Texts: The Gospel of Thomas 28 (“blind in their hearts”); 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (“children of light”)
On January 5, I called my Sunday reflection “Vision 2020.” On the first Sunday of the year, I discussed our hopes and fears for 2020, and also of my admiration for Pete Buttigieg, who at age 37 was the youngest of the people running to be U.S. President. In particular, I drew inspiration from a Christmas Day tweet of Buttigieg’s.
When Buttigieg dropped out of the race two months later to endorse the eventual winner, Joe Biden, I was sad. But I had been cheered by Buttigieg’s victory in Iowa, which on February 3 was the first of the states to vote. On that day, Buttigieg became the first openly gay person to win a U.S. state presidential nominating contest. Unfortunately, the result wasn’t made official for three days due to a glitch in Iowa’s voting process, which cost his campaign momentum.
I learned a lot from Buttigieg’s campaign, including from the way he weaved religious faith and sacred values into his work.
Now that the result of the U.S. Presidential election is known, I find myself looking forward in hope to 2021. Despite the acceleration of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, the United States, and Europe, I am optimistic that new leaders can learn from the painful revelations of 2020 to bring the pandemic under control and to tackle other social issues.
I have no doubt Pete Buttigieg will play a role in the new American administration. Last month, he published a short book called “Trust,” which I read with pleasure — although I was disappointed that he didn’t draw many connections between trust and religious faith, which has been a key insight for me over the years.
I appreciate how Buttigieg highlights the personal and social costs of the erosion of trust and his prescription for how it could be rebuilt – through transparency, responsibility, vulnerability, truth-telling, predictability, and reciprocity.
Mistrust paralyzes us, which is one of the reasons why we join faith communities. In times of turmoil and fear, we may struggle to trust ourselves, the world, and the source of Love we call God. Hope and love are our guiding stars, but they rely on the first of St. Paul’s theological virtues, which is faith.
There are still seven weeks left in 2020, but I know I am not alone in looking forward to a different and better year in 2021. For one, this year’s pandemic has tested every government in the world. I am cheered by the success many of them have had in eliminating COVID-19, including Canada’s four Atlantic provinces and dozens of countries in East Asia, the South Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa. I also feel frustrated to live in one of the six provinces in Canada where COVID-19 is gaining speed; and I am angry that eight months into the pandemic, long-term care facilities like South Terrace here in Edmonton are suffering through shocking levels of sickness, deprivation, and death without enough support from government.
Vision will be key to our ability to lead our communities beyond the pandemic and to tackle other social issues like racism, poverty, and homelessness.
I see three main ways we could adjust our vision as we look to 2021. We could turn a blind eye to social problems and indulge in narrow distractions and addictions. Or, we could put on rose-colored glasses and assume that our leaders will figure things out without us. Or, we could try to maintain humility in the face of the daunting challenges facing our neighbourhood, country, and world while also imagining a more just society for which we could strive in community.
You won’t be surprised that I recommend the latter. Humility is key given the breadth and depth of social problems like racism and poverty. But imagining the type of neighbourhood, country, and world we want despite our humble status can help us to joyfully engage in the struggle for justice with others.
In the two passages we heard this morning, Jesus and Paul both use the metaphor of intoxication as a barrier to clear vision. Instead of feeling the grief and joy associated with the human condition, and instead of coming to grips with our connection to the rest of humanity, with all the perils and promise implied by this, sometimes we drown our ability to see with alcohol, drugs, and other addictive substances and practices.
I often feel the pull of addiction, whether in watching too much Netflix or eating too many cookies. While I love life in all its awesome mystery, living it to the full involves the grief of loss, which can feel so painful, and the wild hope associated with joy, which can feel so scary. Better, I sometimes decide, to have another drink or scroll through another hour of social media.
Rosy-eyed optimism is another way of staying blind. In childhood, we assume that our parents, teachers, and governments have our best interests at heart. But as we mature, we learn more about the twistedness of social arrangements, which can challenge our childish naivete.
Following the Way of Jesus is not about relying on authority figures. It is about living into our reality as children of light and bearers of an inner Christ; and while deeply rewarding, this stance is more challenging than naïve trust in authority. Sometimes, staying awake to our inner authority might seem like too much work.
Next week, I will finish this series on leadership with a reflection on Reign of Christ Sunday. I will remind us then that the sovereignty and divinity we associate with Jesus reside within each of us. The spiritual reality of the Risen Christ is the greatest blessing we will ever experience even as it comes with the paradox of the humility of the Way of the Cross resting alongside great responsibility.
The symbol of the Risen Christ reveals that the leadership for which we yearn lies within us if we can but accept the Grace to grasp it. This is the leadership we need in years of pain like 2020 and in ones of hope and promise like 2021.
In 2021, as we search for ways to move beyond COVID-19 and other social ills, my intuition is that it will be a year filled with creativity, courage, the joy of struggle, and of a transition to a new generation of leadership.
When we feel fear in the face life’s big challenges; or when we feel tempted by the pull of addiction, let us soberly remind each other of the Grace of God, which can reveal in joy that we are the change the world needs.
May it be so. Amen