Getting Away

Have you heard the big news? It’s happening right here in New York City, but it’s a story that has appeared on the front page of major newspapers thousands of miles away and has captured headlines across the globe. You can’t go on Twitter right now without tripping over another tweet about it. Everybody has a theory.

It started two months ago. And, in an age when something that happened three days ago is already old news, this story is only gaining momentum. I wasn’t planning on preaching about it this week, but there are times as a preacher when you just don’t have a choice. For those of you who haven’t heard yet: There is a duck in Central Park and people are going totally nuts over it.

I’m seeing a few surprised faces out there. Obviously, you haven’t seen this duck yet. You need to get yourselves down to the Pond at 59th and 5th. Or better yet search #hotduck on Instagram. He’s a mandarin duck and his exotic plumage is handsome enough to be drawing crowds from all over the tristate area.

He’s originally from Asia somewhere, and I think that’s part of his appeal – he’s an outsider, he doesn’t really belong here, and we can only speculate about the harrowing backstory that brought him to the park. Also, this ducky’s got a bit of an attitude, which is appealing to New Yorkers. He’s slightly smaller than the mallards in the Pond, but he chases them off the rocks they’re sunning on so he can have the shoreline all to himself and he nips at their tails if they swim too close to his breadcrumbs.

Still, it’s incredible to think that in 2018, in a global city like New York, so full of culture and excitement, at a time when the news about the state of our world and our country feels so compelling and significant, and when we are being offered an ubiquitous buffet of distractions and entertainment on demand to the devices that we carry with us everywhere, it is incredible to think that a duck, even a hot duck, could draw crowds and gain a global following.

Keep in mind that most of the people showing up to see this duck have never gone anywhere other than a French restaurant to see a duck before. In September, if you had invited them to go see the mandarin duck a few blocks away living happily for years in the Central Park Zoo (and who, I assume, is currently dying of waterfowl envy), they wouldn’t have gone! There’s just something about THIS duck at THIS time that is capturing people’s imaginations, and the reasons why are, ultimately, as mysterious and strange as the bird himself.

Our Advent theme this year is “Light Gets In” which we ripped off from the chorus of Leonard’s Cohen song Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

And, I gotta say, from a Christian-December perspective that there’s something Adventy about hot duck. There’s just something about him that says: “Take heart, chin up, there is still magic and beauty in the world.” And hot duck has some people worried. They’re worried he’s too famous and someone will snatch him or hurt him, or that he’s too flashy and a hawk is going to get him, or – like when he flew to a pond in Jersey for a few days – that he might just take off forever. And that’s Advent too, I think. You notice the magic coming back into the world, the hope that was always there, and then – most importantly – you sit with it in a world, in a time, in a place, in a life that ain’t perfect. As Leonard Cohen no doubt would have sung to hot duck fans everywhere:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a quack, a quack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

John the Baptist, of course, was also a bit of an odd duck. He turned up in a place he didn’t belong, fascinated people with his exotic camel-hair look, and in a time when no one should have cared much, when the world had real problems and big players – Emperor Tiberius in Rome, Governor Pilate in Judea, King Herod in Galilee, Tetrarchs Philip and Lysanias, High Priests Annas and Caiaphas in Jerusalem – John, the dropout preacher’s kid, captured the world’s attention, drew crowds to the edge of the water, and brought down the word of God in the wilderness. Not to the Forum Romanum in Rome, not to the Parthenon in Athens, not to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but to a dusty curve of water on the Jordan in the wilderness.

Just like hot duck, John was cracked – wet, strange, cranky, out of place in hard times, at the edge. In a world we want to be perfect and orderly, in lives where we try desperately to cover over the cracks in the hopes that nobody will ever see what lies behind them, here was a cracked person, in a cracked place, at a cracked time and, my God, my God, there was light there, coming through!

We call John the Baptist the forerunner of Jesus. He had a special message of repentance in order to prepare us for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And that is why we always invoke him at Advent, to help prepare us for Christmas and the coming of Christ into the world. The Baptist is a part of Advent’s first tiny opening into the Christmas season.

How do we prepare for things? Perfect preparation is the kind of preparation the world demands of most us much of the time. Download all the information, read all the books on the right technique and attitude, put in your 10,000 hours of practice, make connections with all the right people, make all the right moves, and then maybe you’re just beginning to be ready. But John the Baptist is not heralding a perfect preparation, he’s advocating a cracked preparation – out of place, inconveniently located, hard times repentance.

God never demands perfect repentance from us – what would that even look like based on our modern perceptions of perfection? If you had to put bets on who was going to be a big social media star a few months ago, you probably wouldn’t have wagered on a duck – not the ideal candidate, really: Can’t type, no phone, few skills, vulnerable to hawks. But there’s something about ALL THAT in hot duck that moves our hearts. And because of that, he is a kind of perfect – maybe call it authentic, real, just as he is, not pretending to more than an out-of-place, vulnerable hot duck.

 Repentance is similar. Don’t think of “perfect” the way the world tries to uphold perfection to us – you don’t have to make yourself completely miserable, you don’t have to catalogue every transgression, you shouldn’t feel ashamed of things that aren’t shameful. Instead, the crack of repentance is something we feel in our hearts – not a shameful crack, but a crack that releases the tension we have been carrying with us, a crack in the wilderness of our thirsty souls that the Word of God can enter through.

My wife, Bonnie Mohan, had a particularly hard week at work. She worked long hours and was really stressed. But she pulled it all off and did a great job. Snuggling on the couch watching TV after dinner on Friday night she turned to me and shared one moment from her week that was genuinely exciting for her. And for some reason I made some stupid joke about it. Can you imagine? It wasn’t the right time for a joke, and I hurt her feelings and made her mad, which is NOT what I wanted. I wanted her to have a nice, relaxing, some might even say, perfect evening of snuggling on the couch with her handsome, sensitive, and hilarious husband.

I needed to fix this! What is the perfect way to apologize for what I just did? The perfect way to turn her mood on a dime and help her remember just how perfect I am as a person, a man, and a partner? Unfortunately, all my attempts to fix things just seemed to make things worse. She had disengaged snuggling. She was inching further and further away to the other end of the couch. What was going wrong with my technique? Suddenly, I heard John the Baptist’s voice calling from the wilderness of my perfection obsession, “You gotta mean it, you dummy. You’ve got to mean it.”

And he was right, of course. As soon as I stopped trying to fix things perfectly, accepted that I had messed up, fessed up to my own cracks, apologized like I meant it, and then left Bonnie alone and stopped trying to fix her feelings, things got a little better. That’s the kind of repentance the Baptist is calling for – a repentance that is imperfect by its very nature because it is rushing in to a broken situation; a repentance that is authentic because it owns, and deeply feels that brokenness.

For me, repentance is an opportunity to get away from myself, from patterns of thought and behavior that do not serve me or the world. Repentance is a like a detox getaway, a vacation, a time to wipe the slate clean, like selecting all in your inbox and without reading anything – sending it all to the trash. Repentance says, “Let’s take it from the top, this time like you mean it!”

Beloved, this is the message of Advent – that the word of God comes to imperfect people in wilderness places, people who traveled down through their brokenness, who have met the brokenness of the world, and who have not turned away, who are not obsessing over the perfect fix, but who are living into the uncertainty of loving themselves and this world, despite the fact that we are offered no guarantees that it will turn out perfect. Just in case you come to church to be a perfect person, to get a perfect outcome, to make a perfect world, Advent comes every year to say, REPENT, the kingdom of God is near, the word of God is in the wilderness, open your hearts, prepare the way for the one who is coming.

We all know wildernesses. Our wildernesses are despair, loneliness, lack of vision, sickness, conflict, broken relationships, failure, unemployment, injustice, homelessness, suffering, authoritarianism, global strife. The wilderness looks like a vast expanse of mountains and valleys and crooked places between us and the Promised Land, between us and Christmas, between us and God, but Luke says, NO, the wilderness is the very ground that will be transformed. And John the Baptist says, NO, the wilderness is the very place where the Word of God will be heard. And Advent says, if you are surrounded by the wilderness, crack it open like John in the Jordan, cry out, repent, be real; crack it open like a mandarin duck in Central Park, be yourself like you mean it, even a creature as small, as vulnerable, as impermanent as a duck can bring joy into the world for a season. Imagine, Beloved, if we could get away in that wilderness, authentic and imperfect as we are, imagine just how much more we might be able to give.

Amen.