Advent I: From the Rubble

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017.

Isaiah 64:1-9

Mark 13:24-37

I remember childhood Christmas decorations as a mismatched hodgepodge of random stuff that had accumulated in the family for years. By this, I don’t mean beautiful, family heirlooms. We had a single, nativity scene, chipped, painted plaster figures, with legs on the manger that would collapse sending the baby Jesus tumbling to the floor. There were a couple hand-knit stockings, one with my name, the other with my brother Steve’s name stitched in. When my brother Tom came along, there was no knit stocking for him, so he got a plain store-bought one. We would haphazardly string colored Christmas lights, the kind with the big bulbs, on one bush in front of our house. We decorated our tree on Christmas Eve with a similar mixed-bag of mismatched ornaments. Once or twice, Mom found the time to help us make strings of popcorn and cranberries to put on the tree. And that was it! Simple, most imperfect, but it was ours and it was beautiful!

I have observed a couple things about Christmas decorations in the past decade or two. First, it is now quite common to see homes decked inside and out in a way that I would call magazine-worthy, exquisite, everything matching, like living in a department store window. The other part of this phenomenon is that this perfection can be had on a budget from Target, Kmart or Walmart. I give credit or blame for this whole phenomenon to Martha Steward and the proliferation of hers and copycat brands. There will be purists present, those who spend many hours crafting elegant homemade decorations each year who will scoff at the promise of store-bought perfection-in-a-box, but you can’t argue that it has changed decorating, indeed Christmas, in a profound way. Christmas perfection can be yours, and it’s on sale now!

And who wouldn’t want Christmas perfection! For some, the beginning of Advent marks the beginning of getting Christmas right.

Well, Bible scholar David Lose challenges this notion. Lose calls Norman Rockwell the most dangerous artist of the past half century.

“Think of it this way,” he writes, “how many of us look at Rockwell’s famous painting of a family gathered around a holiday table, all smiles and about to dig into a turkey, and somehow wonder why our family experiences don’t quite measure up. No arguing in this picture. No debate over recent politics. No one disappointed because there are no vegan options at grandma’s table. Instead, familial bliss. Perfection. Little wonder our experiences don’t measure up.”

Of course Lose has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek in his critique of Rockwell. The fault is not the artist’s but our own, our tendency to forever compare our lives to some unattainable, idealized standard of perfection, whether Stewart’s or Rockwell’s.

This, says Lose, is the value of the apocalypse narrative in the gospel of Mark. Now, this might seem like a leap, so let me explain. First, what the heck is an apocalypse narrative?

An apocalypse is a genre of biblical literature. Apocalypticism emerged in response to extreme social and political crises. The book of Daniel, in the Hebrew Bible, is an apocalypse, and was written to answer the Greek emperor Antiochus IV’s violent suppression of a Jewish revolt, 167 years before the birth of Christ.

Chapter 13 of Mark is often referred to as “the little apocalypse” and references the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans following another Jewish revolt in the year 70 AD.

Though sometimes understood as predicting end times, an apocalypse is actually meant to reveal the way things really are today and offer hope for the future. An apocalypse has three characteristics, dualism, (good versus evil), pessimism (times are extremely tough), and imminence (the good and the evil will soon be judged and get what they deserve). Though the language and symbols of apocalyptic writing can be dark and scary, an apocalypse actually affirms that God is still working for good even amidst the most abject hardship and suffering, and reflects a hope for better times ahead.

In this morning’s Mark passage God’s redemptive work is symbolized by the coming of Christ in glory. Mark’s readers would recognize the symbols of darkened sun and stars falling from the sky from other Jewish apocalyptic literature.

It would be easy for us to draw contemporary parallels with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Many today feel like all our institutions are under assault, at risk of being torn down, left as rubble. In fact, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple seems pretty tame compared to the daily social and political crises we experience today. Apocalyptic books and movies so popular right now put words to a sense of dread many feel.

But instead of turning to today’s headlines, I’d like to make a more personal connection with apocalyptic dread before circling back to Advent and Christmas.

Many of you know that my family and I recently had a short-lived but painful experience as foster parents.

After attending a ten week training in the spring, we were matched with an eight year-old foster son, Kameron. We began regular day and overnight visits at the end of the summer and were quickly charmed. He was funny, smart, athletic, and affectionate. He moved in with us at the beginning of September. We were wholly committed to making his time with us successful. But after a brief honeymoon we began to face significant challenges with his behavior. These weren’t entirely unexpected, and we sought help from the cadre of social workers available to us. Unfortunately, the relationship continued to deteriorate; he challenged us in ways we never imagined and weren’t prepared for. He triggered emotions in both me and Lourdes that were entirely unhelpful in our role as foster parents. His last week or two with us were some of the most emotionally overwhelming Lourdes and I have ever experienced, and the night he moved out was devastating for all of us. The following days and weeks were really rough, filled with feelings of grief, guilt, remorse, shame, blame, embarrassment, disappointment, failure, betrayal, and anger.

At moments evil seemed to have the upper hand. We were pessimistic in response to this crisis. I can say without exaggeration that this felt… apocalyptic. The experience shook our view that we were in charge of our happy lives.

I won’t pretend that we have worked through all these emotions, we most certainly have not. But whereas it at first seemed that we would be stuck in the same dark, awful place forever, that nothing would ever be bright and happy again, I am now aware of God’s continued presence and movement in our lives.

Jesus uses a fig tree as a metaphor to describe God’s ever emerging presence. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.”

I have to believe, that just as I see signs that God is putting forth a few tender, green leaves on the branches of our lives, so God is also near to Kameron wherever he landed. And I absolutely believe that God is near to each of you, even, perhaps especially in response to those crises and traumas in your lives that seem apocalyptic, the loss of a loved one, the trials faced by our children, the exposure of our own limitations and failure. Anywhere we experience grief, guilt, remorse, shame, blame, embarrassment, disappointment, failure, betrayal, and anger.

And this, is good news on this First Sunday of Advent. Martha Stewart and Norman Rockwell do not set the standard for a successful, perfect Christmas. Jesus does.

By all means decorate! Whether your decorations are from Target, elegantly handcrafted, or a mismatched, aging collection of memories, by all means decorate. (These are new to the Harris household this year) But don’t confuse the idealized standard of Christmas perfection represented in the magazines with God’s standard. In fact, comparing our haphazard lives to these standards likely accounts for much of the depression that is so prevalent at this time of year.

If Mark’s apocalypse reminds us of nothing else, it is that God continues to put forth new growth, even from the rubble of our lives.

God loves us as we are, accepts us as we are. Yes, we have room for improvement. And yet, at the exact same time we are enough – totally and completely enough – and deserve love and respect now.

David Lose offers some sage advice. Rather than dwelling in the rubble and brokenness, and rather than looking too far ahead, to the end of time or even to December 25th, let us embrace a “present-tense Advent” here and now, an Advent that directs our attention to this very moment, imperfect yet beloved, fragile yet eternal, flawed yet beautiful, this very time in which God chooses to meet, love and redeem us. Here. Now. And forever. Amen.

Advertisements

Advent I: Standing Watch

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on November 27, 2016 on the First Sunday of Advent.

Isaiah 2:1-5

Matthew 24:36-44

Many of you know that I was an officer in the Navy. For two and a half years I was stationed on a ship, the frigate USS Ouellet out of Pearl Harbor. Whether in port or at sea, ships operate twenty-four hours a day. To make sure all the systems operate properly and safely the entire crew are assigned to stand watches overlooking various aspects of the ship’s operations. In port I was qualified as the Command Duty Officer or CDO meaning I was responsible for everything that happened on the ship after the Captain had gone home for the day.

CDOs were allowed to sleep at night while several sailors would stand watch, checking machinery readings, making security checks, and standing at the brow, checking sailors on and off the ship. But I was always anxious about what might happen while I was sleeping. One night as I slept the ship got a call from the Honolulu police that two of our sailors had caused a terrible car accident, they had been drinking, speeding through a tunnel, hit another car that crashed and burst into flames, killing the occupants including a baby. The sailors then fled the scene and were later apprehended. When the call came in, the sailors standing watch came in to wake me up, I am told, but I fell back asleep and didn’t hear about the accident until I woke up in the morning. I remember the feeling of dread that consumed me as I realized that I had failed in my responsibilities and slept through this really important incident. At a minimum I should have woken up and called the Captain. When all was said and done, no additional harm came of my failure. But I can still recall that fear following my inability to “stay awake.”

This memory came to me when I read the Matthew passage in which Jesus implores his disciples to “stay awake” suggesting dire consequences should they fail.

This is what is known as an eschatological text, a teaching about the end of human history as we know it, and the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth, God’s eternal reign of peace. Every year, the Lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent, begins with one of these eschatological teachings or stories. And I can tell you, most preachers I know hate it, myself included! Why? First, because it is hard for many of us to wrap our minds around. So called “end times” are the stuff of bad books and movies. And second, because it is terrifying. These lessons bring up that same fear I felt at having slept through something important, failed in my responsibilities, sure I would be judged with terrible consequences.

This is the first Sunday of Advent. The church is decorated, we are looking toward Christmas with excitement and anticipation! I think these parables are inserted at the beginning of Advent as a way of framing Jesus’ birth as an end of the old order and the dawn of a new era. But really, is it necessary to scare the bejesus out of us just to say, “Something good is coming; get ready?”

But this is the text we have been given, so let’s see what we might find here to lead us from fear to hope?

Following the teachings of Judaism, many of Jesus’ followers believed that his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven would be followed in short order by his triumphal return to inaugurate a new age of peace and justice. This is what the prophet Isaiah anticipates when he says, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and…nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” Most of Jesus’ contemporaries thought this would happen in their lifetime. However years passed, and instead of a triumphal return, really bad things happened. The Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.

Matthew is writing to a fearful community of Jesus followers with a couple messages. First, no one knows when this will happen, not the angels nor Jesus himself. Only God knows the time when God’s plans for peace and justice will be fulfilled. And because no one knows, everyone better pay attention so as not to miss it when the realm of God breaks through.

Well, now almost two thousand years have passed and God’s promise of a new heaven and earth has still not been realized. So how are we left to understand passages like this?

We have three choices.

First, we can wait as Jesus’ followers did, for a once and for all end to our conflicted human history and the dawn of a new age with no more suffering or crying or pain.

Or, second, we could understand that this promise of life everlasting is fulfilled not at the end of human history, but for each of us as individuals at the time of our death. Many Christians share this hope that death will deliver us from the suffering of this life into eternal rest in the realm of God.

But there is a third understanding of eschatological passages like this one; we can find here God’s promise to us today. Each day is a day of judgment, God is forever revealing a new heaven and new earth if only we stay awake and pay attention. We can recognize these God moments, and choose to participate in them, or we may fail to see or willfully ignore them, and oppose God’s activity among us.

These understandings are not mutually exclusive, and many people of faith embrace some aspect or combination of the three.

But I believe that the third, the idea that God is beating swords into plowshares right here, right now, is especially compelling for us today. This reading makes sense of Jesus’ intense, almost threatening tone in this passage. He isn’t just saying get ready for good times; rather Jesus is saying I am revealing the realm of God to you in this moment, yet you refuse to see and accept it; and you’re refusal has consequences. Wake up!

So, how might we stay awake to recognize, and participate with the ways that God is breaking into our lives each and every day?

To do this, I want to return to that metaphor of standing watch.

My favorite watches to stand were bridge watches as Officer of the Deck underway. I especially enjoyed the mid-watch, stood from midnight until four in the morning, when we were out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Captain would be in his stateroom asleep, and I would be on the bridge with three other sailors, a helmsman, a lee helmsman and a quartermaster.

I was responsible for the safety of the ship. This meant staying alert for any danger, reading the chart with the quartermaster, looking at the radar, tracking the course of any other ships to make sure they would remain a safe distance from us, receiving reports from the engineering watch about the operation of the boilers and engine, and ordering the helmsman and lee helmsman to make the necessary corrections to our speed and direction to say on course.

But something else would happen on the bridge of the ship on those mid-watches. While staying alert for peril, I would also have a heightened awareness of the moon rising over the ocean, of the phosphorescence illuminating the bow wake, of the Milky Way undimmed by city lights, and of the taste of the salt air.

The Confirmation class learned recently about “thin moments,” experiences where the boundary between the mundane and sacred become porous, permeable, or thin. I had many thin moments on the bridge of the Ouellet.

Beyond seeing God revealed in the magnificence of creation, there was something about that darkened bridge of the ship that made one mindful of the relationships between us. A ship’s crew is a wonderfully diverse assortment of humanity. You’d get kids right off a farm in Nebraska alongside men who grew up in inner-city Detroit. I can’t say that we had deep conversations about philosophy or religion, but we had very genuine conversations. Along with funny stories about escapades in the last port call, we would talk about being homesick, of our hopes and dreams for the future, of having our heart broken.

These conversations were also thin moments. Though I wasn’t even active in a church at the time, I can look back on standing watch on the bridge and see the gentle stirrings of what would later become a call to ministry.

Thomas Merton once said:  “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through everything.  The thing is that we normally don’t see it.”

This is how I read this morning’s Matthew passage. Stay awake! Pay attention! God’s realm of peace and justice is being revealed, all the time, right here, right now.

Some describe the experience of giving birth as a thin place where human flesh kisses the divine. This is why Paul draws on the language of birthing in describing humanity’s relationship with creation, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” And this is why the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are uniquely powerful, human life is affirmed as holy.

I remember cupping Abby in the palm of one hand the day she was born, sure I was looking upon the face of God. Though being the father of a teenager is a considerably thicker experience, that divinity still lives in her and lives in each of us if only we have eyes to see. One of my favorite contemporary hymn writers Brian Wren expresses this beautifully in his poem Good Is the Flesh:

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Beginning with the uncertainty and anxiety we share with angels, this Advent we are asked to develop the art of watchful living. What lies before us is far from certain, but certainty is not required to act in a spirit of wakefulness.

Good is the flesh that the Word has become. God is shining through everything. So watch! Pay attention! Stay awake!

 

%d bloggers like this: