2 Advent (C) – 2012

This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be

December 9, 2012

Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 4 or 16 (Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Have you ever thought to yourself, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be”?

Maybe it was the latest report of rockets falling in Israel. Maybe it was images of the security fence along the West Bank. Maybe it was a report on dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. Maybe it was the story of the mother of an aspiring 13-year-old cheerleader hiring a hit man to kill the mother of a rival cheerleader. Maybe it was the latest family gathering that ended in shouting. Maybe it was the stupid thing I said when I just should have kept my mouth shut.

“This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”

If you have ever felt this way, then you have a sense of the biblical concept of sin. As you may have noticed, it is complex. Two things are actually going on when you say, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” First of all, you have a sense that something is not right. But there is also a second thing. In order to say that something isn’t right, you also need a vision of what things are supposed to be like. So sin, in the biblical tradition, is a derivative concept. First, you have to have some sense of what is right. Only then can you say something is wrong.

In the biblical tradition the vision for how things ought to be is called shalom. We translate this word as “peace,” but it means much more than an absence of warfare or a calm state of mind. Shalom or peace in the scriptures means universal flourishing, wholeness, harmony, delight. The prophets spoke of a time when crookedness would be made straight, when rough places would be made smooth, when flowers would bloom in the desert, when weeping would cease, when the lion would lay down with the lamb, when the foolish would be made wise, when the wise would be made humble, when humans would beat their swords into ploughshares. All nature would be fruitful and benign, all nations sit down together for a sumptuous feast, all creation would look to God, walk with God, and delight in God.

As Cornelius Plantinga says in his book “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin,” shalom is a “rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.” In the Bible, shalom, or peace, is the way things are supposed to be.

Sin, the way things aren’t supposed to be, is the violation of shalom. Of course, sin is an affront to God, but it is an affront to God because it breaks God’s peace. And what breaks God’s peace? Twisting the good things of creation so that they serve unworthy ends. Splitting apart things that belong together. Putting together things that ought to be kept apart. The corruption of personal and social and natural integrity. A moment’s reflection or a look at the evening news can easily supply specific examples.

Now, all this talk about sin may sound like a bit of a downer. Especially on December 9. Many of us are getting into the holiday spirit. Decorating the tree. Listening to Christmas carols. Feeling jolly. We even came to church this morning! But instead of the baby Jesus and heavenly choirs of angels, we get John the Baptist, a rough prophet prowling about in the Judean wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Not exactly “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas”!

But here’s the strange thing. We still refer to this message as good news. After the gospel lesson is read, the deacon or the person appointed to read this passage will have the audacity to say, “The gospel of the Lord.” That is to say, “the Good News of the Lord.” How can this be? Some of us will say, “No way.” An Old Testament prophet wagging his finger at us and calling us sinners is definitely not good news. Others of us may be willing to admit the importance of John’s message, but only as a prelude to good news, something we must do to get ready for good news of the birth of a savior. We need to go through the hard process of acknowledging and repenting of our sins so that we may make ourselves ready for the gift of Christ. It may be a necessary process, but we still wouldn’t call it good news. The doctor who tells us we have to give up fatty foods and start exercising may be telling us a truth we need to hear, but we won’t really rejoice and burst into song when we hear it.

And yet there is a way that John’s message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins can actually be seen as good news, and not just as a necessary, grit-our-teeth-and-get-through-it prelude to good news. After the lesson, the deacon will say, “The gospel of the Lord,” and we can respond, “Praise to you, Lord Christ” not with a palms-up, raised-eyebrow puzzled expression. We can really mean it.

How?

I think we can see John the Baptist’s proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as good news in three ways. First, if we hear John’s message and it rings true, if we have ever said, “This is not the way things are supposed to be,” then we already know God’s peace. As noted before, in the biblical view, sin is a derivative concept. We must already have a vision of how things ought to be if we feel as though things aren’t that way. We must have some sense of God’s peace, to know when it is broken. And this is good news. We do have a vision of God’s shalom, God’s peace. It has been given to us in our scriptures, and in our religious traditions, and in our reflection on creation. We have been given a vision of the world as created and redeemed by our good and generous God, a world made to be fruitful, abundant, harmonious, life-giving, peaceful, whole, filled with deep and abiding joy. If we hear and respond to John’s message about sin, then we must already know about God’s peace. And that is good news.

A second way we can see John’s message as good news is that if we hear and respond to his call to repentance for the forgiveness of sins, then we must believe that there is something we can do about it. John is not saying things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be and they never will be; get used to it. His is not a message of futility in the face of the brokenness of God’s creation. Rather, it is a liberating and joyful call to realign our individual and collective wills with the purposes of God. If we already know of God’s vision of shalom, we can be people who promote flourishing, seek wholeness and restore harmony. We can be repairers of the breach. To hear and respond to John’s message is good news, because in spite of the fact that things aren’t the way they should be, they can change and so can we. People can stop killing each other. Hungry people can get fed. Parents can love their families and raise healthy children. Enemies can become friends. It is good and, indeed, joyful news to know that we are free to respond to God’s call to shalom.

Finally, we can hear John’s message about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as good news because if we already know God’s peace, if we can respond to the call of God’s peace, then in some deep way we already trust in the eventual triumph of God’s peace.

In our gospel lesson, John is described by the words of the prophet Isaiah as:

“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough way made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

It is an emphatic message: all flesh will see the salvation of God. And this is good news, the Good News. Yes, things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. But we already know God’s vision of shalom. We can turn our hearts and minds to God’s purposes. And we can trust that someday all things will be put to rights, all tears will be wiped away, all swords will be beat into ploughshares, and all flesh will see the salvation of God. God and God’s peace will be triumphant in the end. And we know this because in the birth of Jesus, these eyes of ours have seen the savior, who is Christ the Lord, and he shall be called “Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. We know this because we already know God’s peace. Through a process of repentance we can align ourselves with God’s purposes, God’s peace, the way things are supposed to be. And we can do this in spirit of gratitude, joy and trust because we have been given a promise of the eventual triumph of God’s shalom in the birth of a baby who is the prince of peace.

That is Good News!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.

1 Advent (C) – 2012

The Kingdom of God is as near as a prayer

December 2, 2012

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves.”

Jesus foretold of horrors so great that people would faint with fear at the end of the world. Over the 2,000 years since Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, the surest way to prove oneself a false prophet has been to name a date for the return of our Lord. According to prediction after prediction, we should not be here at all.

Jesus says, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

The world should have ended 1,000 years ago when the first millennial scare hit. Or maybe one of the many other times a warning went out that the end is near. Time and again, people have wrongly predicted the end of the world. We only have to look back and snicker at how the Y2K threat fizzled out with hardly a whimper to see how big scares can turn into nothing.

Jesus says, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

The disciples thought Jesus would come back soon, maybe, probably, even in their lifetime. They lived their lives thinking that at any moment Jesus would return. It’s like holding off just a few more moments by saying, “Wait for it. Wait for it. Now!” But they had the “Wait for it. Wait for it.” And “now” never came. In fact, it has yet to come. The Christian church around the world has been collectively holding its breath for nearly twenty centuries – always waiting, always watching. And still the time has not come for Jesus’ return. Not yet.

Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Advent: the word means “coming.” This is the first day of the new church year, and like every church year, we start by remembering when Jesus first came into the world and remembering that he will come again. Yet we can’t walk around all the time with our heads raised to the sky in anticipation, can we? We would look silly and nothing would be accomplished. What are we supposed to do if we think the world is falling down around us? The great reformer Martin Luther was asked this very sort of question. Someone challenged, “What would you do if you heard that Jesus would return tomorrow?” Martin Luther said that he would plant a tree. For in all likelihood, the rumor would be untrue. After all, Jesus said elsewhere that no one knows the hour or day when he would return. No one but the Father. So why not plant a tree and plan for the future? Then if Luther was wrong and his Lord did return, he would find Luther taking care of the earth.

Jesus told this parable, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

The signs will be there for anyone to see. We need only look around us to see that the world is coming to an end. But there have been so many signs. Thirty years after Jesus’ death, the Romans crushed the Jews in a horrible war that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Many Christians at that time still worshipped at the Temple. How could that not be the beginning of the end? Or what about the fall of the Roman Empire, or the rise and fall of the Nazi Empire, or Stalin’s reign of terror in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia or the many other conquests for power that have ended in the deaths of tens of thousands? Were these not the signs of the end?  How could we possibly know what truly signals the end of times?

So if we humans have proven stunningly bad at reading the signs of the times, what good are passages like this? Why bother with the Apocalypse anyway? We may get an Apocalypse – an end of the world sometime. But the Apocalypse is always immanent. Soon and very soon. When will the Apocalypse be now?

Today is the end of the world, right now. This is the day for somebody. Thousands of somebodies – maybe a million or more. All over the world, today is the day of judgment. Many, many people will die today. Many others will reach an important point of decision. For all those people, the end is very near.

Passages like this remind us that we don’t have forever to decide what we think about this Jesus of Nazareth. There is a time to decide, and that time is always now. We always have now. Jesus reminds us that we don’t always have later. Jesus either was who he said he was, the Son of God, or not. And if he was who he said he was, we can have a relationship with him right now. Then the end of the world is more or less irrelevant, as we have already begun eternal life. But if he wasn’t who he said he was, then he was just plain crazy and we should drop the whole thing. It’s that straightforward.

Passages like the gospel reading for this morning remind us that we are in a radical option situation right now. We can accept or we can reject. Either way, the Kingdom of God is near. If we accept God, we enter into that kingdom here and now. If we reject God, then we are still standing by waiting and watching.

Chicken Little runs around in the fable yelling, scaring everyone with the news that the sky is falling. All that happened was an acorn fell on her head, but she just repeated, “The sky is falling. The sky is falling. The sky is falling,” until everyone but the fox was scared, too. Today, some folks have said the end is near so often that they can sound about like Chicken Little to us. But try this Christian version: Instead of “The sky is falling,” think “The Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is near.” Because whether Jesus returns in glory before this service is completed or he waits another millennium, the Kingdom of God is near.

The Kingdom of God is as near as a prayer. The Kingdom of God is as near as the bread and wine in this communion service. God is here among us, and the Kingdom of God is very near indeed.

Jesus says that we are to be on our guard that our hearts are not weighted down. He told us to be alert at all times, praying. But we need not fear the end of the world. If there is distress among the nations or even if the sky is truly falling, we need not be afraid. That Christ is coming is Good News. And as the Body of Christ gathered on this day, we rejoice that Jesus is not waiting to come into the world at the end of time alone.

Yes, we affirm a belief in Jesus’ return in glory at the end of the age, but more importantly, we affirm that Jesus is here in our midst right now as more than two or three are gathered.

And in our hearts as we worship, the Kingdom of God is near. Thanks be to God! We need not fear the signs of the times, we only need to trust in our Lord.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs on congregational development at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

4 Advent (B) – 2011

December 18, 2011

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”

Mary sings the Good News of the Incarnation to break into our Advent anticipation with a description of the coming Reign of God. In the angel Gabriel’s visit to lowly Mary, and then in Mary’s beautiful hymn of praise, the Magnificat, we begin to hear what Kingdom of God is like; it is a world turned upside down.

Mary prophetically sings of God’s kingdom as if it is an accomplished fact, rather than a coming reality breaking into the here and now. The song uses an amazing number of past-tense verbs. Everything is already accomplished for Mary. At first, this not so surprising. God has already looked with favor on his lowly servant Mary. The almighty already has done great things for her.

But as Mary continues to praise God for what God is doing in becoming human, she moves beyond what God has done for her, broadening to include the whole world. Even then, she sings of things to come as if they were accomplished facts. Mary, taking a page from her unborn son’s ministry, proclaims that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Listen to these words of Mary’s song and ask yourself if the changes in the way the world works have even yet occurred more 2,000 years later:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

There are few kings in the world today, but the seats of power still belong to the mighty. The lowly rarely, if ever, get lifted up. The hungry often continue to go hungry, while those who have seem to get more. Yet, Mary speaks of lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things in the past tense.

It is impossible to see Mary’s song as merely naïve. No Jew living in Roman-occupied Israel could think the lowly were being lifted up. Instead, Mary has come to see that what God is doing through her is a sign that all of God’s promises are as good as fulfilled. God is faithful, and the old way of doing things is as good as gone now that God is becoming human through her child Jesus. God’s kingdom is breaking into our world in a new and marvelous way that makes it clear that the lowly are as good as lifted up and the hungry are as good as filled with good things.

Mary’s way of looking at the world in her song shows a Biblical view of how this age – the time we live in – relates to the afterlife, the age to come. First, we have this age, our present time, which includes all time, from creation until this day. Alongside that, we can place the age to come. Until Jesus comes in power and glory to usher in the end of the age, the only way to pass from this age to the age to come is death.

All time is working its way toward the end of this age and the ushering-in of the age to come. There is a forward trajectory pushing us toward eternity, but the two ages seem separate. In the Magnificat, Mary points to the reality that there may be a way in which these two ages intersect. The age to come may break into our present age. The age to come is not present in our own time in its fullness, but as a foreshadowing of what is coming.

Mary knows that the birth of the Messiah to her, a lowly Jewish peasant, is an important sign of what God’s kingdom looks like. It is in the Incarnation that we get our clearest picture of the age to come. God became flesh, not in the person of Julius Caesar or a great Egyptian Pharaoh. God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of peasant woman in an occupied land. Without the mighty getting wind of it, they were as good as cast down from their thrones. If the newlywed wife of a carpenter is to give birth to God’s son, then the hungry are as good as having their bellies filled, for God is not only ready and willing to bring about the age to come; God is in fact already breaking the age to come into our world in acting counter to the ways of this present age.

Mary goes on to sing that this is not some new thing God is doing, but it is in fulfillment of all that God has promised Israel. The God of Israel is now acting in human history in such a way that it will not just break the kingdom of God into this age for the Jews, but for all humanity.

As he begins his ministry, Jesus will affirm the very things his mother now sings. Jesus continually reminded his disciples in different ways that the last would be first, and the first would be last. He preached that those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Jesus said blessed are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep, for God will give them the kingdom, fill them with food, and exchange their tears for laughter. Jesus told his followers that he came to serve, and those who follow him must also be servants. Jesus’ whole ministry lived out the words his mother sang, showing how God’s kingdom is radically different from our present age.

In Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, we see in hymn form that the kingdom of God has broken into our present age. Yes, it is still a fallen and flawed world. The powerful still crush the lowly. More times than not, the rich get richer at the expense of the poor. Those with food have more than enough, while others go hungry.

Yet, because of the ways God has broken into human history, we have had glimpses of a different world. Through the life of Jesus, and rarely through his followers, great saints through the ages, we have seen how wonderful the upside-down world of the gospel really can be. No one is too lowly, too weak, or too undesirable for God. There are no outcasts in God’s kingdom. God does not look to the outward signs of status and success, but rather God looks at the content of your heart.

Use this last week of Advent to make more room in your life for God. The more we allow God into our hearts and lives, the more we will find ourselves loving those whom God loves. Every time we reach out to others to share God’s love, we bring the age to come to life into the here and now.

As Mary responded, “Here am I,” to the angel Gabriel, we too are to respond to the gospel and say, “Yes,” to living into our faith, with changed hearts and lives. This is not as a theory to which we give assent, but a life lived in response to the gospel.

When we live into our faith, reaching out to the lost and left out, and proclaim the Good News in both word and deed, then little by little we help turn the world upside down. When we side against the oppressor and speak up for the voiceless, we make the Kingdom proclaimed by Mary real to ourselves.

It is not that we can change whole world, but by living into the concern that Jesus taught us for the poor and the needy, we make the coming kingdom, the reign of God, real in our hearts. Then we have Mary’s eyes to see that the mighty are as good as cast down, the lowly as good as lifted up, and the hungry are as good as filled, for the Kingdom of God has come near.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia.

3 Advent (B) – 2011

December 11, 2011

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Imagine the scene. You are downtown in one of the world’s great cities. You’re standing at the main entrance of a huge, opulent hotel, whose solid stone walls soar upward for many floors. The canopied entrance features a red carpet that crosses the sidewalk to the street, and brass fittings that gleam like gold. It’s a damp winter evening. Flurries dance through the air.

Presiding over this elegant space in front of the hotel is the doorman. A mountain of a man, he cuts quite a figure, dressed in a knee-length blue topcoat brightened by braid on the shoulders and the sleeves. The stripes on his uniform pants lead down to his black, shiny shoes. A serious hat rests on top of his head. With utter dignity, he opens doors, orders cabs, greets people coming and going, and lends even more substance than it already has to the building behind him.

There you are at the main entrance. You’ve never been to this hotel before. In fact, in the small town you come from, there are only motels, and no doormen, especially not the sort who are grandly uniformed. But you have come to this metropolis for a convention, and the big banquet is tonight, here at this hotel.

The massive figure in the topcoat and braid now looms right in front of you. Never before have you seen the likes of him, except in old movies. Why should you do?

One option is to question him. Ask him whose army he is in, or is he an admiral? Ask him to count the brass buttons on his splendid coat. Ask him to come in out of the cold; you know a warm hotel lobby, and it’s only a short walk away.

A better option is simply to let him do his job. You’ve come for the banquet; his job is to open the door for you. A genial nod in his direction is all that he expects by way of recompense.

Which option do you choose?

The answer seems obvious, at least to anyone brought up halfway right. Don’t bother the doorman. Let him open the door for you. Go inside, get out of the cold, enter the warm lobby, then find your way to the feast.

This is not how it happens, though, when priests and Levites are sent down from Jerusalem to ask John the Baptist some questions. He works as the doorman, the doorman to God’s hotel. But these priests and Levites and those who sent them simply refuse to have John open the door for them.

They have questions to ask him. “Who are you?” “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the prophet like Moses?” John grows more impatient as he answers each successive question. “I am not the Messiah.” “I am not Elijah.” “I am not the prophet like Moses.”

Again they ask him, “Who are you?” He answers, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness what the prophet Isaiah said, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’“

This is what John insists: “I am only a voice; I am not myself the message. I am the doorman of God’s hotel; I am not the host at the banquet.”

John dresses as noticeably as any doorman, but differently. No topcoat or fancy hat for him. John is bare-chested, wearing a camel’s hair loincloth and a hairstyle that’s shaggy. He looks like a prophet from centuries before his time. He acts the part as well.

But there’s reason to believe that those priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem fail to get it. For all their fussing about John, they seem to miss his message. Standing outside on the sidewalk, chilled by the damp winter air, they don’t have sense enough to let this doorman usher them inside to the banquet that awaits them, an unforgettable feast.

A mistake of this sort happens to us often regarding life in general and religion in particular. We get distracted by what is, at best, of secondary importance. About such matters we think we have special awareness, reason to be in control, the right to take charge.

And so we do something foolish. It may not be as vulgar as mocking the doorman’s attire and his outdoor vigil, but it makes as much sense as that. We want him to count his topcoat buttons, while all the time there waits for us within the hotel the banquet of a lifetime.

We zero in on the inconsequential because we’re adept at small talk, we know how to pass the time, we can go through this routine in our sleep. Ah, there’s the problem, and John the Baptist, doorman to God’s own hotel, would be the first to agree: we spend much of our lives asleep. We hesitate to wake up, even to the splendor in front of our faces.

Sometimes we don’t go downtown ourselves. We dispatch our own priests and Levites to interview John instead. Reality is mediated by somebody else. We think it’s not real unless it’s on TV. We wonder if we’re real since we are not on TV.

But John stands there on the sidewalk, doorman to the greatest of all hotels, while inside candles are burning, and the wait staff are at their places, and the kitchen crew bustle about preparing the splendid feast.

In the Orthodox Church, the sanctuary is separated from the congregation by a wall pierced by several doors. The central ones, known as the royal doors, are opened at certain critical points in the service.

Eugene Trubetskoy, a Russian prince and a religious philosopher, made reference to this in his dying words, when he cried out, “The royal doors are opening! The great Liturgy is about to begin.” What he had seen so often in the church’s liturgy on earth was now apparent to him in the liturgy that takes place in heaven. The royal doors were opening in a new and astounding way.

We might do well, all of us, especially in this time of Advent, to recognize how the death of a Christian is like that. The royal doors open. The great Liturgy is about to begin.

Yet what is true preeminently when we die holds true also as long as we live. We can shift our attention from inconsequential routine, predictable small talk, and all things that seem safe because we think we can control them, and notice instead that the doorman, John the Baptist, wants to usher us inside the greatest hotel of all. We can discover that religion, like life itself, is not a matter of assessing the doorman; it is coming to accept with humility the hospitality of God.

What Eugene Trubetskoy spoke at the moment of his death is true not only when our earthly end arrives. It is true not only in these weeks of Advent. In a way strange and wonderful, it holds true at every moment, if only we remain awake and attentive. And because this holds true at every moment, we can come to our final end receptive and grateful.

“The royal doors are opening! The great Liturgy is about to begin!”

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2002). 

2 Advent (B) – 2011

December 4, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

In 2009 the Dutch filmmaker Enno de Jonge returned to Rio de Janeiro to find the street children he had photographed eighteen years before. He started his search where he had begun the project, at St. Martin’s Foundation. St. Martin’s is a citywide program for street children run by the Roman Catholic Carmelite order in Rio, where Enno had taken pictures of 30 homeless boys and girls from 7 to 18 years of age. But after a month of searching, he found only one: Maria, now 25 and the mother of two.

While Maria viewed Enno’s album of aging photographs, she pointed as she went, “This one is dead. This one too. This one died in the children’s massacre. This one has a son living on the street.” Enno estimated that at least a third of the kids were dead, half of the survivors were in prison, and the rest, except for Maria, were still on the street.

Who will hear the cry of Rio’s large population of street children to save them from hunger, misery, prison, and death? So far, society’s response has not been kind. It was not kind to the cries of John the Baptist some 2,000 years ago, nor is it kind now. Is the situation hopeless? Are these and the other causes for God’s Kingdom impossible? This season of Advent calls us to wake up, pay attention, and find the glimmers of light in the overwhelming darkness. Find hints of progress, take courage, and realize the Kingdom at work among us.

At about the same time the filmmaker returned to Rio, Americans Phil and Sarah arrived there, fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming mission partners. They were to teach at a facility of St. Martin’s in the city’s northern zone that offers educational and recreational activities to Rio’s street children. One of their Brazilian sponsors, used to the unrealistic expectations of many foreign missionaries, had warned them, not unkindly, “These kids will never amount to anything. The most you can hope for is that they will stay with you while you keep them occupied.”

Phil and Sarah chose not to believe such voices. They had resources that included a dedicated building, classrooms, supplies, support staff, even a little money. While Sarah used her knowledge as a professional artist to teach poor children how to draw, Phil drew upon his years as a university language professor to teach English to a small group of adolescents. There were to be no textbooks and formal assignments to frighten the kids off, but rather simple dialogues that would build on one another, week after week, and eventually students would be able to sustain basic conversation.

Although Phil spent countless hours creating lesson plans, almost a year went by and his students were still struggling to master the first dialogue, based on “How are you? I am fine.” Every week he began his class with a review of that material, expecting to quickly move on, and every week almost the entire class hour was taken with just the review. By the time Phil and Sarah left Rio, the group’s English language skills were about where they were when they started. Phil gave thanks he had not invested money in textbooks.

Sarah, for her part, struggled with fortifying the children’s self-esteem. Many were convinced they could not draw, and the least confident used art class as a time to act out. One in particular, Christian, a boy of about 10, was known to be a troublemaker. Few of the staff allowed him into their classes. In Sarah’s workshop, he refused to draw; instead he preferred to create havoc among the other children by shouting and shoving. Sarah knew it was not worth indulging in lecture and punishment; that was probably already a constant in his short life. Instead, Sarah simply stayed with him, offering encouragement until one day the child began to draw. It took perseverance, but by the second month of classes, he was absorbed in his work – sometimes. Sarah never knew which Christian she would encounter on a given studio day – the troublemaker or the budding artist.

Both Phil and Sarah felt a bit like John the Baptist, described in today’s gospel reading, after the text of Isaiah, as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”; as one to whom many flocked, but whose message went, if not unheard, unheeded.

At times like this, it might be well to recall that we are to repent from believing we are in control. None of us, not Phil and Sarah, not John, perhaps not even Jesus, is in control; the Spirit is. We lead lives of holiness by heeding St. Paul’s reminder to the Philippians that “it is God who works in you, inspiring both the will and the deed, for his own chosen purpose.” This puts a humble lowercase on the word “ministry.” We may think we know how and what we are doing, but in reality it is the Spirit working in and through us. Be patient, Advent mandates. Things are not as they seem; persevere in seeking and following even the smallest glimmer of God manifest. This is your repentance.

It wasn’t until the bitter end, when they were moving on to a new ministry in the south that Phil came to realize the worth of his work. He was stunned by the outpouring of affection he received from his students upon saying goodbye on his final day in Rio. They organized a going-away party and gave him a long-sleeved sweater, sorely needed in the cold south. And upon his arrival at the new site, he received a touching e-mail in which one of his Rio students said, ruefully, she had learned little English, which Phil knew, but she had gained admiration for the person who had left everything to serve the poor. Phil realized with some astonishment that English-language learning was the least of it. It was his presence among them that the teens had come to cherish.

Phil and Sarah thought back to the challenging words: “The most you can hope for is that they will stay with you,” and realized they had missed a sign. The English “stay” is only one translation of the Portuguese “ficar.” A more common translation is “be.” The missionaries had not been told the street children would stay with them as much as they would be with them. Their ministry was not one of doing, but one of being present to Jesus in their midst.

Sarah learned early on that her work was less about art and more about presence: she to the children but more, seeing Jesus in the children. This was not so hard to do on the good days, but when Christian was out of sorts, she struggled to hang on to the light of hope that Christian emitted on his better days.

John the Baptist was right; the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is right here, right now. Advent asks: Who of us will echo his voice? Who of us will respond?

Only the strong of heart have the courage to try. A Brazilian teacher at St. Martin’s likens it to the fable of the hummingbird who tries to put out the fire raging in its beautiful forest home by carrying in its beak one drop of water at a time to the blaze. When asked by the other animals why she even bothers, the hummingbird responds, “I’m doing what I can.”

John did what he could, one baptism at a time. St. Martin’s, as well as Phil and Sarah, are doing what they can, one child at a time. What are you doing?

 

— barbara baumgarten is a visual artist and author. She holds her doctorate from the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. David Catron is a linguist and writer with a Ph.D. in Romance Languages from the University of Michigan. Currently, barbara and David are partners in mission with the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil (IEAB). 

1 Advent (B) – 2011

November 27, 2011

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

We are all searching for something or someone. Not just the small things, like our house keys or a parking space, but also bigger things, deeper things, people, places, and relationships that we hope will fulfill us, bring us joy, grant us peace. Many people are searching for a job, but also more than a job, for the sense of purpose and value and security the hoped-for job will bring. Many people are searching for wisdom, but also more than just an education, for the sense of truth and goodness and direction that we hope real wisdom will bring. Many people are searching for relationships, but also more than Mr. or Mrs. Right, for the sense of fulfillment and flourishing we hope loving and being loved will bring. We are all searching for something or someone.

But experience teaches us that that something or someone is elusive. We photograph the perfect sunset, but when we look at the pictures later, it looks rather ordinary. The excitement of a new career settles into the humdrum of a job. The first flush of a new relationship turns into coordinating schedules and dates. Even when we find what we think we are looking for, we may find the experience quite exquisite but also leaving us unsatisfied.

That is why spiritual writers tell us that what we are all searching for, whether we realize it or not, is God. The longed-for thing or person who will ultimately fulfill us, bring us joy, and grant us peace is God. Everything else, even the exquisitely true and good and beautiful things of this life, will leave us unsatisfied at some level. Life is transient, and we continue our search for true fulfillment and flourishing and love.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells his disciples to “keep awake.” This admonition comes at the end of a long apocalyptic discourse about the end times. He and his disciples had left the temple, and he told them that someday it would be thrown down, not one stone left upon another. The disciples naturally enough ask when this will be, and Jesus responds with a long discourse that involves apocalyptic signs like the sun being darkened and the stars falling like the heaven. It’s all rather complex and confusing, but in the midst of it there is an assurance that some day the Son of Man will return to set things right.

This will be good news for some and bad news for others. We ought to prepare so that we can receive the coming of the Lord as good news. And yet, no one knows, not even the Son, when all these things will take place. But take place they will.

Therefore, Jesus says, keep awake, keep alert, and keep looking for the true Lord who will bring all things to fulfillment. There will be many pretenders, many people saying, “Look here is the messiah” or “Look! There he is!” But do not believe in these pretenders. They are false and they will let you down. Trust only in the true God, the Lord of heaven and earth, and his only Son. Keep awake for someday he will come.

Apocalyptic language is hard for us to understand today. But the basic message is easy enough. We are all looking for something, and that something is God. There will be many pretenders and false messiahs who will try to offer us the fulfillment that only God can provide. Remember the allure of the perfect job or perfect wisdom or perfect relationship. All these things inevitably let us down because they can’t deliver the promises they make. They are good enough in themselves, but when we look to them as our ultimate source of truth and meaning, they inevitably let us down and leave us feeling unsatisfied. More than that, we can be damaged in the process: broken promises, broken relationships, broken hearts, broken spirits. Only God can truly fulfill us and the desires of the whole groaning universe. Jesus tells us to keep awake, to turn away from false messiahs, and to look for the coming of the true God. The Good News is that even as we flit about in our search for truth and meaning, God in his holiness and his graciousness is already racing to meet us. God is coming. The Son of Man is coming. Keep awake!

Advent is the season in the church year when we try to reflect on who or what we are truly searching for. It is a time to meditate and pray about what it is that will fulfill our hearts’ desires. The Good News of Advent is that God is also searching for us. The story of Advent is not a story of a God waiting to see if we human beings will finally figure it out and find God. The story of Advent is that God comes to us, and better yet, that God has already found us. We may feel like we are always looking for something or someone, but the Good News of Advent is that God has already come to us, is coming to us, and will keep coming to us. In our searching and seeking, we often fail to see that the gift has already been given, the gift of “God with us,” the gift of Emmanuel.

The word “advent” means “coming,” and that refers to the coming of Christ in the past, in the present, and in the future. Advent is saying that there is never a time when Christ is not with you, yesterday and today and tomorrow. At its deepest level, Advent is an invitation to give up our search and let ourselves be found by the God who came among us as child, by the God who comes into our hearts, by the God who will meet us in every future. In the search, in the finding, in the daily living of our lives, we have already been found and loved by the God who is with us always, even to the end of the ages.

Elam Davies, long-time pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, tells of a time when he and his wife visited a spot on the coast of Wales called the Great Orme. The Great Orme is a giant rock, right at the seaside, and people gather on it to watch sunsets. On clear evenings, people watch the yellow sun drop into the sea, backlighting strands of clouds in a way that turns the whole horizon into a kaleidoscope. Because the sunsets are so spectacular, people at the Great Orme often weep. One night, while Davies and his wife were there, a beat-up, old car drew alongside of them. In this car were a couple of elderly people and also a man who seemed to be their son. Some accident or illness had come to this son with the result that he was clearly disabled. He lay in the back seat, limp and exhausted. Then, as the great ball of fire began its final descent to the sea, the two old folks got out of the car and came round to the back seat. They reached in, hoisted their son up to the sitting position, and maneuvered him forward to the edge of the seat. And just as the sun in its full flame, in a final burst of glory, dropped below the rim of the world, the parents reached under their boy’s chin, raised his head, and pointed him out there toward the horizon. Davies says, “And I knew at that moment that God can dazzle us with all the magnificence of the universe, but that the secret of the universe lies in a love that comes to us in our weakness and in our need.”

The season of Advent begins today. It is the season of hope. Stay alert. Keep awake. Lift up your heads. Look to the horizon. Look to the future. Look for the God who comes to us, who came to us, who is with us, now and until the end of the ages.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Parish in Annapolis, Maryland.

4 Advent (A) – 2010

December 19, 2010

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25 

At this time of the year, expectation is very nearly overcome by exhaustion. Whether that expectation is Christmas dinner and a pile of ill-afforded presents, or the Coming of the Son of Man, the lead up now seems interminable, like an overlong engagement, and the pressure to do the right thing by the right people seems overwhelming.

The Christmas tree, which somehow wandered into the living room before Thanksgiving, looks a bit shabby now, or if it is artificial, it probably needs dusting. Perhaps the dog tore into one of the packages. There’s still last-minute shopping to be done, a turkey to be bought – is Thanksgiving now like Christmas, or Christmas like Thanksgiving? – and we still haven’t decided whether to invite old Uncle Harry over and endure his endless war stories.

The gospel today reminds us of another person whose anticipation may have been exhausting. Joseph is informed by God’s messenger that his young fiancé is going to have a baby, and he is ordered to keep quiet. He isn’t the father, Matthew implies. Perhaps we are a bit more used to such a situation today, and we may commend Joe for sticking with Mary despite her questionable morality. But after all, morality is subjective, isn’t it?

A first-century Jew thought otherwise. And quite apart from the moral issue, a matter of the Law, Joseph was faced with the practical matter of just how one hides a pregnancy, a teenage pregnancy probably. And then there was the matter of Joseph’s own feelings. It looks as if the pregnancy occurred after he became engaged to Mary. How could she do such a thing? And if the messenger was right, and he wasn’t dreaming dreams, the child to be born had Yahweh, the God of Israel, as its father. What on earth would such a child be like, look like, act like?

How do we, like Joseph, do right by Mary and the child she gives to us? For we, too, can react from the ground of the secular world in which we live. We can be equally cynical about what God was doing through Mary. Our feelings, our self absorption may intrude. The demands of faith may be just too much, an optional extra for which we have no time, and an investment of faith and action that has no room in our cluttered, busy lives. Regarding Christmas as a story helps us push it to one side, to be picked up or laid aside as time permits.

Yet the faithful Joseph was a Jew. He believed in a God who acted first and required a human response of obedience and awe. He didn’t believe in a God who waited around for human suggestions or obeyed human laws like the law of nature. This God didn’t think much of those who thought that God was bound by what humans conceived as unbreakable laws. The God of Abraham did as He thought fit.

While we rush around creating Christmas and getting it all wrong, Joseph walked in faith, expecting God to get it right, to shield Mary from the censure of prying eyes, to heal his bewildered feeling, and to ensure that the child born, while truly God, was winsomely and engagingly human. Humble Joseph calls us to that very same faith and commitment.

The problem for Joseph, and perhaps for us, is that he expected God to act in power and might as God did on Sinai after he brought Israel out of Egypt, as God intervened to rescue Israel. This time there seemed to be a difference. God was intervening in vulnerability and weakness in the form of a baby. Such a version of God isn’t much to our liking. We like a bit of force from God, and we like a bit of muscle when we think we are representing God. We just can’t get our minds around loving-in-weakness being the solution. Joseph probably wanted to lock Mary in her room, subjecting her to hours of criticism, and then once the baby arrived, divorce her. He didn’t. He looked after her, loved her, and struggled down that road from Nazareth to Bethlehem with her. Once the child is born and reaches maturity Joseph just fades away and is mentioned no more. If Mary is extraordinarily faithful in accepting God’s calling to be Mother of the Eternal King, the Messiah, in his own way, Joseph shares in that faithfulness to a remarkable degree.

It is not too late to get Christmas right this year, to stop, reflect, realize that all you have done since Thanksgiving has maybe been many things, but it isn’t Christmas. This year, perhaps in the next few days, you can stop thinking that all depends on your presents and your cooking. It all depends on God’s giving.

Like Joseph, you may expect, but not control. And when God acts by dwelling among us and taking our humanity into himself, then keep Christmas joyfully during the twelve days, give a present a day, stretch out the feast, and give thanks that we are saved in and through the Child.

 

— The Very Rev. Anthony F.M. (“Father Tony”) Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

3 Advent (A) – 2010

December 12, 2010

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

When cooks attending services in villages all over England would hear these words from the Collect of the Day, they would hurry home afterward to stir up the fruity batter that had been fermenting in their kitchens for weeks, the prime ingredient for their Christmas plum puddings and fruitcakes. Although the reading of this Collect used to occur in November, since 1979 it has fallen on this Sunday in December. The traditional English batter for Christmas puddings and cakes would be too thick by now to stir, but we still refer to this as “Stir Up Sunday.” How many sermons have been preached on Stir Up Sunday on what needs to be stirred up in our souls, to be prepared to receive what God is birthing among us at Christmas?

Years ago, Bishop Harold Robinson, retired bishop of Western New York, addressing the Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, told a story of a bike tour he and his wife took through the English countryside. They kept finding the most curious signs. One said simply, “This is a sign.” That was all. Another read: “Do not move this sign.”

These signs are comical because they have no purpose beyond themselves. A sign is meant to point beyond itself, or it has no meaning at all.

John the Baptist, restless, in the depths of Herod’s prison, no doubt convinced of his impending execution, begins to doubt, or at least to wonder, “Did I get it right?” John had never held back. His incendiary sermons and actions had been relentless, proclaiming the coming wrath of God and pointing to the one with far greater power, who was to come after him.

John is always portrayed in icons with his index finger raised, pointing away from himself, toward Christ: John the “pointer.”

But as John sat in the depths of his dark prison, what he knew of Jesus confused him. It didn’t conform to the message of repentance and the wrath to come that lay at the heart of the prophecy he had been sent to proclaim. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are YOU the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ response is plain and clear. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” These are all the signs foretold in the prophecy of Isaiah, signs of the “year of Jubilee,” of the inauguration of the kingdom of God among us.

Perhaps what John has forgotten for the moment, are the different roles to be played by him and Jesus.

John is the hinge on the door of the gateway into the Kingdom of God. John, we are told, is the greatest of all who have come before Jesus, but all who live in the Kingdom of Heaven, creation transformed by the life of God-with-us, will know fuller life and purpose than John. John is like the doorman, who opens the door and ushers the rest of us through, pointing the way to life more glorious than what we have yet dared to expect or imagine.

Consider that hinge on the gate into such fullness of life as somewhat rusted – stuck in place. It takes the force, the harshness of the message of John the Baptist, to bust that gate open. But what lies before those who pass through with Jesus is life of an entirely different quality and tone.

Life transformed – brand new! Not just a return to the “good old days,” but as St. Paul will declare, “Glory to God whose power working in us will do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine!”

We are so busy these last days of Advent leading up to Christmas Day, bringing out and setting up the decorations and traditional trappings of this beloved holiday season, intent on revisiting the warmth of Christmases past, that we are too often distracted from the profound wonder of what God is birthing among us.

John points not to the best of what has been, but to a world transformed, the very advent of the Kingdom of God.

The prophet Isaiah proclaims the vision of barren desert rejoicing and blossoming abundantly, with joy and singing! Weak hands being strengthened; fearful hearts given hope; waters breaking forth to create flowing streams in the desert; the way home through that desert being transformed into a broad and straight highway that even a fool can travel safely through.

How much do we dare hope about the gift being given us this Advent and Christmas? Are we looking for the best of what we’ve experienced before, or dare we look for more?

Today, John the Baptist stands among us still pointing. He is not pointing behind us, that we might return to the “good old days.” John points us toward a transformative future.

The great challenge facing our congregations today is not how to revive or resuscitate faith communities gone stale. The challenge facing us is to offer the church and the world fresh visions of a renewed and transformed world – the Kingdom of God drawn near to all of God’s children, all of God’s creation, and not just the “faithful.”

The Kingdom of God being revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is different. It is far more than we have yet imagined. And unless we are yearning in this moment to discover something brand new among us and before us, we are likely to miss the point of all this entirely.

John the Baptist stands among us this day pointing to life transformed in Jesus. May we awaken Christmas morning to the joy of opening up that life, unexpected, more than we had dared even ask for. And thereby, through our life together, that life will be given not to us alone, but to the whole world.

And that’s the kind of “stirring up” we can all use!

 

— The Rev. Steve Kelsey is a retired Episcopal priest, living with his family in Arizona. He is currently serving part time with a team of ministry developers among the Diné (Navajo people) in the Navajo Nation.

2 Advent (A) – 2010

December 5, 2010

Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

On the 12th of October, 2010, 33 trapped Chilean miners ascended to the surface of the earth. As spectacular as that event was, their exodus might never have happened were it not for the miners’ faith in action. Theirs is a story worth telling. It will deepen our appreciation of what should be a gentle season, namely Advent. It will empower many to reflect on the variety of December things people do, and let them see how some of those things enhance their spirituality, while certain other habits of our culture can do it violence.

There is no evidence that the miners understood themselves to be “theologians” per se, but that is not important. What really matters is what they did to successfully endure their entombment. These thirty-three inspired men made a deliberate choice about how to live, turning their nightmare into a challenge by forming a mini-society and dividing labor based on each person’s skills. One, for instance, was a natural leader with years of experience. Another had some expertise in first aid and hygiene. A third was chosen to be their spiritual leader or chaplain. Saint Paul would recognize this as their appreciation of one another’s diverse gifts, necessary for the miners to become a functioning body. By becoming such, they offered the mutual support they needed to renounce their individual panic and despair, identify tasks, and become a community of faith.

Apparently most, if not all of the miners, had a Roman Catholic background, so they knew how to pray together for God’s mercy. But more than that, what appears to have happened is that they developed a religious life of real substance. Their religion was not about abstract, formal ideas concerning the nature of God and the human soul. It was about the things each individual had to do again and again for the sake of the others in the group, following a structured daily pattern. Each man was also bound by his commitment to a higher authority than himself. There was no choice. The possibility of survival depended on it.

There are two ancient associations that come with the term “religion.” One who is “religious” is a person who has agreed to be bound. The second association is the idea of a repeated series of practices that must be done daily for the well being of others who are likewise bound. So it makes sense, then, that when we hear of people in a community living under a set of vows, we also understand that a member of such a group is “a religious,” as, for example, a Benedictine or Franciscan monk is “a religious.”

The miners were profound and effective at practicing religion by having a shared vocation. It was founded on the common values of selfless humility and submission, and the need for each individual to put aside all personal wants in order to cooperate with each other and follow the directives of their leader. They trusted their foreman, Señor Luis Urzua, to direct their life together. By doing this, the miners taught the world that God trusts the faithful to live in commitment to their neighbors’ well being.

During the entrapment, observers all over the world were inspired by how the miners worked at their vocation to survive their situation. What was so invaluable about the miners’ “theology” is that it did what abstract conversations– like sermons – cannot do. Ideas alone cannot find their proper homes in the ongoing story of salvation; they need the flesh and blood that can anchor them to their places so that specific events can happen and become real history.

The miners were the kind of people John the Baptist loved because they were so down to earth. Yes, two thousand feet down under it! There they repented of their ordinary behaviors in life and started moving in a spiritual direction.

Many of the details of exactly what the miners did to survive, and how they did it – especially during the first seventeen days of utter darkness and silence from above – will never be known. There will no doubt be varied accounts of how they rationed their supplies, bolstered their spirits, and practiced the necessary hygiene to preserve their health. But in the end, the fact is that the miners emerged leaving the on-site medics with incredibly little to do. In fact, one of them, Edison Peña, came to New York City to run a marathon less than a month later.

So this is a story of a victory in faith that does not need embellishment. It already is a parable, a “story lesson” of what we are called to be as a church.

The gift of this story from Chile is infinitely better than what we get from a world that places a high value on its material standard of living. The miners’ exodus to salvation is an example of how their flesh and blood was exercised to make them fit and ready for their return. They taught that salvation is more than anything humankind can do for itself; it is something initiated by a God who loves us, and who expresses that love by inviting covenants with us for our cooperation with God and one another.

As long as we, the people of God, are living our mortal lives in faith, we are called on a journey that begins the day of our baptisms and continues to the blessing of a good and holy death, because we know that it is the gateway – or escape capsule, if you will – to eternal life.

Like Lent, Advent is a good time to reflect on what is not needed to live in the wholesomeness of a holy journey. But the messages Christians get in this 21st-century civilization tend to persuade them to spend their resources on baggage they don’t really need. So it is a good idea to take time to reflect a bit on what we can do without. What kinds of unnecessary baggage are we carrying? Stuck for an answer? Then just imagine yourself asking the miners, “What did you discover that you could live without?” Meditating on that for a while could be helpful.

During the miners’ first seventeen days in darkness, with no signs from above, they decided to believe anyway that their gift of life was not to be forsaken and they would not give in to despair or suicide. Instead, they got to work. They became a living church down there. By the miners’ faithfulness, a transfiguring glimpse of people in the restored image of God was ours. Pray for the grace to remember it.

 

— The Rev. David Somerville is a retired U. S. Army Chaplain with credentials in hospital work and the pastoral care of people with the issues of recovery and adaptation after a life-changing diagnosis. He has been in the priesthood for more than 40 years, is currently interim priest-in-charge of Saint Athanasius Church in Brunswick, Ga., in the diocese of his canonical residence. He enjoys model railroading, traveling and tandem bicycle riding with his wife.

1 Advent (A) – 2010

November 28, 2010

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44 

Happy Advent! Today marks the beginning of Advent, the season when we prepare for the coming of Christ, a season when we hear again the Church’s emphasis on hope and future. Part of what we do during this season is to prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem. But that is not where we start on this Sunday. We do not start at the beginning of the story. We start at the end.

This is not a foreign concept to us. We are people used to setting goals. We nod our heads in agreement with the saying, “The one who wants to make a good beginning must keep the end in view.” It makes sense to us. Athletes visualize themselves breaking the tape at the finish line or scoring the goal or blocking the shot. Investment counselors talk about what you would like to be doing in your retirement so you can plan accordingly. Career counselors ask you to envision what you would like to be doing in five years’ time so you can take the necessary steps to get there. No one advises: just wander off aimlessly and see what happens. Keep your options open, sure, but nothing beats having a compelling goal and setting off toward it.

The picture offered in today’s first reading is a beautiful destination. Someday, someday, says the prophet, this is the future that awaits us, God’s future for us: peoples from all over the world gathered together, all worshipping the one God; no more war between nations; swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. A beautiful vision of the future. A bright future to hope for.

Advent is the season of hope, a season to remind us that we worship the God of things that are not yet, the God of things that will be. Advent is the season to hold up before us visions of things that sound impossibly remote to us – Advent images, like today’s, of weapons of war turned into tools for producing food, the lion lying down with the lamb, light that the darkness will never quench, a child born of a virgin, whose name shall be called Wonderful, counselor, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

The church dangles these images before us in these Advent days, not in curmudgeonly protest against the more prevalent images of red-nosed reindeers, and elves, and mistletoe, but because the church knows that Christian hope must keep the future before us, not nostalgia for the past. And Christian hope must be big and bold. Sometimes our hope fails because of lack of imagination, lack of courage, or because we fritter away our hope on small, private things, such as a peaceful moment by ourselves, which is nice, and maybe sorely needed, but not as compelling as peace in the world.

But let’s be honest. It’s hard to hope big. Sometimes our hope seems doomed or just foolish. Can we really hope for swords beaten into plowshares, or spears into pruning hooks, or Christ descending on clouds to call a halt to all the pain or boredom or stress or evil or tension of everyday life on earth, so that God’s reign of peace can begin? Are we a little afraid that all those Advent images of lions and lambs, and an end to war are just wishful thinking?

It’s easy to think so when we look to the past – either the past as it actually happened or the past as we imagine it once to have been. Isn’t that part of what causes the disappointment and discouragement for so many during the secular Christmas season, now in full swing? Nothing we do can live up to the way we believe things once were. Or nothing we’ve experienced has lived up to the way it should have been.

Thankfully, advice is available to help with the holidays.

Starting in the fall, magazines start appearing in the grocery store and bookstore giving helpful advice for the holidays. You know: Christmas cookie recipes and home decorating ideas and ideas for reducing stress. Sometimes they provide sound advice, such as to be more realistic in expectations of ourselves and others. You need not do everything perfectly, choose perfect gifts, please everybody, lose weight, redecorate your house, cook like a gourmet, and satisfy your child’s every desire. No. In a nutshell, holiday articles advise us to do three things: set more attainable goals; learn from the past; and be more realistic about what’s possible. The result of all this is a shorter to-do list, a smaller set of expectations, more limited hopes.

Oddly enough, the church, in our observance of Advent, advises exactly the same things, but with dramatically different results. The church’s Advent advice is the same: set attainable goals, learn from the past, and be realistic about what’s possible. But the anticipated results aren’t smaller expectations, it’s greater ones; not limited hopes, but bigger ones. We become people who dream of swords beaten into plowshares, and lions and lambs lying down together. We hope for world peace, not as wishful thinking, but as something we’re expecting God will accomplish, and we want to help.

Set attainable goals. Our goals, in the words of today’s Epistle lesson: Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; live honorably. Let Christ transform us into people who love one another.

We learn from the past. The Bible is a record of divine promises made and kept. God, who was faithful in the past, will be faithful in the future. We are free to give up any obsession we have with the past, past wounds, past anxieties, past hurts, fears, and doubts, and live freely in the present, hoping for the future because God kept God’s promises. God will keep God’s promises.

We are realistic about what is possible. Trusting in God, we are realistic when we hope for things yet unseen, even big things, like joy and peace and salvation and wholeness.

But we are realistic: all of these things lie ahead of us. All of these things are in our future. All our real wholeness, our real joy, our real love, completely, fully realized, is in our future.

That’s why Advent, and our Christian faith, is future-oriented. Yes, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. Yes, he actually died and was buried and rose again and appeared openly to his disciples. Yes, all these things, historically, in the past, happened. But they all happened so that we can live into the future which awaits us, a future for which God is preparing us, a future of which Christ, raised from the dead, is the first fruits.

We cannot underestimate the importance of our future goals. They not only give us hope, but how we envision the future breaks into how we live our present. Our future can form our present, rescue it, revitalize it, give it meaning.

Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, tells of his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. In helping other people survive that brutal and horrible experience, he said that one thing that made a difference for people’s survival was hope for the future. He wrote:

“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold. … I remember two cases of would-be suicide. … Both used the typical argument – they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was a child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else.”

When we know the “why” for our existence, we will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Hoping for the future is Advent hope – realistic, possible, practical hope, because God is the God who holds the future; God is the one preparing you for the future; God is the one calling us into that future and using prophets and wise people from every generation and even God’s own Son, to dangle some Advent images before us to whet our appetite: they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and, behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.