The Beginning Continues…

December 07, 2014
Isaiah 40:6-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15

“There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is nonbeing. But I do not know, when it comes to nonbeing, which is really being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.”

Good Morning, and greetings Hyattsville Mennonite Church!  It is a pleasure to be among you all on this second Sunday in Advent.

Before I begin to begin this morning’s message I want to briefly introduce myself to you by way of the Mennonite Game.

So here goes:

My name is Arienne Johnson—I don’t expect you to remember how to pronounce that—after all, it is a strange name for a Mennonite to have but that is partly because my father was a convert.  My mother comes from the Aeschliman and Frey lineages in Archbold Ohio, and my home congregation there is Zion Mennonite Church.

My cousins, who you’ll know as Katrina and… Katrina’s husband, are today’s song leaders and their wedding at the end of September was my first introduction to this congregation.  But I also went to school at Goshen College and I’ve done the MCC SALT program in Burkina Faso and most recently I’ve become an alumna of Harvard Divinity School where (if you can believe it, Cathy Hiebert was my landlady last year).

From Harvard I received a Master’s of Divinity degree in “Islam” of all religions—and I am now trying to figure out where to take that degree next—I’m looking for a career track that will lead me straight into creative approaches for conflict transformation efforts using religious understanding as a backbone—but, if by the end of this sermon any of you have an epiphany about who might want to hire me, please, talk to me after the service—I’m trying to keep myself open to a wide range of possibilities and that is where this sermon actually begins.

At the second Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday of Cindy Lapp’s sabbatical—welcome to limbo.  I’m sure you’ve heard other people in years past emphasize Advent with a glow around the concept as a time of “hopeful waiting” or maybe the tagline is “excited preparation” because of course we think in Advent about Mary and the miracle of her gestation period and all of the shepherds and angels and the entire universe gearing up with presents and stars and signs that point the way to our messianic little Jesus savior.  But—well—so a lot of my friends are starting to have kids—and I’ve talked with a few pregnant women recently and today I want to use this Advent Sunday to really dwell in just how terrifying and uncertain those developing stages in our lives are.

Isaiah 40: 6-7:

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

You may not have noticed, but I decided to chop the lectionary passage from Isaiah in half today.  I did this because sometimes if we do not fragment a familiar package we can completely overlook the brokenness that lies within it.

Typically we read Isaiah chapter 40 from its beginning—or, from verse number 1 which says:

“1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”—With this beginning the whole passage is marked by an arc of comfort and reassurance—but it’s comfort in retrospect—because it begins at the end—with the baby—with the deliverance—“She has served her term” already—and by reading it in this way we emphasize the comfort and reassurance—and that can be good but if we overemphasize the reassurance it is often at the expense of really noticing the potency of uncertainty and calamity that centers this beautiful passage.

How strikingly different it resonates when we begin from that sixth verse,

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass…

There is an urgency of scale and paralysis that is felt in these middle verses.  In them Isaiah emphasizes and reemphasizes that we humans are grass—we whither, we fade—the question “What shall I cry” is a question about substance and appropriateness and it poses an existential crisis at the crux of our Advent season.

The introduction about beginning and nonbeing that I began this sermon with was quoted from a text called the Zhuangzi.  The Zhuangzi is a foundational text of Taoism and a delight to read because it is packed with snarky allegories and spiraling mind-twisters.  A great deal of it aims to exercise our conceptualizations of Perspective—by shifting it.

Earlier in the service we heard a different passage found in the first chapter of the Zhuangzi under the heading “Free and Easy Wandering.”

Think about that passage once again with me.  It says,

The morning mushroom knows nothing of twilight and dawn; the summer cicada knows nothing of spring and autumn. They are the short-lived. South of Ch’u there is a caterpillar which counts five hundred years as one spring and five hundred years as one autumn. Long, long ago there was a great rose of Sharon that counted eight thousand years as one spring and eight thousand years as one autumn. They are the long-lived…

The Zhuangzi goes on to describe a bird name P’eng whose back is like a mountain and whose wings are “like clouds filling the sky.”  I love the description of P’eng’s takeoff—it says:

He beats the whirlwind, leaps into the air, and rises up ninety thousand li, cutting through the clouds and mist, shouldering the blue sky, and then he turns his eyes south and prepares to journey to the southern darkness.

As a juxtaposition to that great journey we are told next that:

The little quail laughs at P’eng, saying, “Where does he think he’s going? I give a great leap and fly up, but I never get more than ten or twelve yards before I come down fluttering among the weeds and brambles. And that’s the best kind of flying anyway! Where does he think he’s going?”

The passage concludes with: “Such is the difference between big and little.”

So here we are in the season of Advent, and I’m asking you to consider Scale with me.  Perhaps some of you are, like me, in the middle of transition periods.  Most of you can at least look back over the arc of your life and pinpoint certain places when you couldn’t really figure out the beginning or the end—where you maybe felt stranded in between big ideas and little, quail-like leaps.  Maybe today you have the luxury of looking back and seeing clearly the arc of comfort and sustenance that carried you through those times, but today, in honor of Advent I think it is important to look just as sharply at the reality that very often at those times—we feel genuinely stuck hanging at a loss for even what is appropriate to cry out next.

In 2nd Peter chapter 3, verses 8-9 it says:

8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9 The Lord is not slow about a promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

Let’s step back and consider our realizations: We humans are withering grass.  We have a certain perspective of history where we can look back and see arcs of God’s sustenance and comfort that brought us each to where we are now, and we hope that we are hopping around in directions that will land us somewhere beyond the brambles.

But the fact remains that we don’t know how long it will take.  After all, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day”

So where to begin?  Where to even begin to begin?  Where to begin to stop beginning?  Some white people in this country truly believe that racism is a thing of the past.  With the horrible realizations that the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are bringing to our Facebook feeds and newspapers about racial profiling, police violence, judicial oversights, and prison systems in this country, we are forced to step back and consider that if the Civil Rights movement was one beginning, it in no way negates the fact that we must begin dreaming with MLK and Ferguson protesters all over again.

In fact, if we look closely enough we realize that whether we find ourselves beginning or ending or hanging in midair, the beginnings tend to keep re-beginning and the endings might not really ever end and at least the act of hanging offers us a new vantage point for stretching our perspectives between big understandings and the small ones.

Advent is defined as “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.”  This season more than any other it seems appropriate to ask: When does the story of Jesus begin? And where does it actually end?

Was Jesus, like many Gospel of John interpreters suggest, part of creation from the very onset of everything?  Or was Jesus introduced to the world through Mary’s womb for the first time?  Throughout the history of Christianity, that debate has sparked huge heresies and conflict.

And of course today monotheists the world over continue waiting on the re-beginning of a Messiah’s second coming.  In the meantime, Christians also believe that we are somehow collectively “Jesus’ body continued.”  We may conceptualize our individual selves as little quails jumping around together in brambles but we also hope that together we can somehow travel ninety-thousand li.

But what direction will our ninety thousand li take us in?  How will we be able to maintain patience for words like “justice” if the time we are expected to hang around is along the line of a thousand years?:  Second Peter not only reminds us that a thousand years is like a day for God, but that God is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to “repentance.”

..God wants us all to come to “Repentance.”

In Greek the term repentance is metanoia, meaning literally “change of mind.”  But the notion goes much deeper than that.  It suggests a radical inner change.  An utter about-face, where we reposition our spirits, minds, and hearts toward the “big understanding” that Jesus’ life and ministry points us to.

Let’s take this back to Isaiah 40.  It says:

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9 Go up on a high mountain, you who bring good news to Zion! Shout with a loud voice, you who bring good news to Jerusalem! Shout without fear, and say to the towns of Judah “Here is your God!” 

Verse 9 tells us what to cry.  It tells us to cry “Here is your God!”  God is right here in the midst of all of the uncertainty—we maybe just need to climb up to a high mountain to see the perspective of it. Moreover, verse 8 tells us that the WORD of our God will stand forever.

In the Zhuangzi it says this:

Words are not just wind. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? …What do words rely upon, that we have right and wrong? …How can words exist and not be acceptable? When…words rely on vain show, then we have the rights and wrongs of the Confucians and the Mo-ists. What one calls right the other calls wrong; what one calls wrong the other calls right. But if we want to right their wrongs and wrong their rights, then the best thing to use is clarity.

I love the Zhuangzi. I also love words.

But I don’t typically love the way the word “repent” is thrown around in our culture.  It seems like too many religious people get so stuck on the “little understanding” aspects of rights and wrongs and sinfulness in general.  It should give us pause to realize that if Mary were sitting in pews of Mennonite congregations today she’d be pointed at and told to “Repent!”

Being pregnant outside of marriage is not an acceptable thing for our congregations. And it should give us pause to realize that in Mary’s day, according to Mosaic law she should’ve been stoned.  As our own laws and court systems come under scrutiny for the prejudice upheld by policing standards, it is all the more important in this Advent season to “use clarity” during our calls for repentance.

“Words are not just wind.  Words have something to say.”
Repentance means a “change of mind.”  The community of support around Mary was called into an utter changing of mind and a deep, cultural “about-face.”  It was her friends and family who protected her during her time of limbo.   It was Elizabeth who probably hid her during the pregnancy and showed her the most solidarity.  Her fiancée Joseph was called into a deep-seated repositioning of his mind, spirit, and beliefs in order to grasp the perspective shift needed between little understanding and big understanding.

Think of the difference that those individuals’ repositionings made on the legacy that we now have.  Consider the individuals in your own inner circles who need your support through times of limbo and development.  Consider the individuals in our neighborhoods who are systematically disgraced and ridiculed and told to repent for their sins based on our “little understandings.”

Small-scale actions of solidarity and support for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the transitioning, the pregnant, actually signify deep and wide shifts within the psyches of individuals that can impact huge structural changes in the course of the entire world.  I can guarantee you as someone going through something as minor as the transition of job-hunting—even in the small scale, the acknowledgements and gestures of support from family, friends, and communities of faith make a world of difference.

During this Advent season let’s use clarity: Let’s consider the limitations of our perspectives.  And let us not be overwhelmed by the unknowns surrounding us during phases of development.  Instead let’s try to find comfort in the cyclical opportunities we are given to begin, and to begin, and to begin.  With each beginning and each ending, let’s bury seeds of repentance within our spirits so that our little leaps will continue shifting into legacies toward comfort that will extend across distances of 90 thousand li.

“Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.”

The Ending must go something like this:
In the beginning was the Word. Words are not wind.  Find your highest mountain, Shout without fear.  Your God is here!  Comfort, O comfort.

Amen, and To Be Continued…


The word of our God will stand forever.
Go up on a high mountain,
Shout with a loud voice,
Shout without fear,
“Here is your God!”
Go in Peace.