4 Advent (B) – 2005

December 18, 2005

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Everybody knows that oysters sometimes make pearls; and that fascinating reality has been used to illustrate many a point. But here’s an old truth said in a new way, a way that gives it more power. It seems pearls aren’t automatic. When an oyster – who must ordinarily have an enviably calm life lying around eating soft, pleasant food – somehow gets a bit of sand inside its shell, then one of two things will happen. The oyster will create a pearl, or it will die. The pearl, a thing of beauty and value, is the oyster’s way of staying alive after something very irritating has gotten past its shell, into its heart.

That little bit of marine biology is background for today’s Gospel – not to present any sermonic pearls; be they pearls of wisdom, or pearls of great price. Instead, let’s examine the grain of sand, a bit of irritation, something small and rough that can slip past our shells and give us all something to work on. We – and indeed the church itself, in this and every generation – need to work on this bit of sand very carefully. It will not go away; and we will either make of it a pearl, or, in one way or another, we will die.

The grit, like the oyster’s sand, is well hidden in pleasant, soft food. The Gospel we just heard is a portion of what is called the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. It is after supper “in the night in which He was betrayed.” Jesus is praying for his disciples, and for us. He prays for our unity, for our joy, and for our safety and protection. Jesus says that we are not of the world, but that we should none the less remain in the world – for our ministry is to be in the world, and for the world.

Now remember, when Jesus says “world” here, He is not talking about the created order: rocks and trees and rabbits and things like that. He is talking about human society organized as it sees best for its own purposes.

He is talking about business as usual; about the government, the society, the culture, the various human institutions; the world in that sense, doing what it usually does.

And Jesus says of his disciples that the world has hated them because they are not of the world. This hatred is to be the fate, indeed it is to be a real, distinguishing mark, of all who follows Jesus. They are to stand out because they don’t really fit in.

The bit of grit is this: When was the last time the world hated you because you belong to Jesus and not to the world? When was the last time your faith so set you apart from business as usual that you were met with anger, ridicule, or hatred? How about a little bit of contempt? Mild dislike? How about a tiny bit of irritation?

Hey, maybe Jesus was wrong; maybe, these days, we really are of the world, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But somehow that’s doubtful. Or maybe the Kingdom of God has arrived, and we just missed everything about it except for how convenient it is for us. But that’s doubtful too.

We need to ask whether we have become so totally caught in our culture, become so totally of the world that we have to work hard to discover if we are different, and how we are different, and what it looks like for us to be different, and whether it is worth it to be different.

In many ways it was easier for the early church. As an occasionally persecuted minority in a pagan culture, a lot of things were clear. For example, Christians couldn’t attend the public games, they couldn’t hold several types of jobs, they couldn’t join the army, and so on. The world often ridiculed or hated them – and both sides pretty much knew why.

It’s not so easy these days. Modern attempts to come up with lists of popular things Christians can’t do have usually been rather silly. And we Episcopalians have been downright smug in pointing out that we aren’t like those people (you know, the Baptists, and others) who say you can’t dance or wear make-up or go to movies.

By the way, have you ever noticed that nobody ever really nails us on that? Instead of trying to establish God’s disapproval for the waltz or bingo, they could really hit home if they responded to our self-righteous lack of lists with another question. What if they said, “OK, have your martini and go to the dance, but before you do, tell me how your faith does affect your life; show me how it makes a difference.” That is the grit for us oysters.

One way we try to get out of this pinch can cause a lot of trouble. That way is saying that it is the Church’s job to fix the world so there will be no conflicts for us to worry about. So from time to time, we rear back and try to change everything within reach so we can be both righteous and of the world at the same time. We do that in all sorts of ways, from all sorts of directions. Now, on one level, this is good. It is very important that we engage the world and try very hard to make things better. We need to do this; but we need to avoid getting confused about what that means. And we get confused easily.

It is not hard to forget that God will bring in the Kingdom, not us. And even worse, we find it very easy to begin supporting what we think is a good cause, for Christian reasons, and then to end up holding onto the cause and forgetting the Christian part of it altogether. Of course, the best way to tell whether the cause or the Christianity is more important is by looking at how we treat people who don’t agree with our cause.

And we get confused when we forget that the Lord does not call us to be powerful or effective as the world sees power and effectiveness. The Lord calls us to be faithful – to live his life, to follow his steps. Part of that involves remembering that, of the twelve disciples, Judas was the most effective at using both money and the powers that be to get what he wanted. Just trying to fix things doesn’t get rid of our problems, either.

This is grit, not pearls. We don’t have a list of rules telling us how not to be of the world because we know that it isn’t that simple. Still, we do know, and we must never forget, that the way we treat each other, and the way we treat our bodies, and our time, and our money, and the things we call “mine” – these are and will remain very important. And our Lord has something to say about them. We also know that all the good works, reforms, and changes we make, as important as they are, will not take away the problem, either. This side of the Kingdom, the world as Jesus spoke of it of business as usual, this will always, in one or another, be the alternative to faithfulness, and not the means to it.

We need to make our own pearls, or we will die. We need to look honestly at the world, at the culture around us, and at we are – and who the Lord would have us be. We must always make choices. We may even discover that Jesus was right, and that, in one way or another, the world will hate us. But the Lord continues to pray for us, we are promised all of the help we need. And pearls come from the oddest places.

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire, the biography of our controversial 22nd Presiding Bishop, and current member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, lives in semi-retirement with his wife Toni in Bastrop, Texas, a small town near Austin.

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