In our Advent scripture reading today, John the Baptist exhorts his listeners to turn from their ways and be gathered into a relationship with God and with one another. Hear his call for repentance in this reading from the Gospel of Luke:
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
The following is a short story entitled “Christmas Solitaire.”
Deborah Foster sat alone in her apartment on 64th Street. Her apartment building was in the old section of town and in desperate need of repair from years of neglect. She sat motionless, gazing at her Christmas tree, or what was supposed to be her tree. She had found the tree two years ago in an alley behind some boxes. The tree was an old artificial tree, faded and broken in many places. The ornaments consisted of a few strands of tinsel, a string of colored lights, and a little plastic angel.
Deborah got up and made herself a cup of tea and sat down to a game of solitaire. Solitaire was her hobby. She would play for hours, sometimes forgetting to eat. The cards were bent at the corners and faded from many years of use.
After a couple of hours playing, she stretched, yawned and took another look at her tree. She studied it closely. “Funny,” she thought, as she keened her eye on the angel. It seemed to be smiling at her. The way the light reflected off it made it glow, and it almost filled the room with human warmth. The angels’ arms were stretched out as if it wanted to hug Deborah. She sat back down and listened to the outside noises. She heard faint footsteps, gradually getting louder. Then she heard Christmas carols being sung. She saw a handful of change on the table and thought about giving it to the kids who were caroling. She got up to get the change and stopped herself, thinking, “If I don’t make any noise, they’ll go away.” She hardly finished the thought when a loud crash echoed. The angel had fallen off the tree and was shattered. The angels’ look was different — she was frowning now.
Do any of you see yourselves in this tale? Sometimes it seems so much easier to not make that extra effort of reaching out. We stay cocooned in our old, comfortable surroundings. It seems simpler to stick to our familiar, often isolating, routines and habits, rather than to open ourselves to others, taking part in communal activities. Have you ever played Christmas solitaire, withholding yourself from the outstretched arms of the Christ who would gather you to himself?
Gathering is a Christmas practice. Families gather. Congregations gather. Friends gather. Communities gather. Even shoppers gather. In fact, it’s dangerous NOT to gather. During the holiday season we commonly find people suffering from more intense bouts of depression. Social isolation is one of the biggest predictors of depression – mostly among the ungathered – the solitary, lonely, and otherwise cut-off members of society.
The Bible speaks often of gathering. A common metaphor is that of the shepherd gathering his flock, a symbol of the Good Shepherd who gathers His flock into safe-keeping and belongingness. Another metaphor is contained in today’s gospel reading, in which John the Baptist foretells that Jesus will “gather the wheat into his granary.” The Greek word for gather is synago, which means “coming together,” and from which comes the word synagogue, the gathering place of worship. John proclaims that Jesus will gather his faithful to himself. Indeed, John’s entire message of repentance calls people to turn away from isolation, and to move into a relationship with God and each other.
This is a season of gathering. Are you in an in-gathering spirit? Are you allowing yourself to be gathered in by God, opening yourself to God’s spirit and sharing yourself with others? Or are you cutting yourself off, withholding yourself, or waiting until someone reaches out to YOU first? Solitariness is NOT in our human nature, and not likely in the nature of ANY of God’s creation.
The Nobel prize-winning writer Maurice Maeterlinck wrote a book entitled “The Life of the Bee,” in which he reflects upon the honeybee’s need for community. The bee is one of nature’s greatest gatherers, and is also one of nature’s creatures most in need of being gathered into community with other bees. “She will dive for an instant into flower-filled space, as the swimmer will dive into the sea that is filled with pearls, but under pain of death it behooves her at regular intervals to return and breathe the crowd as the swimmer must return and breathe the air. Isolate her, and however abundant the food or favorable the temperature, she will expire in a few days not of hunger or cold, but of loneliness.” Scholars of bee behavior suggest that there is a social hormone which the queen bee secretes and which is passed through the hive by the worker bees which cluster around the queen. Without the hormone of community, a bee hive dies.
Can’t we use the same metaphor for the church? It could be said that the hormone of the Christian community is Christ. Christ gathers us, God’s servants, as visible reminders of the presence of the Holy Spirit. During this season, do our gathering times show forth God’s presence? Is the work we do – all our ministry – done in a spirit of community and cooperation? Does our mutual ministry matter more than the success or visibility of one person’s individual contribution? Are you contributing to our sense of community, or sapping the life from it?
Jesus was a gatherer: He gathered his disciples, he gathered crowds around him, he told parables of gathering that depicted God gathering the prodigal, the tax-collector, the prostitute, the Samaritan, the sinners of every stripe who sought to be gathered through the doorway of repentance. Jesus gathered them “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Are we as Christians being gatherers for Christ and with Christ?
Remember when electric company employees would go house to house to read your electric meter? In many towns, local electric companies would rely on the people they served to check their meters themselves and send in the readings each month. If the meter wasn’t read for a couple of months, an employee from the company would visit the home of the errant customer to get a reading. Although there was often a fee or penalty for making the company representative come for a reading, there were some people who would deliberately refuse to read their meters even though they were able to do so. An electric company employee once reflected on his experience as a meter reader: “They get lonely. Some of these old folks back in the hills seldom see anyone. They are glad to pay the five dollar fine just to have someone come and pay them a little visit. They want to sit and talk all afternoon. I get to know some of these folks, and when they don’t send in their meter reading, I know it’s time for me to have a visit with them again. Yes, people can sure feel cut-off back in the hills.”
People can feel cut-off at any time, often by their own doing. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the 99 on the mountain and go in search of that one? At other times, we are cut off NOT by our own doing. The elderly, the homebound, those who have lost a spouse, or a job – many people live at risk of the social isolation that can become chronic. This time of year, we tend to reach out to those people who we sense are alone, or who are struggling financially, and it’s heartening and inspiring to see the outreach and ingathering of those who are cut-off during this season. But the question is, will it continue throughout the coming year? Will WE, like Christ, gather others to ourselves in the months ahead?
The book The Winter of the Fisher is a story about one year in the life of an animal called the Fisher – many of us would call it a fishercat – a dark brown, fierce member of the weasel family. In the story, an old Native American from the Ojibwe tribe (also known as the Chippewa tribe), who lives alone in the woods of the fisher’s domain, is one of two characters in the story. He enters the story by saving the fisher from a forest fire and later from the steel jaws of a trap.
In the closing scene, the old Ojibwe man is feeling very old, lonely, and empty, and he’s hungering, as he says, from a poverty of human contact. He’s sitting on the bank of a lake, reflecting on his coming death. There’s an Ojibwe custom of cutting notches on the bone of a bear – a notch for every year one wants to live. Five years before, the old Ojibwe had made five notches, and now thoughts of death and isolation are upon him. He hears a noise beside him; it’s the fisher. Normally dark and distant and dangerous, the animal nuzzles against him and sits down silently by his side. And in the miracle and marvel of it, the old man laughs inside, and aloneness gives way to life, thoughts of endings turn to beginnings, and he picks up his yellowed and aged bear bone and cuts five more notches.
That’s how it is. Those things that are dark and dangerous and lonely to us are tamed by the One who rules all things and comes to gather our lives unto God. Apartness is apartness, and solitariness is solitariness, just as bread is bread, and a cup is a cup. But in communion with Christ, they become Life and Includedness, filling the shadows and silence with a hope that cuts five more notches. In communion with Christ, we are transformed. Gathering for the sacrament of baptism, we can celebrate again our own baptisms into new life. And in the marvel and miracle of all our rituals and traditions – singing hymns and carols, hanging greens and banners, lighting Advent candles, preparing a Christmas pageant – we can laugh and rejoice and celebrate with voices that hold the sound of Christmas. This is the season of in-gathering, where we gather again at the manger and realize the all-embracing love of the Son of God. Amen.