Faith in an Age of Skepticism
Isaiah 7:10-17 & Matthew 1:18-25
December 18th, 2016 – Advent 4
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(A recording of Wendell Berry reading his poem was played after scripture was read)
The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer
I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. ‘Dance,’ they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
‘Pray,’ they said, and I laughed, covering myself
in the earth’s brightnesses, and then stole off gray
into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said, ‘I know my Redeemer liveth,’
I told them, ‘He’s dead.’ And when they told me
‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing every day
in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’
When they asked me would I like to contribute
I said no, and when they had collected
more than they needed, I gave them as much as I had.
When they asked me to join them I wouldn’t,
and then went off by myself and did more
than they would have asked. ‘Well, then,’ they said
‘go and organize the International Brotherhood
of Contraries,’ and I said, ‘Did you finish killing
everybody who was against peace?’ So be it.
Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don’t know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.
© Wendell Berry. This poem is excerpted from “The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry” and is reprinted with permission of the author and Counterpoint Press.
Legend has it that the humorist Dorothy Parker answered the doorbell of her apartment with the saying, “What fresh hell can this be?” Maybe a pessimistic outlook, for she knew not what lie on the other side of that door, whether a bill collector or an annoying relative or a hot pizza. Probably in her day and age, not the pizza. Yet here we lie also, almost on one side of the door to another year – 2016 gone – and some will say good riddance. But the next year waits with untold, uncharted, unnerving possibilities, and here we are, like expectant parents, awaiting the unknown, perhaps with the same feeling of contrariness that Wendell Berry writes into the character of the Mad Farmer, who may just be Mr. Berry himself. Here we wait, as if we have planted in defiance of the experts and await a harvest despite the cold and snow.
Only we’re not awaiting a sweet, little baby. The Christmas story has been sanitized into this tale of tiny, 8 pound, 6 ounce baby Jesus, asleep on the hay, but it is actually a revolutionary tale, a contrarian, in-your-face rebellion against the Empire (obligatory Star Wars reference) during a time of great suffering and anxiousness for the people to whom Jesus is born. Isaiah 7 also does not focus on a sweet, little baby. Instead, the king of Judah, King Ahaz, is on the brink of a disastrous military alliance for his people’s security. Isaiah’s words against this alliance come at an equally disconcerting time for the Hebrews. Their security, Isaiah preaches, instead should rest elsewhere, like in having a little faith in God’s trustworthiness, like in working contrary to what they see. And here we are, listening to Isaiah, in the face of a severe shift in our own cultural and political landscapes, a shift that has many of us feeling disoriented, lost even, as the direction we thought we were headed, the world we thought was coming into view has been sharply thrown to the side of the road and we are asking – what now?
In our first reading, Isaiah challenges Ahaz to ask God for a sign, but Ahaz is afraid to ask. Never daunted by unwillingness to participate, Isaiah declares a sign from God anyway. “Look!”, he says. That young woman (the word in Hebrew is young woman, not virgin), the one who we both know…HER…she is pregnant. By the time her son is old enough to know basic right from wrong, Isaiah predicts, the two nations whom Ahaz now dreads will be deserted. And that little boy will “eat curds and honey”, which is the ancient Hebrew equivalent of saying, “he will be made in the shade like lemonade.” The point is, this is not a prediction of Jesus. It’s an appeal to be faithful at a time when everything tells you to be skeptical, even pessimistic. It’s an assertion that at the very moment of skepticism, we must rely on our confidence…rely on an often misunderstood word – faith, which has little to do with proof or certainty, but trusts in the face of overwhelming odds and hopes in the middle of the storm.
This is a time of darkness, and I mean quite literally. We often drive home in darkness, sit down to dinner in darkness, spend the whole evening there and even wake up there. It is inescapable right now. And that literal darkness might be a metaphor for us as we struggle with a politics of identity that is too small, and wrestle with how shallow promises try to fill the void of deep problems. We must be aware, as Isaiah was in his prophetic vision, and as Matthew was with his Gospel proclamation, that this is a moment for faithing…faith as action, for faith is, as the writer of Hebrews wrote, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, and that is the place from which we take action.
“Who are you?”, Isaiah shouts at us from eons gone by. For while we cannot deceive ourselves about the darkness in the world, the many challenges we face, or how dark it can be for the least and the left out, any hope that still exists out there, any bit of candlelight in the sea of night comes from something. For I trust that it is not our politics that causes us to rise up, or our ideology that makes our blood boil or our hearts break, but rather our faith, our confidence that we are children of God and so is everyone else. Surely that must be why we weep for Aleppo, why we smile at our immigrant, Muslim, gay or otherwise marginalized siblings? And that same trust compels us to know that the God who makes all things new is still at work, not orchestrating the world – at least I hope not, ’cause the world is in sad shape – but resurrecting the world, seeking to bring life from death, hope from despair, even good from evil.
That is why the metaphor of light in the darkness is still powerful for us, despite the fact that we are no longer prisoners of the dark of winter in the same way that our ancestors were, thanks to the light pollution of the modern world. We can now artificially push aside the darkness, but we should not be tempted into thinking that our denial of literal darkness means that the shadow of evil and suffering also can be dismissed with the flick of a switch. No, it has and does and always will take the committed work of people of faith…and by faith, I mean people who have confidence in what was once called “The Way”, the teachings of Jesus that mirror so many others who have taught us that we cannot achieve peace through violence, nor defeat hate with hate, that we must love even our enemies, for the other way, the way of vengeance or tribalism or forced, so-called “unity”…it will kill us all.
But for now, we sit in the darkness. We may sit together, we may sit even with some hope, but, at least for me, that hope is faint and distant. My weeping for Aleppo, my anguish for the fear and anxiety of friends, my own anxiousness about the future for my own children…all of this casts a heavy fog over even our togetherness. And yet, perhaps this is when hope is most necessary. Maybe it is the only time that it exists. For when we don’t need it, hope is dismissed, like the china that never gets set on the dining table, collecting dust in the cabinet. It is now, when hope seems most ridiculous and fleeting, that hope is most needed.
So this morning I am here to remind us – you and me together – that we don’t end up in this place, this dark place, from nowhere. We are rooted in the struggle against the shadow, forged from the tension between how the world is and how it ought to be. We are the inheritors of “The Way”, designed and orchestrated to give us a means to move ahead when the well-worn path gives way to the heavy woods. For the prophecy of Isaiah was for Isaiah’s time, but it is also for us. And the story of Christmas from Matthew’s point-of-view was written a long time ago for another people, and it lives for us today. For while all the darkness we are living through now seems new, it isn’t. It’s as old as the hills, as ancient as the trees. And we have “The Way” to be light in the middle of it, for God is still with us, right here, right now.
We must remember our roots, our moral roots, that teach us what it is that God would have us do – to act justly, to love mercy and kindness and to walk our path with humility alongside our God. We must remember that while the conversation often gets framed in the small language of right versus left, we’re talking about right versus wrong. And we cannot let go of, especially at this time, the sincere and provocative question – what would Jesus do? Like Isaiah, we must look to the signs around us, to remind us that this too shall pass, and, like Matthew, we’d best do some rooting of ourselves, listen to our dreams, resist our own fear and be willing to take a chance that God might be asking us to do something that is…contrary.