. Next thing you know, he’s got the complete sentence and the hand motion together.
In these Bible readings for today, people are expecting things to be the same as it ever was. Are you expecting to see a reed shaken by the wind? Are you expecting a leader who bends to every wind of opinion, that is influenced by the powers of this world, who gives easily to a tiny breeze of pressure from those in power? Are you expecting someone dressed in soft robes? Are you expecting someone whose interest is in keeping himself comfortable, who amasses wealth and pretty things to make himself look good? Why shouldn’t they expect those things? That’s all they had ever seen. Why should this be any different?
Well, it is different, because God has come to intervene personally. John and Jesus are telling them to expect something different. This is no minor tweak. This is a matter of turning the world upside down.
Are you expecting to see the blind remain blind and the deaf remain deaf and people be unable to walk? Why would we expect any different? We’re so fortunate to live in the times that we do, that many people can be healed. We’ve had many people going blind who received their sight through cataract surgery. Raise your hand if you’ve personally experienced this miracle. Both Ed and Susan have had sight restored after tears in their retina. Greg walks up for communion after several back surgeries. Folks formerly homeless find themselves serving the homeless and sharing with those who are less fortunate.
In Jesus’ time, if you were born blind or deaf, you could expect to remain that way. People were blamed for their disability or their parents were, even up to a couple of hundred years ago and even sometimes today. But the strange thing is, many diseases were preventable, as they are today. With clean water, good hand washing, proper sanitation, safe food handling, many diseases and problems could be prevented. The Roman Empire had the technology and ability to provide these services, yet because of greed, the focus on acquiring and controlling people, they only provided it to the elite who could do something for them, not the regular little person. In fact, by not providing these services the Roman Empire ensured that the poor would remain sick and powerless. It was a way of controlling the little people. If you’re always sick, you don’t have time or energy to spend fighting the empire or making your voice heard.
Unfortunately, that is still the value system of those in power. They bow to the rich and keep giving favors and good conditions to the rich, but to the poor and inconsequential, they don’t do squat. It keeps some people using all their energy just to feed their families, so they have no time to work for justice. The rich have access to all the best everything, write off multiple homes off their taxes, and are protected. The poor are left on their own, food stamps cut while corporations get bigger and bigger tax breaks, access to the worst health care if any at all, lying awake at night wondering how to get by.
One of the worst offenses in my mind, is the power companies. People get behind in their payments. If they could pay it, they would. These are the poorest of the poor. They are choosing between eating and paying to heat their homes. They call me with their shutoff notice. They have exhausted their options with payment plans and one-time only grace periods. If it gets shut off, they pay hundreds of dollars in fees, when it doesn’t cost the power company one cent to shut it off. They do it electronically. So the poorest of the poor are paying these huge fees and they couldn’t even pay their bill to begin with. In some other states, this has been declared illegal and I think we need to make this happen in Oregon. If you can pay your bills, you’d never know about this. But if you are poor, more is heaped on you until you’re completely overwhelmed. It is completely unacceptable.
We could expect everything to stay the same. Except Jesus is coming into our world and turning it upside down. He is saying that his value system isn’t about profits, money, or greed and ours doesn’t have to be either. The blind are seeing. The deaf are hearing. The lame are walking. Not just physically, but spiritually too. That he would bring this kind of healing and wholeness, was directly challenging the Roman instrument of death and control that kept people sick. It was telling the Romans they couldn’t keep the little people down. And it was about opening the eyes of those who could only see a value system which puts the self and the pocket book first at the expense of others. It was about opening the ears of those who could only hear the wealthy, to listen to the stories of the poor and forgotten—to hear how they got to that point, that systems were built to keep them down and despite making every effort, they still found themselves destitute. And it was about helping people walk those places they never walked before—to ask the question about what it would feel like to live this way as some of you did many years ago when you took the homeless immersion and slept on the streets of Portland for a weekend.
Whether we are waiting for history to repeat itself over and over endlessly and nothing to change, or whether we are waiting for God to turn the whole world around, the question, “What are we waiting for?” is a rhetorical one that means of course, we’re not waiting any longer. We’re going to live this new value system of God’s and not the world’s death-dealing one anymore. We’re going to do something about it. There is no need to wait for anything.
When we come to this place and gather and treat every last person with the same love and welcome, we are living in God’s new value system. When we not only feed the hungry, but share in conversation and make connections with them, we are living in God’s new value system. When we don’t ask or judge who is deserving, but share generously of all we have, we are living God’s new value system. When we pack lunches for backpack buddies, write letters to our legislators, let people cut in line ahead of us, sit with someone who is alone, we are living God’s new value system.
I’m not a big fan of patience. The reading for today speaks of patience. However, this is not a lot of sitting around waiting helplessly for something to happen. This is active patience, that doesn’t get discouraged because other people are sitting on their hands. This is patience where you follow through on God’s value system and aren’t using the excuse that no one else is. This is long-suffering patience, like the prophets, where they did what God asked of them, despite the scowls, the imprisonments, and the disapproval of the community that was still holding on the to the me-first value system that is business as usual. Don’t give up. God’s value system will win the day. We just have to decide whether we are going to stand in the way of it, or be a part of it.